Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me how much I love dystopias. In fact, this list of dystopian films serves well as a jumbled-up 50 Greatest Films of All Time. It’s got it all: Orwell, Vonnegut, Dick… WALL-E.
In The Handmaid’s Tale the ingredients for the dystopia seem to have been picked from two different places: the past, which provides sexism and theocracy, and the future, for its abundance of leaky chemicals and annoyingly meltdownable nuclear power plants. Obviously the present (which means the 1980s for Atwood) must still feature holdovers from the past (e.g. Iran, Catholicism, and also sexism, racism and homophobia in the work place) and some ominous glimmers of the future (e.g. DDT, Agent Orange, and nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island). But it would make little sense for someone to read about one dystopia from within the context of another.
Or would it? This picture I’ve painted of The Handmaid’s Tale portrays the present as a fragile being voyaging through the dark, carrying a torch to protect it from what’s ahead and what’s behind. But obviously this view is incoherent, because it’s just not how time works.
So is the conclusion that we are living in somebody else’s dystopia? No, not necessarily, although an interesting activity is to look back at that list of dystopian films to see which ones are or at least could have been set in democratic states like our own, something which would so not have surprised Friedrich Nietzsche.
I suppose the real appeal of dystopias is that we’re always teetering on the edge of one. In fact, there are arguably very real dystopias in this world at this very moment, it’s just that they’re pretty far away. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist expresses a naivety she had in her former life, when she was never involved in the tragic events described in the newspapers: “We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
Maybe we should just be thankful for the convenient fact that for something to be called a ‘dystopia’ it usually has to belong to the future…
… oh, also please see this short story of mine if dystopias are your bag.