Reading Dystopias in a Dystopian Year
by Christopher Brown
There’s a scene early in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 debut novel The Wild Shore in which the teen protagonist accompanies a group of elders to post-apocalyptic San Diego, where the skyscrapers of old downtown rise up out of the waters. They meet the mayor, and after a communal feast young Henry is invited to join the men as they step into the study to share tequila and conspire about the state of things. One passage in particular stands out (emphasis added):
“I could feel the alcohol going to my head, along with the news of the resistance, this dream of Nicolin’s and mine come to life. It made a heady mixture. Danforth stood again and looked at the framed map on the side wall of the study. Passionately he said, ‘To make America great again, to make it what it was before the war, the best nation on Earth. That’s our goal.’ He pointed a finger through the shadows at Tom. ‘We’d be back to that already if we had retaliated against the Soviets. If President Eliot—traitor, coward!—hadn’t refused to defend us. But we’ll still do it. We’ll work hard, we’ll pray hard, we’ll hide our weapons from the satellites. They’re inventing new ones in Salt Lake and Cheyenne, we’re told. And one day…one day we’ll spring out on the world again like a tiger. A tiger from the depths of the pit…’ His voice shifted up to a scratchy strangled mutter that I couldn’t make out. He was half turned away from us, and he went on like that for a while, talking to himself in a voice that moaned and sighed. The lamp on his desk flickered, flickered again. Ben jerked out of his chair and went to a corner to get a kerosene lamp.”
I first read that passage a couple of weeks ago, lured by the back jacket copy that used the same 2016 ball-cap ready phrase (and Twitter-tipped to the existence of this section by William Gibson). The Wild Shore is one of those books I had missed at the time and always meant to read, found on the shelf of Austin’s Fifth Dimension Books, a refurbished bookmobile always on the move under the able command of writer and activist Sukyi McMahon. Maybe I needed to wait until after November 2016 to really appreciate how sharply Robinson’s satiric scalpel exposed the innards of the American Zeitgeist.
I read a lot of American dystopias this year, at the same time as I began to better understand the extent to which I already live in one. Having started off the year selling one, my forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas, I was curious to find the best examples I could, ones that were also great books. Some were other vintage titles long on the list, or reread after a long time. Jack Womack’s 1993 Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a stunningly intense epistolary novel told through the diary of a 12-year-old Manhattan girl dealing with early adolescence as the United States devolves into revolutionary unrest. It reads like some insane hybrid of The Diary of Anne Frank, Kay Thompson’s Eloise books, and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York—and in setting and voice, feels like the authentic tremor of the day after tomorrow, even more prescient from today’s vantage than Womack’s corporate cyberpunk debut Ambient. I reread sections of Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, which I remember seemed a brilliant but implausible extrapolation when I first read it as a clueless young man, and now seems indisputably prophetic in its unflinching perception of how easily and quickly hard-won liberties can be lost, and how deeply wired are human instincts to subjugate others.
On the pulpier side, this year I also dug out a book I had bought as a cultural curiosity some time ago but been afraid to read—Revolt!, a 1968 novel of 1990s race war by pulp maestro Don Pendleton, who went on to write the Executioner series of 1970s vigilante novels that inspired an entire dark genre that threads through Ronald Reagan’s “Make my Day” and Liam Neeson’s Taken films. Revolt! opens with a future encyclopedia entry telling how a charismatic leader unites the darkest elements of the two major parties for the election of a new government that pulls out of NATO, retreats from the Pacific, walls itself off from the world, neuters the judiciary, and begins interning citizens based on race—citing the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. Pendleton envisions a violent popular rebellion as the thing it takes to finally achieve equal rights and realize the country’s “greatness.”
Similar themes are explored in the other American dystopian fictions I read this year. Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, but Burning, published at the beginning of 2016 by Melville House, is a beautifully written literary vision of an America in which Muslims have been put into internment camps in the evacuated Dakotas after a mysterious 9/11-like event. Hrbek deftly deploys the potential for a geographical inversion of the War on Terror, infused with the melancholy of daily life on both sides of the fortifications we build to keep out the imagined enemies next door, or among us. Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines bravely (and controversially) takes on, in a much more sophisticated fashion, similar material to Pendleton—a U.S.A. in which slavery still exists in four states, seen through the complicated point of view of a black man who hunts down escaped slaves on streets we all know. Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia, to which I contributed an afterword, starts as a somewhat whimsical alternate history of the 15-month post-WWI Italian “liberation” of the Croatian port of Fiume and ends with a glimpse of the fascist American specters lurking in the dark mirrors of our pulp literature. Nisi Shawl’s incredible Everfair is not a dystopian novel, but uses alternate history to explore similar issues, inverting steampunk tropes to envision a utopian experiment in the Belgian Congo involving African-American abolitionists, Fabian socialists, freed slaves, and indigenous peoples. Everfair is the most imaginative of these books, bursting with ideas and characters, and at the same time grounded in intellectual realism as it confronts the horrors on which “great” countries are made, and shows how hard it can be to carve the community we want out of the world we find.
