Hold tight, wait ’til the party’s over
Hold tight, we’re in for nasty weather
There has, got to be a way
Burning down the house
– Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House” (1983)
Back in October 2018, more than a few people were terrified when they learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had given President Trump a microphone allowing him to broadcast messages to the nation — against their will. Given the reputation of his grabby hands, which seem to have a mind of their own in this subspecies type, such an imminent domination was terrifying to many.
The Message was part of FEMA’s National Wireless Emergency Alert System. Kind of an update to the old Emergency Broadcast System alerts that the Man thrust upon us back in the 50s and 60s, in preparation for anticipated nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Russians. (Now in our 75th year of tense confrontation.) Remember how quickly we had to get into 50s-style lockdown mode under our desks? We grew up to be the old geezer conspiracy theorists you keep hearing about. Howya doin?
Some feared Trump would pussy-grab their ear drums and never stop pounding on their tense typani. But it went off without a hitch, a short, scripted presidential message nobody remembers (onnacounta it was probably a hypnotic suggestion) and back to what passes as normal these days in the US of A. But what if he starts text-messaging us — against our wills — like a broken bad bluebird escaped from his supermax tweeter cage? Or he rants directly at us that he’ll never leave. Just the other day he was talking ‘third term.’ You could hear my gulp in Mexico.
That’s reality there. In Welcome to Dystopia: 45 Visions of What Lies Ahead edited by Gordon Van Gelder, a thought-locust plague of what-if scenarios is released from the tortured imaginations of Lefty sci-fi writers sharing one unified vision: What if Trump doesn’t leave in November?
Well, Hell breaks loose. In a nutshell.
In his introduction Gelder describes the book thusly: “The stories gathered here are angry, bold, snarky, defiant, nervous, and satiric. They reflect a lot of anxiety.” Van Gelder dedicated the collection to Harlan Ellison and Octavia Butler, “both so good at envisioning things so bad.” And that’s about right. And also, writing sci-fi is what Lefties do when they don’t want to be called conspiracy theorists. Welcome to Dystopia is a perfect book to have on your commuter ride home, to switch your train of thought, before your bar car is derailed in a terrible tangled tumble requiring State investigations by nincompoops. With your luck, you’ll survive to tell about it.
The tales in Welcome to Dystopia represent a parallax view of the same event, from the perspectives of men, women, and the multicultured. In the opening story, “Sneakers,” two male Canadians attempt to cross the border into the US to buy quality sneakers cheaply, only to be detained for questioning, for no other reason than the fascist border guard’s in love with Trump’s immigration vision so much that it eludes him that the men aren’t trying to immigrate. Their exchange begins:
“What’s the problem—no sneakers in Canada?”
“More bang for your buck in the States. Especially now, the crazy tariffs and all…”
“Crazy? What do you mean by ‘crazy’?”
And they’re off: two Canadians, one named Jordan (“That’s an Arab name, right?”), off to a dystopian end at the frisking hands of a border guard with a fourth grade education.
On the South Side, another story, “Walls,” by Paul Witcover, rings us through the narrative arc of forced labor marches to the southern border to build the Great Wall. “One thing about this president: he kept his promises,” snarks one character. And soon after, as if emulating China, Trump announced that “the Virtual Eminent Domain Act had passed, giving the president control over the Internet.” Sounds like our Google Dragonfly come home to roost.
Men tell stories of new laws requiring statue replacements, under a royal Trump regime. In “Statue of Limitations,” a pair of men go around Manhattan taking down old statues and erecting new ones, as they exchange deconstructionist justifications. When a Jackie Gleason Honeymooners statue is taken down, Sal explains to his pal Bobby that the Honeymooners are a frightening cultural endorsement of the domestic abuse and female oppression so typical of the post-war era. There is nothing funny about physical violence or the incessant direction of micro-aggressions at your partner-in-life, my friend.
On it goes, one reification after another ball-and-chained, until at last, Atlas, holding up the world at the Rockefeller Center, is replaced by the Objectivist Ayn Rand. Let ‘em eat bread crumbs.
Don D’Ammassa’s “Isn’t Life Great,” is a dark tale that sees America divided by strictly-enforced Red (Patriot) and Blue (Loyalist) neighborhoods, that sounds like Bosnia just before the country’s mental breakdown; an invasion of Iran is under way, and a war with China ends with ‘Enlightenment.’ Near future imaginings.
