Episode 31: Transcript
Podcast: Our Opinions Are Correct, Episode 31
Transcription by Keffy
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct. A podcast about science fiction and society. I'm Annalee Newitz. I'm a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] I'm Charlie Jane Anders. I'm a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science
Annalee: [00:00:13] And today we're going to talk about dystopia, utopia and how to get out of both. How to get out of that binary thinking that either things are perfect or things are totally terrible. And also, I think, more importantly because dystopian stories are so popular right now and we're living in kind of a dystopian time. What good are dystopian stories? Why do we keep telling them? Do they really help us? Do they function as a warning? What is the point of talking about dystopia?
Charlie Jane: [00:00:46] We're going to cut your topiary down.
[00:00:49] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:15] Let's start with the basics because we throw around the term dystopia a lot, and yet we don't often delve into what do we really mean by a dystopia? So Charlie Jane, what is a dystopia?
Charlie Jane: [00:01:26] I mean, I feel like a dystopia is literally the bad place, like in The Good Place or whatever. It's like, it's a version of reality in which things have gotten really dark and terrible and people are suffering and there's some kind of oppressive government. It's kind of the opposite of utopia. I feel like dystopia is best defined as a bad utopia or like a negative utopia. Utopia of course, is this thing that comes from this Thomas Moore book from like way back in the day about, you know—
Annalee: [00:01:53] 500 years ago.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:53] —An ideal society that's kind of messed up in its own way. You know, a utopia is a happy, peaceful, friendly society and a dystopia is messed up and oppressive and horrible and scary. And there was a lot of dystopias being published in like the mid-2000s. The George Bush era going into the Obama era.
[00:02:16] It was kind of a fad. There was a lot of young adult dystopias. There was like Hunger Games, but a lot of other books that kind of jumped on the Hunger Games’ bandwagon. And a lot of kind of dark visions of the future being published. And then in around 2013, 2014 people were like, okay, we're done with dystopias. Dystopias are over, we're sick of them, we don't want them anymore. And then, you know, we had the 2016 election and a bunch of other terrible stuff happened and everything kind of went to crap and suddenly dystopias are back. But it's a different kind of feeling now because you know, it is more just straight up reflecting the time we live in.
Annalee: [00:02:51] Yeah. I think the classic dystopian novel of the modern age is George Orwell's 1984.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:58] Right.
Annalee: [00:02:58] And it gets remembered a lot because it has a lot of those ingredients that you talked about. It has the oppressive government. Everyone is suffering. And, in 1984 we got a whole new language for talking about basically how oppression works in the modern age, you know, through surveillance, through technology, through fascism and through authoritarianism that used those kinds of technologies.
[00:03:20] But today, right now, in this exact second, I think the main dystopian story we're all thinking about is The Handmaid's Tale.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:27] Yeah. Fair.
Annalee: [00:03:27] And so here's a little clip from the teaser for that show, which actually went into production before the presidential election in the US, so I think they were imagining a very different landscape.
Handmaid’s Tale: [00:03:40] I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen. When they slaughtered congress, we didn't wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn't wake up then either. Now I’m awake.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:54] Yeah, it’s so chilling. And it's like, it's kind of freaky to hear it laid out like that. The idea of like women just losing all of our rights and being turned into chattel and it's a horrifying concept. And you know, I think that part of what happened when people were getting sick of dystopia is in sort of the early 20-teens was this feeling that like dystopias were kind of unrealistic. One-dimensional, frequently.
[00:04:21] There was this kind of cartoony thing like in, especially Hunger Games, and some of the ones that came after Hunger Games were just weird stuff was going on and it was like, well, now everybody's walking on their hands instead of their feet because the government says so. And it was just like, there are plenty of examples in real life of governments suddenly imposing really extreme conditions on people. Like, I don't know, the Cultural Revolution in China comes to mind.
Annalee: [00:04:42] Yeah, that's a great example.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:43] You know, but still, there's a limit to what you can imagine people just accepting all of a sudden. And I think that where dystopias sort of live is right at the edge of possibility, I guess I would say. Right at the edge of what you could imagine people accepting and learning to live with in a bizarre, terrible, poorly governed situation.
