On October 30, a group of chanting nurses gathered outside a detention facility in San Diego and tried to deliver flu-vaccine kits to the Border Patrol officers. They were turned away, as expected. The Department of Homeland Security had decided not to vaccinate the migrant families it was holding captive. At least six detained children had already died. Politicians argued about whether it was fair to refer to detention centers as “concentration camps.”
That was happening in the real world. Meanwhile, in the dystopian near future imagined by the creators of the BBC-HBO series Years and Years, a populist demagogue U.K. prime minister, played by Emma Thompson, explains that “concentration camps” are just fine. “Let’s look at the words,” she says. “The word concentration simply means a concentration of anything. You can fill a camp full of oranges.” She recalls that Field Marshal Kitchener invented concentration camps in the Boer War and the British found an efficient way to empty them, too: “They simply let nature take its course.” Back in real life, the real U.K. prime minister, a mop-haired demagogue played by Boris Johnson, spoke at the United Nations and warned of “pink-eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race.”
Reality has grown unkind to our creators of dystopian fiction. It’s stealing their thunder. The science-fiction writer imagines a dark future, then looks on in horror as the world hurtles into an even darker one. As William Gibson put it to me, “The Zeitgeist from which I necessarily carve my doodles has gone all adamantine.” Trump’s election upset Gibson’s plan for a sequel to his 2014 near-future dystopia, The Peripheral. How was he to incorporate “this supremely queasy moment in American history”? In the forthcoming Agency, our actual president lurks only as a shadow; the book features an alternative-history timeline in which the winner of that election is a woman, competent, with “a fully functioning State Department,” and even so, devastation looms.
The apocalypse of 20th-century sci-fi was always sudden and explosive: nuclear annihilation, asteroid strike, global pandemic. Now the apocalypse comes on little cat feet and reveals itself slowly. Instead of World War III, nativist movements and religious fundamentalists, covertly fueled by oligarchs and kleptocrats, combine to undermine liberal democracies. The disastrous destabilization of life on Earth — the fires and floods, drowned cities and displaced refugees — arrives piece by piece, year by year, always a little worse. We seem to be watching our self-annihilation on the news.
They tried to warn us, of course. Margaret Atwood began her first dystopian fiction, appropriately, in 1984. The premise of The Handmaid’s Tale, American democracy giving way to theocratic dictatorship, “seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous,” she wrote early in the Trump presidency. She had hoped it was “an anti-prediction.” Her sequel this fall, The Testaments, peers a bit further into its imagined future, but Atwood, when she speaks about these books, keeps reminding us that it’s not our future she’s writing. Her dystopia, like every other, draws on history to tell a story about the present. “The desired outcome of The Handmaid’s Tale would have been that it would fade into obscurity as a period piece, so that my dire warnings would not prove to be correct,” she told the New York Times. “That’s not the turn that history has taken.”
No. In Pennsylvania this fall — our Pennsylvania, not Atwood’s Gilead — Republicans pushed a bill to mandate the ritual burial of fetal remains, even a fertilized egg lost to miscarriage. What’s left for visionary artists when our volatile present is overtaking its own treacherous future? No one wants to start stuffing crude Trump-like figures into their fiction. “The Trump Dark Age is not really dystopian, though it might have been if it were more intelligently imagined,” says Joyce Carol Oates. “I’ll say it again,” tweets Nick Harkaway in London, “dystopian writers are NOT thrilled at finding the world is out-shittying our novels.” His last book, Gnomon, took the surveillance state to a terrifying extreme; now, perhaps weirdly, he and others see a turn toward optimism. “My new book has been hard to write because it’s about hope,” he says. “I’m trying to write about someone finding, almost by accident, the green shoots in the rubble.” Maybe sci-fi writers are coming full circle, to dream again of rosy futures in spite of everything. They’re running out of time just like the rest of us.
*This article appears in the November 11, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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