The women writers aren’t much rosier. Janis Ian, the singer-songwriter, of “At Seventeen” fame (a song quite in keeping with the tone of Dystopia) writes a lyrical, sexy nightmare about a woman growing up in the shadow of The Wall, a tracker of immigrants trying to illegally escape over the Wall back to Mexico, in “His Sweat Like Stars on the Rio Grande.” We read:
The distant gunfire we’d occasionally hear wasn’t from LICE agents defending our borders. It was from LICE agents shooting desperate workers as they tried to climb The Wall and get out.
Welcome to the Hotel California, where you can check in, but never leave.
The pictographically titled “Tao,” by N. Lee Wood, is an email exchange between friends, Michelle in cozy, sweet New Zealand and Carrie in America, the latter with cancer in a failed health care system in a failed state: California has seceded, the nation’s a War Zone, there’s a mass flight toward the Canadian border, all hell has broken out. One day an email comes back, return to sender address unknown. It’s like Exceptionalism’s bubble popped – and that’s it. No more champagne for that designated driver.
In “The Elites,” Stephanie Feldman tells the two-pronged tale of a ‘intercultural’ family breakdown caused by the policies of Trump and Betty DeVos. A husband and wife exchange chat messages, while he is overseas, presumably the Middle East, where he has gone to look after his ill mother, and now the Trump administration won’t let him back in to the US. Their child fails ‘an opportunity to be successful’ at an elite charter school (and aren’t they all). To avoid the self-consciousness government eavesdropping brings, they switch to an encrypted app, but the small talk continues, he says: “**We switched apps so the government couldn’t see you berating me in the middle of the night?” It’s gets ever darker.
In one of the few stories not directly about the horrors of the Trump era, Indian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan’s “Birds,” is a real gem. It tells the mawkish tale of Indian Anna Varghese, recruited back home for one job discovers when she arrives in Abu Dhabi that the job she expected doesn’t exist and she will have to make do with another being offered. Chagrined and locked in, she signs on as a Taper at construction sites in Abu Dhabi. When workers fall (or jump) from the buildings, she’s there, Darjeena-on-the-spot, to glue, sew and masking-tape them back together again, so that they can return to work. No hospitals allowed; the workers cannot leave the site.
Varghese takes notes of the ‘final,’ thoughts of jumpers and fallers:
When workers fell, severing limbs, the pain was acute, but borne. Yet what truly stung was the loneliness and anxiety of falling that weighed on their minds.
Anyone who has lived in Abu Dhabi (hand up), or read news articles of men falling off Burj Dubai during its construction will understand the not-so-subtle subcontinental humor at work here. Passports confiscated on arrival by employers, it’s a truly dystopic lifestyle.
There are other stories that stand out and are worth mentioning. “The Terrific Leader” by Harry Turtledove imagines Trump as a “smart cookie” leader like Kim Jung-un. There is mention of fermented pear juice, kimchi, and it’s a frozen place where “teeth chattered like castanets.” Hunger is rife, and when one character, Kim, comes across a food trap, “She almost whooped for joy when she found a big, fat rat noosed in a snare, hanged like a leftish deviationist.” The Terrific Leader on TV wears a red baseball cap: AMERICA IS GREAT AGAIN!
Ted White’s “Burning Down the House” updates Fahrenheit 451 but there are no exiled riverside book-memorizers who great works by reciting them all day. In White’s dystopia, books left bear titles like, Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Burn, baby, burn! And Jane Yolen’s “Handmaid’s Other Tale” is a six-stanza poem, one of which goes like this: “I am a woman. / To birth a boy / is what I do / for master’s joy. / But one day I / will take a knife / and slice it through / my master’s life.” This followed by a vow to obtain, by any means necessary, equality with men.
The 45 short stories are not-at-all erudite or academic exorcisms of a possessed Lady Liberty (starring, say, Linda Blair, her world of hair spinning off its axis), but plain-spoken, often-funny, splendid reads, and generous slices of served-up Mar-a-Lago devil’s food cake (remember Trump hoarsely whispering to China’s President Xi as they ate cake how he’s just bombed the shit out of Syria? Humor, right? Xi sat as inscrutable as the Great Wall). There’s no philosophy, per se, just rock-steady acknowledgements that the end is nigher than we think.