Over the course of the past two months, as the world as we knew it was turned upside down, a constant refrain has been one of the sheer unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the terrifying and deadly nature of the virus itself, it is the scale of human response that has been the most disorienting and impossible to truly grasp—worldwide lockdowns, a mad scramble for resources, lives of fearful isolation, and governments exhibiting either a callous lack of care or veering sharply towards a surveillance-heavy totalitarianism. For most people, this is a way of life and state of the world that they say they never even came close to imagining.
Science fiction writers, however, have made it their job to do exactly that. With devastating climate change and a worldwide rise of state-sanctioned majoritarianism, dystopian literature has been approaching reality at an alarming rate in the last few years. But how are science fiction writers, who have spent a significant amount of their writing lives imagining dystopia, reacting to finally living in one? How is reality matching up to fiction? We asked some of the best practitioners of the genre to tell us.
This week I’m reading two very recent novels, Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu and A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen. I am yet to finish either so no major spoilers, but both novels are set in a post-apocalyptic world around 2025. Chosen Spirits takes place in a Delhi that has seen the CAA-NRC protests, a pollution-related almost-epidemic, and a dystopian rise in state- and shady-corporation-controlled surveillance; A Beginning at the End takes place in San Francisco following a global pandemic that has killed off 70% of the world, and the people remaining are suffering from an acute, collective form of PTSD. Publishing a book takes time, so no surprises that both novels were written before the COVID-19 crisis. But reading them right now makes both authors seem incredibly prescient. In both novels there are people wearing masks in the streets, relationships straining under the collective trauma that each character has endured in their own way, complete dissolution of privacy and social freedoms.
Some of these are dystopian tropes we have seen forever. What interests me are the contemporary concerns—Mike’s meditation on psychological impact that remains long after the pandemic itself has passed, Samit’s almost electric extrapolations from political disasters that haven’t yet become yesterday’s news cycle, both of their constant reminder that the young, affluent, able-bodied and socially dominant aren’t the only people in the world.
“In both novels there are people wearing masks in the streets, relationships straining under the collective trauma that each character has endured in their own way, complete dissolution of privacy and social freedoms.”
Author and activist Corey Doctorow once made a remark that has stayed with me, that science fiction has a short shelf life, because each story is projecting the future specifically from the moment it was written. To me, a lot of older science fiction feels like reading old newspapers—a perfect time capsule for understanding the concerns of its period, but the world, with its all science and politics and complexities, has unfolded in a different trajectory. The fact that both these novels were written before COVID-19 and yet feel so prophetic reminds me that the crisis we’re experiencing today didn’t merely come out of some random city in China, that its ingredients were building up in our own societies over a long time, and they won’t vanish magically as soon as we’re released from our lockdowns. That is possibly the reminder we all need today.
Mimi Mondal is a science fiction and fantasy author. Her recent novelette His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light is currently a finalist for the Nebula Award.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid in stark relief how capitalism is a global gambling game for the wealthy and powerful—high stakes and risks for the planet make their wins all the more lucrative. Which is why all the cautionary SFF in the world makes little difference to real-world responses to threats like climate change, pandemics, and fascism. It’s why science fiction—and science—imagining and predicting, respectively, the risks of the future fails to sway the world’s governments and corporations, who are ultimately playing the same game. Apocalypses make little difference down the road to profiteers who’ve been creating wealth out of war, exploitation, and environmental destruction since the imperial age.
Pandemics unravel economies, so there’ll be some floundering—but observe how eagerly and quickly India’s government has used one to profiteer, consolidate authoritarian power, and suppress dissent. Dystopian science fiction imagines how we might live in the rubble of capitalism (or other destructive forces), but for those who hold power in the world, the future’s only value is monetary. So my view of the world (or India) hasn’t changed. But the shock and grief of losing an entire global way of life involving communal gathering and social contact, possibly never to return in the same form, is real.
Humans are innately hopeful, even in dystopia (which most of the world’s population has lived in for all of modern history). We know death is inevitable, but can’t imagine it happening to us until the walls close in. Right now, it feels like the walls are closing in. That’s where art comes in, again. Even in some of the darkest apocalyptic fictions (see Contagion, The Stand, Station Eleven, Mad Max: Fury Road, Lilith’s Brood), there’s an inkling of hope in the end. Reality can feel hopeless. Science fiction and fantasy imagines the darkest timelines so we can imagine ourselves surviving them. That’s not nothing.
Indra Das is a science fiction, fantasy and cross-genre writer. He is the author of The Devourers.
I’ve spent most of the last four years angrily rewriting what I thought was going to be a dystopian novel (Chosen Spirits) set in Delhi, and in the process my ideas about what dystopia meant changed completely.