After writing here last year about the Senate Intelligence Committee Torture Report as invisible literature, I got invited to give a short talk on the subject, which led to more reading about what happens in the hidden rooms of the state. Sketching Guantanamo, published in 2013 by the Seattle indie comics press Fantagraphics, is an incredible collection by courtroom sketch artist Janet Hamlin of the work she did during the military tribunals of 2006-2013, accompanied by rich narratives of the proceedings, and dystopian travelogue of what it was like to visit that strange site. Frank Smith’s Guantanamo, translated by Vanessa Place and published by Les Figues Press in 2014, brilliantly adapts transcripts from those tribunals into verse, in the tradition of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation. But the most amazing book to come out of our extraterritorial prison is Poems from Guantanamo, edited by Marc Falkoff, one of the lawyers who represented the detainees on a pro bono basis. Published in 2007 by the University of Iowa press and gifted to me this summer by an amazing young South Korean artist studying in the U.S., Poems collects verse written by the detainees, initially traced out on styrofoam cups with pebbles or dabs of toothpaste. The poems in the book are the ones the defense lawyers were able to get past the military censors, while most of the work written in the camp remained banned as “a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format”—evidently a fear that the poems encode secret messages. The poems are full of cries of pain that articulate the dissonance between the authors’ idealized visions of a just America and the Orwellian reality of their treatment in an extrajudicial purgatory. Read from the vantage of autumn 2016, those dark laments at discovering the real spirit of America had powerful resonance.
Two incredible nonfiction books about the African-American experience serendipitously found their way to me this year. I was passed a copy of Claudia Rankine’s 2014 Citizen, a poetic riff that bridges headline news and a life’s accumulation of small incidents to ingeniously show our racial divides. And while visiting family in the Midwest I found a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me sitting on the guest room shelf, a gift from a black relative to his white brother-in-law. Riffing on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates’s book takes the form of a letter to his son about the realities of life as a black man in America, a life in which your body is ever at risk as you pass through public space. Both of these are powerful and important books that can be read in a single sitting, that use the very particular experiences of the authors to reveal wider cultural truths, and now seem even more premonitory in their fathoms of the dangerous currents lurking just below the surface of middle-class American gentility.
I read a lot of books this year that I thought might help me better understand what I was seeing in the news, or provide tools for change. I reread Constance Rourke’s amazing American Humor, a 1931 study of the folkloric archetypes of antebellum American popular narrative, all of them characters recognizable to a viewer of contemporary television—like the Yankee Peddler, the conniving salesman from the north who strolls into backwater towns with his shiny things for sale, only to sell the rubes the things they already have, and disappear before they realize they have been ripped off. On the recommendation of a friend I picked up Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, a worthy effort at a handbook for resistance to the extraction economy that catalogs many of the tactics that were implemented at Standing Rock. Geoff Manaugh, author of the brilliant BLDG BLOG, came out with A Burglar’s Guide to the City, an amazing little tome that is just what the title says, and also a brilliant template for imagining strategies of resistance through inversion. I started George Packer’s 2010 The Unwinding, a mosaic biography of how the America we thought we knew became the one we saw in November. And as I drove through Kansas on July 4, I listened to Allen Ginsberg reading his Wichita Vortex Sutra, and acquired a fresh perspective of how those fields of Crevecoeur’s American Farmer became both the fuel and the appetite of the war machine.
Somehow the happiest thing I have read since the elections is Magnus Magnusson’s 1969 Penguin translation of the Icelandic Laxdaela Saga—specifically, its telling of the story of Unn the Deep-Minded. After the death in battle of her Viking raider son Thorstein the the Red, Unn, who also features in Njal’s Saga and several other epics, built a ship in secret in the middle of the Scottish forest, and managed to escape in it, loaded with valuables and a large retinue of fighting men under her command—first to Orkney, then the Faroe Islands, and finally to build a new community in western Iceland, where she famously landed men who had formerly been unfree. Reading the true story of a ninth century woman whose achievements as a leader last for millennia resonates in the winter of 2016 as a foretelling of a future we have long awaited, even if it has been temporarily deferred—perhaps to remind us what it looks like when the pirate raiding men are in charge. Time to get to work building our own secret vessels to navigate the way to a better tomorrow.
Christopher Brown writes science fiction and criticism in Austin, Texas, where he also practices technology law. His stories frequently focus on issues at the nexus of technology, politics, and economics. He was a 2013 World Fantasy Award nominee for the anthology he co-edited, Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His first novel is forthcoming from Harper Voyager. More at christopherbrown.com.
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