Monday, August 18, 2014

The Peace Dividend: Dystopia Now

Ferguson Missouri, 30 years after George Orwell's dystopian future of 1984
Over the past week I've been watching the police crisis in Ferguson Missouri horror. From the very beginning, when an officer shot an unarmed boy six times in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, the authorities have reacted with overwhelming force; their actions better characterized by blind rage than any concern for public safety. It's a bit like watching keystone cops who have been issued body armor and sniper rifles. In the midst this outbreak of real world distopia, Michael Solana's posted an anti-dystopian screed that is as muddled-headed as it is badly timed. (I say muddled, because Solana wrongly equates dystopias with an anti-technology sentiment - he needs to familiarize himself with utopian Luddites.) In response to Solana's essay, Brian Merchant posted a defense of dystopias. But while I felt Merchant's rebuttal was smart, I agree with Solana conclusion, if not his reasoning. We need to get back in the habit of telling stories about the future that are not dystopian.

Dystopias are on my mind, not only because of Ferguson. I've been working on a collaborative project with my fellow artist Greg Borenstein called 2H2K. The title refers to the second half of the twenty first century. The project is an artwork, but is not intended to fit nicely inside of what one might expect from a sculptor; call it vernacular design fiction. The premise of the 2H2K stories is that the future will be more densely urban; that by the year 2050 the population of the globe will have swollen to 9.5 billion people. There is no doubt that that another 2.5 billion of us will put terrible strains on the natural world; fisheries will be lost, habitat for flora and fauna destroyed, and there are some dire possibilities for our own species. But rather than imagine the trends in global warming, income inequality, and political decline progressing into dystopias, the project is consciously not dystopian. Unlike Solana however, my premise isn't anti-dystopian - more "anti-anti-dystopian", with Jean-Paul Sartre and Fredric Jameson. The project is to imagine a future society with problems, but not a future in which society is the problem.
"Hands up, Don't shoot."

While I used to agree with Merchant, that dystopias "help diagnose our ills and suggest a few ways forward" - I no longer do.  Never mind that 1984, one of the greatest dystopias ever imagined, hasn't seem to help us avoid a surveillance state, and the Terminator films aren't derailing Darpa's Atlas program. we live in an age of mass-produced dystopias. But we're not discussing the merits of a few critical gems waiting to spark the fires of doubt in young minds. What both Solana and Merchant (and I) are discussing are an uninterrupted three decade run of intellectually empty Hollywood movies and mass-market books. One of the primary reason I gave Greg when I told him I didn't want to make a dystopia was because I wanted to attempt to avoid cliche - lets face it, dystopia is a thoroughly beaten dead horse. 

But here's the crux: Dystopias are turning us into Luddites, they're making us stupid. The scifi author David Brin's complaint with dystopias is what he has dubbed the “idiot plot syndrome":
It is just a lot easier to put your characters in dramatic jeopardy if you start with the assumption the civilization is useless and all our neighbors are foolish sheep.
David nails it: dystopias are lazy. But they aren't benignly so, "the pandemic plague of cheap dystopias and apocalypses and feudal fantasies that have metastasized and infected science fiction" are a destructive to or social imagination. But its not just the story tellers that are being lazy. Fiction is how we exercise our minds, not just as individuals, but as whole societies. 
Thousands protest in solidarity with Ferguson

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that the Humanitarian Revolution of the late 18th century may have been sparked by the popularity of "epistolary novels":
In this genre the story unfolds in a character's own words, exposing the character's thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator.19th century novels have helped us become more empathetic... Cinema and television reached even larger audiences and offered experiences that were even more immediate. There experiments that confirm that fictional narratives can evoke people's empathy and prick them to action. Whether or not novels in general, or epistolary novels in particular, were the critical genre in expanding empathy, the explosion of reading may have contributed to the Humanitarian Revolution by getting people into the habit of straying from their parochial vantage points.
The growing popularity of scifi over the last thirty years, from a fringe literature of nerds and geeks, to blockbuster events, could and should be just as important to the ways we think about the world - as a society - as epistolary novels were.
Americans like heroes. 

But dystopias are allowing our powers of problem solving imagination to go flabby. Of course Merchant is right, it is important to show a world that has problems that need to be overcome, but it is also important to imagine a future that has solutions besides a lone hero shooting everyone. One of the things that make me feel that Solana's take on dystopias is muddle headed, is his complaint that they don't provide readers with sufficiently heroic narratives:
Simply, we need a hero. Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them.
Seriously? Has this guy ever seen a movie? The problem with dystopias, that Solana totally misses, but that Merchant misses too, but that David Brin totally gets, is that the problems we face as a society today are problems that require us to act as a society. Global warming is not going to be solved by a hero facing his fears, its going to be solved by a well functioning an robust bureaucracy of dedicated civil servants. Ebola isn't going to be cured by Brad Pitt armed with a Lobo, its going to take rigorous laboratory work, carefully observed quarantine protocols, and profoundly courageous public health workers. The same goes for the police riots in Ferguson Missouri. As charismatic and wonderful as Officer Ron Johnson is, St. Louis County's civil authorities have shown themselves to be dangerously out of touch and abusive, and in desperate need of systematic reform. We need more scifi like Contagion, less like Elysium.
Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol who, the dystopian early adopter, Donald Trump believes: "must suffer the consequences!"

Postscript: I started thinking about this post this a few days ago when David Brin posted on fb about Solana's essay, but what really pushed me to write something, was when Tim Maughan tweeted in "flappy rage" about the same post this morning:
I'd like to give Solana the benefit of the doubt, I get that he sees scifi delivering hope in the form of prediction new technologies. Like Clarke predicting communication satellites. But he never mentions Kim Stanley Robinson (a self-described "accidental-utopian"), a generous reader might assume he means technologies in the broadest sense, to include new ways of being, alternative political systems, social relations, racial, ethnic and sexual identities.  Glancing through Solana's twitter feed however, the generous reading, doesn't hold up:
For someone pushing a turn away from dystopia, this sneer is absurd. From Charles Fourier's proto socialist Phalanx, to Robert Heinlein's libertarian Loonies, to KSR's full on communist Martians, all utopians have given pride of place for difference. I'm with Tim, I'm no Luddite, but Solana's brand of progress makes me flappy rage (I think - I don't really know what flappy rage is).
All is Full of Love (1997)


  1. If more people could read French:

    1. This is too long post to read by means of machine translation, so perhaps you're right, but I'd be interested to know what it is you feel I'm missing by not slogging through the google-garbled text.