June/July/Aug 2010

Dystopia & Utopia

Is it time for dystopian novelists to end the reign of the free-market idealists?

Keith Gessen


About halfway through the Putin presidency, a funny thing started happening to Russian novelists: They all started writing dystopias. In 2006, Vladimir Sorokin, the legendary deconstructionist novelist, published a traditional dystopian satire about the secret services, A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik; that same year, the literary novelist Olga Slavnikova won the Russian Booker with 2017, and the prodigiously prolific and overweight man of letters Dmitry Bykov published ZhD, set in a future where Russia is at war with a Western force called the ZhDs, who are winning because of their discovery of "phlogiston," a remarkable substance that has replaced oil as the West's fuel of choice and rendered Russia nearly obsolete.

This strange literary outburst was related, I think, to the political stagnation of the Putin years. That he was bringing back authoritarianism in some form no one doubted; but in just what form, and how brutally, how totally, it was hard to tell. The present seemed to make no impression. A novelist who described this present would at some level simply be wrong. As far as the eye could see, nothing was happening. In order to create a meaning, in order to make sense of this present, you had to project current tendencies some years into the future.

Looking at American fiction of the same time, you see something like the exact opposite phenomenon. Instead of books looking to the future to understand the present, there were big counterhistorical novels: Michael Chabon on Jews exiled to Alaska, Philip Roth on the election of the anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh to the presidency. Nathan Englander, who grew up on Long Island, published a novel about Jews under Argentinean fascism, and Junot Díaz, who grew up in New Jersey, published one about the Dominican Republic. This, too, in its own way, was strange. If the efflorescence of historical-trauma novels in the mid- to late 1990s in the United States could be dismissed simply as the guilt-ridden scribblings of a prosperous, self-satisfied nation that didn't think it had anything else to trouble itself over, these new-millennium histories and counterhistories were something different.

American society, like Russian society, may have been stagnant, but it was no longer smug or self-satisfied. Indeed, it was stunned. No one was prepared for the terrorist attacks of September 11, but even less were American liberals prepared for the speed and agility with which the neocons turned the attacks to the service of their old agenda. The counterfactual histories were an escape from this, or a form of fantasy, or an attempt to determine just what had gone wrong.

Given that we were also living through an age of unprecedented utopian promise making from the evangelists of the Internet and their more clever fellow travelers in industry—didn't the iconic iPod ads, a thin figure turned entirely into a silhouette, look like nothing so much as a disembodied space traveler about to be beamed down to a new planet in Star Trek? Didn't they, in other words, promise to help us leave our bodies? And hadn't they indeed, by zapping our unwieldy CD collections into five flat square inches of sleek technology, proved that they could do it?—well, you would think, given all this, that American novelists would be producing a steady stream of dystopias about the Internet, instead of just complaining about it to one another in private. Instead, as far as the future was concerned, what the novelists could mostly see was utter ruin. In the late Bush years, possibly under the pressure of a resurgent environmental movement (and the Bush administration's stance of near-outright global-warming denial), we saw a number of books and films devoted to postapocalyptic scenarios, culminating in 2006 with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Though in some ways similar, these dystopias are not really the same thing: A dystopia is the future perfected (badly); the postapocalyptic novel is the future unraveling. The dystopian novel looks at current trends and sees them moving ten, twenty, thirty years ahead—it tells a story of continuity. The postapocalyptic novel senses, to the contrary, that all these things will end. No doubt there were numerous dystopian novels written in the second half of the Bush years, but the presiding sentiment seems to have been The Road's: Someday this house of cards will fall, and we'll all be out there trying to make sure marauding gangs don't eat our only son.

Maybe the conditions weren't quite right for American dystopias. The classic dystopian novels emerged from the age of social engineering and the profound political upheaval in the wake of the world wars: from a time, in other words, when radical social change was not only possible but actually under way. Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949) each presented a nightmare of social control gone wrong: In Brave New World the state intervenes at the level of reproduction, poisoning the fetuses of most of the population so as to create inferior castes of slaves; in 1984 the state intervenes, in a much more cumbersome and baroque way, in the flow of information. At the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith alters old newspapers and other archival materials to reflect shifts in the Party line because, as the Party says, "Who controls the past controls the future."

