On Dystopias: The Threads between '1984', 'The Day After', and Beyond.

Somebody once said that the worst person you'll ever know is yourself. All the horrible things you've ever heard about Hitler, Jack the Ripper, Pol Pot and so on are, truth notwithstanding, just that: hearsay, surfaces, mere information. The sources of the evil deeds of those men--rage, lust, envy, hatred, fear--are known immediately and intimately only in the privacy of our own minds. (The good news is the obverse fact: the best person you'll ever know is yourself--more on that next time.) Part of the function of art (and of science-fiction) is to carry torches into the psychological caverns in us all, and make us face (vicariously, anyway) the demons therein.

When artistic torches are carried into the collective subconscious to light up the fears and neuroses infecting an age, a generation, an entire zeitgeist, what often comes out are fictional dystopias. These dystopias--simultaneously the effect of collective anxiety and the cause of changing attitudes--serve as dire warnings: we need to change our ways, or this might actually happen. Here I'm going to touch on two kinds of dystopias: moral and technolgical.

The above image is from my book How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias. It's entitled December 24th, 1984: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania--it's my depiction of Pittsburgh (could just as well be any other major American city) about two weeks after a nuclear exchange between the world's (then) superpowers. A firestorm continues to rage where downtown used to be, the only things with exchange value are food and potable water (of which there is almost none), and the rate of deaths from fallout is ramping steadily upwards--in another two weeks or so that rate will peak, and then begin to decline. But the deathrate overall will continue to rise--from untreated injuries and infections, starvation, and all manner of illnesses spawned by unburried corpses.

Above: a detail from December 24th, 1984--grammar is the second casualty of war.

I call this a 'moral dystopia'--the worst kind. A moral dystopia is a situation without the comfort of hope or the hope of comfort; it's a sinking lifeboat (and the water is on fire), a situation in which the very possibility of right action has been eliminated. A famous moral dystopia from literature (and film) is that depicted in George Orwell's 1984.

I actually have this 50's-era paperback edition (with a misleadingly lurid dust jacket--the artist has cast Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner as the leads!). In 1984, a limited nuclear exchange ended World War II, and the world has since reorganized into three constantly warring superstates--persecution of the weak by the strong, universal scarcity, and fanatical war fervor are never ending in this scenario--in fact, by the very logic of the political situation envisioned, they are perpetually increasing. Loyalty, love, kindness, and any other selfless impulses are suicidal in this world--if, that is, they are directed towards anything or anyone other than the State. Orwell drives his cautionary vision home without hesitation or mercy; the story ends on a note of marrow-chilling emotional finality.

On September 23rd of the real year 1984, a made-for-TV movie called 'Threads' was broadcast (better yet: detonated) by the BBC in the United Kingdom. It was directed by Mick Jackson, who would go on to direct such films as L.A. Story and The Bodyguard. An unwitting UK audience tuned in--and for the first 45 or so minutes were treated to (what appeared to be) a 'Coronation Street'-style domestic drama about two early-twenty-somethings, Ruth and Jimmy from Sheffield, trying to make the best of an unplanned pregnancy and all the complications foisted on the two families involved. And then a nuclear war happens; Sheffield is hit by two ICBMs, partly because of the nearby RAF base. The pregnant Ruth survives, Jimmy's death isn't shown but he's never seen again.

Above: Karen Meagher as Ruth Beckett in Threads.

And as Ruth, ten years after the nuclear war.

What follows are a series of vignettes--almost snapshots, screen captures--detailing what happens to Ruth, her daughter, and Britain over the next 13 years. Things go from bad to worse; there are no marauding armies, as so many post-apocalyptic movies and books would lead one to expect. No Road Warriors, no heroes, no villains--just a sick, sputtering decline into medieval, feckless apathy. Ruth dies after 10 years--a sick old woman blinded by cataracts in her early thirties; her feral, preverbal 10 year-old daughter looking on without the least capacity for concern or empathy. Threads also ends on a bass note of soul-dimming emotional finality. Its devastating message, like that of 1984, is: be deathly afraid of this, because if it happens, there won't be any coming back for any of us.

