I went through a phase and read the major dystopian novels; Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Animal Farm, etc. The great thing about fiction is, we have models of different types of worlds. Think about how deeply the concept of “Big Brother” from 1984 has permeated our culture. If 1984 hadn’t been written, if Orwell hadn’t been brilliant enough to envision a future where a government operates with total surveillance, could we have been in a worse place than we are now? Every new surveillance system or plan brings the “Big Brother” idea with it and I think the designers have to account for that. If we didn’t have the dystopian novels, I believe our world could be much different.
We also have utopian fiction on the other end of the spectrum. I remember reading B.F. Skinner’s Walden II in one of my psychology classes. In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia. Both had many ideas worth thinking about. One book that has stayed with me for years was James P. Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear. I re-read it a couple of years ago and thought it was more important than ever.
Right now, I’m sitting at my home office. Due to COVID-19, I haven’t driven the one hour into work in Austin and the one hour back in over four weeks. I’ve left my house only for groceries, gardening supplies, parts for a busted kitchen sink pipe, and other essentials. We’ve been trying to support some local restaurants by using their to-go service. My kids have been homeschooled for all of their lives but I’m watching other parents navigate that world. From what I understand, highways have cleared up. I haven’t witnessed this myself because I haven’t been on them in weeks, but one friend told me the trip that used to take them an hour is now twenty minutes.
Even through the suffering, we’ve seen something different with the global shutdown. Skys are clearing up over big cities. Traffic jams are gone. In my family, we are eating dinner together more, playing games, watching TV together. My family is planting a garden and I know others who are doing the same. With my extra two hours a day, I’m able to spend some time on that never-ending to-do list, a disease eating away at the back of my head.
We have a time like never before to examine the dystopian and utopian ideas and, after The Great Pause, put those ideas into motion. How do we want to redefine capitalism, education, the arts, community, government, etc? Is working from home going to become the norm? Will we grow more produce locally? We have seen clear skies, we know it can happen, how can we keep that? We know theaters and live music are essential because we can’t wait for those to open again.
We also know writers with the gift to imagine a different future are essential. Star Trek, with its futuristic technology, actually drives new technology. Isaac Asimov set the rules for robots of the future. I read Dinotopia with my kids and then watched the movie in fascination as species of all sorts lived in harmony. Even my book, The Infinite Jeff, explores and re-envisions almost every aspect of our world. I’m sure you have your own list of books, movies, and TV shows that created a world view you wished was a reality.
We’re in the midst of The Great Pause and our hearts go out to the many who are suffering. How can we re-imagine the world where this wouldn’t happen again? I have friends without insurance who can’t get tested and, if they did get tested and put in the hospital, they would have bills they could never pay. How can we accept that? How have we accepted that? How many people are walking around with COVID-19, infecting other people, and we can’t detect it due to the failure of our medical system and insurance system? We have shined a light on a problem and it is up to us to demand something different.
It is time to pull out that old movie, book, or find new writers who paint a world that works for all people. Leave your suggestions in the comments.