For the dystopian novel, he who controls the future controls the present. Whose nightmare will be more terrifying? Brave New World, with its fetal interventions and pharmaceutically dependent population ("a gramme is better than a damn"), is a more prescient book than Orwell's, but 1984 has had a greater impact. Part of the reason may be that Orwell, under cover of a dystopian novel (set in a future England), was more or less accurately describing an existing political system (in the Soviet Union). The book could be read as reportage. But another part of it was the utter single-mindedness of Orwell's vision, the misery of the world he described. What one remembers most from 1984 is the torture in Room 101 ("If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever") and . . . the weather. The weather in Oceania is terrible, and the food is lousy. It rains a lot. It's cold in Winston's apartment. It's cold in the bar he goes to, and the alcohol he drinks is watered-down. It's rather a lot like Orwell's contemporary England, where at the time of composition the author was dying of a lung ailment. The most successful dystopian novel of all time, in other words, does not primarily describe the extension into the future of abstract political concepts or practices or even a boot stamping on a face forever: It describes bad food and bad weather forever. That's what dystopia is.

After 1984, the dystopian novel lost some of its steam as a subgenre of respectable literature in the West. Ayn Rand's 1957 Atlas Shrugged is a dystopia warning of the dangers of government control of the economy, and the postwar era was of course the golden age of science fiction, for which the prediction of NEAR-FUTURE CATASTROPHE!!, as it was called in the paperback ads, resulting from various technological or alien innovations, was practically the whole point. But as politics shifted into the home, the novel of large-scale social engineering came to feel less urgent. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which has many elements of a traditional dystopia even though it's set in contemporary California, is ultimately a less terrifying book than Revolutionary Road (1961). In the wasteland of postwar domesticity, marriage is the greatest dystopia of all! The closest this era came to a book about the terrors of large social organization was Lord of the Flies (1954), a parable about what happens if you don't hire a babysitter.

Dystopia returned to mainstream American fiction for a memorable moment in the mid-1990s, with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Published in 1996, Wallace's book is set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (approximately 2010, though according to Wikipedia there are fierce debates among Wallace-heads about which year it is exactly) and includes a long disquisition on the forms of communication in that year, as well as a complex political plot involving the forced integration of the US, Canada, and Mexico and a group of vicious Quebecois separatists who want out. What Wallace most insisted on, however, was advertising and entertainment: The plot revolves around a movie so entertaining that people can't stop watching it, even for a minute, and so die. To screen it for someone is to kill them. Several years after the book's publication, news stories began appearing of people dying from playing too much World of Warcraft.

But for all its perspicacity and foresight, Wallace's book is not essentially about the future, or anyway that is not what it cares most about. You feel Wallace liked writing about the future because it freed his encyclopedic mind from the compulsion to describe things as they really were all around him; that is to say, by setting his book in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, he could pick and choose.

Infinite Jest came out in February 1996; George Saunders's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, another wonderful book with many dystopian elements, came out the month before. And then . . . and then something happened. Wallace began writing more journalism; so too, eventually, did Saunders. In the past decade, Americans haven't really written dystopian novels. Spectacular terrorism, a demagogic leader, newscasts full of blatant euphemism ("Swift Boaters for Truth," etc.), plus half-humans/half-robots walking around with glowing blue mind-chips sticking out of their ears . . . we were already in it. You did not have to dream up new worlds to find yourself in dystopia—you had merely to walk outside. In fact, as it soon turned out, you didn't even need to do that.

My favorite story of Internet dystopia happened a little while ago on the West Coast and was described, in great detail, in a post on the blogging platform Tumblr called "Fuck you, you 5'6" shrimpy piece of shit." The post, by a young woman from Seattle, recounted how the piece of shit befriended her, from San Francisco, via microblogs and social-networking platforms. "So a while ago," she began, "this guy follows me on Twitter. . . . I follow him back, and he direct messages me. We exchange a few messages, then follow each other on Tumblr and friend each other on Facebook. He adds me on Gchat, and once I add him back, he messages me, 'my you're cute.'"

