The dystopian non fiction world


Reading tonight, in the Washington Post, about people in Denmark being prosecuted for giving rides to migrant asylum seekers.   Just the latest in what seems to be an endless string of stories about European countries — mostly driven by far-right politicians who have seized control — turning away from those fleeing oppression in Syria and elsewhere. And obviously the stories aren’t limited to Europe.  In the U.S. we’ve had plenty of politicians and presidential candidates on the right advancing isolationist or outright racist or anti-Muslim policies.  But the context of the story is that it was Denmark, which had been held up as an example of European progressiveness and inclusion.  The right wing in Denmark is slowly changing that, riding (and maybe partially creating) a nationalistic wave of xenophobic fear and resentment.

What struck me, reading the article, was that it was very much the same kind of experience as reading some dystopian piece of fiction, with one important difference.

I grew up on a steady diet of anarchic, dystopian fiction.  My heroes were Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, Anthony Burgess and John Barth.  (Pynchon, most dystopian of them all, came later for me.)   I was a smart kid, or at least smart enough that I thought I understood the point — the crazy specifics and the quasi-sci-fi settings weren’t what mattered, they were just stand-ins for real things, for institutions and patterns of thought that had the sole purpose of dehumanizing and subjugating people.  At fifteen, even though I was pretty late to the counterculture revolution, I just assumed that’s what the power-structure of the world was: dehumanization and subjugation.  Not that I did anything about it, other than get angry when I read books by Vonnegut, Kesey, etc.  But I understood at least that I was supposed to get angry.  I was supposed to at least think about this shit, to not close my eyes to it.  Because in the real world, the evil wouldn’t be so obvious and ridiculous.

Except it is.  That’s what struck me today.  Dystopian fiction–and I’ve written some of it myself, now–is meant to draw attention to the absurdity of something.   It isn’t meant to be a perfect map of where the world is headed.  It is (or should be) a call to action.

So what happens when the real, non-fictional world becomes just as absurd?  The U.S. presidential campaign this year is just as mind-numbingly absurd as anything in A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Dr. Strangelove or Cat’s Cradle or Giles Goat-Boy.  But the catharsis is missing: when it’s not fiction anymore, it feels as if it’s too late for any call to action.  The whole point of imagining a dystopia is to keep it from happening.

Of course there must be a lot of people out there who think it’s not alarming at all.  Religious and social conservatives here in our country see the apocalypse, or at least the complete moral decline of the country, in things that I consider basic human progress toward a country that’s a little more just and a little more compassionate.  I get that I’m biased.   But that’s what I found depressing about the news today.  I like crazy and even horrible things sometimes in fiction.  I don’t need them on the front page.



About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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