Annalee: [00:05:02] Yeah, it's definitely heightened reality. They're not intended to be realistic. And I think that's why, you know, you and I have had arguments about The Handmaid's Tale. Because I was saying, well, that's not realistic. That they would all not have noticed that these terrible things were happening and that there wouldn't have been a resistance before the final crackdown, which leads to the establishment of Gilead, which replaces the US government. And you were saying, well I don't know. People are pretty sleepy.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:32] Yeah. And you know, it's weird like in terms of like what I find implausible or a hard to believe about dystopia is the part where people are complacent and kind of don't wake up until things suddenly get really horrible. Like the sort of boiling a frog effect where people just, oh yeah, they took away this right. Or they take away that right. While we still have all these other rights, well, you know, we still have some freedoms left. You know, let's just keep our heads down. It'll be fine. I feel like that's the most realistic part of like a dystopian story. And I feel like although having said that, I think that often the weakest part of a lot of dystopias is the origin story where they just kind of are like, and then this regime was put in place and they never like, it's rare that you see a dystopia where they actually tried to depict in any kind of believable fashion the rise to power of a an oppressive government. It's usually just kinda overnight.
Annalee: [00:06:22] That's why I think something like Walking Dead is like a classic of the dystopian genre because they don't even bother with like some kind of realistic frame at all. It's just like, and then there were zombies. Okay. Cue dystopia. And like, fair enough, right? Yeah, that's a black swan moment. The zombie moment. We didn't see that one coming.
[00:06:44] Whereas I think with something like the Handmaid's tale, there is an effort being made to kind of gesture at what's realistic in the world. Like there's no zombie uprising. It's just a political shift. And I think that to me, what makes it feel unrealistic, because I, we're living through a time currently that people are describing as dystopian around the world.
[00:07:04] There's the rise of authoritarian regimes here in the US, but in also in Brazil, also in Hungary, also in the UK. Name that region of the world and we've got some dark political systems coming into power. And at the same time we also have new systems of resistance. And so for me, I always think about how there's not enough emphasis placed on resistance in these stories. Like not just resistance in the story itself because of course, part of Handmaid's Tale is about how did they form a resistance. But how… wasn't there a resistance before?
[00:07:41] Because I feel like living through the Trump era in the US, I'm watching all different kinds of new resistance come into being, you know. That might take the form of something like the Green New Deal, which is, you know, working within the system but also you know, people marching in the streets. People organizing around science education of all things, you know, things that you wouldn't necessarily think of as areas of resistance. Like people are stepping up. People are challenging laws.
[00:08:09] When Trump tried to bar Muslims from coming into the US, people sat in airports and that has helped to kind of roll back some of those laws, although at the moment that's looking kind of grim but there have been many challenges to those laws.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:24] Yeah, I've been really encouraged by seeing a lot of the resistance that's come up during the Trump era. I've also been a little bit worried because I feel like there was a lot of energy in 2017 and people are starting to kind of get burned out. People I know at least don't have the same amount of energy for like calling their representatives and showing up for marches and kind of doing one more push. I feel like people are starting to get a little bit burned out on constantly being in this struggle. Which is exhausting. And I think that that is a thing that happens.
[00:08:56] And you mentioning a black swan event made me think of Black Mirror, which is kind of like the opposite end of dystopia. It's the kind of hyper-real dystopia, which actually often has very implausible premises as well. But they're kind of masked by how grounded and real the world of Black Mirror seems to be. And then they have these like ridiculous, you know, what if like everybody had MeowMeowBeenz and that was what society is organized on or whatever, you know,
Annalee: [00:09:21] Everybody had an implant.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:22] Yeah
Annalee: [00:09:22] I mean I would say Black Mirror is very similar to Handmaid's Tale in that it's heightened reality. It's an exaggerated version of reality. And that's really the hallmark of dystopia. And I think sometimes we think, all right, well then what's the utopia — like we'll fight dystopia with utopia and then so that's why you get things like people saying, well Bernie Sanders will fix everything. Like he's, he is the mastermind of utopia. How does utopian thinking fit into all of this I guess? Like is it a separate strand? Does it always go alongside dystopia?
