As just about everyone in the world is aware, the last several months have been a bit strange here in the United States. A billionaire businessman with no government experience is now the leader of the free world. The country’s venerable intelligence agencies have posited that foreign operatives worked to help put him into office. And now, just days after his inauguration, his team – in its ongoing fight with the national media – is arguing that easily disprovable statements aren’t lies but “alternative facts.” Up does certainly seem to be down.
I, like many people who are dismayed by these latest developments, have been looking for inspiration just about anywhere I can find it. I got a huge helping of it at the Women’s March on Washington this Saturday, but I have also been turning to fiction books to help guide me through this new reality. For the most part, these novels have been in the dystopian tradition. Indeed, just two days after the election, I tweeted:
I feel like I’m going to be reading lots of dystopias over the next few years… and taking notes.
— GeekyNerdyGirl (@geekynerdygirl) November 11, 2016
I’ve always liked dystopias and for many of the same reasons that other people do too – ordinary citizens rebel against oppressive forces and, in the process, realize that they are much stronger than they thought. It’s inspirational, even when the challenges you face don’t seem so existential.
Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one turning to these types of books for lessons about resisting. In fact, Chris Taylor has launched a new effort over at Mashable – the Dystopia Project – that will examine a different dystopian novel every two weeks and he will “continue [it] for as long as necessary.”
In describing the project, Taylor writes: “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.” And though dystopian novels take a variety of forms, they all “contain two things: a manipulative power, and some form of resistance to that power. Both [of which] are relevant to our interests.”
The first book he showcases is Catalyst, the Rogue One prequel novel. As he notes, the Star Wars stories aren’t normally considered dystopian, but relevant lessons can be derived from all sorts of science fiction tales – not just those where the world is an automated, burned out, or highly monitored refraction of what we currently know.
Like Taylor, I read Catalyst after the election because I was looking for an escape, and because I was curious to know the story behind the creation of the Death Star. What I found was, as he writes, “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.” Sound a weensy bit familiar?
But among all of the double-dealing, the Resistance also begins to emerge. While Lyra Erso, the wife of the main character – Galen Erso, seems to be aware that something is off from the beginning, the figure that likely resembles the majority of us is Has Obitt, a smuggler who eventually becomes a part of the rebellion. In fact, the passage Taylor cites in his article reminded me of one particular sign I saw at the march over and over again this weekend: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Based on a poem by the Greek author Dinos Christianopoulos, the phrase gets at the heart of any sort of resistance to any type of oppression, whether fictional or nonfictional – we may not live to see the fruits of our efforts, but our actions do indeed matter, regardless of how big or how small they might be.