Redefining Utopia and Dystopia or Post-Apoc

I thought that this review by Niall Harrison at Strange Horizons of James Bradley’s Clade was pretty fascinating and extremely useful. I like that he acknowledges the potential disconnect between the reality we’re headed toward and the way this reality is depicted in fiction—and just how difficult it is for fiction writers to tackle the subject. I also understand his point about “hyperobjects” and agree to an extent, but my point about hyperobjects, as discussed in my “Slow Apocalypse and Fiction” essay is really the same as Harrison’s: that any term we do use had better be complex enough to really help us make a paradigm shift in our thinking, because the very problems we face have occurred because we’re too simplistic in our thinking. That term could be “Fred” if Fred does the job, as far as I’m concerned. But, alas, Fred won’t do the job. We’re already running too much of our software using Fred.

The exasperating thing is that good writers are forever meant to be running data through bullshit machines that live in their heads—all while recognizing that writers are no more or less absurd or irrational than anyone else. If your bullshit machine dies, then you die on the page. But it is harder than ever for the bullshit machine to work in the current era–or to keep up with the ways in which the world outside of fiction has become fictionalized, fragmented, and layered with storytelling.

One need only read of efforts in the U.S. by state legislatures to ban the use of the term “global warming” or to ban reference to rising sea levels to understand this. One need only read the article “Come With Us If You Want To Live: Among the Apocalyptic Libertarians of Silicon Valley” by Sam Frank in the January 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine to recognize another outbreak of the absurd and irrational, amongst those we want to believe are more logical and forward thinking. The article chronicles a commitment to cryogenics to things far more outlandish, often disguised as a “commitment to the new enlightenment.” You will also find odd statements like (and I paraphrase) “AI is so much more complicated than natural ecosystems.” Yet as far as I know, human beings have never created a complex natural ecosystem from scratch.

In this context, one possible solution to what fiction can do to portray the world—as it is and is becoming—is to avoid certain kinds of simplicity. One easy way to do this right now is to avoid what I call the Two-Percent Solution. In the Two-Percent Solution some plague or virus twenty to fifty years from now has reduced the world’s population down to almost nothing (usually white, with some exceptions) and characters in a gutted human environment soldier on.  And the reality of the situation, no matter how horrific, is still containable, manageable, easily understood, because the context is past real plagues that humankind has survived. These scenarios thus aren’t realistic but escapist, especially in that they tend to side-step the impact of global warming almost entirely. (No matter what you think of Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, and personally I think it’s great, that novel doesn’t side-step the issue.)

The other simplification going on is the expectation of some version of the hackneyed try-fail, try-fail, try-succeed structure that may make for effective storytelling, but also reflects the innate human arrogance of ultimate success in any situation. There may come a time when telling a traditional type of story seems like a betrayal of reality, but right now, we tolerate this approach, even celebrate it at times, because we live in a transitional state, in the middle of this slow apocalypse. Neither cooked nor raw.

What may be required is that we redefine Dystopia and Utopia, perhaps not so much along the lines of “do we have things or do we not have things”—less about a middle-class idea of happiness—and more along the lines of what do we need to do to be less intrusive on the landscape and to be more adaptive to it. If that lessening is “dystopia” then maybe dystopia isn’t a bad place to be.  (Or “Post-apoc”—if you think I’m confusing dystopia/post-apoc, they’ve been tossed in a blender across so many media outlets it hardly matters any more.)

Desolate is not depressing. Empty is not depressing. These are human constructs, values we apply to the diminishment of human beings or the thought of the diminishment of human beings. Any reasonable human being as the law defines reasonable may think this way, and that’s understandable. But what’s coming in terms of the slow apocalypse is not reasonable. It cannot be reasoned with. It doesn’t understand reason because it exists at a geologic level—at earth magnitude as the “dark ecology” philosopher Timothy Morton would say.

I state this, too, in the context that there’s a distinct possibility that there is no other exit strategy from our current situation than to find a way to halt global warming and ride out the effects of warming already in play and coming into play. And, to be honest, if I could be uploaded tomorrow into some AI version of the internet or become a nascent Mars colonist, I would reject both options as morally, ethically wrong. You cannot trash an entire planet, kill billions of organisms (often for no reason at all), and then simply take up elsewhere with no change in thinking or accountability.

No matter how remote that kind of choice might be, other sorts of related decisions may be forced upon us soon enough, in the realm of life, that render fiction a very secondary concern. It is therefore not giving in to despair to say that, while we’re able to, we should look the apocalypse in the eye or the snout. When we conflate dead with alive, we wind up in purgatory. We need to choose. Do we want dead. Do we want alive. If we do not choose we will live in dead town, thinking we are alive. It is always better to live in dead town knowing we are dead. At least then we’re not living a lie.

One comment on “Redefining Utopia and Dystopia or Post-Apoc

  1. Orion James says:

    I just finished reading California by Edan Lepucki and felt she masterfully detailed the slow decay of apocalypse in her novel. While the apocalyptic conditions in her novel were far different than your Southern Reach, she really highlighted the creeping ominousness of what an apocalypse would be like- not the ‘tomorrow everyone dies horribly’ apocalypse that has been the go-to for most authors.

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