Charlie Jane: [00:09:53] I think utopia is kind of, you know, its own thing in a way. I feel like, and you know it's hard to find really popular examples of utopias in pop culture that aren't kind of false utopias or utopias that we start to question. Even star Trek.
Annalee: [00:10:07] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:07] Which is kind of the classic utopian storyline, has kind of over time kind of problematized and kind of questioned its own premise and you know, Star Trek Discovery, especially the first season was very dark and weird and they're bringing back session Section 31 which was like the most kind of dystopian part of the Federation in Deep Space Nine.
Annalee: [00:10:26] I feel like when we see a utopia, it's almost always about to be taken away. Like I think about Themiscyra in Wonder Woman or the Shire in Lord of the Rings where it's like these beautiful, democratic, bucolic societies. They're living in harmony with nature. They're studying and farming and doing all these lovely things, but then some bad war comes along and just fucks them over. And wrecks their dystopia and like means that they all have to go do something terrible with their lives.
[00:10:58] And it's funny because I was just reading about how in the 1970s hippies were obsessed with Middle Earth and used to wear buttons that said Frodo Lives and it was kind of this idea that the Shire where Frodo is from is this kind of rejection of the military industrial complex, you know, and that it was this kind of back to nature thing and it was, it was a utopian protest basically.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:21] You're much more likely to see, kind of, thought-through utopias in books like The Culture, Iain M Banks’ series.
Annalee: [00:11:27] True, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:27] Some other kind of post-scarcity visions of the world or you know, parts of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway feel kind of utopian to me. I feel like when people are describing new social movements that are kind of, you know, about working together and cooperating and being peaceful and supporting each other, it's more likely to be kind of fleshed out in books, I feel like.
Annalee: [00:11:49] Yeah. And there's a whole strand of feminist utopia going back to Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is early 20th century, which is just like, it's like pretty much Themiscyra, but you know, it's sort of presented as like a travel log. And then there's stuff like Nicola Griffiths’ novel, Ammonite, which came out in the 90s which is, it's about an all-female kind of, it's not totally utopian, but it's kind of nice, like it's nice. They’re back to the land and they're, you know, living their best lives on this planet.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:17] Yeah. And like Becky Chambers’ space opera books. They're not utopian per se, but it's a world where people are mostly good and things are basically nice. Her third book Record of a Spaceborn Few takes place on this space station where basically everybody has a guaranteed job and nobody goes hungry.
Annalee: [00:12:33] Yeah. It's like this sort of Star Trek version of Utopia.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:36] It's a little more hardscrabble than that, but it is very much like it's a kind of a socialist/communist version of the future.
Annalee: [00:12:42] I want to mention before we move on that dystopian and utopian thinking aren't just something in fiction. And I mean you can tell just from the fact that we've been having this conversation, we keep referring to things happening in the real world and saying like, oh, but is that like how it would happen in real life? And there is a whole strand of dystopian writing in the nonfiction world, especially around issues like climate change and AI. And I think a perfect example is this new bestseller by David Wallace Wells called The Uninhabitable Earth, which is about how climate change is going to be even worse than we think. And it's basically going to wreck the world. And you know, he spoke with scientists and it's a well reported book. I mean, here he is talking a little bit about his approach in the book.
David Wallace Wells: [00:13:28] The best economic research suggests that we could have as much as a third less economic activity as we would without climate change by the end of the century. That's an impact that's more than twice as deep as the great depression and it would be permanent. So one big question is why we've let it get to this point. The UN established its climate body in 1992 and we've emitted more carbon into the atmosphere since then than did an all of the centuries, all the millennia before that, which means we've now had done more damage to the planet knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. How can that possibly be?
