The Danger of Dystopia

I came of age in the Eisenhower/Kennedy era, when the future, even threatened by a nuclear shadow, was also bright with possibility and, with Kennedy's promise to take us to the Moon, alive with adventure.

Into the 60's and 70's, I remained convinced better days were ahead. Star Trek promised us a future without racism, a future that fused science and nature in harmonic symbiosis, a future in which not only different peoples of the earth but also aliens worked together for the good of all.

I'm not really sure when that all changed, when I realized that not everybody was on board with my beautiful vision. Maybe the Nixon years and Viet Nam finally took their toll. I do remember a definite descent into cynicism not too long after Mad Max came out. It was Mad Max, not Star Trek, I thought, that gave us the most likely scenario for the future. Racism would remain rampant. Science would be employed in the task of plowing nature under. And if the good of all meant the good of them, nobody would be interested.

All of this came to mind once again this fall when the new NBC post-apocalyptic science fiction series Revolution fired up. I have to admit, I was looking forward to it. I, too, have become entranced with scenarios in which we are thrown back on our own, forced to start over, forced to rebuild a society and an economy with little but the tools we find at hand and the knowledge that we, as a society, have accumulated over the centuries. This last includes information that hadn't been available back when a weapons dump meant a pile of loose rocks. I was a big fan of Jericho. Until the killing started.

Revolution, also, started with a killing. An entirely unnecessary killing. A killing, apparently, to get us fired up. To get us wanting to see more. To get us invested. Revolution is based on the probability of dystopia. On the assumption that, when everything falls apart, we will automatically turn on each other. No one will try to organize aid for him/herself and neighbors. Everyone must be armed. If the NRA needs another reason for a gun in every waistband, Revolution is providing that reason. In a country whose economy has been in slow decline, we can expect our neighbors to come after our stuff and we need guns.

This theme is repeated over and over again - and it's nothing new. I'm constantly disgusted with regurgitated theme and dialog after regurgitated theme and dialog (yes, I'm still watching, but not because I think it rocks) from movies and police procedurals that have dominated our media experience of what to do in an emergency.

First of all, get a gun. Secondly, trust no one.

I watch The Walking Dead as well. A dystopia of dystopias. Where, as it turns out, the disease that causes the dead to rise, attack, and consume is already resident within the living. A more dystopic metaphor I don't think has yet been promulgated.

And it's easy to conclude, given what we see both in fiction and reality, that dystopia is, indeed, the wave of the future. Today, in fact, a piece called The Liberal Media, in Love With Our Narrative came to my attention. My response, in the thread in which it was posted, was as follows:

Who's writing this script? George R.R. Martin? Are we that much in love with the possibility that winter is, indeed, coming? Will a dystopian future deliver much and more of all we didn't realize we wanted? Do we honestly believe we deserve the good spanking that (reading between the lines of the narrative) Romney seems to be promising? Is the liberal media afraid of believing in a promising future? Or has belief in the possible become ultimately uncool?

And this does worry me. It has become very uncool, even among progressives, to hope for actual progress. Even I find myself thinking, horror of all horrors, that it won't be so bad if Romney wins. Because then we'd be sorry. Then we'd see that things were just as bad as we thought they were going to be. Then we'd be vindicated. And (probably just as well) we would no longer have a president in whom to be disappointed. We would have a president from whom we could expect disappointment. Which would not, ultimately, disappoint us.

I fear we, as a culture, have fallen in love with dystopia. It is so much more promising of actually coming to pass than its opposite. And utopia, as dear old Professor Orville Clarke taught me long ago, actually means the best place that is no place.

Utopia may be off the edge of the universe, unreachable, maybe even undesirable. Dystopia is dangerous. And not because of the guns. It's dangerous because it's familiar, comfortable. An old friend once called Oedipus Rex the classic example of things not working out. And he sometimes cited that example to prove that hoping for good, hoping for change, was useless. He had fallen in love with dystopia.

Dystopia has its attractions. I admit it. I have also become comfortable with same-o, same-o. But I still get excited when I see someone reaching for something else. Someone who isn't satisfied being comfortable. Someone who wants to go a little further than we have gone before.

Because, when you think about it, we've done more than exchange piles of rocks for AK47's. We've exchanged cholera for sewer systems, enforced ignorance for literacy, and, in spite of dreary realities, dreams that never quite die. It all might be impossible, and nothing might ever work out, except that - every once in a while - something does.