First of all, dystopia requires distance. The most famous and best dystopian literature always has a slight ‘thankfully this is not happening to us, but it could’ element, and there is definitely a voyeuristic thrill to it. The displacement in time, location, social class, or whatever is the key difference between the author or reader’s world and the imaginary one, is part of the thrill of reading it. You feel like you’re imprisoned while knowing you’ve escaped this. If you live in a real-world dystopia, you can’t really write one. You’re just writing contemporary fiction. William Gibson once said the future was already here but it was just unequally distributed. This is perfectly true regarding dystopia as well.
“That’s when I realised I wasn’t actually writing a dystopian novel at all—I was writing a best-case scenario.”
Second, and this was one I learned the hard way, is that fiction of all sorts, including dystopian fiction, requires logic and rationality, but the real world doesn’t. Things keep happening that don’t make sense. Vast events occur without rational consequence. When I was trying to imagine an India 10 years in the future, it involved a lot of very unpleasant things happening in this imaginary decade, but a lot of those things started happening even while I was writing them— my predictions for three years later became yesterday’s news. That’s when I realised I wasn’t actually writing a dystopian novel at all—I was writing a best-case scenario. I actually call my new book anti-dystopian because of this, and I published it during the pandemic lockdown, which is now going to be the basis for a lot of dystopian work over the next decade.
Samit Basu is an author and filmmaker. His most recent novel is Chosen Spirits.
As long as we have had inequalities, we have had dystopias.
As a writer I have always been conscious of—and deeply uncomfortable with—the inequalities that rend our societies, destroy our environment and blind us to the real roots of the crises that we are confronted with. This blindness comes at a cost, because while we are all worried sick about the pandemic, governments and corporations around the world are taking advantage of the societal shock to push more deforestation projects, more assaults on nature, and to suppress dissent by imprisoning those who point out what’s happening behind the scenes. It is in these times, more than ever, that we need to exercise our imaginations. A certain elasticity of the imagination is necessary not only to anticipate (as science fiction writers, epidemiologist, and ecologists have done) the current crisis, but also to visualise other possibilities, other worlds.
“This crisis is showing us that the much touted emblem of progress and prosperity, the neoliberal economic system, is rotten at the core, and that we are not separate from the rest of nature”
Of course, there is a vast difference between imagined scenarios and the reality of all that is happening: the constant anxiety and existential dread, the practical issues like how to get fresh vegetables during a lockdown or manage healthcare for elderly parents, the advantage that certain governments are taking of the situation to suppress dissent, and to continue to push destructive mining and infrastructure projects. And there are always surprises, both pleasant (like the heartening stories of mutual aid between citizens around the world, or the blue skies I haven’t seen in Delhi since my twenties) and unpleasant (the rate of spread of the disease and its strange manifestations, and the degree of divisiveness and hatred that has been generated in its wake).
This crisis is showing us that the much touted emblem of progress and prosperity, the neoliberal economic system, is rotten at the core, and that we are not separate from the rest of nature. If we can’t find ways to live that are based on ecological and sociological harmony, we are doomed. The hubris and stupidity of modern humans, especially those at the apex of the power pyramid that is our socio-economic system, is guaranteed to bring us worse disasters. Our only option is to replace the pyramid with a socio-economic-political system that is based on equilibrium, not growth, harmony, not greed, humility, not hubris, egalitarianism, not elitism; a system that can restore the troubled relationships among ourselves and with the rest of Nature, and thereby re-enchant our lives.
Vandana Singh is a speculative fiction writer and a professor of physics and earth sciences. Her most recent book of short stories is Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.
In building dystopian worlds, I’ve always tried to create plausible, if astonishing, situations. The one we’re living through has been more chilling and unpredictable than any I could have imagined. It’s led me to re-examine the kinds of stories we choose to tell.
Medical professionals have been heroic, often in spite of the powers that be; volunteers and unsung heroes continue to deliver essential goods and services, doing their bit to keep the world turning. However, for every hero out there, there are thousands of people without agency or expertise, experiencing traumatic levels of stress, who cannot take to the streets to make a difference. We seldom tell their stories.
How do you find meaning when you cannot directly impact the biggest crisis of our times? There is a pervasive sense of helplessness being experienced by millions. What can you resist when you’re fighting something inexplicable? Staying at home and waiting for a solution hardly seems heroic, but even this existential crisis is a privilege that many do not possess. Human life is fragile, and we have let privilege dictate its worth. The cost has been staggering. We must make reparations.
Heroism does not always necessitate great acts. I have a newfound appreciation for the unnamed characters in all the books I’ve read, and all the fiction I’ve written. Dystopian fiction tells me that the human spirit will endure—through our unity as the human race, we will find hope.
Lavanya Lakshminarayan is a science fiction writer and game designer. She is the author of Analog/Virtual.