Annalee: [00:14:04] The reason why I call this dystopian writing is because it presents a horrible future that is inevitable. And it kind of says, well, it's all our fault because we knew better and why did this all happen? Well, let's just focus on how bad it's going to be. And I think that's the hallmark, again, of dystopian thinking is not really thinking so much about the long, long road that took us here, not just the last 10 years but like 300 years of industrialization and then also not thinking about how we're going to get beyond it. And so I feel like dystopias are often kind of worlds in amber where it's like here is the dark place. We're stuck in the dark place. There's no way in, there's no way out. Let's just focus on how terrible it is. And I think the idea is to scare us, right? To say like, oh my gosh, this could happen. Like, let's try to do something else. But the dystopia doesn't give you a direction out, you know? And if the direction out is utopia, well it's the same problem. Like it's like, well how do you get to utopia? Like I don't know.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:07] What I liked about the kind of rash of young adult dystopias in the late 2000s was that they often did lead to a revolution like Hunger Games. But a bunch of the other ones as well. There's an uprising. The dystopian rulers are thrown out and like maybe things aren't perfect after that, but things are possibly going to be a little bit better. And you know, I think that the climate change example is a perfect one because it is this existential threat that we can easily be paralyzed in the face of. And you know, what we need is stories that inspire us to get out and do something and kind of work to mitigate climate change and protest against things like the expansion of fracking and the expansion of coal mining and like all of the things that the government is doing right now to discourage alternative energy and kind of support fossil fuels and anything that gets us out in the streets protesting that and kind of writing letters and making noise… I think anything that galvanizes us is good.
[00:16:04] And you know, actually I was just thinking that part of what was good about having all these dystopias during the Obama era is that it was a time when a lot of people could reasonably feel as though things were getting better. They weren't perfect, they weren't even necessarily great, but they were getting better. We are making progress along all of these axes in terms of having more health care access for people, having more rights for queer people, having slightly better treatment of immigrants, emphasis on slightly.
Annalee: [00:16:29] Having a wee bit of racial justice.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:31] Having a wee bit of racial justice. That was a time when having dystopias there to be like, hey, you know what? It's really easy to get suckered into being part of something that's actually oppressive and terrible. Indeed, during that same time, the government was ramping up surveillance. It was having more drone strikes. It was having a lot of scary stuff in real life. And I think that having dystopian stories and dystopian stories specifically where people fight back was really useful. And I feel like weirdly, even though it dystopias have made a huge comeback in the Trump era, I don't know if there is useful as they were.
Annalee: [00:17:02] I feel like I heard a lot of people talking or read a lot of people talking online after Handmaid's Tale had been out for a season or a had finished its first season. People saying, wow, I don't really want to watch this now. Even though it's a great show and it's beautifully directed and written and acted and it’s so compelling. I just, I want to maybe just watch Black Panther or Steven Universe or something that's gonna make me feel like there's a little hope. So, after the break we're going to talk about getting out of the utopia/dystopia binary and how we can use stories to be a little bit more realistic about the future.
[00:17:42] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:56] How do we break out of that binary? How do we like smash the false dichotomy of utopia and dystopia?
Annalee: [00:18:02] Well, it's easy. Step one, acknowledge that there is a binary. Actually, though, seriously. Like that is partly step one, is just acknowledging that we are kind of trapped in this binary and that dystopias are not any more truthful than utopias. They're both heightened reality. They're both often presented to us, as I said earlier in amber, sort of divorced from a history and a future and divorced from any kind of thought about how we might get out of it. Or in the case of utopia, get into it, depending on whether you want to visit that utopia, because of course, as they say in Gilead, it is utopia for some people.
[00:18:41] So that's also one of the things I think to be aware of is who's utopia you're talking about? Who's dystopia or are you talking about, I wanted to play a clip from Janelle Monáe's new album, Dirty Computer, because it's connected with a film that she did, that’s sort of a film about the whole album, which is a kind of a concept album, I guess you could say.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:03] It's a Hugo-nominated film.
Annalee: [00:19:04] It is a Hugo nominated film. So this is a clip from one of the hit songs, Crazy Classic Life.
Janelle Monáe: [00:19:11] [Crazy Classic Life plays.] We don’t need another ruler, all of my friends are kings. I am not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream. Just let me live my life! I want a crazy, classic life. I want a crazy, classic life. So if the world should end tonight, I had a crazy, classic life.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:48] Oh my God, that song always makes me so happy.
Annalee: [00:19:49] Same.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:51] I love that song.
