What’s Happening?

IN 1974 DORIS LESSING PUBLISHED MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR, a postapocalyptic novel narrated by an unnamed woman, almost entirely from inside her ground-floor apartment in an English suburb. In a state of suspended disbelief and detachment, the woman describes the events happening outside her window as society slowly collapses, intermittently dissociating from reality and lapsing into dream states. At first, the basic utilities begin to cut out, then the food supply runs short. Suddenly, rats are everywhere. Roving groups from neighboring areas pass through the yard, ostensibly escaping even worse living conditions and heading somewhere they imagine will be better. Her neighbors disappear, either dead or gone, leaving children behind—children who become feral and increasingly violent. Over the course of a few years, even the children’s language devolves into almost unintelligible jargon and cursing, as if the polite words they have been taught to communicate with no longer suit the survivalist demands of their situation.

The narrator’s myopic view of the outside world reflects the shortsightedness of her culture at large. Nobody, apparently, can admit how bad things are until conditions become completely unlivable, and meanwhile nobody can bear to name “it,” this slow, ongoing collapse with unidentifiable origins. The narrator spends considerable time trying and failing to define “it,” this never-quite-climactic but steady disintegration of life as she knew it. The news barely addresses “it,” and neither do the authorities, who, instead of offering aid, send troops in to police the newly homeless. To the narrator, “it” had never been “felt as an immediate threat”—because it always seemed like a problem elsewhere, relevant to somebody else, but never at the doorstep, until it was far too late. She explains: “While everything, all forms of social organization, broke up, we lived on, adjusting our lives as if nothing fundamental was happening. It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing were the attempts to lead an ordinary life. When nothing, or very little, was left of what we had been used to, had taken for granted even ten years before, we went on talking and behaving as if those old forms were still ours.”

Lessing sticks to the pronoun and describes “it” from an oblique angle, but writers of dystopian fiction have given “it” all sorts of names and causes. These turning points, which many science fiction plotlines hinge on, are similar to what the critic Darko Suvin has called “the novum”—the event or technological novelty that signals the fictional world is different from our own. The event that destroyed the earth in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is spurred by a major war called “World War Terminus.” Kim Stanley Robinson’s drowned city in New York 2140 is the product of two major “Pulses,” or moments of drastic sea-level rise. Neal Stephenson marks the inexplicable explosion of the moon in Seveneves by starting a new clock for human time, with the lunar destruction as hour A+0.0.0, or simply “Zero.” In P. D. James’s Children of Men, too, the clock starts over, at the point when humans become infertile and are faced with species demise: Year Omega. The titular event in Liz Jensen’s 2009 The Rapture is a major flood instigated by climate change, the biblical name of which is a not uncommon choice that, like the clock at 0, indicates that something has ended and something has begun anew. Such terminology points to the religious (and moralistic) undertones of much science fiction, a genre that supposedly rests on the supremacy of reason and rationality but is often undeniably theological in structure. One could say the same of Western cultural narratives at large.

A particularly inventive recent name for “it” is William Gibson’s “jackpot,” from his 2014 novel The Peripheral (which continues in the 2020 sequel Agency). The jackpot is what future humans call their previous social collapse, initiated partly by antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. The choice of term is a somewhat ironic comment on the fact that global population decimation resulting from the plague was highly beneficial for some. The scarcity of an overpopulated world became post-jackpot abundance, at least for those who were poised to take advantage of it. As Gibson himself is said to have remarked, the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed—an adage he updated in recent years to say that dystopia is also here, it’s just unevenly distributed, too.

Gibson’s jackpot seems like an appropriate term for our times and the current “it” the world is undergoing, which has so far been named the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus can infect anyone, the pandemic disproportionately affects poor and minority communities when it comes to loss of livelihood and morbidity rates: If health care and basic rights are unevenly distributed, we can assume that this disease, this dystopia, will be too. And, as Gibson shows, we can expect that this disparity will perpetuate or widen after the event, as evidenced by choices like the Trump administration’s stimulus package, which supports “the economy” (i.e., the wealthy and their banks) rather than those most vulnerable. In other words, this pandemic may be hell for most but turn out to be a jackpot for some.

