The most effective dystopias offer us plausible glimpses into the future, slightly exaggerating a problematic note in contemporary culture, then following it through to its logical conclusion. In this regard, Americans’ gluttonous appetite for dystopian and apocalyptic fiction continued unabated yet again this year, with successful examples of the form proliferating throughout media. From popular novel-to-film franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent, to critically acclaimed television programs like The Leftovers and Black Mirror, we continued to delight in witnessing the sins of our the present being paid due in the science fictional future. These worlds, however fanciful, contained kernels of truth that seemed tenable.
In recent years we’ve taken to reverse-engineering the inherent metaphor of the dystopian ideal; instead of reading them as speculative allegory, we instead graft them backwards onto our present. Consider the hundreds of times you’ve seen the term Orwellian used to describe a piece of news, from the Sony and North Korea imbroglio, to police abuses, the emergence of drone and the surveillance state, and the reaction to the Ebola virus, (just like something out of a zombie film!). I tried navigating the number of the times the cliched allusion was made online this year and it was, well, downright Kafkaesque. A veritable Shakespearean tragedy. We’ve spent so long in the company of the boy who cried Orwell, its invocation has been drained of its meaning. Besides, no one really seems to remember the difference between 1984 and Brave New World anymore anyway, not even Supreme Court Justices.
If the dystopian analogy is getting a little rote at this point – and Orwell himself wrote a thing or two about the “huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power…” – that might be because it seems like the examples being used to bolster the case have become too outrageous to seem plausible anymore. It’s as if, gorged on so many seasons of American Dystopia the series, the show-runners have had to resort to more extreme plot contrivances to satisfy the audience.
Even if we take it as a given that we’re living in the prologue of a dystopia then, to add insult to injury, it’s not even a very well written one any more. Never mind Orwell, 2014 America was a piece of Robocop fan-fiction come to life. It’s enough to make one long for the good old days of the simpler, tried and true undercurrents of good vs. evil when we were teetering on the brink of nuclear armageddon.
Last week one of the more popular pieces of evidence entered into the American dystopian argument came in the form of an armored police vehicle festooned with Christmas lights, candy canes, and an inflatable snowman being used in a Connecticut town to deliver toys to children in need. “It’s almost like there’s no need to write dystopian fiction anymore. It’s just…reality” read one tweet reaction to the story. Similar appraisals abounded when a series of photos showing law enforcement in riot gear standing beneath “Seasons Greetings” signs in Ferguson emerged in the unrest following the Darren Wilson non-indictment. You can’t make this stuff up, you might say. Although if you did you’d probably be bounced out of your screen-writing workshop. George Romero, no stranger to heavy-handed metaphor, would call this stuff too on-the-nose.
Speaking of Romero and mall-set metaphors, earlier this month when #BlackLivesMatters protesters took over the Mall of America near Minneapolis, they were greeted by a televisual warning that you could easily imagine being broadcast in some schlocky futuristic police state comic book. “This is a final warning,” it read. “This demonstration is in clear violation of Mall of America policy. All participants must disperse immediately. Those who continue to demonstrate are subject to arrest.”
“America has never looked more like a cliched movie dystopia than it does at this moment,” observed author Saladin Ahmed on Twitter. He would know, he’s a Hugo Award nominee.
If that’s not fascist-sounding enough, can you place this quote: “How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop… I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it.” Were you thinking perhaps Judge Dredd? It’s actually something argued on television by the head of the Cleveland Police union after an officer shot and killed a 12 year old boy. Not to be outdone, New York City’s police union head has been barking into every available camera about the plot to undermine the force’s ability to do their jobs by mayor Bill de Blasio. Frank Miller wishes he had conceived of such an over-the-top villain for his corrupt version of Gotham.
You’d be forgiven for scribbling a note in the margins of 2014’s script about needing more well-rounded, human villains. Kurt Vonnegut once said that the secret to writing a believable piece of science fiction is to include characters that want something, even if that’s only a glass of water. But when all the characters seem to want is to be able to menace the populace without suffering any mild political rebuke, or, even worse, to be able to wave off the serious ethical morass of torturing prisoners in the country’s name, the story drifts from dystopian into implausible black comedy. It’s no coincidence that Dick Cheney, who’s spent the past couple months touring on his old Torture Is Good greatest hits package has often been compared to Darth Vader, and not because of the robotic heart. Who else but a poorly constructed super-villain would argue with a straight face that forced-rectal feeding of suspected terrorists was done for “medical reasons”?
It wasn’t just that the examples of our dystopian climate themselves were so overwrought, but the sheer volume of them that conspired to turn American 2014 into an unwatchable slog. An international incident with a brutalized and isolated country run by an almost comically despotic leader brought about by a couple of bungling weed and fart joke purveyors on its own is far-fetched enough, but throw in not one, but two mysteriously disappeared airplanes covered round the clock by a cable news media so oblivious and uninformed that they took to speculating on whether it might’ve been a black hole, or the metric system that was to blame, and things are spiraling out of control.
If this year were a film it would be torn apart in the comments section for its cavalcade of contrivance; the Navy designed an underwater drone that looks like a shark! Unless I’m misremembering that from a Syfy tv movie we all live-tweeted together.
How about churches using gun giveaways to promote attendance, as we saw earlier this year in Kentucky, to name another too bad to be true example? Or a letter submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by the Oklahoma Attorney General arguing in favor of natural gas drilling at home written by the energy company itself? The list went on and on. A violence-hungry populace cheering on the exploits of armored gladiators despite the increasing evidence that they’re doing irreparable damage to their bodies and brains, flare-ups when people wearing eye glasses capable of recording their every move on video, then being “persecuted” for it, or a technology-based ride service gouging users with fair hikes during storms and emergencies, all carried out in the midst of a massive initiative undertaken by the government to spy on its own citizens? And not only have we mostly come to grips with the banality of that intrusion, we happily conspire ourselves in its offing, diligently entering our personal information into the daily identity collation devices we keep in our pockets.
And it wasn’t just at home that this all played out. To paraphrase Blade Runner, I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe this year. Cruise ships on fire off the coast of Greece. Domed bubbles for the rich in China. Thousands of migrant workers killed erecting a soccer stadium in Qatar. An orangutan granted habeus corpus in Argentina.”
In the past, any one of these concepts would have been outrageous enough to build an entire dystopian world around, but couple them together and you’ve got a serious case of authorial over kill. There’s another term for a series of unlikely absurdities piled one on top of the next. Maybe it’s time we stop calling the world we’re living in a dystopia, and start calling it a farce. At least then we can laugh on our way to hell.