Over the last 18 months or so I’ve been reading a ton of near-future dystopian speculative fiction. This week I finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent The Water Knife (I hope there’s a movie adaptation of it coming soon) and I am itching to read the second installment of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. I’ve also recently read Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, and Octavia Butler’s Parable Series.
While these books have wildly different plots, they all have one thing in common: the future is beyond bleak. In these books the U.S., or large portions of it, teeter on the brink of becoming a failed state; economic inequality has skyrocketed, and the haves live in compounds protected from the have nots by private security and para-military mercenaries; climate change has accelerated to the point where coastlines are flooded and the western U.S. has dried up; the surveillance state has become ever more sophisticated; etc., etc., etc. And they all share a common take home: we had better make some radical changes to our society before we pass the point of no return.
While The Water Knife, Tropic of Kansas, and Oryx and Crake do not provide specific insights into models for social change, they do more than enough to scare us straight. In The Water Knife water has been truly commodified, and given the extreme scarcity of water in Colorado, Nevada, California, and Arizona due to climate change, Phoenix and other places have become unlivable. State governments employ violent and extreme means to secure water rights. Water plants are blown up to cut off the water supply to entire towns, creating tens of thousands of water refugees. Citizen militias are created to protect state borders through brutal force. Anyone can be killed at any time for any reason and gangs and cartels run rampant. The wealthy live in luxury, have plenty of food, water, and AC, and are immune from the problems afflicting the 99%. Aside from this wholly believable depiction of what the United States may become in the next few decades, what is particularly frightening is that there are millions of people around the world for whom the water scarcity and violence that Bacigalupi depicts is an everyday reality.
In Tropic of Kansas we find that much of the Midwest (now referred to as the Tropic of Kansas) has largely become a failed state, people are subjected to more intrusive surveillance, and the media serves the government, which is only concerned about serving the wealthy. One sees many parallels between our current world and the one Brown paints for us. It wouldn’t take much more for his fiction to become our lived experience.
Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is truly horrifying. Like the other books, income inequality is a main theme, especially in regards to the prohibitive cost of achieving a college education that will lift one out of poverty. This is important given that those with good educations are able to escape the Plebelands and get good jobs and live in safe company compounds. Where this book differs from the others is in its warning of the dangers of genetic engineering: animals are combined to create abominations of nature (pigoons and wolvogs), disease is weaponized, and new forms of humans are created. And the source of this? Private scientific companies chasing cash. Not so different than today’s pharmaceutical companies and the health care industry making billions of dollars a year off of sick people. Atwood just takes it a few logical steps further.
But there is plenty of dystopian fiction out there that offers hints as to finding a way out of the future we all seem to be headed toward.
In Walkaway Doctorow offers a picture of how a new society may be created and the dangers and difficulties with doing so. Those who are fed up living in a world dominated by the super-rich (zottas) simply walkaway: from their jobs, belongings, families, etc. Walkaways form communes in which labor—everything from cleaning to scientific research—is done not for profit, but for the good of the community. New technology has allowed the simple construction of everything from clothes to technology, and people share their designs with everyone rather than capitalizing off of them. People no longer need jobs to live, and there is no need or place for capitalism. The walkaway communities, which are queer-friendly, have turned the techniques of hacker culture into a science to subvert mainstream society. Naturally these walkaway communities and their new way of life pose a threat to the zottas, who will stop at nothing to wipe out the walkaways. The sharing economy the walkaways create, along with the technology that allows them to live off the grid, suggests one possible way to escape the thumb of the government and the super-rich.
Like Walkaway, Butler’s Parable of the Sower—perhaps the gold standard for dystopian fiction—offers a way out. I read it and its sequel not long after the 2016 election, which wasn’t exactly best time to do so. Simply put, it scared the shit out of me. A lot was due in part to the U.S. president in the book, whose main campaign platform was to make America great again. Sound familiar? Among many of the book’s lessons, there was one that didn’t become apparent until long after I had finished it: the need for armed self-defense. Butler isn’t actively arguing for each of us to amass a small arsenal; she shows us that in a future where water, food, and other resources are defended at the end of a gun, and that we had better know how to use a firearm. People forget that MLK, despite his nonviolent stance, was packing heat in case he needed to defend himself. She almost convinced me that just maybe I might have to arm myself at one point. To which a Leftist friend of mine responded “if you don’t consider that you really do have your head in the sand.” But the point in the Parable Series is that things can change. The Earthseed religion offers a new way of being and living that escapes the dangers of our era. It literally provides the means to escape our world and make a new one.
While I don’t include Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy—which I finished last year—to occupy the same world as these other books (although in his other work he does address climate change), what he, as well as Doctorow and Butler, make clear is that political organizing and social change takes a lot of dedicated work by a lot of dedicated people over the course of decades. It’s playing the long game. It’s not something that can be done with hash tags, a once-a-year women’s march, or going to the ballot box. What’s needed is a systemic change, one that Doctorow and Butler point to; one in which capitalism as we know it has gone and replaced by a sharing economy and other models of escaping capitalist exploitation (Robinson gets to this as well); one in which we live more collectively; one in which the environment is protected; one in which LGBTQ people and other minorities have equal rights.
What do these structural changes regarding the economy, the environment, and living in harmony with our neighbors have in common? That in order to avoid these dystopian futures, we must reject capitalism and look for other modes of living, lest our planet become inhospitable for all but the most elite members of society. What is needed cannot be achieved by carbon taxes or raising the minimum wage (although those would be nice). The root of the problem—capitalism—is still there. And without yanking up that root we are likely to live in some version of the future that Atwood, Bagicalupi, Brown, Butler, and Doctorow suggest are coming.
These books remind me of a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin, which I see popping up in more and more places, especially during the Trump era: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
These five books I’ve highlighted—along with dozens more I have yet to read—show us our future we are headed for. They offer a future where we can escape capitalism’s power and that doing so can start through books. And in so doing, these books implicitly argue for a Leftist, anti-capitalist revolution. We need to read these books, learn from them, and begin to act. Now.