On the set of Brazil (Photo by Embassy International Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The death of dystopia

Fictional nightmares can provide childish escapism rather than harsh truths

Artillery Row

When Paul Lynch’s novel Prophet Song won the Booker Prize last week, the notorious non-event managed to generate some unexpected attention beyond the unhappy few that still read contemporary fiction. Lynch’s dystopia, set in a fascist authoritarian Ireland, found itself sharing headlines with the sort of vignette that might have popped up in his book. In the wake of a stabbing outside a primary school, an angry mob had rampaged through the streets of Dublin, driven by what the Garda had called a “far-right ideology”.

The Booker Prize judges, led by the Canadian novelist Esi Edugyon, confessed that the events in Dublin had seeped into their judgement: “at some point in the discussions, maybe for a few minutes, this was introduced, this was discussed”. The novel’s dystopian trappings, which culminate in a family fleeing the Emerald Isle by boat, were not confined to Ireland, however. “Prophet Song echoes the violence in Palestine, Ukraine and Syria,” wrote an Observer review, “and the experience of all those who flee from war-torn countries.”

Many attribute our great cultural stagnation to our retrograde obsessions, but an overlooked culprit is our obsession with the dystopia. Disaster-inflicted doom is being woven deeply and broadly into the fabric of our culture. For every apocalyptic concern, there is now a corresponding piece of extreme cultural pessimism. The BBC asks if dystopias can save the world, whilst lists of stories are compiled to compel one into action against climate change. In the West, culture may be dead — but in its afterlife, it lives on as an artifice of action.

Fiction has always been used to express anxieties about decline, but in a world so relentlessly aware of its impending doom, the dystopia finds its gaze trapped. The birth of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, two novels which went against the grain of their times, serve to remind us why.

Huxley’s vision of the future started off as a parody of the prevailing utopianism of his time, when his fellow intellectuals were praising eugenics and the liberating potential of science and technology. Orwell put himself into exile on a Scottish island to write 1984 whilst Britain was building the welfare state and the NHS and celebrating the defeat of fascism. In such optimistic times, no one dared touch the subject of a state abusing its contract with the individual.

Our dystopias, however, are born from very different circumstances. Calling upon the populist turn across the West in the form of Brexit and Trump, Paul Lynch described his Booker Prize winning work as a “dystopian novel set in our own time”. Small boats, secret police and dementia-ridden relatives fleeing their homes as refugees owe little to the imaginative prophecies of a real dystopia. Instead they serve as a hyper-liberal fantasy to justify a certain politics. As a literary device, it’s useless. One might find better, more tangible material in pages of the Guardian. As a moral argument, free from the inconvenience of having to grapple with the world’s problems, it is however insurmountable.

Only the Nazis compete with Orwell as a husk of meaning kicked around our discourse

It is unsurprising then that the two greatest dystopias of the last century have also become victims of this hyper-political appropriation of doom. Following the election of Donald Trump, copies of 1984 flew off the shelf as media pundits called the election a consequence of “the post truth era”. Would-be Winston Smiths desperately leafed through the book in search of meaning in a world of Trumpisms and fake news. Not long after, those discarded second hand copies were being picked up by those enraged by the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Things that have recently been compared to Orwell’s imaginings include wokeness, opposition to wokeness, Talk TV and ULEZ. Now, only the Nazis compete with Orwell as a husk of meaning kicked around our discourse.

This does not stop the interminable debate over which dystopia we really live in. Newspapers frequently opine on whether we are living through Huxley or Orwell’s nightmare in response to the latest political wrong turn. Think tanks name themselves Big Brother Watch and regale us with the latest surveillance overreach. Dating apps, Facebook, millennial promiscuity, euthanasia, and the death of philosophical or religious meaning are all passed off as the most foreboding of Huxley’s warnings. Novelists toil away under laboured prose, trying to scare us into action. Still we linger on under the intolerable living conditions of our respective dystopias — gleefully embracing the agency provided by these fictional exaggerations in our age of permacrisis.

We never really seem to do much about it. Accepting the death of the dystopia may jolt us back into reality, forcing us to accept a more realistic, but no less grim trajectory for our present world. Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 synthesis of Brave New World and 1984, created a world of camp authoritarianism and kitsch decadence. This is not a tyranny of an overarching ideology and a corresponding moralism, but a tyranny of self interest, human incompetence and broken systems.

Our protagonist, a hapless civil servant stuck in a spiral of meaningless career arc, falls in love with a terrorist in a fugue of boredom and bureaucratic incompetence. Unlike an Orwell or Huxley character, he does not dream of joining her in a quest to overthrow the system or articulating the real meaning of freedom. He dreams only of sleeping with her and escaping his job. In the final scene, the two have somehow managed to pull off an escape from the secret police — but this is just another one of his erotic daydreams. He is left lobotomised in a seemingly blissful state. Such a vision is far bleaker for parodying the very fantasy of rebellion. Its cynicism is the perfect antidote to our age of idealistic but hollow escapism through our own fictional nightmares.

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