[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Consider today's striking post by John Feffer a reminder that you really should pick up his remarkable new dystopian novel, Splinterlands, which is also the latest Dispatch Book. As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, Feffer's tale from the year 2050 "paints a startling portrait of a post-apocalyptic tomorrow that is fast becoming a reality today." (And keep in mind that she wrote that before Donald Trump became president!) When you buy the book, you'll not only get a great, if chilling, read, but also give a bit of much-appreciated extra support to this website. Or, if you're in a generous mood, for a $100 donation ($125 if you live outside the USA), you can get a signed, personalized copy of Splinterlands from the author. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]
"More than 25 years ago, as I sat on the roof of our house watching the neighborhood's furniture float down the street, I thought things couldn't get any worse. Everything I owned was under water. The capital of my country was ruined. Mother Earth was exacting its revenge upon its most arrogant inhabitants. As it turned out, things got a lot worse."
I'm sure, like the rest of us, you haven't forgotten that disastrous event either, that moment in 2022 when a climate-charged Hurricane Donald tore through Washington leveling the city, and our nation's capital was subsequently moved to Kansas. While no one could have predicted such an event in all its details, there were few firsthand observers of that rampaging super-storm who had foreseen the fragmented, degraded world we now inhabit in a more clear-eyed manner than Julian West (the observer quoted above) whose 2020 bestseller Splinterlands eerily foresaw this present shattered globe of ours.
Okay, okay, here's where I fess up: it's true that geo-paleontologist Julian West (a namesake for the hero of Edward Bellamy's nineteenth century utopian novel, Looking Backward) is just a fantasy stand-in for John Feffer, the author of the actual dystopian novel Splinterlands. And if that isn't complicated enough for you, keep in mind that Feffer named that hurricane after Donald Trump while he was still writing his book back in 2016 just as the election campaign was gearing up, so he certainly does have a Julian West-style sense of what's to come. Now, of course, Hurricane Donald has hit Washington in a tweet-charged storm of chaos and dystopian energy. And so today, Feffer turns his attention to what to make of that human hurricane at a moment when Americans are signaling their dystopian fears by driving novels like 1984 to the tops of bestseller lists -- and not just in bastions of anti-Trumpist feeling either. So strap your jet pack to your back and take off with Feffer into a present that feels all too much like some dystopian future to all too many of us. Tom
Doubling Down on Dystopia
Preventing the Triumph of Trump's Will
By John Feffer
Dystopias have recently achieved full-spectrum dominance. Kids are drawn to such stories -- The Giver, Hunger Games -- like Goths to piercings. TV shows about zombie apocalypses, pandemics, and technology run amok inspire binge watching. We've seen the world-gone-truly-bad a thousand times over on the big screen.
This apocalyptic outpouring has been so intense that talk of "peak dystopia" started to circulate several years ago. Yet the stock of the doomsday cartel has shown no signs of falling, even as production continues at full blast. (A confession: with my recent novel Splinterlands I've contributed my own bit to flooding the dystopia market.) As novelist Junot Diaz argued last October, dystopia has become "the default narrative of the generation."
Shortly after Diaz made that comment, dystopia became the default narrative for American politics as well when Donald Trump stepped off the set of The Celebrity Apprentice and into the Oval Office. With the election of an uber-narcissist incapable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy, all the dystopian nightmares that had gathered like storm clouds on the horizon -- nuclear war, climate change, a clash of civilizations -- suddenly moved overhead. Cue the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning.
The response among those horrified by the results of the recent presidential election has been four-fold.
First came denial -- from the existential dread that hammered the solar plexus as the election returns trickled in that Tuesday night to the more prosaic reluctance to get out of bed the morning after. Then came the fantasies of flight, as tens of thousands of Americans checked to see if their passports were still valid and if the ark bound for New Zealand had any berths free. The third stage has been resistance: millions poured into the streets to protest, mobilized at airports to welcome temporarily banned immigrants, and flocked to congressional meet-and-greets to air their grievances with Republicans and Democrats alike.
The fourth step, concurrent with all the others, has been to delve into the dystopias of the past as if they contained some Da Vinci code for deciphering our present predicament. Classics like Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, George Orwell's 1984, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale quickly climbed back onto bestseller lists.
It might seem counterintuitive -- or a perverse form of escapism -- to turn from the dystopia of reality to that of fiction. Keep in mind, though, that those novels became bestsellers in their own time precisely because they offered refuge and narratives of resistance for those who feared (in order of publication) the rise of Nazism, the spread of Stalinism, or the resurgence of state-backed misogyny in the Reagan years.
These days, with journalists scrambling to cover the latest outrage from the White House, perhaps it was only natural for readers to seek refuge in the works of writers who took the longer view. After all, it's an understandable impulse to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. And dystopian narratives are there, in part, to help us brace for the worst, while identifying possible ways out of the downward spiral toward hell.
The dystopian classics, however, are not necessarily well suited to our current moment. They generally depict totalitarian states under a Big Brother figure and a panoptical authority that controls everything from the center, a scenario that's fascist or communist or just plain North Korean. Certainly, Donald Trump wants his face everywhere, his name on everything, his little fingers in every pot. But the dangers of the current dystopian moment don't lie in the centralizing of control. Not yet, anyway.
The Trump era so far is all about the center not holding, a time when, in the words of the poet Yeats, things fall apart. Forget about Hannah Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism -- also a hot seller on Amazon -- and focus more on chaos theory. Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.