Annalee: [00:19:51] And yet the world depicted in the song and also depicted in the movie that goes along with the whole album is a dystopian world. We see that there's crackdowns from some kind of authoritarian state. People are being brainwashed and told that they can't be queer, they can't be black, they can't be immigrants. They can't dance around and have fun. And at the same time, what we see through the character—Janelle Monáe’s character in the story is that there's all of these pretty organized pockets of resistance. And the thing I love about the resistance in these stories is that it's both a political resistance, but it's also an artistic resistance. And it's also personal because her character has a female lover and a male lover and they are just trying to be happy, queer, polyamorous people of color.
[00:20:43] And the government is just like, no. I mean it's, we have to imagine maybe it's some kind of religious regime or we don't know for sure. It's this great kind of crunchy look at the future where it's full of both dark and light elements. And so I think that's a great example of trying to show how even in a dystopian, or even in a politically repressive regime, resistance is always developing. And it doesn't always look the way you expect. Like you kept saying like we need to do is write letters and get in the street.
[00:21:21] And what's great about Dirty Computer is that no one's doing that. They are dancing in the street. They are reclaiming abandoned spaces. We see them having events in like houses that have been abandoned, we don't know why. And they're not necessarily doing the things that we think of as resistance and yet they are clearly resisting.
[00:21:40] I'm not going to spoil the movie for you, but you should listen. You should watch, and check it out because it's a really, it's really fun and it is, it's a bit surreal. Like it's not, I wouldn't even call it heightened reality. I would call it, I would call it magic realism.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:53] It’s a little cartoony.
Annalee: [00:21:54] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:54] In parts.
Annalee: [00:21:54] In parts, yeah. And it has a great kind of, I'm 70 science fiction vibe and it's, and of course a lot of like plastic outfits that look fantastic.
[00:22:02] So I think that that's one way to get out of the binary is to try to show like what I'm calling like a crunchy future, which is just meaning that it isn't just one way or the other. It's kind of full of different kinds of social formations. There’s resistance. There's counter resistance, there's oppression, there's liberation.
[00:22:19] And you know, that's pretty much how it's been throughout most of human history. I don't think there's any reason to think that suddenly we're going to go into a place where everything is dark or everything's perfect.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:31] I mean, I guess there was the Middle Ages or whatever, which were pretty horrific and a lot of ways, but…
Annalee: [00:22:36] In the west.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:36] In the west, yeah not in the Islamic world.
Annalee: [00:22:38] So there was a flower—right. But that's what I'm saying is that when we, when we say like, oh, remember the middle ages as like European whities like ourselves, you know, we're thinking, oh, like what happened in Europe? And it's like, but if you just look at it from a different perspective, it's like, well it's a time of flowering of the sciences and math throughout the Islamic world. And so things were awesome there. Things were kind of great on the Silk Road for a lot of that time too.
[00:23:05] And there was lots of learning and lots of yummy food and people hanging out and being like pseudo-democratic. So, you know, it just depends on where you are.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:13] Yeah. So, I mean one of the things that we talked about earlier about dystopias is the sense that the past is really kind of oblique and it's just like suddenly there was a dystopia. And we often don't really understand what happened before the dystopia or where it came from. And like, do you think that part of a better approach to kind of complicated stories about messed up worlds is having like a richer sense of the past?
Annalee: [00:23:38] I definitely do. And I think that's one of the reasons why Black Panther was an interesting film. I think it galvanized people partly just because it was such a beautifully shot film and well written. But also I think the fact that it's a movie that gives us this kind of near future crazy-ass technology that's pretty. And Wakanda is a relatively utopian space, but it's placed in the context of understanding this long history of European colonialism in Africa, the oppression of African-Americans by a white government in the United States.
[00:24:18] Like, we're never… We don't forget that there's this whole long history that has happened before Black Panther comes along and is just this awesome hero and gets to kind of save the day. And so we get this Afrofuturist image of Wakanda, but we never… It's not divorce—even though it's literally under a dome and hidden from the rest of the world. We understand that that hiding from the world is because of a ton of centuries of political machinations. And so that's not a huge part of the film that's foregrounded, but it’s the background throughout the film. And I love that. And I think that gives us, again, the crunchy future or the crunchy near future where it's not… Wakanda is not perfect, it's better, but it's also built on top of this kind of rejection of this incredible oppression that's been going on.
