Against the backdrop of a pandemic, the thesis that the elite is opposed to the common man began to acquire clear apocalyptic and dystopian features, writes Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Club. It is clear that we are far away from having Morlocks and Eloi, but the fact remains that the trend towards just such a development is set to become a constant in the public consciousness in the wake of the epidemic and the protests.
Among the social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth highlighting a rather tangible increase in attention to the dystopian science fiction genre. Moreover, the assertion that the real world of the present and the future is a dystopia made manifest has gained increasing popularity in various recent theories and texts that forecast the world’s development in the post-epidemic era. The surge of protest movements in the US and elsewhere last summer has also spawned openly dystopian scenarios. In this regard, it’s already an interesting prospect, both culturally and politically, to trace the main themes of the dystopia genre and its prospects for their realisation in the modern world.
One common theme of dystopian fiction is the sharp division of the human community into classes and/or races. This separation leads to their growing alienation from each other, which over time leads to the development of not only different behavioural traits, but also an increasingly divergent physical appearance. A recognised classic of this type of dystopia is The Time Machine by Herbert Wells. The two warring species of human (or already post-human) creatures depicted in it – the Eloi and the Morlocks – very clearly represent the ultimate results of this kind of divergence between the elite and the plebs, between the rich and the poor, between the intellectuals and the proletariat, and so on. According to Wells’ book, this extreme divergence did not end with anything good for the world.
One modern dystopia of this kind is Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of the Island (La possibilité d'une île), where after a global demographic catastrophe, only sophisticated clones and degenerate barbarians remain in the world. There are many more examples of this kind, where the basis of a global dystopia lies in a grotesque social division. If we look for examples of dystopia in real life, then we can agree that the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement is a good match. In the context of the pandemic, one can cite numerous statistical reports about the racial imbalance among the victims of the coronavirus, information about the contrast between overcrowded hospitals for the poor and elite private clinics for the rich and influential which are off-limits to ordinary patients, etc. There are also rapidly spreading rumours about special drugs, about serum blood, and about a proto-vaccine, which were provided to the sick elite, but which were denied to everyone else. All this has contributed to the imagination of the global public consciousness, particularly, the thesis that the elite is opposed to the common man. This thesis, against the backdrop of a pandemic, began to acquire clear apocalyptic and dystopian features. It is clear that we are far away from having Morlocks and Eloi, but the fact remains that the trend towards just such a development is set to become a constant in the public consciousness in the wake of the epidemic and the protests.
Another type of social dystopia, also in demand in reality, is cataclysmic Malthusian population growth. The theme of the overpopulation of the Earth, in its political incorrectness, perhaps surpasses even garden-variety racism. Here one of the figurative examples is The World Inside, a book by the American science fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Its premise is that humanity, struggling with the lack of arable land for the growing population of the planet, has moved on to the creation of thousand-story buildings, which are called “monads”, referring back to the philosophy of antiquity and early modern times. The majority of the world’s population lives in these monads, with a million people in each. They practically never venture into the street, and the whole world for them is reduced to the interior of a super-skyscraper. Their quasi-religion becomes the production of the largest possible number of offspring in the most free way, in order to show that global overpopulation doesn’t frighten them. From time to time, a new monad is built and the surplus is moved there. Outside the monads, robotic agriculture flourishes in the freed spaces, served by its own race of farmers, who live separately from the monads, maintaining customs reminiscent of ancestral society and primitive military democracy. And somewhere, according to rumours, there are completely savage barbarians. It all ends, however, too badly – both for the inhabitants of the monads and for their relations with the outside world. Although Donald Trump, as a skyscraper builder, might have liked the idea.
Malthusian-leaning dystopian fiction is often associated with the theme of sinister medical intervention designed to improve or restrict the human community. The temptation to translate it into reality became evident in the examples of Nazi eugenics and the Ahnenerbe society. The same logic fuelled conspiracy theories about the artificial origin of AIDS. More recently, this theme figured into the plot of Dan Brown's novel Inferno. It describes a billionaire villain who, in conjunction with the corrupt director of the World Health Organisation (does this remind you of anything?), seeks to infect all of humanity with a terrible new virus that leads to death and infertility. Thus, the problem of overpopulation will be solved. In this context, we agree that the coronavirus pandemic has revived almost primordial rumours about the conspiracy of an artificially-created killer virus put in place in order to curb the growth of the world’s population. Moreover, these rumours are multiplying from both flanks of the real political struggle around the question of the coronavirus’s origin: both from the American and from the Chinese (and more broadly, anti-American). Thus, the connection between medical dystopia as a literary plot and reality turns out to be absolutely direct (albeit within the framework of semantic conspiracy theories).
Another promising topic for the embodiment of social dystopia in reality is global environmental catastrophe. Here the classic starting point is no longer the novel, but scientific futurology: the first report to the Club of Rome The Limits of Growth. In another example of this kind of scientific futurology, the theme of ecology has been combined with the same neo-Malthusianism, in Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons. But if we talk about the most vivid images in the field of environmental dystopia today, then these are by no means novels or scientific treatises – but the simple speeches of a teenage girl. Greta Thunberg has done more to imprint into the global public subconscious the horrors of a “world without ecology” than all the novelists put together. The communicative revolution of the 21st century here was manifested as clearly as possible.
And since, perhaps, the only positive consequence of the coronavirus epidemic was the purification of the air due to the cessation of economic activity, the temptation appears to add a new plot line for the dystopian narrative: purification of nature is impossible without some kind of basic catastrophe. Without it, humanity by itself will not do anything.
And finally, practically in any dystopia as a literary genre there is a struggle against this dystopia, for everything bright and good, and sometimes for the embodiment in the future of the illusions of the “Golden Age” of the past. The most striking example here is The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers / sisters. We agree that Black Lives Matter, anti-globalist movement, Indignados, and many other protest movements fit into this paradigm of the fight against the matrix of dystopia, which the elite (in its very different understandings) imposed on everyone else, the entire human community.
And in conclusion – one more private question. Is there a place for Russian dystopia in all this? On the one hand, I recall Tarkovsky’s film Stalker with its group of marginal intellectuals completely absorbed in their own thoughts and completely detached from the outside world. On the other hand, there are Viktor Pelevin’s books, one of which is called in the most characteristic way: The Lamp of Methuselah, or the Extreme Battle of the Chekists with the Freemasons. Does this mean that even in the context of a global apocalypse, Russian dystopia will have its own special features?