Threads stood in stark contrast to its American equivalent, The Day After, which aired on ABC in the United States on November 20th, 1983. Directed by Nicholas Meyer (still flush from directing 1982's wildly successful Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), The Day After told essentially the same story--only it did not proffer a glimpse of life a full decade after the nuclear war, nor did it take seriously the concept of nuclear winter (as Threads did). It starred Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and other recognizable Hollywood actors, and it had a musical score, as Threads did not. Most significantly, it ended on (what seems to me at least) a high note--its final message was: there may be hope after a cataclysm of this magnitude, because human dignity and kindness will persist (in the moral dystopia presented in Threads, human dignity and kindness are the first things to go).

Above: Jason Robards in The Day After.

In short, The Day After, while undeniably grim, was sanitized just enough to shake up, but remain palatable to, American audiences. The BBC, unfettered by qualms about offending advertisers, gave us the real deal in all its appalling glory. I would recommend viewing Threads simply on its merits as a film (it won the BAFTA for best drama in 1985), but caveat emptor--you can't un-see it; it will stick in your craw for a long time. It has haunted my reverie since I stumbled upon it in the summer of 1988 (I was home from college; some cable network--HBO?--was airing it one afternoon as filler).

1984, Threads, and (to a lesser extent) The Day After carried torches into psychological caverns that are terrifying to behold, much less enter. All three can be fairly classified as science-fiction--in the broad sense of fiction which is rooted in an imaginary extrapolation from current science, and which is intended to make us reflect on the world as it is. And all three, while painful to read or watch, are justifiably called art--part of the purpose of art is to examine the possibilities of human experience; horror and the horrible simply are part of that experience.

December 24th, 1984: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was very much inspired by Threads and 1984. I describe it in my book as 'the worst thing I can imagine'--and that's the truth; when I try to peer into the darkest corner of my own psychological cavern, this is what I find, a situation in which the living envy the dead. In the 70's and 80's, when I was growing up, the threat of nuclear war was the bogeyman haunting the collective zeitgeist. Things have changed, of course; though nuclear arsenals still exist, the enemy is scattered, invisible, inflicting pinpricks here and there (not to minimize the horror of a pinprick like 9/11, or the current terror being wrought by ISIS). The psychological enormity of wholesale nuclear holocaust--of the threads holding all of society together being ruptured all at once--doesn't exercise our dark hours like it used to.

Increasingly, the dystopias emerging from the collective imagination stem from anxiety pertaining to machines and the blindingly fast evolution of computers and AI. The are technological in nature.

Above: a terminator from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).

And from The Matrix (1999)--a particularly grisly scene from a technological dystopia--the liquified dead being fed to the living.

Above: The bone-white, Edvard Munch-esque shrieking face of a standard American power outlet.

In the technological dystopia, we are once again the cause of our own demise, only this time through inadvertence. The usual pattern isour computers and machines develop at a rate beyond anyone's control, attain self-awareness, turn on and enslave us.

The title of the above piece from my book is: January 1968: Outside Hue´, South Vietnam. It depicts what I call a PISDOFF: a 'Peace-Keeping Insurgent Search-and-Destroy-Operations Fear Fomenter', a war machine developed in an alternate history in which military funding has been channeled mainly into psyops--psychological operations. It's a machine developed precisely for the purpose of freaking people out. Like December 24th, 1984, this is a dystopian image set in the past; not all science-fiction is set in the future--sometimes it's about what might have been, what we've avoided, what we continue to evade on a daily basis only through sustained vigilance.

Moral and technological dystopias have this in common: they well up into the collective consciousness from deep-seated fear that something we have created--often for beneficial purposes--is spinning badly out of our control. Whether it's the State, nuclear weapons, computers, or something as seemingly benign as pharmaceuticals and viral medications--we fear, with some degree of justification, that these things can take on a logic and life of their own, and turn into juggernauts that crush us.

Thanks so much for reading--admittedly grim material, but sometimes you need to roll in the mud to get clean. I hope you enjoyed it.

Next time: on moral and technological utopias!

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