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Rebecca Solnit: American Dystopia, Fiction or Reality?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In my childhood years of the 1950s, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic landscapes were a dime a dozen. In the Arctic, the first radioactivated monster, Ray Bradbury's famed Rhedosaurus, awakened in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and began its long slouch toward New York City; in the Southwestern desert, near the Trinity testing grounds for the first atomic bomb, a giant mutated queen ant in Them! prepared for her flight to the sewers of Los Angeles to spawn; in space, the planet Metaluna displayed "the consequences of a weak defense system" by suffering nuclear-style incineration in This Island Earth; and in 1954, the irrepressible returned big time when Godzilla, awakened by atomic tests, stomped out of Japan's Toho studios and later barnstormed through American movie theaters. (All those "family" films, by the way, were successes.)

And if you were in the mood in those days, you could even pile into your car and do it in real life. In the mid-1950s, after all, the Atomic Energy Commission was promoting "atom bomb watching" as a tourist attraction for vacationers in Nevada. There were even bleachers on a hill ("News Nob") 10 miles from ground zero for reporters checking out atomic tests. In some ways, none of us have ever left that hill.

In 1957 alone, the Black Scorpion, the Incredible Shrinking and the Amazing Colossal Man, the Invisible Boy, the Cyclops, the Deadly Mantis, the Giant Claw, and "an enlarged radiated sump" from the grave of a South Pacific islander -- atomic mutants all -- were sent careening toward teenagers in drive-ins across America. And don't forget the last survivors of Level 7, the last Australians in On the Beach, and the scattered monks and mutants facing a devastated post-atomic world (and preparing to do it all over again) in A Canticle for Liebowitz, not to speak of those flesh-eating plants, the Triffids (nuclear mutants, even if the author, John Wyndham, didn't know it). It was a time when novels were regularly turned into wastelands.

Of course, today, when it comes to post-apocalyptic wastelands -- a measure of our embattled planet -- nuclear weapons have had to join a jostling crowd of world-devastating possibilities, as in the most recent hit, The Hunger Games trilogy. Its first volume hints that its dystopian, bread-and-circuses North American world was the creation of climate catastrophe (think: global warning). That volume is a riveting read, as dystopian fiction tends to be. Imagine The Lord of the Flies with girls, or a lead character that melds that girl with the dragon tattoo with Spartacus, and you'll have the idea.

TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit read it recently, recognizing both its unnerving thrills and its limits. As is her wont, she would like to take us off that tourist's hill of apocalyptic viewing and up another hill entirely, one where we might see possibilities on an increasingly ravaged planet. As always, she has a way of sending us to places we should really have been heading for anyway. Tom

Welcome to the 2012 Hunger Games
Sending Debt Peonage, Poverty, and Freaky Weather Into the Arena

By Rebecca Solnit

When I was growing up, I ate books for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and since I was constantly running out of reading material, I read everyone else's -- which for a girl with older brothers meant science fiction. The books were supposed to be about the future, but they always turned out to be very much about this very moment.

Some of them -- Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land -- were comically of their time: that novel's vision of the good life seemed to owe an awful lot to the Playboy Mansion in its prime, only with telepathy and being nice added in. Frank Herbert's Dune had similarly sixties social mores, but its vision of an intergalactic world of disciplined desert jihadis and a great game for the substance that made all long-distance transit possible is even more relevant now. Think: drug cartels meet the oil industry in the deep desert.

We now live in a world that is wilder than a lot of science fiction from my youth. My phone is 58 times faster than IBM's fastest mainframe computer in 1964 (calculates my older brother Steve) and more powerful than the computers on the Apollo spaceship we landed on the moon in 1969 (adds my nephew Jason). Though we never got the promised jetpacks and the Martians were a bust, we do live in a time when genetic engineers use jellyfish genes to make mammals glow in the dark and nerds in southern Nevada kill people in Pakistan and Afghanistan with unmanned drones. Anyone who time-traveled from the sixties would be astonished by our age, for its wonders and its horrors and its profound social changes. But science fiction is about the present more than the future, and we do have a new science fiction trilogy that's perfect for this very moment.

Sacrificing the Young in the Arenas of Capital

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins's bestselling young-adult novel and top-grossing blockbuster movie, is all about this very moment in so many ways. For those of you hiding out deep in the woods, it's set in a dystopian future North America, a continent divided into downtrodden, fearful districts ruled by a decadent, luxurious oligarchy in the Capitol. Supposedly to punish the districts for an uprising 74 years ago, but really to provide Roman-style blood and circuses to intimidate and distract, the Capitol requires each district to provide two adolescent Tributes, drawn by lottery each year, to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games broadcast across the nation.

That these 24 youths battle each other to the death with one lone victor allowed to survive makes it like -- and yet not exactly like -- high school, that concentration camp for angst and competition into which we force our young. After all, even such real-life situations can be fatal: witness the gay Iowa teen who took his life only a few weeks ago after being outed and taunted by his peers, not to speak of the epidemic of other suicides by queer teens that Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" website, film, and books aspire to reduce.

But really, in this moment, the cruelty of teens to teens is far from the most atrocious thing in the land. The Hunger Games reminds us of that. Its Capitol is, of course, the land of the 1%, a sort of amalgamation of Fashion Week, Versailles, and the KGB/CIA. Collins's timely trilogy makes it clear that the 1%, having created a system of deeply embedded cruelty, should go, something highlighted by the surly defiance of heroine Katniss Everdeen -- Annie Oakley, Tank Girl, and Robin Hood all rolled into one -- who refuses to be disposed of.

Now, in our world, gladiatorial entertainment and the disposability of the young are mostly separate things (except in football, boxing, hockey, and other contact sports that regularly result in brain damage, and sometimes even in death). But while the Capitol is portrayed as brutal for annually sacrificing 23 teenagers from the Districts, what about our own Capitol in the District of Columbia? It has a war or two on, if you hadn't noticed.

In Iraq, 4,486 mostly young Americans died. If you want to count Iraqis (which you should indeed want to do), the deaths of babies, children, grandmothers, young men, and others total more than 106,000 by the most conservative count, hundreds of thousands by others. Even the lowest numbers represent enough kill to fill nearly 5,000 years of Hunger Games.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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