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We Tried To Warn You

Many people have tried to convince me it is unhealthy to be so obsessed with “dystopian” fiction, both the reading and the writing of it. My wonderful wife still rolls her eyes every time she retells the story of how I spent our honeymoon reading a biography of George Orwell. It is true that the sealed, airless nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four has never released its grip on my imagination since I first read it, probably in my early teens. Earlier than that, when I was still in elementary school or possibly what was then called “junior high,” I was similarly affected by Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, with its teenage protagonist-cum-victim trapped in a mental asylum by his father’s killers (who are unseen, and therefore yet more terrifying) and his own delusions, and the scenes on the evil alien planet where the heroine’s father is held captive in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

It’s notable that L’Engle’s young adult novel came out in 1962, only thirteen years after Orwell’s book, and that they share the mid-twentieth century fear of a future totalitarian society that is a human ant hill, with all individuality stamped out in the name of the almighty State. This terrible vision does not seem like it’s about to come true in America and the rest of the so-called developed world, but there is little doubt that many of the other things that both older and newer dystopian novels have warned us about have come to pass, or are on the verge of doing so. Universal surveillance is much closer today than it was in the earliest days of television, when Orwell invented his two-way “telescreens.” Tune in to any of the “true crime” TV shows and podcasts and you will discover how much the police have come to rely on smartphones, personal computers, home security cameras and the rest of the electronic apparatus that most of us have voluntarily accepted, indeed eagerly sought out, because of a facet of human psychology explored in depth in another great twentieth-century dystopian novel, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the future, the authorities could choose to pacify the populace with hedonistic pleasures made possible by modern technology, this novel suggests, and might thereby rule indefinitely. Many aspects of this future have also come true. Certainly, if not for the Internet and streaming TV services, violent social unrest might have broken out during the worst months of the pandemic when the vaccines were still under development, instead of boiling over largely after the situation began to improve.

Pandemics, too, have long been the subject of dystopian or “postapocalyptic” fiction, though no one seems to have foreseen quite the mix of delusional thinking and malevolent leadership and propaganda that led to so many Americans denying that there even was a pandemic and violently refusing all measures to slow its spread. As it happens, in 2016 I was unable to sell a short story about the aftermath of a pandemic, which I ended up self-publishing on Amazon under a title that says it all: “Isolated.” That aspect of things, I foresaw with disturbing clarity. (Emily St. John Mandel’s much better known pandemic novel, Station Eleven, had come out a little earlier.)

Not to toot my own horn, but my second published novel, 36, which is set in a semi-dystopian near future, also seems eerily prophetic in certain ways. Written largely in 2004 but not published until 2012, this novel takes place in the aftermath of the rise and fall of an extremist Islamist “Caliphate” and the rise and fall of a quasi-fascist American dictatorship, the latter brought about by the chaos after (gulp!) a massive terrorist attack on the Fourth of July, and amidst a chronic plague of school shootings called columbines after the (real-life) 1999 massacre in a Colorado high school. (One brief review suggested that while well written, my novel was set in a depressing future no one would want to live in, which seems to me a perfect example of simultaneously getting and missing the point.)

I think it’s fair to say that most of us authors who write dystopian fiction want to warn the world away from certain dangers we can see cloudily. I think it’s also fair to wonder, now that so many of our dark visions are turning real, if not quite in the way we foresaw, whether the energy behind this entire genre of fiction is bound to dissipate.


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