Dystopian fictions in the time of Trump: A letter from America
By JEFFREY WASSERSTROM
I’m not sure why others read dystopian novels, but I know why I turn to them – and why, thanks to Donald Trump’s candidacy, I’ve recently found myself abandoning ones midway through that had come to me highly recommended. For me, the allure of thought-provoking dystopian novels – from classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) to powerful recent works such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) – is twofold. They provide new ways of thinking about contemporary problems, yet offer a degree of escape from them. The difficulty now is that dystopian works of art – films as well as novels – don't give me relief from a singularly distressing news cycle, dominated both by reports of horrific violence and by an American election that has inspired more conjuring of nightmarish scenarios than any past one.
Some commentators present a Trump presidency as sending the United States in a dystopian direction. Analysts invoke the troubling visions of an authoritarian America found in novels such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and, long before that, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935). Trump’s acceptance speech, meanwhile, was described by everyone from late-night comics to political analysts and newscasters as presenting the country’s current state in darkly dystopian terms. (Perhaps owing to the comparative scarcity of the word dystopian in coverage of past political speeches, some felt the need to define it as the opposite of utopian.)
In addition to reading dystopian fiction for pleasure, I have often brought it into my work on China, and found it useful, in doing this, to distinguish between three general varieties. There is the Big Brother type, involving a ruling strongman and, as George Orwell put it in Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), a “boot stamping on a human face – for ever” approach to control. Then there is the softer authoritarianism of Brave New World, in which the powerful retain control by providing material comforts and deeply distracting forms of entertainment to the masses, while also ensuring that different groups view one another with disdain. Finally, there is the lawlessness of Lord of the Flies (1954). There is no iconic Western exemplar for this kind of novel from the first half of the last century, but China provides one in Lao She’s Cat Country (1932), which I discussed in the TLS on the publication of a new edition, with an excellent introduction by Ian Johnson).
Elements of the first two varieties are blended in many works: in the Hunger Games books and films, for example, life in the capital has a Brave New World side while in other districts, the system of control is boot-on-the-face; and, in a Chinese context, while Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years (2009) has been marketed as a work with much in common with Nineteen Eighty Four, it is only Huxley's name, not Orwell's, that gets mentioned in passing by one of the novel's characters. Orwell and Huxley both placed a strong, intrusive state at the centre of the nightmare. In the third variety, by contrast, weak state structures fail to keep chaos in check.
Which sorts of dystopian fiction have been in play lately in the US? Asking this feels natural: describing what the country could become under Trump is the sort of imaginative exercise in which novelists routinely engage, while the Republican candidate plays so fast and loose with facts that his speeches lend themselves to literary criticism. The answer is easy when it comes to worrying about Trump’s rise: he is seen as embracing a Big Brother view of governance that would send the country spiralling into the kind of populist-fuelled fascism that Roth and Lewis conjured up in their novels.
Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, on the other hand, fits squarely into the tradition of failed-state fiction. He presented the contemporary United States as having descended into the kind of decayed land more commonly found in post-apocalyptic works, from the post-plague Station Eleven to the world of the Mad Max movies. The speech reminded me of Lao She’s Cat Country, which focuses on a feline-run community on Mars clearly meant to represent China in the early 1930s. The Chinese author, best known to Western readers for the very different realist novel Rickshaw Boy (1936), presented his country as a once great place that had declined markedly. In this stand-in for China on the eve of Japanese invasions, all forms of basic infrastructure have decayed, and the rulers of the land are unable to defend it from threatening outsiders.
When I teach about China in the 1930s, I treat Cat Country as providing a caricatured but in some ways apt portrait of a country Lao She longed to see right its course. Trump’s vision of today’s America, though presented as fact rather than fiction, takes too much poetic licence to be handled that way. There is also something that chills me when I reflect on the course of Chinese history from the era of Cat Country’s publication to the present era of the trust-me-to-handle-everything autocrat Xi Jinping. Time and again, that country’s people have suffered, as those of its neighbour Russia have, from the notion that the only way to revive the fortunes of a once great nation is to put its fate in the hands of a tough-talking strong man.