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William Gibson has famously declared, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Gibson’s words have been much on my mind of late. How could they not be? The president is a white nationalist sympathizer who casually threatens countries with genocide and who can’t wait to build a great wall across the neck of the continent to keep out all the “bad hombres.” After a hurricane nearly took out Houston, the country’s most visible scientist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, stated that the effects of climate change may have grown so severe that he doubts the nation will be able to withstand the consequences.
For me, literature, and those formations that sustain it, have ever been a eutopic enclave against a darkening dystopian world.
Then, as if on cue, Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony almost completely bankrupt by neoliberal malfeasance, was struck by Hurricane Maria with such apocalyptic force that it more or less knocked the island into pre-modernity. Earlier today a former student informed me that more skin bleaching is consumed in India than Coca-Cola, and on the edge of my computer a new site is announcing that the Chinese government has made it nearly impossible for its 730 million Internet users to express opinions online anonymously. Plus this little cheery gem from the Federal Reserve: the top 1 percent of the U.S. population controls 38.6 percent of the nation’s wealth, an inequality chasm that makes the Middle Ages look egalitarian. Whether we’re talking about our cannibal economics or the rising tide of xenophobia or the perennial threat of nuclear annihilation, it seems that the future has already arrived.
And that future is dystopian.
We began our Global Dystopias project with the clarifying recognition that it is precisely in dark times that the dystopian—as genre, as a narrative strategy—is most useful. If, as Fredric Jameson has argued, utopia functions as “a critical and diagnostic instrument,” then dystopia, utopia’s “negative cousin,” is similarly equipped, only more so. In assembling this special issue, we were drawn not so much to pursuing the classic “bad places” of times past (“a boot stamping on a human face—forever”) but the corpus that Tom Moylan has identified as critical dystopias. As per Lyman Tower Sargent, a nonexistent society that readers view “as worse than contemporary society but that normally incudes at least one eutopian enclave or holds out hope that the dystopian be overcome.” Most significantly, critical dystopias, in Moylan’s formulation, point to causes rather than merely describe symptoms. Their highest function is to “map, warn and hope.”
The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.
That has ever been our call over these strange troubling months—to map, to warn, to hope.
I wish to thank the many brilliant writers who joined us on this project. While not every one of our submissions sits easily under the rubric of critical dystopia, I would submit the project as a whole partakes in some of the genre’s higher functions. For me, literature, and those formations that sustain it, have ever been a eutopic enclave against a darkening dystopian world. If the assembled narratives here argue anything in all their diversity, it is that despite statements to the contrary, it does not appear that we will ever reach peak dystopia. No end to dystopia but also, fortunately, no end, no closure in dystopia, no boot stamping on a human face—forever. The human capacity for oppression might be limitless, but equally limitless are our dreams for better places, for justice.
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Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.