William Gibson: what we talk about, when we talk about dystopia

With pre-orders open for the graphic novel collecting William Gibson's amazing comic book Archangel, and a linked novel on the way that ties the 2016 election to the world of The Peripheral, William Gibson has conducted a fascinating interview with Vulture on the surge in popularity in dystopian literature.

Gibson reads literary trends as a kind of window into our collective fears and desires about the future -- he notes that while the 20th century was rife with speculation about the 21st; here in the early decades of 21C we almost never talk about 2200 and beyond (I wonder if that's not just a function of the fact that we're in the first half of the 21st century, while most sf was written in the back half of 20C).

Where things get sharp is where Gibson points out that huge swathes of the human population are living in dystopias as grim as any cyberpunk future ("dystopia is not evenly distributed"). In the 1960s, during the civil rights movement's heyday, LBJ said "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket," while Trump's 2016 campaign was a long exercise in telling poor white people that they may end up in the same dire straits that racialized Americans had navigated since the colonialism's first genocidal years on the continent -- proving the corollary to LBJ, namely, convincing white people they may be the next underclass will stampede them into voting for anyone who promises to stop it.

The steady accumulation of wealth at the top of the income distribution since the Reagan years are a kind of macroscopic version of the Trump phenomenon: if you want to convince first-worlders that the end-times are coming, simply convince them that they will live in the dystopian conditions that already prevail elsewhere, confirm their lurking anxiety that the privilege they've enjoyed was an accident of history and not a vote of confidence in their innate superiority. Convince them that they are one bad beat away from having kids with swollen bellies lying outside rude huts, too weak to brush the flies away from their eyes.

I think this is the special genius of The Handmaid's Tale: by putting a white, educated, formerly middle-class woman in the position of a sex-slave to a religious fascist -- by putting a North American in the place of a woman under the Taliban or Isis -- the entwined destiny and fragility of all people on earth (including those in the unevenly distributed dystopias of the Rest of the World) is manifested and our worst fears are confirmed.

There are other reasons that dystopian stories flourish. Science fiction, as Gibson has pointed out, is a pulp literature, a storytelling mode in which the plot is the highest priority. These stories demand a series of ever-raising stakes to keep the tension ratcheting up towards a climax. Disaster stories in which the small problems of workaday life are turned into ever-larger problems of "natural" disaster, human misconduct, worsening disaster, human atrocities, build to an unbeatable crescendo of man-against-nature-against-man that you can't bear to look away from.

As Gibson says, our resonating stories are a window into our collective fears and hopes. We're still talking about Skynet and The Matrix because the fear of transhuman, immortal colony-organisms that use humans as their energy-source and gut-flora is a great metaphor for the relationship most of us have to limited liability transnational corporations.

These, in turn, are the result of extreme market ideology, the idea that markets aren't just places were you go every other week -- they're moral arbiters that tell us who the worthy and unworthy are among us. The Thatcherite doctrine that "there is no such thing as society" is a claim that we have no solidarity, no shared destiny, that "greed is good" and that we are all brands and businesses, and that "there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits."

This is a common motif of dystopia: neighbor against neighbor, families turning on each other. In our hearts, we know that we have a common destiny. Not only are do we require other people to help us accomplish anything truly ambitious -- we also are entwined at the level of our very microbes, in our very climate. You can't find high enough ground to escape climate change, not when the people dying in the lowlands are breeding antibiotic resistant TB and coughing it into the air we all breathe. You could try for ever-more baroque secession strategies -- underground shelters, air scrubbers, hydroponics -- but at a certain point, it's far cheaper to just take care of the people around you and vice-versa.

The popularity of today's dystopias might represent the fear of shear between the contradictions of believing in the primacy of the individual (and the idea that our shared destiny is a delusion) and the certainty of the very small and unimaginably large ways in which we are linked. If we go on believing that we owe each other nothing, we'll arrive at a world in which we behave that way -- a perfect dystopia.

There are those who say dystopian and apocalyptic fiction are masturbatory; that they placate us with catharsis when we need to be agitated into action to prevent the real-life collapse of civilization. To what extent do you agree with that outlook?

Much of the planet’s human population, today, lives in conditions that many inhabitants of North America would regard as dystopian. Quite a few citizens of the United States live under conditions that many people would regard as dystopian. Dystopia is not very evenly distributed. Fantasy is fun, but naturalism is the necessary balance — realism, to be less precise. Naturalistic fiction written today is necessarily fairly pessimistic — otherwise, it wouldn’t be a realistic depiction of the present. If you were, say, a tiger, and you knew what’s about to happen to your species (extinction, almost certainly), wouldn’t it be realistic to have a pessimistic view of things? I think it’s realistic, as a human, to have a pessimistic view of a world minus tigers.

William Gibson Has a Theory About Our Cultural Obsession With Dystopias [Abraham Riesman/Vulture]

(Image: Fred Armitage, CC-BY-SA)

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