Nice line! And there is something hypnotic about all the various computer applications through which they've been in touch—it's like a list of the places they've gone on their first few dates. But soon things get more serious: The young man invites the young lady to come visit for a weekend. "Then the drama begins," she writes in "Fuck you, you 56" shrimpy piece of shit."

I mention in a private Plurk that I'm going to visit him. My friends lose it. They know his reputation and they're not afraid to share. He's scum, one says. He's a manipulative SOB, says another. My ex tells me he's disgusted that they'll be one degree apart.

The reader is brought up short by a question: What the fuck is a Plurk? The young woman does not pause to tell us. She books a flight to San Francisco. But the young man has second thoughts. They go back and forth a while on the question of the visit before finally calling it off. Then, sadly, things get very ugly, and fast. The young man decides to break off contact and "unfollows" the young woman on Tumblr and Twitter, where they first met. When the young woman realizes this, she goes ballistic—"I nuke the motherfucker," she writes at the shocking conclusion of "Fuck you, you 5'6" shrimpy piece of shit." "Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Dopplr, even Gchat—I erase him. I wipe away every trace of him from my life."

End of story ("even Gchat"), except that then the young lady proceeded to post the chronology of the events on her Tumblr. An entire human drama—and yet the two never even met! The dream of the Internet, Bruce Sterling once said, had been that you would "upload yourself into a computer and have this rapture of the nerds. It was a powerful fantasy of escaping the unbearable pressures of being human. And there are many unbearable pressures of being human. But you find that when you escape one of these things you generally bring all your baggage with you." It was worse than that, actually: The Internet accelerated a lot of the pressures of being human. At the same time it brought into being one of the fears common to most dystopian novels and developed with some detail in 1984: that everyone would know what we were thinking. Except unlike in 1984, it's been done entirely voluntarily, through blog posts, Facebook updates, and, of course, Plurks. People turned themselves inside out at a moment's provocation. Why? It was like a mass psychosis, a parade of pain, punctuated by the Internet evangelists telling us how great it was. Aside from the crisis of the dystopian novel (we were already living in dystopia), it might have suggested a crisis for the realist novel, too: All this confessing, arguing, hashing over of ones relations and tracing of networks: It wasnt really getting us anywhere, and it hardly looked like art. Now, Steve Jobs: There was an artist. Actual artists looked more like bloggers who'd secured university appointments before the deluge.

In one of the more startling and strange dystopian novels to appear in English in the past decade, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005), there is an intriguing digression on the subject of books and their future. Ishiguro's novel is nominally about clones who are raised so that their organs can be harvested; the horror of the book is that it mostly takes place at an idyllic English prep school, where the clone children get a fine education and are somehow prepared for their fates as "donors." The school is not wealthy, however, and the children have no parents, so the students are asked to create works of art as items of exchange. Some students make little sculptures, others paintings or drawings, and still others write poetry. Once a semester they take these to an all-school fair and use credits to buy them from one another. Later on in life the inquisitive narrator wonders why anyone had ever bought the poetry the other students produced. "We'd spend our precious tokens on an exercise book full of that stuff rather than on something really nice for around our beds," she says to a fellow graduate of the school. "If we were so keen on a person's poetry, why didn't we just borrow it and copy it down ourselves any old afternoon?" It's an interesting, pointed question: Why would anyone ever buy a book? And if one thinks about these things, it's a vertiginous moment: The nightmare of the book is that these sweet children will eventually have their organs harvested and will, on the third or fourth organ, "complete," as they call it; the nightmare of the author is that no one will want to buy books anymore. Within the nightmare of the children is the dream of the author: that people will value poetry as much as "something really nice for around our beds."

