We are living through a dangerous moment in history. The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists stands at two and a half minutes to midnight, indicating the imminent threat of climate catastrophe and nuclear Armageddon. The rise of strident nationalism, and a global lurch to the right, not only exacerbates these problems but also creates new opportunities for tyranny and oppression.
Some of the greatest dystopian fictions of the past were born during perhaps comparable global crisis points: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) was inspired by Tsarism and communism, and 1984 (1949) was written in the bombed-out ruin of post-war Britain, with Hitler a recent memory and Stalin a looming fear. The publication of 2084, an anthology of dystopias, presents an opportunity to assess the current state of dystopian thought. According to the editor, the volume was conceived in 2015, when politics was “lurching to the right,” but before the political earthquakes of Brexit and Trump.
“Babylon” by Dave Hutchinson is about the European refugee crisis. It’s set in a future in which the European Union has erected a high-tech border across the Mediterranean to keep immigrants out. The protagonist is Da’uud, a young Nigerian man, who must penetrate this barrier. The plot turns on the genetic transformation of non-Europeans into white people so that they can infiltrate the EU and live amongst the “indigenous” population. The implication seems to be that white Europeans are irrevocably racist:
“They will not admit us,” his Uncle had told him, “because we are other. We are not like them. We do not look like them. They will overlook our colour if we have enough money or we have something they want, but we will always be different … ”
This story raises ugly questions about colonial politics, race and the role and responsibilities of Europe that are beyond the scope of a book review. However, the story makes disturbing reading in the wake of Brexit and the rise of far right parties across the continent.
“A Good Citizen” by Anne Charnock concerns the undesirable consequences of the introduction of a Universal Basic Income. Charnock suggests that accepting Basic Income would make an individual a vassal of the state. This is contrasted in the story with those who still choose employment, who in some ways have more freedom of choice (but are still, presumably, wage-slaves). This hierarchy of virtue, of workers above welfare recipients, will be familiar to anyone who has spent time unemployed.
The story itself is told from the point of view of a working woman who has a songwriting neighbour, Roly, who is claiming the universal wage. A “good citizen” is one who regularly participates in the weekly online polls and takes them seriously. Roly falls short of this standard because he always votes for the same option, solely in order to keep claiming the wage. The narrator sees Roly as “feckless” and cynical. She also refuses to take his songwriting seriously:
That’s the trouble when people decide against work, real paid work. They take the universal easy wage and look down on people like me ... I’m sick of their pretensions ... I wish I had a quid for every time I’ve heard, it’s the only way I can make time for my art. They’re pissing about like Roly.
She becomes more sympathetic when Roly is evicted by the government and moved to Northumberland because the flats where they live have been designated for workers only. Charnock successfully captures the dilemmas of those living in such a system, and highlights the ethical problems that would arise.
“Glitterati” by Oliver Langmead employs a satire of the excesses and fickle nature of the fashion industry to explore the Orwellian: in the fashion industry as depicted here, facts are not just outlawed but irrelevant. Social status is signified and maybe even determined by one’s physical appearance. A fashionista, Simone, is promoted after accidentally wearing the wrong clothes into work:
“Monochrome on a Wednesday?” they said, “It’s simply incredible! Unheard of. It’s so subversive. The irony of it, and the precision of it.”
The story goes on to play with the faux-rebellion of fashion by taking it to ridiculous extremes, with predictably fatal consequences.
Several stories in this collection deal with the reality-distorting effects of social media. For example, Cassandra Khaw’s “Degrees of Elison” shows what happens when these new virtual representations begin to be thought of as more real than the lives they are supposed to record. The story concerns the end of a marriage, an affair, and the ensuing despair. The moral is that the despair and hopelessness remain, no matter how much you try to rewrite your virtual history.
Malcolm Devlin’s story, “March,April,May” likewise looks at the reality-distorting effects of social media platform —in this case a fictional, slightly futuristic one called The Space. The story depicts the impacts of social media bubbles, machine learning algorithms and the automated policing of the internet through “likes.”
At one point, the protagonist, April2063, pranks The Space by associating images of corn dollies with the word “spitchcock” (which apparently means a way to prepare eels before they’re cooked). She chooses a corn dolly because it is:
... something The Space has no understanding of. It’s old. It’s from the wrong culture. The Space’s language doesn’t extend this deep. It’s an obsolete image, making the history obsolete as well. No one will understand this term if they only understand their world from The Space.
This observation reflects post-modern critiques of the Universalising tendencies of modernity: thinkers like Paul Feyerabend observed that the cost of creating a “Universal” space “fit for all” is the vanishment of cultures. A deeper problem, however, is that by their ubiquity, such spaces can prevent us from seeing reality at all. This is surely a key Orwellian fear. As the narrator notes, “The Space is everywhere. The Space knows everything. The Space only wants the best for us.”
The price of social connectivity, then, is a perceptual and imaginative monoculture.
