When truth is stranger than fiction, fiction is a potent source of truth. In the first week of the Trump administration, sales of 1984 increased by 9,500 per cent, catapulting George Orwell’s sexagenarian novel to the top of global bestseller charts. As Kellyanne Conway recast White House lies as ‘alternative facts’, Orwell’s tale of doublespeak read like a manual. Welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave new world.
The lure of dystopian novels has always been dissonant; they soothe as much as they disquiet – that feverish relief of surfacing from a nightmare to find your world intact, values affirmed. The rise of white nationalism, the preposterous uncertainty of Brexit, climate change – in the face of these waking terrors, there is a perverse comfort in darker dreams.
We are more than a decade into the so-called ‘golden age’ of dystopic fiction, and readers show little sign of apocalypse-fatigue. This year’s most anticipated book release – after the Mueller report – is The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), due in September. On the small screen, a third season from the same brutal universe will terrorise us in June; two high-profile examples cherry-picked from dozens. On and off the page, we are ravenous for ruin. And we have never been furnished with so many ways to imagine a squandered future. Pick your poison: divine rapture or human folly? Plummeting fertility or rising sea levels? A virus, perhaps, but what sort – flesh-eating or hard-drive melting? And for women, what a grisly buffet – a dystopian novel for every feckless, cruel, and oppressive possibility.
There is an ‘adolescent quality’ to contemporary dystopias, argues Jill Lepore in The New Yorker; even the books marketed to adults are ‘pouty and hostile’, a fictive mirror of our ‘untrusting, lonely and sullen’ post-truth century. The story we have always told ourselves about dystopian novels is that they galvanise change, providing narratives and lexicons of resistance. We invoke the red-cloaked women protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, dressed in homage to Atwood’s enslaved heroine. But what Lepore reports from the literary coalface is the obverse, a ‘fiction of submission’:
It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments ... Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own.
A similar critique is increasingly made about dystopia’s fraternal twin, satire: that it only speaks to the audience it makes comfortable. As Ben Greenman writes in the New York Times: ‘Most Trump satire doesn’t implicate the rest of us. It implicates the rest of them, expressing shocked disbelief at the base that continues to back him despite his increasingly indefensible behaviour. It labels them “other” and calls it a day. This leaves everyone at loggerheads. It makes of satire a frozen obelus, as dependent upon divisiveness as the president himself.’
They’re criticisms that beg, hefty definitional questions about the role of writers (and of genres), and whether that role has changed – or should change – to match our absurdist times. ‘Right now, as far as I’m concerned, the dystopia has arrived,’ argues Sam Byers, author of Perfidious Albion (2018), a caustic and uproarious satire of post-Brexit Britain. ‘Is our job still simply to imagine?’ he asked in a recent interview. ‘Or is it in fact to interrogate the ways that we as political and economic subjects have already been imagined, and to reassert our right to make a world around which imaginative constraints have not yet been imposed by others?’ Has it ever been otherwise? Is this an astute call to arms, or an historically amnesiac chrono-centrism? In his 1961 essay ‘Writing American Fiction’, Philip Roth complained:
The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
Roth could have been writing yesterday. Or – undoubtedly – a decade from now. Reality consistently outstrips invention. That’s why we need novelists: to anchor us in unreality.
Into the ever-growing glut of gloom arrives Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha (Graywolf Press, US$16 pb, 304 pp, 9781555978280), and John Lanchester’s The Wall (Faber & Faber, $29.99 pb, 288 pp, 9780571298709), two near-future, post-populism dystopias released within days of each other. The former, a pyrotechnic, feral satire with echoes of Pynchon and Vonnegut; the latter, a restrained and lonely novel in the mould of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). With a bang and a whimper, these books offer twin visions of what a ‘fiction of resistance’ might look like. Neither is comfortable.
Trump Sky Alpha opens with bombast and bomb blasts as the president kickstarts nuclear armageddon from the jewel-encrusted helm of a wayward zeppelin (an unmoored, volatile windbag – the metaphor subtle as a gold brick). Below him, the genocidally insecure Trump imagines the people of America – ‘the best Americans, the most beautiful’ – looking skyward in adoration, ‘thanking him right there for his extraordinary, truly unprecedented achievements in the White House, more done in these months than in all the decades of all the other guys before, so it was ten out of ten, A+’.
It is a writhing, twenty-page orgy of caricature: ‘Trump putting his rubberised face – by turns frog-lipped and haemorrhoidal, pig-and-pop-eyed – through its paces.’ His hair aloft in the dirigible’s updraft: ‘like some undersea organism ... rotating and swaying like primitive life seen at great magnification. Scalp fully visible, pale and fat and peeled as a hard-boiled egg.’
