Are We Living in a Modern-Day Dystopia?
It’s one of those experiences I now recount self-deprecatingly over drinks. But in the moment, it felt like my inescapable demise. Last spring, while I was waiting to board a connecting flight at Santiago International Airport, the earth suddenly began rattling with the kind of ferocity you only read about in doomsday prophecies. Keep in mind that I was passing through Chile, one of the world’s most quake-prone nations, and I could still vividly recall the horrifying footage of the 8.8-magnitude monster that had killed hundreds of Chileans in 2010. As glass windows from nearby shops shattered like fine porcelain and light fixtures dangled ever so menacingly from above, I bolted upright and unsuccessfully searched for cover. A minute later, the seismic shocks had stopped, my life had been spared and I Googled what had just caught us travellers unawares: a 7.1 earthquake off the country’s west coast.
By far the most terrifying thing about my short-lived brush with seismicity was being left entirely in the dark. Receiving a quake-related heads-up (impossible, I know, but indulge me here) might have made no difference, but at least I wouldn’t have been caught in a state of paralyzed surprise—my worst nightmare. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” goes the double-edged affirmation. Hit me with the bad, always. I’d rather get a tipoff about what’s lurking just around the corner than live in blissful ignorance about the stage IV cancer, the deceitful partner or the boss who changed the lock on my office door.
Lately, I’ve been gravitating to entertainment that administers disheartening and undeniably dystopian doses of truth serum. Let’s face it: Uninterrupted optimism can be exhausting, and there’s something quite healthy about acknowledging the odious, supersized catastrophe staring us in the face. Since 2018 got off the ground, soon-to-be-waterless Cape Town has launched a water-monitoring map to publicly shame citizens who consume too much H2O; Hawaii residents had to wait 38 interminable minutes before the warning of an incoming ballistic missile was retracted; and the leader of the free world and his administration continue to leave everyone speechless with their Bowling Green massacres, fake news and abhorrent round-the-clock reality show.
Yes, we are living in dystopian times, and sometimes escapism no longer suffices. As news of the world going to hell in an Ivanka Trump handbag keeps pouring in, dystopian narratives have not only provided end-of-world comforts but also become the harbingers of human turmoil.
Yes, we are living in dystopian times, and sometimes escapism no longer suffices. As news of the world going to hell in an Ivanka Trump handbag keeps pouring in, dystopian narratives have not only provided end-of-world comforts but also become the harbingers of human turmoil. And I’m clearly not alone in my hunger for fiction that’s sadly more realistic than it is scaremongering. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—one of three classics that Vintage Books put back in print last year (along with Brave New World and 1984, of course)—created more than 30 years ago. Its premise of an oppressive Christian regime where abortions are illegal and women are raised to be reproductive slaves has come to resonate once more with readers and viewers. The acclaimed TV adaptation premiered mere months after the “very stable genius” took office. The story has tapped into the zeitgeist in ways only the most powerful dystopian fiction can, sparking slogans at the inaugural Women’s March such as “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!” We want to believe in brighter days, but such a process can only be set in motion by recognizing the blazing inferno we could just as easily slip into.
Examples are scrawled across marquees and battling for choice TV slots. Recent critical and commercial faves such as Mad Max: Fury Road and its feminist insurrection, The Lobster and its societal burden to find a mate, and Denis Villeneuve’s bleak cyberpunk sequel Blade Runner 2049 have all addressed contemporary anxieties in frighteningly relatable ways. Whether it’s technological devastation, climate destruction or the otherworldly ways we relate to one another, dystopian fiction has increasingly served up fresh and uncomfortable takes on modern mores. The main difference between dystopias new and old is that while they once mostly portrayed primitive, wholly ravaged and inhospitable future worlds that looked nothing like our own, they’re now often set in strangely familiar settings that, save for a few skewed elements, could very well be your neighbourhood.
The main difference between dystopias new and old is that while they once mostly portrayed primitive, wholly ravaged and inhospitable future worlds that looked nothing like our own, they’re now often set in strangely familiar settings that, save for a few skewed elements, could very well be your neighbourhood.
As for TV, 2018 has already seen the release of Amazon’s Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, a 10-part series of stand-alone political hellscapes and mystical mini-dramas based on the short stories of Dick, the prescient sci-fi giant who questioned the nature of reality like no other. It’s already being marketed as Amazon’s answer to that ubiquitous Netflix anthology series I’ve found myself talking and thinking about endlessly in recent months. What Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has nailed is the notion that dystopias need not be set in far-fetched realms. By mostly steering clear of pie-in-the-sky stuff and instead turning his attention to robotic bees, cartoonish PMs, pig scandals and a callous world overrun by popularity ratings (which have all had real-life reverberations), Brooker created unnerving narratives that provide us with relatable ways to make sense of our surreal world.
Take “Nosedive,” one of the program’s most-talked-about episodes, about citizens whose lives are governed by an oppressive rating system, with top-tier users rewarded with access to luxury apartments and better job prospects. News that China began rolling out Zhima Credit, a system of social credit scores to track and rank its citizens, reminded viewers of Black Mirror’s real-life relevance. Speaking to Time about the episode, co-writer Michael Schur (also the co-creator of one of the kindest comedies in years, Parks and Recreation) commented that he considered “Nosedive” not to be set in the near future but rather a parallel present. “That, to me, is the best science fiction,” he explained. “It’s the kind that doesn’t take place in the year 17,000 on a distant planet; it takes things that exist right now and turns them one degree to the left or right to shine a light on the way we’re interacting with each other as people.”
In this season’s “Hang the DJ” episode, about an all-seeing dating system that decides on behalf of singletons whom they’ll be paired up with and for how long, partners Frank and Amy agree on the fact that things must have “been mental before the system.” The same could be said about our politics, climate and social hierarchies. At times, we need fiction to acknowledge the crazy mess of the world we live in. Creators like Brooker and the late Dick take things even further by chillingly anticipating technologies, behaviours and laws that eventually migrate from make-believe to matter of fact. While that’s certainly no cause for celebration, it also allows us to keep an ear to the ground. Silver lining?