This week’s question comes from reader Ben Kennedy:
“I really loved Arrival, but when I was watching it I couldn’t help but think that if the ship landed when Trump was president, the ending would have been a whole lot worse. It got me thinking about how pop culture offers up visions of what our future will look like, and how those predictions can fluctuate from being totally ridiculous to disturbingly probable depending on current events.
So here’s my question: What piece of pop culture do you think most accurately describes what the future will look like based on the current state of the world?
My answer would be The Peripheral by William Gibson. It’s a future where most of humanity has been killed off by climate change, disease, and war, and those that remain are the rich and powerful who took advantage of the chaos to form a kleptocracy. So, you know, a real optimistic outlook.”
As bleak as it may be, when I think of the future, I think of The Road, specifically the elegantly written novel by Cormac McCarthy (the 2009 film starring Viggo Mortensen was a fine adaptation of a perfect book). The beginning of the end of the world, or at least man’s life in it, might come quickly from nuclear war—as suggested in the novel with the beautiful “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions”—or over many years due to global warming, but either way I see what humans there are left as occupants of McCarthy’s post-apocalypse: walking a gray, wasted Earth, searching for food and water, terrified of encountering bad guys who’ve long since abandoned their morals. “‘We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?’” the starving boy in The Road asks his starving father. The answer is no, but the tragedy is that the question is asked at all. It’s a heartbreaking book to read, and an even more heartbreaking world to imagine.
Given our recently elected CEO-in-chief, I’m opting for a more corporate breed of futuristic dystopia. One of the (many) brilliant things about Simon Barry’s much-missed time-travel series Continuum is the way it normalized its dark future, in which a Machiavellian Steve Jobs type controls a placid population, while hated terrorists fight for things like “debt relief” and “self-determination.” It did so by sticking viewers in the head of future cop Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols), a loving wife, caring mother, and fearsome, violent defender of the corporate status quo. Once she’s tossed into a primitive, anarchic past—i.e., 2012 Vancouver—the good-hearted but culturally indoctrinated Kiera suffers culture shock after culture shock, acclimating to a world in which corporate interests only sort of control everything, instead of owning the entire country whole hog.
This answer is so obvious it barely warrants writing out, but I suppose someone has to. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy has been, and will continue to be, the most prescient document of our rapid decline into a world defined by virulent anti-intellectualism, corporate libertarianism, open disdain for human rights, and rule by professional wrestlers. There’s a reason Judge, screenwriter Etan Cohen, and star Terry Crews—whose bullying, braying, machine-gun-wielding President Camacho seems positively benign in retrospect—all took pains during the 2016 election to remind voters that the film was meant to be outlandish satire. And as America continues to slide into a mouth-breathing, GIF-tweeting dystopia marked by mistrust for science, the media, and other people whose “shit’s all retarded,” and as long as it proudly disregards every attempt to warn against same as the butthurt cries of snowflakes who “talk like a fag,” we’re really only the premiere of Ow My Balls (coming next year to NBC!) away from realizing Judge’s most cynical fantasies, centuries ahead of schedule. Of course, we’re not exactly like Idiocracy. In that movie, the self-involved moron leaders actually acknowledged there was a problem, and they actively looked to smart people to fix it. Who would have guessed Idiocracy would eventually become an optimistic sci-fi fantasy?
The movie itself might have been a heavy-handed mess, but I’m a believer in Elysium’s style of extreme haves-and-have-nots dystopia. The specifics in this case are maybe a little out there—what with the super wealthy escaping Earth’s troubles and moving into an exclusive space station full of automated, all-powerful medical pods—but the core concepts of overpopulation, pollution, and disease pushing humanity to the brink while the richest among us live comfortably and enjoy advances in health care only they can afford is all too believable. That’s now more true than ever, as our humongous wealth inequality problem is suddenly in the hands of a kleptocracy that only cares about lining its pockets and the pockets of people like them, all at the expense of the Earth and rest of us. And now I’ve just gone and made myself sad again.
