Less than two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, many of us are still having a hard time understanding the story of what just happened to America. It is, after all, a supremely improbable tale.
A reality-TV personality with no political experience and a string of bankruptcies on his resume built, in the space of a year, a racist cult represented by a frog? I can buy that. Almost.
But the notion that this same cult leader was elected president with the help of Russian hackers, rogue FBI agents and an online army of bots and fake-news writers? There was a time this outlandish plot might have been considered a poor mashup of Hunter S. Thompson and George R.R. Martin, and laughed off the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble.
That time was before 2016. Nowadays you can almost hear fiction begging for mercy: Okay, truth, you win. Once and for all, you are stranger.
But that doesn’t mean novels are useless in the Trump era. In a sense, our present crisis has been prepared for by science-fiction writers for more than a century ever since Jack London wrote The Iron Heel in 1908. (Widely considered the first dystopian novel, The Iron Heel details the rise of a U.S.-based global oligarchy that threatens to throw opponents in jail. Science fiction!)
The perfect time for a wide-ranging review of the dystopian genre is now. That’s the idea behind the Dystopia Project, which Mashable is launching today and which we plan to continue for as long as necessary. We’ll debrief a new book every two weeks, teasing out its secrets.
This isn’t a purely academic exercise. Dystopian science-fiction writers aren’t just looking to tell a good yarn. They show us what the worst aspects of humanity look like when they manipulate technology for their own ends as the Russian hackers have done, and Trump continues to do every day on Twitter.
Nonfiction writers, even the ones that have been chronicling Trump for years, have no idea what is in store for us. We’re stuck with a demagogic leader who lies loudly and habitually, whose policies shift with the wind, whose ultimate intentions remain a mystery.
Those intentions could be benign, in which case, fine. Or they could be to weaken the rule of law and establish an autocratic regime of some sort in which case, Jack London and his heirs have already gamed out hundreds of useful scenarios.
There’s a world of difference between the set-up of, say, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (a charismatic politician becomes U.S. President, neuters Congress and establishes kangaroo courts) and Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (a pill-popping, screen-loving populace goes along with the government’s desire to get rid of “difficult” media, mostly books.)
But all dystopian narratives contain two things: a manipulative power, and some form of resistance to that power. Both are relevant to our interests.
We’re going to delve into some dark stories here. The playbook of Trump-appropriate narratives contains some awful outcomes. Not all of them will come to pass for example, it is unlikely that we will end up in as extreme a state as Gilead, the woman-enslaving theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s terrifying The Handmaid’s Tale (soon to be a Hulu series).
But even when the story is larger than life, it contains interesting signposts to possible futures. Even the Handmaid’s Tale‘s biggest fans may not recall how Atwood wrote Gilead’s birth: An uber-religious U.S. government froze the credit cards of all women (and sympathetic men), this being the first step in hunting them down.
Freezing credit for whatever dissident group he’s against this week certainly sounds like Trump. Our president-elect has already declared he wanted to strip citizenship from anyone who burns an American flag, despite that being legally protected; he’s already asking for lists of names of his ideological opponents in government agencies.
We’d better get good at resisting these kinds of Big Brother moves, and fast. But no matter what kind of principled opposition you’re considering, stories should be an essential part of your toolkit.
At the very least, dystopias teach us that no dictatorship lasts for long without a rebellion to oppose it.
Speaking of rebellions, I want to start this journey with a story that’s part of a narrative we don’t normally consider dystopian. (I’ll be doing this a lot; some of the most interesting lessons in science fiction occur outside the usual suspects of the genre.) It’s the novel I threw myself into the day after the election: Catalyst, the Rogue One prequel novel.
Reading Catalyst while still in shock, on November 9 2016, I hoped for escapism. For something, anything that could take me away from my still-raw, hot-faced disbelief.
I soon found myself deep into a tale of an ambitious, manipulative, smooth-talking villain who spends the whole book trying to gaslight our heroes. Meanwhile in the background, military spending skyrockets, a Republic turns into an Empire, and entire worlds are strip-mined for resources without a thought for the environment.
I’ve read many a Star Wars novel and been utterly transported. With this one, I kept having to put it down because it was giving me tiny anxiety attacks about our own future.
At least in the galaxy far, far away, we know that the Empire is defeated. This story turns out well for everyone well, at least the ones who aren’t on Alderaan.
But the power-hungry mindset of authoritarian men is here on full display. The gaslighting villain Orson Krennic gives a chilling speech to his officers just before the Death Star’s first weapons test that put me fully in mind of Trump’s mindset.
“You look at the history of any sentient species and what do you find but tableaux of violence and slaughter,” it starts:
He held up a hand before anyone could voice an objection. “All of you are exceedingly well educated, and you’re going to start rattling off the names of species and societies where that isn’t the case. And my answer is that those aren’t the beings or the star systems we need to worry about. It’s the rest of them. Violence is hardwired into most of us and there’s no eliminating the impulse not with an army of stormtroopers or a fleet of Star Destroyers. That’s why we have embarked on a path to a different solution. We have a chance to forge a peace that will entire for longer than the Republic was in existence.”
“Peace through fear,” Reeva [one of his officers] said.
“Yes,” Krennic told her, and let it go at that.
Passages like that are enough to make you lose your faith in human nature. But Star Wars is a franchise in which it’s always darkest before a new dawn. In this case Rebel leader Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker in the movie, is the keeper of the flame.
Here he is talking to Has, his Rebel smuggler contact. Has is asking about whether it was enough on his home world, to simply be defiant. Saw replies:
“That wasn’t the point.”
“Believing that your actions mattered, and believing that a good end would come of them, even if you didn’t live to see the results.”
Has snorted. “Cheery thought. Throw dirt in your enemy’s face, get crushed underfoot.”
Saw stopped what he was doing and walked over to him. “Look at it this way, Has. If we can persuade enough people to start throwing dirt …”
Realizing he was supposed to finish the thought, Has considered and said: “Eventually we bury them.”
Saw grinned at him. “And folks say you’re just a smuggler.”
The only thing it took for evil to succeed was that a good man Galen Erso enabled it. Galen, father of Rogue One hero Jyn Erso, is so wrapped up in his research that he barely has time to pay attention to Galactic politics.
And so to cope with the creation of an Empire, he normalizes it.
While considering what the Death Star could do to a planet, and what the Empire is hiding about the planets it is strip-mining to build such a monstrous device, Galen finds himself thinking such ethically dubious thoughts as “Was there such a thing as a noble lie?”
Galen’s wife Lyra, meanwhile, is more morally clear. With her belief in the Force, she believes it her obligation to defend the worlds being strip-mined; this is what leads her into the growing Rebellion.
Lessons from Catalyst
Galen’s experience teaches us not to normalize, to be aware of gaslighting, to see clearly. But Catalyst’s lessons for our present times go beyond that.
It’s worth remembering that the full original name of the Force in George Lucas’ early drafts is “the Force of Others.” In other words, the strong sense of interconnectedness we all feel, especially when we’re united in a cause.
That’s one area where being bookworms can really help in the years to come. Not only have novels been scientifically proven to build empathy in the brain empathy being something you’re going to need to persuade those Trump-voting relatives but they also provide us with a shared playbook, a shorthand language we can all speak.
Trump won, in part, by harnessing the power of story. Facts, not so much. He deals exclusively in the world of narrative. It’s time those opposed to him started playing the same game.
So as we set off on this epic dystopian trip, let’s take a moment of gratitude for books a true source of the Force of Others.
May that Force be with us, always.