Dystopia And Its Discontents


Walter Russell Mead posts this morning (“To Boldly Go Where Lots Have Gone Before”) about a new science fiction anthology of environmentalist cautionary tales:

The weak link in McKibben’s strategy is that like many greens he still seems to be trying to scare the public so badly that it will overlook the many obvious and frequently fatal flaws in the hodgepodge of dubious policy ideas the green movement floats.

It’s all been done before, better, and it failed.

Science fiction writers used to focus on the horrors of nuclear war and frightened the willies out of readers for many decades.  Public worry much more intense than anything the greens can gin up never got the nuclear disarmament movement over the hump — not because nuclear war isn’t bad, or because people weren’t scared, but because the nuclear disarmament movement’s policy ideas emanated from the same cloud-cuckoo-land that the green fantasies do.

(Some would say that the enviros have been spinning fiction since at least An Inconvenient Truth, but I think we need to credit the difference between outright propaganda and literary pretense.  That’s when it’s done well.  To see how it’s done badly, let Kevin Costner be your guide – for nuclear apocalypse, there’s The Postman, and for Noah II, there’s Waterworld. The preaching obliterates whatever story there is.)

Mead then goes on to mention two classics of the genre: A Canticle for Liebowitz and On the Beach. And I think he misses, or at least doesn’t discuss, why those books were successful even as they failed to produce daisies from nuclear bombs.

That reason comes from the title of his post.  Gene Roddenberry got NBC studio execs to understand Star Trek by pitching it as Wagon Train to the stars.  He understood that while the trappings of the show were the 25th Century, it really had to be about 20th Century men.  You can’t tell little morality tales every week if the characters’ morality is alien to your own.

A Canticle for Liebowitz wasn’t just about the devastation of nuclear war.  It was really about both the resilience of humanity and its fatal flaws.  Miller set it in a monastery to give it a religious cast, but those notions – human beings’ simultaneous collective strength and weakness – are timeless. How do you rebuild a civilization?  Where do you start?  And can any system of morality impose enough control on our demons to keep us from, in Miller’s words, “kicking it apart again and again because it’s not perfect?”

Likewise, On the Beach can really be read as a sort of Ecclesiastes for humankind as a whole: if we all die, if humanity someday is fated to end, what is the point of its existence?  The end doesn’t have to come by our own hands, although that makes it tragic rather than merely pathetic.  What makes the story compelling isn’t just the end of the world: it’s how people respond to its inevitability.  To that extent, the very end of the book, the banner outside the church reading that There’s Still Time To Repent, comes off a little heavy-handed, one of the book’s few false notes.

The risk, of course, is in taking any of this too literally.  You don’t read dystopian fiction or see dystopian movies for survival tips, personal or civilizational.  You read it for the story.  If they do that well, then the stories will be entertaining, and that’s all that matters.  If they don’t, well, there’s always straight-to-digital.

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