Christopher Priest’s futuristic reality TV story “Shooting an Episode” plays with the idea of social media celebrity in an especially grisly way. The story contrasts those who participate in the games and are considered to “be someone,” and those who do not, and are invisible:
Heat sensors reported the presence of humans concealed in several of the smaller spaces. I imagined them to be non-gamers with lost lives seeking sanctuary, their tragic and pointless existence going on hidden from the world.
So for the narrator, the “world” is equivalent to the mediated world, and anyone who avoids the camera lens effectively does not exist. So here, as in the previous story, electronic media acts as a mask that prevents us from seeing the rest of reality. This notion is taken a stage further in “The Infinite Eye” by JP Smythe. In this story, an immigrant is offered a job that gives him the freedom of a virtual, roving life of surveillance. The price of this is the withering of the body, of which the protagonist only becomes aware when observing himself via a remote drone.
Taken together, these sorts of tale offer a sharp critique of transhumanist fantasies of disappearing into the virtual. The physically real world and our embodiment cannot be avoided, only temporarily ignored. Likewise, in “Saudade Minus One (S-1=)” by Irenosen Okojie, we can never be sure of the reality that we are presented with. It is a story about an engineered child, “Houdini,” who is perhaps a machine and certainly a bomb. The story is written in a stylistically unusual way, from the point of view both of Elmira, his adopted mother, and the boy himself. Both of these characters are visionaries.
The reality that Houdini and Elmira inhabit is quite as dreamlike as their visions. The ranch, for example, is the home of “‘stillborns brought to life with technology,”’ and cows that express blood and visions when milked.
Meanwhile, Elmira has visions of “marauding gargoyles loose on the ranch,” who tear “through the ranch leaving things in disarray.” In the next sentence we learn that “Houdini spent half a day fixing it all during an aftermath of silence." It is therefore unclear whether the gargoyle attack happened only in her dream, or in reality.
Other stories sit less easily within the collection. “Percepi” by Courttia Newland seems only marginally related to dystopian fiction. It features the advent of human-like “Buddys” and their eventual rebellion against their masters. This is a very well worn, even clichéd theme in SF, covered by novels like Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass (1970), and more recently by the Humans TV show and Bladerunner 2049. Any contemporary android rights story faces the difficulty of saying something new or surprising. In “Percepi,” there is only the suggestion that some humans end up siding with the “Buddys” after their revolution. Although I enjoyed this story, I’m not sure that this twist was quite enough to distinguish it from its thematic predecessors.
Other themes are notable for their absence. For example, stories dealing head-on with the environmental crisis are surprisingly rare in this collection, perhaps reflecting Vandana Singh’s recent observation that climate change “was a niche interest rather than something central to [the SF] genre.” I counted only two stories that treated environmental issues as central: “Here Comes the Flood” by Desirina Boskovitch and “The Endling Market” by EJ Swift.
Boskovitch’s story takes place within the confines of a hermetically-sealed city, whose citizens put the elderly on trial for the crimes of criminal negligence, accessory to global manslaughter, and climate destruction in the fourth degree, plus an unspecified number of crimes against humanity. The punishment for this—imprisonment in a “facility for the elderly”—seems rather mild, given that many of us who survive long enough will suffer this fate, anyway. The sense of confinement that comes from living in a cramped city that is (literally) going under is well handled, however—and in EJ Swift’s story we are similarly pungently exposed to the unpleasant human (or maybe primarily capitalist) tendency to exploit even terminal situations. Her “Endling market” is a website on which trophies of almost extinct animals are sold for exorbitant prices. The story is set in the Himalayas and concerns the probably futile attempt by conservationists to save the last snow leopards. It is sadly one of the more realistic stories in the anthology.
What do these stories overall tell us about the current state of dystopian fiction? For me, it’s important that SF stories cover relevant current concerns, that they innovate, that their literary quality is high, and that they entertain. To answer the last first: the literary quality of these stories is generally high, and most of the stories entertain. By and large, the stories in 2084 also address current concerns, with some significant omissions like the renewed threat of nuclear war. It is also curious that the developing environmental crisis is so peripheral, but this perhaps reflects the widespread cultural tendency, in the 2010s, of wilful ecological blindness.
The most significant innovations are to be found in the stories concerning social media, which seems hardly surprising, given their current domination of the everyday consciousness of so much of the population. The anthology is at a disadvantage, however, in that the stories were written around 2015. I suspect that if one were to compile a similar collection today, the rise of the far right would be a more central concern. We have yet to see a literature of the Trump era.
Having said this, the preoccupations of the collection do reflect the deeper cultural currents that led to the Trumpian moment in history. Overall, these stories speak of the general sense of helplessness many feel in a post-truth world in which the complete media saturation of their lives thinly veils the realities of political, economic and ecological decay. This situation leads to a deep anxiety and even anger, which is perhaps more safely articulated in fiction than the ballot box.