Humans have always used fiction as one of our primary means of understanding the world, and never more so than in times of crisis, when we are desperate both for guidance and the comforting sense of order imparted by narrative structure. Today, as Donald Trump is inaugurated as president, I find myself thinking of the dystopian books and movies that may prove to be prescient during his time in office.
For me, the most frightening thing about a Donald Trump presidency is the uncertainty of it all; I just don’t know how far down this rabbit hole we’re going to go. Will he be the kind of president we’ll spend four years protesting, the kind that will ban protests altogether, or the kind who triggers nuclear armageddon because he’s got a case of the Mondays? It’s hard to know which version of the future to prepare for (maybe all of the above?), but luckily, there is a wealth of dystopian fiction to give us some idea of what’s in store, and hopefully keep us from committing the worst mistakes of fictional dystopias.
I have helpfully organized them in order of probability, an excellent pastime for those long, sleepless nights spent being terrified that Donald Trump is tweeting us into World War III.
Whatever the political situation, there’s always someone rushing to call it “Orwellian,” and for good reason. George Orwell’s masterpiece about a totalitarian regime remains the gold standard of dystopian fiction precisely because it always feels relevant. But what makes 1984 painfully applicable to the current moment is its vision of a society in which someone is always watching you, which has gone from a nightmare scenario to a simple fact of living in our surveillance-saturated country. Drones hover overhead, the phone in your pocket quietly records all your movements, and the NSA needs but the thinnest of pretexts to lay your entire digital existence bare. Many ignored the warnings of Edward Snowden when Obama held the reins of this vast apparatus, but its applications are sure to look a lot different under President Trump. Sure, “Orwellian” might be overused, but if the boot stamping on a human face forever fits...
The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian parable has only become more relevant since its publication in 1985. The tale of a society where religious fundamentalists push women back into subservient roles is a warning to women that the strides we’ve made towards political power and bodily autonomy are recent, fragile, and can’t be taken for granted. America is feeling more and more like Gilead lately, with Ohio’s state legislature passing a law banning abortions after six weeks, Texas requiring funerals for aborted fetuses, and Vice President Mike Pence vowing to consign Roe v. Wade to the to “the ash heap of history.” And of course there is our philandering, pussy-grabbing, former Miss Universe-owning Commander In Chief, who once said “I think that putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing.” Ladies, it’s going to be a long four years.
Technically, Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing story of a world in which society has completely broken down is “postapocalyptic,” not dystopian, but it’s been on my mind since the election as the ultimate worst case scenario of the Trump presidency. The frightening truth is that armageddon has always been only the push of a button away since the dawn of the nuclear era, but when that button is in the (tiny) hands of a man with the frustration tolerance of a three year-old, the end looks a whole lot nearer.
On the rare occasions when this 2001 drama (the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick) is remembered at all, it’s not generally thought of as dystopian. But its depiction of a society already half-destroyed by climate change bears a strange resemblance to our present moment, in which those at the top resolutely pretend that nothing is wrong, and those at the bottom are violently resentful of the robotic “other,” holding rallies where the droids are violently destroyed. This is doubly prescient, both in predicting the way many impoverished voters seek to scapegoat immigrants for their woes, and the way that automation will ultimately be the thing that costs much of the working class their jobs. AI ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, with the hope that human ideals will survive even once humans are gone. I for one am ready for the benevolent machines to take over.
Oryx & Crake
Margaret Atwood’s other dystopian masterpiece is the Maddaddam Trilogy, the first book of which, Oryx & Crake, lays the blame for humanity’s downfall at the feet of both scientific hubris and corporate greed. While we may never see “Crakers” (primitive, humanoid creatures invented by a scientist to improve upon humanity) in the real world, “Pigoons” (pigs bred to grow organs for humans) are but a stone’s throw away. Oryx & Crake’s warnings about humanity’s carelessness with our planet and our technology are more urgent than ever.
The Man In The High Castle
Barring the invention of time travel, Philip K. Dick’s alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II will never come to pass. But the advent of the swastika-sporting “alt-right” has made us realize that the ideals of Nazism and fascism were not defeated as soundly as we may have thought. This novel is a sobering chronicle of resistance and a reminder that no historical outcome can be taken for granted.
The Hunger Games
In discussing the presidential election, the only dystopia mentioned more than 1984 is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, which has the rare distinction of being invoked by both sides of the debate (see here and here). On the one hand, Panem’s conflicts mirror our own, with wealth hoarded at the very top, and the masses forced to fight each other in spectacles that distract them from the real injustice. But in the face-off between the righteous folks in the country and the debauched elites of the Capitol, one can see echoes of the white resentment that swept Trump to the presidency. Though the trilogy has a lot to offer in its depiction of wealth stratification, the nuances of who it casts as heroes and villains demand closer attention than many readers give it.
Our current political situation is enough to keep anyone up at night, wondering what dystopia we’re headed for. But at least you can cross this one off your list, because I can confidently say that no matter what happens while Donald Trump is the president, the one thing I am certain about is that we are not all going to be trapped on a giant train hurtling through the tundra forever. Yes, I know the train is supposed to be an allegory—but I'll take my small victories where I can find them.
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Featured photo via cover of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.