I used to participate in a set of newsgroups dedicated to reading and writing science fiction. It was my first experience online, just about. Sometimes it was exhilarating. Sometimes it was terrible. It foreshadowed Twitter and Facebook in a lot of ways. I made some mistakes, didn’t always behave well, but the biggest mistake I made was discounting my own intuition about a certain dynamic that I saw there.
“It’s just a bunch of crazy right-wing science fiction fans,” I muttered to myself as I withdrew from participation after being hounded one too many times for saying something so radical as I thought traffic safety engineering was a good idea (seriously, Pete McCutcheon’s response to that, as to most things I said, was to accuse me of complicity in Stalin’s purges.). It wasn’t the traffic argument–it was something later, just a long, long, exhausting, unproductive, and I thought, unimportant series of similar arguments. I thought: I can use my energy better finishing these novels that have a better view of the world. But this here is not what I’m talking about today. Nope, it’s a simple thing, a little thing, a trivial matter of taste. I had my misgivings about this stuff all along, but “it’s only pulp fiction, don’t like, don’t read.” You know, you shouldn’t dislike stuff too vehemently online because that’s tantamount to censorship (hush, never mind that people do dislike stuff vehemently online all the time).
And now–a couple decades later–the world view of those people is ascendant in the world, not just the US: over and over they “win” elections through fraud and manipulation, and even where they don’t, they find ways to dismantle everything good about civilization, every freedom, every protection, every advance in scientific thinking and every commitment to beauty and free expression.
The thing I only barely registered opposition to at the time and which I believe I ought to have made a Principled Stand against is dystopian fiction. I’ve always thought it was cheap, unimaginative, easy to dream up, usually not well thought out even given all that. I ask myself: “Can’t they think of anything better than this? Is this all they think we’re capable of?”
Rarely does dystopian fiction strike me as a credible warning. When it is, it’s very powerful, you can see how the world in the story got that way, what the decision points were, what could have been different. Usually, it’s ahistoric, or the history in it is shallow and unconvincing, it’s just a fantasy of misery. And of course, the protagonists are the One True Somethings–they escape or they take over and we’re supposed to believe everything will be all right now, except when it’s 1984 or its imitators in which we’re subjected to watching the person we’re supposed to identify with break and wallow in his Terrible Human Condition. When we’re invited to gleefully embrace Jack London’s Iron Heel stepping on the face of everyone forever and forever.
It’s that gleeful embrace that gets to me even more than the paltry imagination. Because I also suspect that often the writers and aficionado readers of dystopian fiction are not just interested in that kind of future–they desire it. They read WHAT IF HITLER/THE CONFEDERACY WON and go “sounds great!” They read about tyranny, torture, subjugation, and they think “that’s the ticket.” They stay up at night imagining how to destroy civilization and stratify the community as rigidly as possible.
I think it’s urgent that we do better on all fronts. Let’s imagine a better future and work for it. Let’s write a better future while we make those phone calls, march those streets, talk to those people, defend those ballot boxes, whatever we have to do. But let’s not give in to despair or embrace the darkness.
I’ve seen people say “If you imagine a utopian world, though, there’s no room for a story because there is no conflict.” That also betrays a lack of imagination. Do you really believe in a world so perfect that it works to the same degree for all people and solves all problems without making any others? What makes you think people would or should settle for whatever they’ve got, once it’s better than what they had before?
A better world, a brighter future, to my mind necessarily creates new problems that demand new answers. Those stories are more work to imagine, because they’re not just replays of all the misery we’ve experienced throughout the centuries. There’s more to be found there, new things, shiny marvelous things, things you’ve never seen before.
Let’s write that, okay? Let’s write What Is To Be Done? for our age.
By the way, I made my pussy hat and I will be on the streets of my hometown January 21.