Working my way through my summer reading list I’ve taken a detour. It happens every summer, some previously unexpected, off the radar novel comes to my attention, grabs my interest, I track it down, and the reading begins (or continues). This summer that book seems to be three books, a trilogy, written by Ben H. Winters, entitled The Last Policeman. Classic dystopian literature. A dark and disturbing world, intimately familiar, exists under the threat of extinction. People go about their normal lives, work, converse, eat, fall in and out of love. Everything is the same, but everything is different. When you know the world is about to end, who can blame you for acting a bit strangely?
The genre of dystopian fiction is more popular than it has ever been. We all remember Orwell’s 1984, having read it in high school. The protagonist Winston Smith is on a fool’s errand, a quest for independence and freedom, thinking his own thoughts, straying from the prescribed program, leaving the party, and with it Big Brother, behind. It is a quest that can only end badly. Deception, capture, and torture; the inexorable power of the State bending Smith’s will and twisting his psyche, robbing him of every free thought and feeling. 1984 paints the portrait of a world that on the surface functions at least semi-normally, but where just under the surface – just – everything is wrong.
Something draws us to these stories. Think of the success of the Hunger Games series, or Lois Lowry’s The Giver, required reading in virtually every middle school today. But the list goes on and on. Surely Huxley paved the way with Brave New World. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explored the darkness of a world without books. More recently Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake have delved into a near future where the average man or woman is boxed into a life totally controlled by invisible, shadowy forces. These narratives are marked by a sense of ominous presence, of someone or something always watching, of inevitable violence and decay and the destruction of the human spirit.
Can there be anything better to read in this summer of our discontent? With bizarre political processes playing out before our very eyes, with violence in the streets, citizens and police being shot, guns everywhere. With the menace of terrorist attacks, where every bag can hold a bomb and every truck can suddenly become a terrible weapon of destruction and death. As distrust and division grows deeper, what can be done?
Perhaps the first step is simply naming it all, looking unflinchingly at what is happening and acknowledging how troubled these times truly are, and how far we have to go, how much work there is to be done to change this tide. That is precisely where art comes in, where music and literature and painting can help us step outside of our world for a time so that when we return, when we walk back through the door, we have context, a deeper understanding of what we see and feel, of what our world is and should be.