Imagining 2019: The system isn’t warped, the system is us
Some of us have always lived in dystopias. Inclusiveness, empathy and hope are the brickwork of the future.
Imagining things like the future is the trick of the trade of us science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writers. But in a way we are also interpreters of history. Whether we’re writing futures or different worlds, aliens or dragons or magical humans, we build our worlds based on the societies we know, add a speculative element (or a few), and make stories out of the difference. And this is where things get murky.
Too many people don’t like history or politics in their visions of the future. History and politics are divisive and controversial, while the future is supposed to be for all of humanity. Usually, for such people, humanity refers to able-bodied men from majority social groups, raised in comfort and with access to education. We say man has walked on the moon; we don’t say 12 highly-trained, white, male US-citizen astronauts from NASA have walked on the moon through space missions that cost millions of dollars. I don’t see myself walking on the moon anytime soon. Do you?
Dystopia is another one of those vague speculative words that get thrown around as if they mean the same for everyone. The dystopia trope is simple: Life was innocent and wholesome in the past, and now everything is bad. Does that trope work similarly for those whose lives were never innocent or wholesome?
A word like dystopia sounds hollow when describing the Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin, in which the protagonist comes from a culture for which the worst has always been normal. When the world breaks further, she isn’t stunned by grief, but braced for survival. The Broken Earth trilogy is a dark and ruthless, but it’s propelled by hope.
The most important development in SFF in the recent decades has been the emergence of authors and readers who are not exclusively from the majority social groups. History works differently for the dispossessed, as do visions of the future. The 21st century is not an unimaginable dystopia for an author like Jemisin, whose ancestors survived slavery. Is it a dystopia for me, considering that my ancestors were fully untouchable even a century ago? Should I wish I was living in the time of my parents’ youth, when things were cheaper but there was much more casteism, and they definitely did not get invited to write articles in the Hindustan Times about it? Is the future darker than the past for me?
So what visions of the future do we offer to a world in which not everyone shares the same nostalgia about an idyllic past, and not everyone will have similar access to any potential change? Positivity, empathy and building together are having an upsurge as themes in SFF stories today, and this is not a false positivity like the puerile nostalgia for a wholesome past that could only exist by erasing or silencing those whose lives never fit that narrative. These stories have a structure that’s the exact opposite of dystopia: We are given a world where everything has already gone wrong, so we survive by making it better.
This is also the future I want to see in the real world. I want us to realise that the world wasn’t simpler or sweeter when we were children—it only seemed so to the lucky few of us with the privilege of a sheltered childhood. But then, I also want us to realise we are the adult citizens of a democratic country—the system isn’t dysfunctional; the system is us.
I want us not to turn away from the horror or the people who endure it, but actually take lessons from their resilience, because those are the people who have stared dystopia in the eye, cracked a joke and got on with life. Is there anything left worth hoping for? Ask the queer people who have lived every day expecting hatred and even death, but still loved and had relationships. Ask the Dalits who have been shunned, beaten, murdered, driven out of spaces for centuries, and continued to work, raise children, study, write stories, win Hugo nominations and so on. Ask the disabled people who only manage to participate marginally in systems that are not conducive to them, but do it every day. What is the smallest unit of hope, the faintest spark that gets one out of bed in the morning? Those people will have your answers.
Dystopias are old; some of us have always lived in dystopias. Inclusiveness, empathy and hope are the brickwork of the future.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor, and the first Hugo Award nominee from India
The views expressed are personal