Dystopia Now

Global Dystopias was published by Boston Review in the fall of 2017. At the time, we supposed ourselves to be in the midst of a global nightmare. Editor-in-chief Junot Díaz cited the election of Donald Trump, climate change, skin bleaching and the Great Firewall of China as evidence that the age of dystopia had begun.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since. The coronavirus has the world in its spiky grip. Most of us are living in full, partial or pseudo lockdown. When we work, if we work, it’s from that increasingly smaller box called home. What we thought, in 2017, to be the absolute nadir turns out to be merely the first step into a bottomless chasm.

The stated purpose of Global Dystopias was to

point to causes [of dystopia] rather than merely describe symptoms […] to map, to warn, to hope.

Junot Díaz, Editor’s Note to Global Dystopias, Boston Review (2017)

How has this collection of short fiction, interviews and essays withstood the test of time?

To map

In a very literal sense, Mike McClellan maps dystopia. He gives us a split narrative that conjoins the journal of an 18th century explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, with the expedition notes of his distant descendant, E. Humbletrot. Their task is the same: to survey a portion of Venezuela. This is dystopia as seen from afar.

The airport ruins sit between the former coastline and the northern edge of what used to be Caracas. The once-verdant landscape is cracked and white […] Though Venezuela’s attempt to import fresh water proved disastrous, resulting in dry, bright blue salt pits such as this one at Catia La Mar, it is that attempt that has allowed life to remain here in the form of these two species of pale green, lichen-like flora.”

Mike McClellan, “What Used to Be Caracas”

McClellan doesn’t describe the event that caused this devastation. He refers to it merely as the Erasure, though another term might be climate change. With the coming of COVID-19, climate change has been all but erased from the political agenda. Two years worth of school strikes has resulted in precious little progress. So far, so dystopian.

To warn?

In the short story “Cannibal Acts” by Maureen McHugh, a small band of survivors hunkers down at a US Army listening post in back country Alaska. The group is armed, of course, in order to protect their food supply: the last of the ready-to-eat meals and each other. Those who reject cannibalism will soon die, either of starvation or the disease that has ravaged the planet. You see, the Chinese have weaponized the avian flu.

When writers try to predict the future, we often get it wrong. Where are the jetpacks and flying cars we were promised? If “Cannibal Acts” were to be published today, McHugh would be invited to speak at the Republican National Convention.

The warning embedded in “Athena Dreams of a Hollow Body” is of a different nature. JR Fenn foresees a time when robot mothers can be delivered to your doorstep, complete with a Charge-Pak casing. The protagonist, Athena, develops an unusually close relationship with her robot mom. Athena willfully ignores the messages that this model is defective. Hazard to the public. Mandatory return to manufacture subject to enforcement.

Fenn may be trying to warn us off unhealthy bonding with machines. To me, a robot mom sounds like the perfect companion during a pandemic lockdown.

I liked having a mother, though, especially when nobody was around. We’d putter around the apartment, tidying or rearranging things or just working on our computers. My mother made progress on her own little projects, the clack of the keys intermittent and considered. When I took breaks from my online tutoring, it was nice to have a mother to chat with.

JR Fenn, “Athena Dreams of A Hollow Body”

To hope

Oddly, it’s the essays in Global Dystopias that offer a glimmer of hope. In “Saving Orwell,” Peter Ross takes me back to that moment, days after Trump’s inauguration, when hundreds of copies of 1984 were donated to bookstores across the United States. It was a quiet form of resistance.

To resist is perhaps the ultimate expression of dystopia, whether you’re Winston fighting the Thought Police in 1984 or a writer attempting to wrest control over her own past from The Memory Police. In the words of China Miéville: There has not in living memory been a better time to be a fascist. Words that remain true today.

But Miéville has little patience with despair. It is, in his mind, arrogant to suppose that we live in the Worst Times. It is equally arrogant to assume that the dystopia of today will improve without any cost or effort on our part.

This shit is where we are. A junk heap of history and hope. I am done with the Procrustean strategy of whipping playbooks out of our pockets and squinting to make what we see fit their schema. […] It’s too late to save, but we might repurpose. Suturing, jerry-rigging, cobbling together. Finding unexpected resources in the muck, using them in new ways. A strategy for ruination.

Interview with China Miéville by Boston Review
21 August 2020 | Karen Kao