[00:25:11] So I do love that when we see a little bit of history in our future thinking.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:16] Yeah. So I mean, are there a nonfiction stories that we can use to kind of help understand oppressive systems in a way that gets beyond utopia and dystopia?
Annalee: [00:25:27] Yeah, so I was calling out before the idea of dystopian nonfiction that kind of tells us the problem but doesn't really give us context for it. And I think there's a ton of books and stories that try to go against that grain, and show us a little bit. I've been really excited by a book that just came out called Death in 10 Minutes: the Forgotten Life of Radical Suffragette Kitty Marian. I mean this is by Fern Riddell and it's a history of this radical suffragette at the turn of the 20th century and on into the 20th century. Who was basically a bomb throwing women's rights activist who was arrested repeatedly and worked with a lot of very famous women's rights advocates and has kind of been erased from history. And I think those kinds of stories where we remember that history was full of politics that were much more nuanced than we realize. And that even as, you know, women were being deprived of their rights. There really were bomb throwing activists who are like in the streets putting their lives on the line. She didn't try to kill anyone, she just wanted to, you know, bomb places that were symbolic.
[00:26:39] The point is that our history is more complex than we give it credit for. And I think knowing that helps us think about the future being really complex. I think also going back and reading classic thinkers like W.E.B. Dubois, who invented the idea of double consciousness in immigrants and African-Americans. He was writing at the turn of the 20th century and describing something that is still haunting our pop culture today. A lot of people feel like the movie Get Out is basically a direct inheritance of this, you know, century-old or more than century-old idea of double consciousness where you're trying to be your authentic self, whatever that is as an immigrant or a woman or a black person.
[00:27:24] But then the world around you is imposing a different self on you. That's the kind of mainstream white American self. And to move through the world you have to have both and it's pretty exhausting. And so going back and seeing that somebody who was actually talking about that issue like over a hundred years ago, it's not like a new thing. We didn't just notice it. That can be a really helpful way to think about how social change works and kind of again, get out of this idea that like we're trapped in this sudden racist dystopia. And it's like, yes, we are in a racist world, but we've been there for a long time and people for a long time have been thinking about ways of naming it and talking about it. And that's a very helpful perspective to have. I think.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:08] Yeah. And we kind of talked before about how the concept of dystopia, like we look at the world from this lens of like the Eurocentric, white, American lens in which history is kind of shaped by like how things affected white people in Europe, kind of to a large extent. And a lot of the most famous works of dystopia are kind of created by white American authors.
[00:28:32] I think it's interesting to try to think about dystopia from a global perspective and think about how it looks to people who were on the receiving end of colonialism and various other forms of imperialism over a long period of time. And for them, you know, dystopia has been kind of an evolving situation for centuries and it's very different than the kind of this idea that—I think one of the underlying assumptions of dystopia is that everything was fine until, dot dot dot…
[00:28:57] We had freedoms and then they were taken away or everything was great until this happened. And I think part of what people have been trying to say in the last few years as things have started to get really scary is that we've been trying to tell you that this was going on and you didn't want to hear it. And in fact, this is just, you know, more of the same or an extension of the situation that we've been dealing with since the rise of colonialism or since the rise of slavery.
[00:29:22] And, in fact, part of why dystopias are kind of a little bit simple minded or simplistic, is that they often privilege this perspective of the people who were comforted or comfortable and are now suddenly uncomfortable. Kind of.
Annalee: [00:29:35] That is so true. And it was making me think about how I keep returning to Afrofuturist narratives. When I think about stories that don't buy into this binary and actually try to show us a world that's complex. And I think that's because of exactly what you're saying, that, in the United States, African-Americans have always lived this double consciousness where white people were wow, we're just living in a great world. And black people are like, um, actually it's always kinda been bad for us. And of course plenty of immigrant groups have had the same experience I grew up in California, so LatinX groups were always getting screwed over while white people were making lots of money and stuff like that.
