I’ve been a fan of Edward R. Murrow, ever since I saw ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ twelve years ago. Amazing movie, great cast, gripping tension. What’s always made it stand out as a historical drama is the fact that its director (George Clooney) more or less told the story as it actually happened.
I mention this, because Murrow is famous for saying “television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live … surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally.”
Murrow was more right than he ever knew. The world of 2017 is beginning to wake up to the reality he warned against. Humanity’s decadence, escapism and insulation from reality are starting to result in very real consequences we cannot escape. I just finished watching ‘White Helmets’ on Netflix yesterday. If you haven’t watched it yet, go watch it. Then you’ll understand why I say that the Western world has no business writing dystopian or post-apocalyptic science fiction anymore.
You might wonder why a guy with a diagnosed anxiety disorder chooses to watch such things but it’s really quite simple. The answer comes in yet-another Murrow quote: ‘in learning how others have faced their problems — this has given me fresh ideas about how to tackle mine.’ I learn something from every documentary I watch and yesterday, I learned something else.
Here’s the deal: we don’t have the market cornered on what the end of the world looks like anymore. Maybe we never did. The fact is, there are people who are living that nightmare every single day and none of them are as photogenic as Jennifer Lawrence. What a sick joke it must be for them to realize that we spend time watching actors pretending to survive while they struggle to survive every hour of every day.
Where dystopian stories fail is quite simple. They put protagonists in the center of the horror of their human society that all change rests upon. Plucky hero overcomes all odds to change the system. Maybe she even meets a cute boy or two! The stories have become stale cliches; Twitter lampoons them mercilessly and they deserve it.
Meanwhile, kids in Aleppo know better. The horror of human society that is visited upon them has nothing to do with them. They’re just the unlucky souls that bear the burden of being caught in the crossfire. The battle is being fought hundreds of miles away, by other men in other countries. The bombs that kill them come from men they will never see. They have no power to escape, or change the system. They can’t defeat the bombs with a compound bow. Those kids are made to suffer, and they do.
Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t think I have a right to ignore that. I don’t think it’s appropriate to write post-apocalyptic stories when other people are living it. Where dystopian fiction originally warned people of what could happen if certain authoritarian measures grew out of control, now it distracts us from the apocalyptic scenes happening all around the world.
It would be a disservice to those people, those suffers, if we continue to ignore them. It would also be a disservice to the the better men we descend from, and to ourselves not to recognize who we are, what we are and what we can be. Just as Robert Zemeckis was self-aware enough to realize that nobody wanted to see Forrest Gump 2 after 9/11, we ought to be introspective enough to realize that dystopian sci-fi ‘just isn’t relevant anymore … the world has changed.’
I’m not advocating that we stop writing stories. In fact, we should write more stories and we should write them for those people. If anyone deserves a story that can be escaped into, it’s them. We can be the persons who make those worlds they can escape into. We can make worlds that welcome them. We can make worlds that let them know that someone from the other side of the void hears them, knows them and cares about them.
I can’t solve the problem, but I can imagine a day when it’s behind us. Hopefully I can help you imagine it, too.