Trump is often described as ‘satire proof’. As Greenman writes, ‘subjecting him to ridicule is like pushing tacks into one of those giant gummy bears. All your sharp points just end up lost in there.’ This is not to say that Trump is unfazed by ridicule – never has a leader seemed more raw and alert to it – rather, that satire has utterly failed to dent his credibility or popularity, if not paradoxically entrenched it.
Doten takes Trump’s absurdity and ups the ante by filling a gilded airship with loose and vengeful lobsters (TRUMP stamped on every tail and claw). The pristine Ivanka is vomiting on national television, bomb after bomb is falling, and Trump is caught in a deranged loop of freewheeling grandiosity: ‘I have talked to the generals and the generals who are with us have given me some really, really wonderful codes to work with, and the codes are beautiful, just beautiful ...’ Doten’s ventriloquism is uncanny and unsparing.
It feels gluttonous, this farce: at first delicious, then decadent, then dyspeptic. For the world is burning, and as our end – and the story’s beginning – looms, Doten’s real target comes sharply into focus: ‘There might have been a chance, once, to resist, there must have been, but that moment was lost somewhere, it had slipped away – where had all the little moments been? There must have been so many chances to not be where we were – but this is where we were.’
Satire isn’t broken. As Doten scabrously demonstrates, in an undeferential era of populism and filter bubbles we have been aiming at the wrong targets. Trump isn’t in Doten’s sights; we are. All of us.
Trump Sky Alpha begins a year after the president’s nuclear tantrum has destroyed ninety per cent of the global population. A handful of American survivors are going stir-crazy in a military dormitory, where the administrative tasks of reconstruction have been numbingly gamified. They spend hour after hour at computer terminals, identifying the dead by matching drivers licence pictures to corpse heardshots and scouring drone footage for survivors. Rachel, a former technology journalist, is being pressured by her ex-editor and his military minders to write a think-piece on internet humour at the end of the world. She is sceptical: ‘I see the world around me and it’s all guns and survival and control. There is no magic #resistance position right now for journalists, there is no democracy dies in darkness and the fucking news fit to print. Just accomplices to whatever this is.’
Rachel negotiates a grief-fuelled deal: when she finishes reporting the story, she will be permitted to visit the mass grave where her wife and child are buried. She is taken to a room ‘where the internet sits on ice, the archive of what’s left’ and wades into the digital wreckage. ‘What did the internet feel like?’ she tries to remember. ‘How to describe its loss?’
What emerges is a hyper-real ‘systems novel’ – a manic, post-modern interrogation of the culture of ‘blind, endless consumption’ and its hyper-networked global colonisation. ‘The internet had amplified the stupid and the evil, and at the same time flattened them, made them impossible to distinguish. Or made distinguishing them somehow beside the point.’
Trump Sky Alpha is a difficult read: polemical, digressive, and cartoonishly violent – unashamedly so. It is also techno-fluent and form elastic; there are interview transcripts; multiple narration and point-of-view switches; a novel within a novel; a frenetic catalogue of memes, GIFs, and nostalgic internet in-jokes; and a mimetic Trump monologue or two. Readers unfamiliar with Pepe the Frog and TCP/IP protocols will – ironically – need the internet to help them navigate this analogue indictment of the digital world. ‘The universe has strapped us all into the most elaborate Rube Goldberg death machine,’ Doten writes with characteristic hyperbole. His novel feels like one. Whether that is a compliment or a criticism will vary from reader to reader.
But what is most difficult about Doten’s dystopia is how sickeningly recognisable it is. The internet’s record of its own destruction – ‘giddy and etherised ... a jaded and pitiless amazement’ – looks, grotesquely, like everyday life online. ‘The need to be heard, the need to respond, the constant chaotic hum of it. Negative partisanship, zero-sum games, the non-stop trolling, the hate and the love, the postures that were knowing and cool and monstrously self-deprecating and panicked and thirsty and violent and performatively woke, none of it stopped at the end of the world.’
There is no sullenness or submission here. Brash and agitated, Trump Sky Alpha is a novel of mass complicity – a novel about laughing at the end of the world that begins by showing us just how eager and willing we are to laugh at the end of the world.
In subdued contrast, John Lanchester’s The Wall begins with a lone man staring out into an empty sea. That’s how the novel began in Lanchester’s mind: ‘I had started another novel and kept seeing a recurring image as I faded off to sleep,’ the author explained in an interview with the Irish Times. ‘It was a man standing on a wall, on his own, at night, facing the coast. I was thinking about who that was, what world he was living in. I realised I was thinking about the world after catastrophic climate change.’
