Tuesday, September 17, 2013

NPR, the middle class and heading toward a dystopian future

When Marketplace producers approached me about the story, I wondered if I was the right person to tackle writing a drab, but realistic dystopian future. But as I began to think about my own books and dystopian works in general it became obvious to me that economy was a deeply rooted aspect of science fiction novels despite Mr. Acemoglu’s assertion that “it’s difficult to do science fiction about economics.”  Unfortunately more than anyone likes to admit it, money is one of the foundations of modern society and it leaks into nearly every facet of modern life.

Science fiction is often pigeon-holed as the realm of fantastical space adventure and aliens, and although I’m a devout Whovian, I have to cry foul.  The genre is the playground of thinkers, dreamers, and philosophers, most of whom are deeply concerned with questions about humanity, technology, economy, and society.  There’s no shortage of thought-provoking science fiction that tackles economics. Although stylized into a gritty, future noir in the film adaptation Bladerunner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick immediately springs to mind. Set in a polluted future where fertility is protected by cod-pieces and citizens are called upon to tend animals in makeshift farmyards atop over-crowded apartment buildings, the main character hunts renegade cyborgs.  The economic implications are ripe throughout the novel: over-populated urban centers, demagogs, environmental and biological contaminants—all arguably the result of economic strife in this world.  Toss out the renegade cyborgs and you have another harrowing possible future. Although I wouldn’t discount the possibility of cyborgs just yet.

As storytellers it’s our job to spin a good yarn, so authors embellish our worlds with fantastical technology, sordid government conspiracies, and thrilling action, but 
when you look past the “stuff of science fiction” as Mr. Faux puts it, you’ll find that the things people worry about our very present in science fiction. It’s no coincidence that there has been a surge of dystopian and post-apocalyptic films and books during times of recession. Brave New World was published in 1931 during the Great Depression. During the stagnate economy of the 1970s, filmmakers brought to a string of dystopian tales to the screen: Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, The Omega Man.  These works are concerned with hunger, technology, resources, politics and so much more, but ultimately they’re about self-identity in the face of a shifting world. Something most Americans can relate to all too well.

In fact a number of recent films and books have dealt with issues that arise from economic conditions.  Although the time is money metaphor in the film In TIme can be heavy-handed, when you remove the hyperbolic conceits, you’ll discover the premise of a fortress world, one possible future posited by academics where the elite and the rich retreat behind security fortresses from the hungry, poor masses. The young adult novel Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien presents a similar scenario where haves and have-nots are divided by a walled city. The scary thing? The fortress world, used so often in science fiction novels, is one of the least frightening scenarios we might endure after a true economic collapse.

As I approached this piece I looked at predictions from The Tellus Institute, a nonprofit in Boston, whose focus for nearly forty years has been the interdisciplinary study of sustainable development. Put simply, they’re trying to figure out how to make our lives continue to work. One of their potential scenarios for our future is the fortress world, the warning signs for which are increased pollution, increased hunger, inadequate retirement savings, and increased income inequality.  If we progress along the same path, in twenty-five years economic growth will halt, hunger will double, the population will skyrocket with about 90% living in urban centers, water use will be at 170% its current level, carbon emissions will triple and energy usage and costs will double.  

I decided to write a few pages of what that world might look like for an average hour on an average day to an average person, but it was too vague, too abstract for me to comprehend, so naturally I did what writers do: I made it personal.  The twenty-eight year-old girl in the story isn’t a random person, she’s my three-year old daughter navigating Seattle in twenty-five years.  I made her situation more difficult by killing off my husband and I in the story.  It’s what we writers like to call the pinch, and no one, not even me, escapes the tragic backstory.  I eschewed beautiful language in favor of the simple and mundane, because this is the average experience. This is normality for our main character.

In actuality, Sydney has it pretty good. In this story I leave her enough money to land a nice co-op apartment when I die.  To her, she’s better off than most as she works three jobs, shares an apartment in shifts, and struggles to pay her utility bills.  The most eye-opening part of this process for me was also the most chilling: when I truly looked at the world around me, I realized the decline had already begun. And that is the insidious nature of the future—how it creeps into the smallest aspects of our lives and changes things so incrementally that we don’t notice the gradual shift in our wage, in the cost of our housing or utilities, in the availability of jobs, in the price of our educations, and the debt we take out to keep us comfortable.  This is how the middle class disappears—with a whimper.

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