[00:30:20] So I think that is a good way to try to get out of that binary is to pay attention to the voices that are now luckily entering into publishing and a little bit into mass media that are talking about how well, guess what? Your white utopia was always just a white utopia. It was not for everybody. And like we've got some tools here for dealing with catastrophe because, you know, our people in our families have already been coping with this for a long time.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:46] And the roots of oppression go much deeper than people want to admit. And not just people of color, but you know, a lot of queers and disabled people and sex workers and just people who've been pushed to the margins have experienced kind of ingrained and inherent oppression. Whatever's happening now is just an extension of that. And I think that, I think a greater awareness of history, and in fictional worlds a greater attention to kind of the long history of how things got bad or how things have continued to be bad creates a more nuanced picture. And you know, I think that the cycle always continues, kind of.
Annalee: [00:31:22] I think that that's true and I think, but we do need to get out of thinking of it as a cycle. I want us to be thinking that yes, it's a cycle, but we also are moving in a direction because it's important to, if we want to get out of this binary, if we want to get out of a dystopian world, we've got to get some maps in our head. Even if they're imaginary maps, about ways to cope with dystopia. Ways to mitigate dystopia without falling into the trap of saying like, well, if we can't have utopia, then we're just fucked.
[00:31:57] So, you know, it has to be like, look, things are always going to be kind of screwed up, but they can be less screwed up. And here's some ideas. So, do you feel like… that fiction has a role to play in that? Because I think that one of the things about nonfiction and fact-based writing and reporting is that often those of us who do it feel like, well, we're the ones who are kind of providing the paths to the future because we've got our hands-on facts and yet I feel like fiction has a huge role to play in this. I mean, after all the, the notion of dystopia really comes from fiction and now we're using it to describe the real world. So.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:33] Yeah. I mean, I think that this kind of gets back to what we talked about in the hope episode a while back. I think that the hope episode was kind of about how we need stories that show how to cope with oppression and how to cope with scary situations. And I think that fiction can actually provide us with a bit of a roadmap. I think fiction, especially fiction, that is kind of rooted in awareness of kind of real complexity. And I think that there's a great scope for storytelling that kind of empowers people and gives people a way forward. I dunno. I mean, what kind of stories are you finding hopeful, helpful or hopeful in our current kind of quasi-dystopian situation?
Annalee: [00:33:15] Well, I think we've been talking about some of them. Definitely stories like Black Panther, which are hopeful but also keenly aware of problems that are ongoing. The Expanse, the space opera series is great at kind of sketching out these problems. To get slightly out of genre, I also love the historical drama Harlots, which is set in a 18th century London and is a classic example of taking the side of people who normally don't get talked about. It's about a woman who's running a brothel and her relationship to the political structure and the ways in which sex workers are actually deeply embedded in all of these power relationships. And it deals a lot with race because some of the women who work with her are former slaves. It's a great historical look at how the world wasn't all bad and wasn't all good back in the dark times of history.
[00:34:13] And so I take a lot of comfort from that. I also think that for me, fiction provides us with a kind of symbolic or emotional system, or maybe even just faith that humanity will go on. And in nonfiction, especially because I read a lot about climate issues and I write a lot about climate issues. It's easy to feel like everything is doomed and we don't even have a future because the future's going to be really different from the present. It's going to be extremely difficult. There's going to be a lot of life and death struggles for people. And I think in fiction we kind of… we unburden ourselves from that reality a little bit and allow ourselves to realize people will go on. We have to have faith that they will go on because otherwise we won't come up with any ways to mitigate the problems that we're creating. We’ll just become paralyzed. And so I think having a story like say Cloud Atlas, which suggests this deep future for humanity or something like Nora Jemisin’s series The Broken Earth, which okay, it's not really set on earth, maybe, but also projects this deep future. I like that because I feel like even though those are maybe not perfect futures, it's a reminder that we have a future.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:34] Absolutely. And I think the Becky Chambers books I mentioned before actually fit really nicely into that. You know, a lot of space opera is like weirdly… like, Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars, as well. A lot of space opera is like weirdly kind of gritty but optimistic I feel like. And that's kind of, I like gritty optimism. I think gritty optimism is my jam right now.
