The other night I watched about 15 minutes of episode one of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and turned off the TV and went to bed, wondering if I should feel more guilty than I did. For isn’t it the responsibility of every American to know all there is to know about dystopias? But I’d already read the novel, so I knew its drift, as well as most of the standard dystopian literature—1984, Fahrenheit 451, It Can’t Happen Here. In January of last year I wrote a short piece observing that all these books had just returned to the best-seller lists.
I don’t doubt that civilizations can drift into dystopias when the people aren’t looking. But Americans are looking. I doubt if any one of my friends wouldn’t agree it can happen here, and most would add the signs are all about us that the process is under way. I’m not sure the millions of Trump-championing conservatives share our reading list, or have lodged the word dystopia as snugly into their vocabularies, but they have their own clear pictures of an America gone off the rails, its precious freedoms confiscated by tyrants. On either side of the divide, we all easily imagine America as a malign caricature of the country we’ve known and loved; we easily persuade ourselves that turning America into this repressive and bizarro version of itself is exactly the threat the other side poses.
So, no, even though The Handmaid’s Tale had ranked high on my “I haven’t watched but I should” list, I pretty quickly realized I wasn’t interested. At this point in time, dystopian fiction isn’t revelatory; it’s an indulgence that flatters people who share the nightmare and makes us dread people who don’t. A dystopia that might need to become better acknowledged than it is doesn’t consist of the usual—the passionate cowed by bureaucrats, the reasonable under the heel of the obsessed; it’s a society in which no faction actually has the upper hand, but each faction is so certain of the other’s perfidy that no one feels safe. Each swears the other poses an existential threat; each preaches the frantic vigilance of the stalked.