A whirlwind tour of The Wall’s proper nouns – the Wall, the Change, Defenders, Others, and the Help – sets out the shape that world has taken. In the aftermath of a global climate disaster (the Change), Britain has wrapped itself in a 10,000-kilometre barricade, ‘a long low concrete monster’ (the Wall). As a form of national service, every young person must spend two years as a guard on the Wall (a Defender), protecting the country from migrants (Others).
As our narrator – new Defender, Joseph ‘Chewy’ Kavanagh – explains: ‘They come in rowing boats and rubber dinghies, on inflatable tubes, in groups and in swarms and in couples, in threes, and singles; the smaller the number, often, the harder to detect. They are clever, they are desperate, they are ruthless, they are fighting for their lives, so all of those things had to be true for us as well.’ For every Other that makes it over the Wall, a Defender will be set adrift: one in, one out. Others who are captured are offered three choices: to be euthanised, put back out to sea, or become a state-indentured slave (Help).
There’s a taut fairy-tale logic here – the air is heady with allegorical and symbolic possibility. ‘One of the things about the wall in the book is that it is not a metaphor for anything else,’ the author insists. ‘We had this period when walls were coming down around the world and now, just as an empirical fact, they are springing up all over the place.’ It’s an intention his novel explicitly affirms. The life of a Defender is monotonous: twelve-hour shifts in the bitter, pelagic cold. ‘You look for metaphors,’ Chewy explains, as he searches for a way to convey the cold. ‘But you soon realise that the thing about the cold is that it isn’t a metaphor ... It’s nothing but a physical fact.’
It is this concrete heart that makes The Wall so quietly confronting, the sense that Lanchester hasn’t penned a parable, he’s penned a history of the future; not a what-if, but a when. Plain-spoken and intimate, The Wall is the future remembering its past – our present. Remembering a time when the world was ‘unfucked’ – when there were beaches and travel, and when food meant more than ‘turnips, turnips, fucking turnips’. ‘It must have been too easy, you know? You could just cook anything. Whenever. It just makes you think, how did people know what to want?’
Lanchester’s young people can only imagine a polyglot world of choices, where bearing children didn’t feel ethically indefensible, and families were not riven by intergenerational guilt: ‘The olds feel like they irretrievably fucked up the world, and allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everyone knows it.’
When we are forced to inhabit the world of a dystopia as we would a realist novel, the consolatory insulation of the fantastical is stripped away. What’s left is a profound sense of pre-emptive sorrow and empathy: ‘It takes much more effort to think that life is about you when the whole of human life is turned upside down,’ Chewy reflects, ‘when everything has been irrevocably changed for everyone.’ It is hard to conjure a better description of the soul of contemporary youth activism than this.
‘My main ambition, my main hope for the book, is that I’m wrong,’ Lanchester told the Guardian. The horror of The Wall is how tenuous that hope feels – not for the specifics of the scenario it outlines, but for its sense of bone-deep human loneliness, and corrosive regret.
The Wall and Trump Sky Alpha are timely – in ways both purposeful and accidental. ‘My goal was to write swiftly, with heat, capture something about our moment, and get the book out in Trump’s first term,’ Doten explained in a recent interview.
Both books have attracted complaints that they are ‘Zeitgeisty’. Take Daisy Buchanan’s review of The Wall for the Independent: ‘It’s timely. In fact, it’s too timely. I feel for Lanchester. What probably seemed alarmingly prescient at the time of writing has become almost unbearable to read. It doesn’t seem fair that his work should suffer from being too relevant, but if I struggled with the prose it’s because those endless stretches of grey, cold concrete were looming a little too close for comfort.’
There is a persistent literary myth that speaking to the present is unambitious, unliterary – that fiction adorned with too many cultural baubles is destined to topple into obscurity (but try telling that to American Psycho, Bonfire of the Vanities, or the collected works of Dickens). What a catch-22: refuse to respond to ‘the moment’ and be dismissed for being out of date; respond too closely and be on the nose. Indeed, much of early Trump-lit has responded to this expectation by writing around him (take, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel, Unsheltered , which refused to utter his name). In contrast, Doten’s brazen opening pages offer nothing but targeted mockery. Similarly, Lanchester takes the most potent, weighted symbol of our politics and places it defiantly in the centre. Neither book lets us off the hook – and it is ‘us’ not ‘them’. These are not accounts that indulge our sense of moral superiority; on the contrary, they use that superiority as a bludgeon to wake us up.
‘Datedness is an interesting concept,’ Doten muses, ‘but as a writer I don’t really believe in it, or I don’t believe that it’s something the writer can control ... I’d like to think that there’s still a sense of the cultural texture in those passages that will be legible in five years or even fifty years, even if much of the context is lost. On the other hand, if that’s not the case, that’s fine. I won’t be here in fifty years to worry about it.’
The looming question is whether any of us will be.