Annalee: [00:35:54] Yeah. I actually… I also think J.Y. Yang’s Tensorate series, even though that's a secondary world fantasy series, I think they do a good job of showing that even though tough things are happening, people are also doing something about it and it feels, again, it has that kind of, it's gritty and optimistic. Like people make good choices and oftentimes out of love. And I think that's really awesome.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:17] Yeah, and I was just singing the praises I think on one of our previous episodes about Mary Robinette Kowal’s, you know, The Calculating Stars. But that—the first book, I haven't read the second book yet—the first book is just so kind of inspiring and it's, you know, about a world that's in serious trouble, but people kind of come together and build a space program in the 1950s to establish colonies on other planets because the earth is doomed all of a sudden. And like part of the point of the book is that we're not going to make it as a species unless we overcome sexism. And so that's kind of one of the struggles in the book is that that people have to get past their sexism and their patriarchal bullshit in order to have a future for humanity. Which I think is like, that's a wonderful way of having the same kinds of concerns as The Handmaid's Tale or whatever, but in a more kind of grounded world where there's hope.
Annalee: [00:37:07] Gritty optimism.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:07] Gritty optimism.
Annalee: [00:37:08] I like it.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:09] Yeah, me too. Yay.
Annalee: [00:37:11] When we come back, we have a couple of recommendations for you.
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Charlie Jane: [00:37:29] So, Annalee, what do you recommend that you've been reading or watching lately?
Annalee: [00:37:32] I am reading Michele Tracy Berger’s novella called Reenu-You, which is about how a plague outbreak starts among women who are using hair relaxers because there's a kind of terrible pathogen embedded in hair relaxers. And it's this great story that deals with the usual fun stuff of like a horrible virus decimating humanity. So, so that's there and it's very action packed. But the main characters are these five women of color who have been early users of this product called Reenu-You and are figuring out how it happened that they got this thing in their hair relaxer, which is possibly gonna destroy the world. And it deals a lot with gender and race and it's kind of like, it has a little bit of a sense of Walking Dead where it's kind of looking at how the world is crumbling, but also it has a very Jordan Peele kind of looking at how problems around race lead to these much bigger problems.
[00:38:39] So, it's like, partly nobody takes this seriously at first because hair relaxers, who cares about people who use hair relaxers, right? It's like almost exclusively black women. And so it kind of reminded me a little bit of like the AIDS virus where it was like, oh no one cares about gay people dying until other people start dying. So it's great social commentary and it's great just gross-out body horror. And if you've ever used an intense hair product, you already know that it feels like you're poisoning yourself. So I can see how it came out of hard-won experience.
[00:39:11] So yeah, so, Reenu-You is out of print but you can easily find it in your library. And I'm hoping that some kind of ebook will be available soon. So, that would be really great.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:19] Yeah. Right now I'm reading, I'm just finishing a Warcross by Marie Lu, which is a young adult novel I've been meaning to read for ages. It's set in a future where there's like ubiquitous, virtual reality and augmented reality and it's sort of a little bit of a cyberpunk dystopia, but it's also really exciting and fun. And the main character gets to—is a hacker and bounty hunter who, you know, it gets involved in the world of this like extreme sport that’s in augmented reality in the future and it's just, it's just nonstop fun with like super great characters. And, it’s, you know, mostly takes place in a future version of Tokyo, which is always great. And I'm just, I'm enjoying the hell out of it.
Annalee: [00:40:00] Sounds good. I want to check it out.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:02] Yeah. Cool. Thanks for so much for listening. This has been, Our Opinions Are Correct, the Hugo-nominated podcast about the meaning of a science fiction. I know, we got nominated!
[00:40:12] Please like us. Please follow us on Apple and Stitcher and wherever else you find podcasts. Please leave a review. It makes a huge difference. If you like our podcast, please, please, please review us on all of the places where you can review podcasts. You can follow us on Twitter @OOACpod and on Facebook as Our Opinions Are Correct.
Annalee: [00:40:32] Also we have a Patreon. Please consider supporting us so that you can help us pay for studio time and for making this podcast happen we’re just Our Opinions Are Correct on Patreon.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:46] And thanks so much to Veronica Simonetti, our amazing producer at Women's Audio Mission. And thanks to Chris Palmer for the music and thanks to you for listening.
Annalee: [00:40:53] Yeah, well hear you in two weeks or you'll hear us.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:56] You'll hear us. We’ll hear…
Annalee: [00:40:58] Let’s talk in two weeks.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:59] We'll talk in two weeks. Bye!
Annalee: [00:41:00] Bye!
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