The question of the book has always occupied a special place in the world of dystopia, like an exemption the authors ask for on behalf of the guild. In the old romantic twentieth-century dystopias, the book could save you: Winston Smith begins his doomed rebellion in 1984 by writing in a diary; in Brave New World, John the Savage is liberated by reading Shakespeare; and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is an entire novel about the burning of books. Even Michel Houellebecq, the arch cynic and materialist, can't quite get around the problem in his own recent dystopian novel, The Possibility of an Island (2005), where the neohumans of the future spend a lot of time reading Spinoza to calm their nerves.

As for Ishiguro, despite his sly comment on the future of publishing, he is not in rebellion against the traditional totemic use of the book in dystopian novels. In the case of the clones in Never Let Me Go, the main proof of their humanity, for lack of a better term, is that they have complex emotional interactions and read George Eliot. But of course, it's a complicated postulate. Are humans only human if they have complex emotional interactions and read George Eliot?

What's touching, what's almost maddeningly touching about most of these accounts, is how naive they are. How quaint, how twentieth century, to think that the book would be destroyed by teams of men in special gear bursting into homes with fire guns! To think that governments would devote all their resources to stopping the proliferation of some radical tract by a Jewish intellectual. Those things really did happen, in fact in some form they still happen, but in the postmodern West, that is not how the world ends. And that is not how the book ends. It ends with the appearance of a quicker, cheaper, more democratic technology—text-based, as it happens, because text is still the fastest way to absorb information and the easiest one to produce.

Above all, it's a more intimate technology, which challenges the novel's claim to privileged psychological access: In the era when we didn't have these machines for reading other people's thoughts or seeing other people naked, we had to seek out novels and picture books. (This is, incidentally, the answer to the question posed by Ishiguro's character about the reason they bought one another's poetry.) So it turns out the dystopians (again, aside from Huxley) were wrong. The end of the book does not come wearing a uniform; it comes when the people of the book, who spent so much time warning us about the police, themselves turn into the police, writing cease-and-desist letters or bursting into bloggers' homes to protect their "intellectual property"—when they're not sending the same bloggers merchandise, hoping for a good review.

As it happens, one of the most charming writers now occasionally working in the dystopian mode is also a prominent blogger with a strong ethical commitment to distributing his works for free. In many of these works, Cory Doctorow has warned of the danger inherent in the centralization of knowledge, in particular in the age of the computer. In one very clever story, "I, Robot" (named after an Isaac Asimov story about the robot future), Doctorow tells of a crusty old divorced detective in a future where police work is done primarily by robots. The robots are faster and stronger than humans, but they have no personalities, and the crusty old detective is annoyed at having to rely on them so much—including to spy on his twelve-year-old daughter, who the detective knows is playing hooky (he has her phone bugged).

It seems, all in all, like an unpleasant but manageable world. Gradually, however, a more sinister reality comes into view. We learn that the United States (it's got another name by now) is at war with Eurasia and allied with Oceania (the success of 1984 is such that while everyone comes up with their own names for the United States—ONAN in Infinite Jest—certain things don't change in the imagined future, out of respect). Second, the detective's wife did not merely leave him—she defected to Eurasia. And finally, it turns out that America has become a terrible dictatorship in which a small group of experts controls all the software and robots. Eurasia, by contrast, has blossomed into a utopia because of its open-source software methods and different attitude toward robots: Eurasia believes the robots can and need to become a little more human, while humans should in turn become a little more robotic. After some resistance, the crusty old detective gives in and escapes to Eurasia. For Doctorow, it turns out, the future of humanity is Mac versus PC—forever.

Which, no doubt, it is. But there are other conflicts in heaven and on earth. The free-market utopians have had their run of things for a while now; it might be time at last for us to catch up to the Russians and start imagining the worst.

Keith Gessen is a founding editor of the literary magazine n+1.

Dystopian Journal

June 23, 2010
7:54 pm

Keith,

What I like most about the dystopian genre is it's inherent cerebral quality. It encourages the reader to consider their world and their role in it.

Have you heard of the Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin and his 1921 book "We"? The Russians have been at this for awhile...

Darryl

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