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We're Obsessed With Dystopian Media, And Maybe That's A Good Thing

It seems we are collectively contemplating a dystopian future, judging by the creative media, the books, music, and shows, that we are inhaling.

07/31/2017 13:26 EDT | Updated 07/31/2017 13:26 EDT

It's certainly not the best of times, but are we heading for the worst of times?

It seems we are collectively contemplating a dystopian future, judging by the creative media, the books, music, and shows, that we are inhaling.

Post-apocalyptic thrillers are flying off the shelves and weighing down our digital readers. Classics such as "1984" and "The Handmaid's Tale" are back on the bestseller lists.

Many blame the uptick in our collective future freak-out to the installation of one Donald J. Trump in the White House. Democratic norms have taken flight as we watch Trump's White House descend into chaos, and as he pals around with strongmen, such as Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Reuters/PA Images
Women dressed as handmaids from the novel, film and television series "The Handmaid's Tale" demonstrate against cuts for Planned Parenthood in the Republican Senate healthcare bill at the U.S. Capitol, June 27, 2017.

Canadians and other global citizens have grown accustomed— even a bit lethargic— about having a leader of the so-called free world. But now we have a media-bashing American president who has pulled the plug on the Paris climate accord, a pact that many saw as the last best gasp to save the planet.

So it's little wonder we take the occasional drink and curl up with the latest weep-for-the-world page-turner. In a recent piece in the New York Times, literary critic Alexandra Alter argued the bumper harvest of dystopian novels reflects our growing anxieties.

"If there's a thematic thread connecting this crop of doomsday books, it could be crudely summarized as 'Things may seem bad, but they might become much, much worse,'" Alter wrote.

Do 'They' Know Where You Live?


Even some contemporary music has a haunting, apocalyptic feel to it. Try streaming Radiohead's "Burn the Witch:"

This is a low flying panic attack/

Sing the song on the jukebox that goes/

Burn the witch/Burn the witch/

We know where you live

Yeah, 'they' know where we live. But who are 'they' anymore? That is the crux of the issue: we believe we should be worried about something, but we're not exactly sure what that something is.

Julie Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, declared it the "golden age" for dystopian fiction, but sniffed at the genre. "Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. This year, the thunder is roaring. But people are so grumpy, what with the petty tyrants and such, that it's easy to forget how recently lightning struck."

Lepore, hilariously, sums up one of the more intricate plotlines:

The world got too hot, so a wealthy celebrity persuaded a small number of very rich people to move to a makeshift satellite that, from orbit, leaches the last nourishment the earth has to give, leaving everyone else to starve. The people on the satellite have lost their genitals, through some kind of instant mutation or super-quick evolution, but there is a lot of sex anyway...Julie Lepore

Raising Humanity's White Flag?


Most crucially, though, is the wave of dystopian creativity really about a loss of optimism? Perhaps we are falling into the trap of a global pity party – a collective raising of the white flag by humanity.

I would argue differently. Dystopian authors, of which I am one, are offering a much different message: one of hope. Novelists are liars — we make up stories to entertain and to warn others about what is a real drag on society. In the dystopian fictional world, the works should be read as cautionary tales.

Consider "1984." The novel imagined a world where Big Brother controlled every aspect of civil society. With that fear of big government ingrained in us, perhaps people were more open to what Edward Snowden did when he revealed the terrifying, governmental reach into our private lives. The Snowden film, which depicts massive government spying operations and the ease to which they can turn on our digital cameras, is a depressing indictment of our brave new digital world.

Vincent Kessler / Reuters
Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden appears live via video during a meeting about whistle blowers at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, June 23, 2015.

But as prescient as "1984" was, not everyone is worried only about the rise of an omnipresent government.

As I argued in my novel "Giant's Grave," the unraveling of government might be the real problem. That is, the chaos may well come from private entities, rather than from governmental overreach.

With government dismantled, nary a barrier will remain to prevent private interests from herding us into the maw of corporate totalitarianism.

Maw of Corporate Totalitarianism


For a chilling backgrounder on all this, consider Nancy MacLean's new book "Democracy in Chains: the deep history of the radical right's stealth plan for America." The book exposes how a low-key Virginian economist worked tirelessly on a scheme to undo basic American governmental structures, all to prevent rich people from paying for such luxuries as public education and medical care.

James Buchanan, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, saw his theories get a massive boost when he teamed up with the billionaire Charles Koch, whose life project, besides making money, has been to spark a radical shrinking of government.

"Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else, wrote the columnist George Monbiot in a recent column on the book.

So, what's to stop them? Only us.

"Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control," he wrote. "The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both."With government dismantled, nary a barrier will remain to prevent private interests from herding us into the maw of corporate totalitarianism.

People with buckets of money, especially in the United States, are using their power to defund and defang the democratic entities to which we cling. With government dismantled, nary a barrier will remain to prevent private interests from herding us into the maw of corporate totalitarianism.

So, what's to stop them? Only us. That's why we need these demoralizing tales in our lives, so it doesn't all end up that way.

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