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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Why the sci-fi writer must not be blamed for a dystopic year

This is the year where reality completely overtook the human capacity for imagination — and not always in a good way

Written by Samit Basu | December 27, 2020 6:10:15 am
california coastlineDeep Blue Sea: In California, the seas turned fluorescent this year, among other strange happenings around the world (Source: getty images)

There’s a bad habit that news/culture commentators often have: whenever something really bizarre and illogical happens they compare it to sci-fi or fantasy. The aim, probably, is to underline weirdness, but this habit always makes actual writers of speculative fiction (such as myself) chafe — fiction, even physics-exceeding imaginative fiction, is compelled to obey internal logic and narrative consequence. Reality, and the news, are not. There is no better example of this than all the news of 2020.

We began the year with protests, civil strife, political violence and the incredible decline of several democratic institutions. It looks like we’re ending it with all of these, too, with a pandemic that refuses to be sandwiched in between. But while early 2020 was rich in dystopian story inspiration, the rest of the year had more in store, a whole meteor shower of logic-defying news. As protests turned into lockdowns, breakdowns, meltdowns, takedowns and countdowns, every day, headlines that would have been world-changing in previous eras were just casual daily-digest material in this one. We learned that we were living in a post-truth world a few years ago, but 2020 has been post-reality. Hoaxes, miracles and all-round absurdity have been appropriated by the news cycle. Loyalty tests have eaten facts. Most of my imagination is exhausted just thinking of peaceful times.

This has been a year of drastic reminders of every privilege we have — to have a house to live in and work out of, to have work to do, to have family and friends who are healthy and safe, and for a fast-diminishing number of people, to have some remaining sense of being inside some systems that still function. The next few years (at least) are going to be very rough for us all, and I hope 2021 doesn’t make us immediately look back fondly at this year.

I spent the last three years writing a speculative fiction near-future novel, based almost entirely on non-fiction and the news. Trying to carve some sort of hopeful narrative out of piles of notes about multiple-choice impending apocalypses took every bit of creativity I have. My work mostly involves sitting at home and typing for a living, and despite the severe oddness of releasing a novel during a pandemic, I had a great year professionally — this has never before been guilt-inducing. So, I think, I can declare this officially: 2020 is the year where reality completely overtook the human capacity for imagination, and soon most sci-fi is going to look as tame and relaxing as your average mundane-life novel: comfort reading, because however strange the story, the laws of internal logic still apply. On the day of writing this, dead minks infected with mutated COVID-19 have risen from their graves in Denmark after a mass culling. Nobody’s imagination did this: speaking for speculative-fiction storytellers, we refuse to take the blame. I think zombie minks win the 2020 news award, but there are many other contenders.

This was the year that featured several people’s representatives denying the coronavirus threat even after getting infected themselves. Where the most powerful man in the world may still have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of his official residence after losing an election. The year where American security agencies released UFO footage, and mysterious radio waves reached our planet in bursts from unknown sources, so it’s possible aliens exist, and they have a podcast, and none of this even holds our attention. The year where a celebrity released a personalised genitalia-odour candle into the market; where one of the world’s top football clubs may have hired trolls to attack its own players; where British restraint involved tearing down 5G towers because of rumours; where even the world’s richest men are more interested in space colonisation than matters terrestrial.

In Stanford, they created a smart toilet that can identify you by your anal print. In California, the seas turned fluorescent. On the moon, water was found. There were locust swarms and murder hornets. In India, a Rhea was attacked for no reason by pro-government mobs. In Brazil, a rhea (an emu-like bird) attacked the head of government and became a folk hero. In Thailand, inflatable ducks were used for protest. In Texas, K-pop fans helped defeat police surveillance with fan-cams. Tomorrow, if there’s an alien invasion, I doubt if anyone will be particularly worried. In fact, there’s every chance we won’t even notice.

When you’re surrounded by cultural, institutional, social, political, financial and environmental collapse, even for those of us who are presently safe and have the luxury of being able to observe and speak, it is difficult to find either meaning or reaction. But if we are to make our way out of these years, it becomes imperative to find the strength to rally and rebuild. We were told that the challenge of this decade would be reskilling, but the truth is it is really about survival.

As we lurch from crisis to crisis, it becomes crucial that we find within ourselves the ability to do more than just survive — many have already given in to either despair or the comfort of submission, and have themselves become regressive, violent reality-deniers. Finding reserves of courage, conviction, empathy and fortitude is no easy task, but it’s the only way we are going to find the hope we need, to believe that brighter days will come.

A few years ago, at a leading TV producer’s office, I delivered a few pitches for show ideas, which were promptly and predictably rejected for not being Real India enough. I was asked if I had any ideas for Scripted Reality. I was unaware until that point that reality shows as a category were called Scripted Reality by producers, that none of them were curated showcases of spontaneous behaviour. The world might look very sci-fi now to those who don’t read sci-fi, and that’s just because of all the shiny technology. But the truth is, this was not my year in a sci-fi world, nor yours, and no band of heroes is on its way to save us. We are inside a very poorly-designed Scripted Reality show: the cameras in place, the pre-decided winners are swaggering about everywhere, and the ad breaks are relentless. But all reality shows, like all empires, end eventually. We don’t have the option of ignoring this one, but we’ll find a way to defeat the programming. 2020 has had more than sufficient drama for a season finale: I can only hope it’s not too many years before we find a way to collectively change the channel.

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