This raises the question: What will “after” the pandemic look like? In some ways it is the wrong question to ask, because event-izing the pandemic and giving it an after implies that there was a true before. Yet as writers of dystopian novels know, there was no before, there was only a time when “it” wasn’t quite so unavoidably visible. The circumstances that gave rise to “it” have been in place for quite some time. Yet until now, like Lessing’s narrator, those of us with the privilege to sit safely inside and watch what is happening outside, through the window, have been able to uphold the pretense that it is not our responsibility nor our calamity. We have successfully outsourced dystopia to somewhere else. But now it is “here,” because it is everywhere.

Jill Mulleady, No Hope No Fear, 2016, oil on linen, 22 × 32 1⁄2". Courtesy the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles/Paris
Jill Mulleady, No Hope No Fear, 2016, oil on linen, 22 × 32 1⁄2". Courtesy the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles/Paris

Alongside nuclear catastrophe, climate meltdown, and global war, pandemics serve as the “it” in much fiction. Recent examples, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven from 2014 and Ling Ma’s Severance from 2018 (which describes an eerily familiar-sounding Shen Fever originating in China), give us stories to think through what population decimation really means. Pandemic stories can offer a lot for comprehending our current situation, but so can stories that, like Lessing’s, refuse to explicitly pinpoint or name the cataclysmic event. In doing so they emphasize the fact that “it” can never be reduced to a single name or cause. By resisting explanation, they refocus on what change and loss feel like, rather than trying to explain where they come from. Cormac McCarthy, notably, simply gives us the road and a journey without beginning or end. Octavia Butler references climate change, but doesn’t exactly name the apocalypse that led to the dystopian setting of Parable of the Sower. Her young female protagonist fixates on the fact of change itself. Since she knows the past cannot be resurrected and the change cannot be halted, she invents a whole new theology based on the absence of “nameable” turning points: a religion called Earthseed with the central tenet “God is Change.” For this narrator, as I assume for most people, hope and despair are not mutually exclusive; heaven lives within hell and vice versa.

On the one hand, naming the crisis allows one to apprehend it, grasp it, fight back against it. On the other hand, no word can fully encompass it, and any term is necessarily a reduction—the essence of “it” or “change” is not any singular instance but rather their constancy. For example, while one could call COVID-19 a biological crisis, one could just as accurately call it a health care crisis, a values crisis, or an ecological crisis. Names matter: Think of how Donna Haraway reframed the Anthropocene era as the “Capitalocene,” redirecting blame from the human species as such to humanity’s current economic system of relentless extraction and exploitation. The Capitalocene is in many ways a more optimistic title for our era than the Anthropocene, because it implies that there is another way: Although we might remain anthropos, we can still construct our world according to a different set of priorities and principles than the ones capitalism allows.

Year Zero is a useful concept for a story to hinge on, because it reflects our entrenched desire for moments of rupture that change everything at once. Disasters do shape history and intervene in the narratives we cling to—but in truth they only catalyze and make visible malignant processes that have been ongoing for a long time. The biggest disasters are the ones that are never identified as such—what Rob Nixon calls “Slow Violence,” those occurrences, like gradual environmental devastation, that disproportionately affect those without a megaphone, and which are not deemed newsworthy because they are not sensational single events. (One could also take up Keller Easterling’s use of the term “disposition” to describe the latent violent attitudes of infrastructure design—from electrical grids to legislation—that are only made manifest when the system spectacularly fails.) The pandemic might also be reframed as a form of slow violence, resulting not only from sudden, invasive “foreign,” nonhuman threats, but also from ongoing, pervasive, systemic power imbalances inside and outside the arbitrary borders we draw around places, people, and concepts.

Slow violence is hard to identify, hard to describe, and hard to resist. But this is one thing literature, postapocalyptic or otherwise, can do: to portray how the short and the long, the small and the big, connect. To identify the rot within rather than the threat without. To articulate “it” even when “it” has no name. Fiction can portray ecologies, timescales, catastrophes, and forms of violence that may be otherwise invisible, or more to the point, unnameable. We will never grasp the pandemic in its entirety, just like we will never see the microbe responsible for it with the naked eye. But we can try to articulate how it has changed us—is changing us.

