During the Great Depression of the 1930s, classic Alka-Seltzer, which among other things contained both anti-acid and aspirin, was offered to the public as a cure-all not only for indigestion, headache, and heartburn, but also for the blahs. Alka-Seltzer sold by the ton in America's great blah decade -- people blown by the wind of poverty from Oklahoma to California, from the streets of Mobile to the slums of Chicago, blowing in dust, torn clothes, holes in their shoes, middle age men wearing suits and ties begging at the backs of houses. Oh, what a time it was! American dream? A mother of an American nightmare.
Today's crazy political scene in truth derives from an underlying anxiety that we may be slipping into a dark hole. Young people looking for work that doesn't exist are shaking in their boots with fear. Old people that remember the past are shaking their heads in despair. Slipping, yes. What the hell is going on?
The anxiety is amorphous, nebulous, swirling from one news cycle to the next -- but it's a cloud overlying something quite real -- the possibility that we may be morphing into a dystopia.
Dystopia in America? It can't happen, can it? Isn't the American road the road to utopia? What's a dystopia anyway?
A dystopia is essentially an anti-utopia, a society in which instead of things being good, things are bad, horribly bad because of the way the society is constructed and operates -- human misery produced by a system, by entrenched attitudes, by sheer political power and greed.
The ordinary European or African or Asian is very familiar with the idea of dystopia. The ordinary American has always been more or less unfamiliar with the idea of dystopia and it's an unfamiliarity that can be dangerous.
More or less familiar because the one place Americans learn about dystopia is in books, especially in fiction, in so-called dystopian novels, of which there are dozens dealing with varieties of dystopia.
I want to recommend three books that are especially relevant to the particular political madness and economic uncertainty of our present America.
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, first published in 1966, is a novel about the effects of unchecked population growth on society -- but more than that it's about how people go mad when they can no longer cope with a dystopian existence out of their control. It's an irony that Harrison's prediction was that the tipping point would be a global population of seven billion -- precisely the global population announced a few weeks ago. It doesn't matter. The relevance of this book is its description of the way ordinary people will behave under intense economic pressure here in America.
The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, first published in 1972, is a novel about how an extreme deterioration of the environment in America, a deterioration caused by profiteering and stupid politics, produces misery piled on misery. The air pollution is so bad that gas masks are commonplace on the street. The water is so polluted that only the poor and homeless drink tap water. Corporations hustle to make a profit selling gas masks, water purifiers, and uncontaminated foods. You read this book and tremble because you know it can happen.
Finally there's Cold Sweat by Dakota Devlin, a recently published novel of political corruption and madness in America ninety years from now -- an election in the year 2100. Aptly described by the publisher as "a riveting explosion of a book," it's about America in a time of corporate tyranny and growing anarchy. "The President has murdered his mistress. The richest man in the world likes his women on their knees. Everyone has a price. Sudden death is a global pastime. A steamy complicated story of one man's hunger for absolute political and financial power." The novel is maybe overly larded with sex, but so is our daily life in films, TV, the Internet, and in that great erotic fandango -- American advertising.
The major impact of dystopian fiction is a consequence of vicarious experience. And a good consequence. Surely, it's much better to have the experience and learn from it vicariously than to actually live through it. Surely, if novels about a place like Auschwitz had been available in the 1920s, Hitler might have remained a house painter and the real Auschwitz of the 1940s might never have happened.
Most people who read novels do read them for vicarious experience -- about love, life, and the pursuit of happiness. But in this crazy political time we also need to read about Hell on Earth -- dystopia -- so that we know what to look for when it comes sneaking around the corner dressed up in fashionable clothes. We do need to know what to look for.