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Dystopia and Us: Finding Light in Dark Fiction
“The end is nigh.” It is hard to believe when the sun is shining over green Connecticut grass and Seamus is a slobbering and happy almost 20 pound behemoth in a little bouncy chair just a week before his four month birthday. But there it is: natural and unnatural disaster, high crimes and misdemeanors, all manner of dysfunction… and that is just on the front page of the paper.
I have been reading a lot of dystopian fiction recently. One guilty obsession is the Dies the Fire series (and two subsequent trilogies) by S.M. Stirling. The power inexplicably goes out, and in that same instant all technological widgets for communication, convenience or warfare are rendered inoperable (think NBC’s Revolution without the guns, the attractive people or J.J. Abrams’ special knack for the weird). Among those best prepared for this calamity are criminal gangs and religious orders, rural communities and back-to-the-landers, pagans and Society for Creative Anachronism types.
Within days the cities are in violent chaos and governments fail. Within weeks disease and panic are nearly endemic. Within months cannibalism, starvation and mass die off are well underway and new fragile micro-societies are being established in the reeking, moldering fragments of the old. The series, which is still being written, traces the development of these new micro-societies — each with their own characteristics, beliefs, creation stories strengths and weaknesses and their internecine battles for resources, labor, trade and territory. Addictive stuff.
I followed this up with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is less fantastical — set in a near future where the power doesn’t go out, it just becomes too expensive for most people, and government does not fall, it just does not acknowledge the vast majority of the population (sound familiar?). And then I read and watched The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s grim tale of a man and his son’s frightful journey through an almost empty landscape.
And as if this was not grim enough, my husband and I are watching The Walking Dead, the bleak and uber-violent post-zombie apocalyptic AMC series that somehow pays homage to humanity even as it graphically portrays its dissolution.
Why do I share all of this? In part because I recently realized that it was strange fare for a woman as she is pregnant and then caring for a small infant. Shouldn’t I be reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Bringing Up Bebe and The Happiest Baby on the Block? Submerging myself in these dark tales did not bulk up my maternal confidence. In all these stories, the pregnant, the very young and the very old are the most vulnerable.
But I can’t help myself, it is gripping stuff. It has all the drama and imagination of The Lord of the Rings, but instead of orcs and trolls up against tree beings and elves, it is all us — a battle between our better and worst selves.
Another reason I think I am attracted to these kinds of stories these days is that there is something really comforting about these black and white worlds, where choices are clear, consequences are stark and impacts immediate. The Walking Dead has lots of gray matter smattering everywhere, but no gray area. When the proverbial shit hits the fan, will I be a desperate, craven cannibal or a modern Johnny Appleseed? Will I seek my own survival at all costs or will I sweat and labor with like-minded people to figure out rudimentary agriculture, irrigation and sanitation?
In all of these stories (written and on the small screen) there is none of the ambiguity or banality of our daily moral choices: am I going to eat out of my (weedy and neglected) community garden plot, shop at the local co-op or support the global industrial food chain? Paper or plastic? Cash or credit? Composting? Tax resistance? Hanging out the laundry (lots of dirty diapers) or using the dryer? Do I vote Democrat, Green or adhere to the conviction that if voting were change-making it would be illegal? Will I go to the demonstration or stay home to watch TV or help organize a demonstration when one is needed? These are all important choices, but they are not revolutionary.
It is a post-modern fantasy — in the wake of a major catastrophe, society collapses. How would you reshape your world if it collapsed before your eyes and you could be a part of remaking it? But didn’t we see a glimmer of this in the bayous and levies after Katrina? In Zucotti Park last fall? In communities after Hurricane Sandy where Occupy got a new lease on life as an anarchic FEMA, Red Cross and Good Samaritan all rolled in one hip, energetic package?
The end is nigh, but it won’t come with all the drama of S.M. Stirling’s neo-pagan warriors or the grossness of Robert Kirkman’s zombie hordes. It comes a little every day as it always has. In our choices — large and small — we keep it a little bit at bay while creating the new world we want to live in right now.