As you might have guessed by now, I'm really interested in utopias and dystopias. My friend Steve and I were talking about dystopia one evening, and he made a point that people could live in one without knowing it. To put it another way, I guess, they could live perfectly awful lives, not as individuals but as masses in a planned and organized society, and not be aware that their lives are perfectly awful or that their society is the source of that awfulness. There is some attraction in that idea, especially for the storyteller. On the other hand, it seems to me that if your life is perfectly awful because of the structure of your society--meaning, of course, because of the nature of the State--you would know it. You couldn't help but know it, at least at some level. That would seem inherent in the very definition of dystopia. Then I started thinking about the idea of the cozy dystopia and began to have some doubts.
Brian Aldiss coined the term cosy catastrophe, and so he got to spell it the British way. I'm coining the term cozy dystopia, and so I'll spell it like an American. I'm not sure how to define it yet, though. What got me thinking about all of this actually came in two steps. A few weeks back, before the world fell apart, I watched Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The movie has its flaws, but these are minor, I think. This is a guy movie, for sure, but it's also the kind of movie that is seldom made anymore, meaning a movie with artistic ambitions and made in an artistic way. The moviemakers had a vision, and their vision wasn't to make a blockbuster. When you set out to make a blockbuster, art usually goes by the wayside. Trying to make a blockbuster is going about things in the wrong way. Or, to paraphrase Victor Frankl, success is not a goal but a byproduct. You do the thing you're going to do and success or fame or happiness will ensue. (Or maybe will ensue.)
Anyway, that was step one. Step two came when I read a graphic novel called Batman: Digital Justice by Pepe Moreno (1990). I finished it last night. It's a fascinating book in visual terms, kind of a mix between Tron (1982) and Blade Runner (1982). (Think of that: Tron and Blade Runner are of the same vintage.) The art reminds me of Richard Corben's art, which is not digital, but I also saw a similarity to the work of Maxfield Parrish, and I wonder if Mr. Corben (like Hannes Bok) was influenced by Parrish and thereby a lineage was established. There are holdovers from 1980s pop-futurism (like Max Headroom) in Batman: Digital Justice, but there are also some innovations, including the term smart phone, used in a different context than today but there nonetheless in 1990. Another is an excellent term, wetware, applied as one of contempt for human beings by the digital Joker. (It made me think of wet markets.) And there is a 3D scanner that not only scans but digitizes an object, in this case the new Batman.
In reading Batman: Digital Justice, I thought of Blade Runner, both the original and the sequel. It occurred to me that visions of dystopia in our popular culture are always dark, not just in mood, but in literal terms. There is darkness and gloom, rain and smoke, sometimes flashing neon signs at night, also dark clothing, boots and butch haircuts, a general cyberpunk feel. I guess that's to be expected since so much contemporary dystopia is drawn from cyberpunk, I guess going back to William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), another dark dystopia. My idea is that Neuromancer is gothic science fiction, like Frankenstein, and a break from the shiny, utopian, Wellsian/Gernsbackian/Campbellian hard science fiction derived, I guess, from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century confidence, progressivism, and Scientism. Batman, being a gothic superhero, as opposed to the progressive, science-fiction superhero Superman (Batman lives in Gotham City, remember), could only find a natural home in a gothic dystopia.
What got me thinking about the cozy dystopia as an alternative to the dark dystopia is what has become, maybe without our noticing it, a cliché of the Neuromancer/Blade Runner/Batman: Digital Justice type. If the artist is supposed to be an innovator, why not get away from clichés and into something new? Why not a bright, shiny, happy, cozy dystopia? I wonder if anyone has tried it, and if so, what it might look like.
The first question, I guess, is this: Can there really be such a thing as a cozy dystopia? In Batman: Digital Justice, one of the digital overlords, Media Man, provides the people with what the narration calls the vital elements of a dictatorship: "Bread and circuses--it keeps the masses happy and busy, too involved to think about the real world--and things that are really important . . ." That may be comic book-level writing, but maybe it gets to a truth, which is that a perfectly awful society might be possible if the people can be kept well fed and entertained, thereby happy or at least satisfied, thereby also distracted from the problem of their own humanity, including the problem of their own freedom. I think here of the Parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamzov or of Brave New World.
In every dystopia, the State affords the people their comforts and asks in return only for power over their lives:
"But here [the digital Joker says] in the wire world, we don't know about love. But that's just fine with us 'cause we have a substitute. It's called power! Get enough of that and you don't need love--or anything else."
In a cozy dystopia, the recipe would be the same, but the dish would have to be prepared in a different way. The dark dystopia might be a positive fantasy for some people in the real world of today, but most wouldn't go for it. You would have to offer them the cozy version before they would fall into it. Still, whether dark or cozy, dystopia requires the existence of the State. In dark dystopias like Batman: Digital Justice, perfectly awful societies are imposed only by an overarching State. A cozy dystopia would have to be, by definition, the same kind of arrangement. No overarching State, no dystopia. I think.