I am going to choose an entertainment simultaneously rooted in a figure from both our own past and distant, theoretical future in “A Head In the Polls,” the scarily prescient Futurama episode. The head of Richard Nixon, a politician mischaracterized as a “bad dude” and “bad hombre” by history, appropriates first Bender’s shiny robotic body, then an even more fearsome model, and shakes up a presidential campaign pitting two literally identical candidates against each other (they’re clones) with his own maverick, wild-card candidacy. No one gives the “evil underdog” candidate much of a chance, yet Nixon—who reveals to Fry and Leelah his plans to “sell our children’s organs to zoos for meat” and “go into people’s houses at night and wreck up the place” if elected—ends up winning the presidency by one vote after it’s revealed neither Leelah nor Fry voted. Oh sure, you could say it’s unrealistic that the disembodied head of a long-dead president could win the presidency, but that’s what we thought about Trump’s election as well, and at least Nixon’s got some experience to go along with all that evil and angry. So even though Nixon is down (as in “buried”), I wouldn’t count him out, especially now that Trump’s set a new precedent for that level of presidential supervillainy in just his first month.
Donald Trump isn’t going to make it through his first term as president. He’s going to be impeached, or JabBannon The Hutt is going to drop him into the rancor pit, which means the person we truly have to fear, so long as the Constitution remains unsuspended (and even that is starting to feel like an improbably Panglossian fantasy), is vice president and Cracker Barrel logo model Mike Pence. And it’s for that reason that one of the first things I did after election night (after I drained the house of brown liquor) was reach for my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Pence’s record as Indiana governor makes him a lock for a commander position in the theocratic Republic Of Gilead: Under the guise of religious freedom, he legalized discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and later signed legislation that restricted abortion access. That, combined with the Trump administration’s stated policies on pussy-grabbing and blaming things on Muslims, had me racing through the novel in the final weeks of 2016. And wouldn’t you know it, but Hulu’s about to put out a TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale! Follow the urgent tagline of the novel’s previous adaptation, from 1990: Watch, read, or see The Handmaid’s Tale… while it’s still allowed. Or, you know, before we’re living in it.
It depresses me how readily an answer for this came to me. Since it first came out in 2003, my wife and I regularly mention how prescient Margeret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake feels. Well, maybe not all of it. We’re still not as bad off as when the book begins, with the majority of humanity killed by a lab-created plague and replaced with a race of genetically engineered humanoids designed to survive in our environmentally damaged world. But Atwood’s world-building leading up to the cataclysm sure feels familiar. Powerful corporations have become self-sustaining city-states walled off from the rest of the nation—a marginalized and impoverished place known as the Plebelands. A popular sect of Christianity has emerged from willfully misinterpreting a Bible passage to effectively endorse petroleum worship and bored kids smoke weed while watching live-streaming execution videos. The grim banality of it all is presented in such intricate detail it almost makes the mad genius Crake’s decision to secretly poison humanity through the dissemination of a free super-drug BlyssPluss seem reasonable.
I still get contemplative thinking about the near-future dystopia of Children Of Men. Things are somewhat dark at the moment—current events suggest humans don’t have the foresight or tolerance for others to allow for a Star Trek-like future—so if we’re basing the predictive properties on the present day, Alfonso Cuarón’s vision of a world of technology, haves and have-nots, and a slowly rotting social fabric looks less prescient than common sense. Sure, it might not be a gradual rendering of all humanity infertile that punches our ticket, but it’s the allegorical equivalent of climate change, increasingly frayed social contracts, or whatever other apocalyptic scenario you can envision. If only I had a Clive Owen running around in sandals to make me feel more secure, it might all seem less dire. As it is, I’ll have to settle for hoping I don’t end up a warning notice in a cage, alerting incoming visitors to Chicago that there’s no batteries left in the city walls, during the great wi-fi battle of 2032.