Postapocalyptic literature probably does not dominate library shelves. Yet Lessing suggests that “it,” that apocalyptic pronoun, may be the hidden subject of all literature, precisely because it is the story of human hope and human failure and the coexistence of the two—the simultaneity of heaven/hell that makes up the human condition on earth. “It” is the essence of change, of human experience. Stories hinge on moments of change and transformation, but in this way they can also create continuity and coherence between eras and areas. Lessing writes:

Perhaps, indeed, “it” is the secret theme of all literature and history, like writing between the lines in invisible ink, which springs up, sharply black, dimming the old print we knew so well, as life, personal or public, unfolds unexpectedly and we see something where we never thought we could. . . . I am sure that ever since there were men on earth, “it” has been talked of precisely in this way in times of crisis, since it is in crisis “it” becomes visible, and our conceit sinks before its force. For “it” is a force, a power, taking the form of earthquake, a visiting comet whose balefulness hangs closer night by night, distorting all thought by fear—“it” can be, has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists men’s minds, the savagery of a religion.

“It,” in short, is the word for helpless ignorance, or of helpless awareness. “It” is a word for man’s inadequacy?

By identifying humanity’s relative helplessness, writing about “it” may actually help identify points of action and decision-making. Here, terms matter. Karen Russell wrote recently in the New Yorker that the term “‘Flatten the curve’ caused a paradigm shift for me; it taught me, in three words, to stop thinking of myself as a potential victim of COVID-19 and to start thinking of myself as a vector for contagion. It alchemizes fear into action. The phrase is an injunction: it says, gently and urgently, that it is not too late for us to change the shape of this story.”

“The curve” asks us to see ourselves both as individual protagonists with decision-making capacity and as a collective statistic. It asks that we become aware of our interconnectedness even as we look head-on into the inequalities that divide us. If dystopia is unevenly distributed, it is up to those of us with resources, who long “believed they were immune,” in Lessing’s words, to see ourselves as both potential victims of the virus and as responsible for others who may get it. Precisely because the pandemic will not be the great leveler, because one person’s hell will be another’s jackpot, it may force us to think of history in a different way, less in terms of major events instigated by a few and more in terms of processes that involve and implicate us all.

My favorite future-dystopian novel resembles historical fiction. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, from 1980, is written entirely in an invented version of medieval-sounding British English—perhaps a few centuries further (d)evolved from the odd speech of the new generation in Memoirs of a Survivor. In Hoban’s book, the “it” is nuclear catastrophe, which has decimated much of civilization but provided a new cosmology for the survivors. The twelve-year-old narrator, Riddley, lives in this future-past civilization where a rudimentary understanding of atomic science has mingled with Catholic mythology. The splitting of the atom has provided a new origin story, overlaid upon Christian prophecy, and the new language borrows from the old to suit new purposes. Many words are split down the middle and mutated—“Energy” becomes “Inner G”; “Dover” becomes “Do It Over”—ruptured like the atomic elements of the world and rearranged to tell a new story. Like Butler’s Earthseed, a religion whose holy notion is constant change, the foundational myths of Riddley’s worldview depend on a different idea of what constitutes beginnings and endings.

Stories like this one remind us that, while the future may resemble the past, there will be no reversal of the pandemic, nor a reversion to the worldview that came before. Loss changes those who live through it. “It,” says Lessing, “was, above all, a consciousness of something ending.” Something is ending, but many things are continuing and others are beginning, and this offers the opportunity for new choices. What will end are certainly not the structures of power that got us here: Those will likely hold, and try to hold tighter. We should and will try to dismantle power. At the same time, we need to find new names for what we are experiencing—not to reduce the narrative to a singular descent into hell that we can emerge or move on from, but to acknowledge this transformation as it occurs, and to acknowledge the various versions of hell on earth that have existed for decades and centuries. If “it” is the experience of change, and change is the only constant, we need to document this change as it takes place. As in Lessing’s tale, those in power will retreat further into their hiding places, never addressing the real story—or stories, for there are many, and all should be told.

Elvia Wilk is the author of the novel Oval (Soft Skull Press, 2019) and is a 2020 fellow at the Berggruen Institute.