Last night I heard a man on the radio talking about moving to Atlanta. It struck me that he is driving to dystopia, to a bright, happy, cozy dystopia, but a dystopia nonetheless. That might be a little harsh and more than a little flippant. I have been to Atlanta, but only once, and that was at about three o'clock in the morning when the spaghetti-pile of interstate highways was pretty well clear and I could get through the place before daylight and snarls of traffic returned. But Atlanta isn't alone in this. There are places all across America that can seem almost dystopian sometimes, not in a dark, gloomy, rainy Blade Runner way, but in a bread-and-circuses, strip-mall, big-box store, restaurant-row kind of way. And when people go home, there they have their bread and circuses, too: takeout or delivery available from a hundred restaurants and entertainment from five times as many channels. But is this really dystopia? In one way maybe so, for if only we can be distracted, then we won't have to confront ourselves or our predicament. But neither the State nor any other institution has imposed that upon us. We have only done it to ourselves. So, no State, no dystopia.
The same question again: Do we live in a cozy dystopia? In the grumpy imagination of Bernie Sanders and his fellow travelers, the answer is yes. After all, he complains about how many brands of deodorant there are available at the grocery store. Imagine what he must think of 500 TV channels and you kids get off my lawn! As a socialist, he prefers to go unwashed, I guess, but he must also prefer the Soviet-style store in which the only things available are the things that people don't want or need. As I've said before, the utopia of the socialist is a dystopia for everyone else. He would impose it upon us, but only by the mechanism of the State, and so we would descend into dystopian darkness. A smarter idea might be to impose a shiny, happy, cozy dystopia, one that the people would welcome because it meets all of their material and entertainment needs. But would we welcome it? Or would our inherent freedom only assert itself once again with the result that even the cozy dystopia would be overthrown. In order to be happy as human beings, I think, we must be free. What the socialist understands pretty well, though--maybe it's the only thing that he understands--is that freedom can also be a source of unhappiness. The Grand Inquisitor knew that, too.
Anyway, should I back away from the idea that we may actually be living in a cozy dystopia? Maybe so. Like I said before, if you live in dystopia, you'll know it, because it will be perfectly awful. You can't be happy and cozy in awfulness. But maybe you can feel awful in coziness--and millions of people do in the real world of today. The self-destructiveness in our society is evidence of that.
There's a lot of sunshiny talk in the world. Too many people sound like Pangloss. Unfortunately a lot of them are or call themselves conservatives. Maybe more accurately they're libertarians of the numbskull variety. Anyway, the talk is of how materially happy and prosperous the world has become--as if materiality is the best or only measure of happiness. (I suspect that a lot of the sunshiny talk actually comes from materialists, atheists, and agnostics, who must believe, I guess, that happiness is caused by chemicals in the brain.) Yes, there is great material happiness and prosperity in the world. We wouldn't want to trade that away for poverty and misery, although millions of socialists, like the aforementioned Crazy Bernie, so want to. I think of the epigraph from Lonesome Dove: "What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream." We are living the dream of humanity throughout the ages: the dream of material comfort and the end of want. No threats of starvation, privation, exposure, war, invasion, or ruin hang over us. And yet we are discontent. And yet hundreds of thousands of people die every year of suicide, drug overdoses, drunken accidents, and diseases of emptiness, self-destruction, and despair.
I don't believe that dystopia in general, more accurately utopia/dystopia, is possible, the reason being that human beings are imperfect and cannot be forced into perfection by the State or any other overarching institution. Likewise, I know that we are free and are made free--we are free, Bernie and Bros, so choke on it--and so we will always rebel against attempts at control because it is in our very nature to do so. We and our freedom are unalienable. The founder of the Democratic Party understood that and committed the idea to paper for all of posterity to read it and live by it. (If only the Democratic Party of today would take it to heart.) In any case, a dictatorship can last for a while--oftentimes a man's lifespan of threescore and ten years--but it must always fail because people are and will be free. Just look at what is happening right now in our country as people rebel against the tiny dictators who have tried to set themselves up in control of our lives and livelihoods. And this is after only two months of lockdowns. Look at what will soon happen--we can hope--in China, the source of so much suffering and pain in the world today. Dystopia can't be made or forced upon us. I believe it's an impossibility, despite all of the trying. In addition, our current society may have its terrible flaws, but I don't think it can be called a dystopia of any kind. But in art there can exist the cozy dystopia, and I think that's an idea worth exploring, if only to break the cliché and try something new.
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I'll be away again for a while. That's why I have given you so much to read. But don't worry, there won't be a test. When I come back, I'll pick up again on Earl Peirce, Jr., whose family is turning out to be a hard nut to crack. His is a really interesting story, though, and I'll have fun writing it. I hope you'll have fun reading it, too.
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley