Simon Stephenson, author of the new novel, Set My Heart To Five, wrote the following exclusive essay for Boing Boing. — MF
Welcome To The Misstopia
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2013, there were no mosquitoes here. Maybe it was not a wonder on the scale of the Pacific Ocean as seen from Malibu's Point Dume, or even just the outlandishly-sized produce in my local grocery store, but it was one more way in which the Golden State lived up to its name.
One recent evening – before the smoke from the fires rendered even venturing outside dangerous – I lit my citronella candles, doused myself with DEET, and sat outside to enjoy a socially-distanced video conference with friends. Even with these precautions, I found myself reaching down and slapping at the black-and-white striped mosquitoes that harangued my ankles. They were aedes aegyptii the Special Forces of the mosquito world: capable of operating in daylight, able to carry advanced biological weapons such as West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever, and unafraid of conventional countermeasures.
At some point in a discussion fragmented by the invasive mosquitoes and our pandemic-sickened internet connections, conversation turned to the fires that had already begun burning up the west coast. Somebody asked about my recent novel, in which I had written about a 2054 in which some Californians:
'…had all become so oblivious to fire that they now simply wore respirators as they went about their daily business'.
How, my friend wanted to know, had I foreseen this eventuality that now seems inevitable? I did not know how to answer, because I had not foreseen it. I had been joking. It was supposed to be absurd.
Yet here we are. When I began work on my book, I had consciously avoided writing a dystopia. Much as I enjoy reading them, I inevitably find their villains too efficient. Perhaps it is because I am British, but I have always subscribed to the view that things generally go wrong because of cock-up rather than conspiracy. Even our most dastardly plotters, we Brits tend to believe, will over time prove as reassuringly incompetent as the rest of us.
Maybe, in our darkening world, such an idea is a little too hopeful. Nonetheless, I used this dysfunctional paradigm to create my 2054: humans have locked ourselves out of the internet by forgetting the names of our favorite teachers and first pets, the resulting 'Great Crash' has caused our airplanes to fall from the sky, and the resulting litigation means that air travel no longer exists. On the global scale, North Korea and New Zealand have nuked each other into oblivion due to an avoidable misunderstanding, and Elon Musk has incinerated the moon in a prank gone wrong. (I could have attributed that act to any space billionaire gone wild, but Elon Musk was the only one who launched a Tesla Roadster in to deep space during the weeks I was writing that section.)
But for all this geopolitical and technological upheaval, what preoccupies the humans of my imagined 2054? Why, the same things that preoccupy many of us humans of 2020 as we negotiate our own global upheavals: the fortunes of our local sports teams, Hollywood movies, and the games of one-upmanship we seem increasingly hardwired to play with those around us.
And yet if this 2054 – wherein the perma-fire means that some Californians must wear respirators to check out the latest hip brunch spot – is not a dystopia, then what is it? Unable to find a term that fitted, I resorted to coining one of my own: a misstopia.
A misstopia is a world where everything has missed its intended mark due to human error. A world where things have gone wrong due not to cunning conspiracy but to dumb cock-up. A world where the road to hell had been paved not merely with good intentions, but the pitch-decks of start-ups that had all seemed like good ideas at the time. A world where we humans have managed to spoil most things but still obliviously blunder on with our insane preoccupations, even as our androids begin to develop the empathy we increasingly seem to lack.
And, of course, here we already are. Perhaps we do not have emotional androids yet, but as I sit here in Los Angeles, unable to meet friends indoors because of the pandemic or outdoors because of the smoke, I realize that we are already living in a misstopia. Nature made the coronavirus pandemic, but we humans compounded it with our inability to wear our masks. Likewise, we ignored the climate emergency for years and it has now set the entire West Coast on fire. (If that sounds more like a straightforward dystopia, let us not forget to acknowledge the inimitable contribution of individual humans: these apocalyptic conditions may have been created by every one of us except Greta Thunberg, but one of the fires that has kept us Angelenos indoors was ignited by a gender reveal party that deployed pyrotechnics.)
Down the street from where I write this, people are dining on sidewalk tables while their servers wear visors and masks against the virus and the smoke. A jogger is running along that same street in a respirator; his route will soon take him through a freeway underpass that has become a tent city that grows exponentially even as the city has passed a law banning underpass tent cities. If you are one of us luckier humans, that freeway can carry your air-conditioned vehicle out of the city to the cool breezes of the Pacific Ocean, but my app tells me that even the air out at Point Dume is unbreathable today.
And yet, even as our planet continues to overheat and our state burns, still we humans bumble on – cheering on our sports teams on television, eating at our socially-distanced restaurants, making our posts on social media, filling up our SUVs with liquefied dinosaur bones, developing our apps and writing our op-eds in the hope of selling more books.
Welcome to the misstopia. You are going to love it here. We all do.
Simon Stephenson's recent novel Set My Heart To Five is published by Hanover Square Press. Find him on twitter @TheSimonBot