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Space The Nation: Can we handle the truth?

Contributed by
Jan 2, 2018

The headlines:
- 2017 Was The Year That The Internet Destroyed Our Shared Reality: How the pro-Trump media, conspiratorial hyperpartisans, and delinquent platforms ushered in two parallel universes of information.
- A Dig At Trump? Obama Tells Prince Harry That The Internet Enables 'Different Realities'
- Donald Trump is waging war on reality — so far, reality is losing

The Trope:
You can’t get much more sci-fi than the idea that large swaths of the American population are living in “different realities” or “parallel universes.” And, framed that way, speculative fiction offers literally too many examples to catalog — it’s the ur-conceit that almost the entire genre depends on. It would make for a long column. Fortunately for us, within the phenomenon that journalists and commentators describe as “parallel universes” or “competing realities,” there is still one actual, measurable reality. Deeming the worlds of Fox News/Info Wars/Trump spokespeople and, well, reality as “parallel” or “competing” is a false equivalence that is itself destabilizing ... but most of us still have a purchase on what's real. Just for example: Most Americans agree that the president is subject to the same laws as the rest of us, that the GOP tax plan benefits the rich, and that the investigation into Russian interference in the election is a serious matter that should be fully investigated.

What’s happening now is a significant minority of the public is making a conscious decision to consume information depicting an “alternative truth.” They are dwelling in a self-selected land of make-believe. This is a trope with deep roots in fantasy literature but manageable breadth. Readers, we are dealing with a form of The Lotus Eaters.

Where you can find it:
The Lotus Eaters hail from The Odyssey. Homer describes them as welcoming Odysseus’ sailors to their land, where the sailors were given “to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return.”

In the 3000 years since Homer introduced the idea, genre has never looked kindly on the lotus-eaters. It’s difficult to find works where people sign up for the treatment completely of their own volition — even Odysseys’ sailors don’t know what they’re getting into. Usually, the impulse to lure a population into a happy fantasy is depicted as inherently undemocratic, if not outright malevolent: In Ray Bradbury’s “Mars Is Heaven!”, a nostalgic re-creation of the crew’s hometowns sets the stage for a massacre. And there is, of course, The Matrix.

On an individual level, genre fiction depicts such delusions with dread and horror: The conclusion of Brazil has the protagonist adrift in a torture-induced hallucination. It’s a “happy ending” for him, but a grim coda for the audience. Vanilla Sky and Inception toy with the same discomfort, asking us over and over again: Do we want to know what really happened, or do we want to be happy? It’s worth noting that those convicted of precrimes in Minority Report are “sentenced” to blissful dreams in suspended animation; that society takes it for granted that living outside reality is itself a punishment, no matter how pleasant the fiction is.

Is there a problem, sir?
Our genre guidebook starts to fail us when it comes to possible fixes for the current bifurcation of experience. Writers and other creators assure us that, when given the choice between illusion and reality, humans — for the most part — thirst for reality. All you have to do is show people the man behind the curtain (a trope for another time!) and they will reject him and his storyline. Yet that doesn’t seem to be happening. Rather, the our lotus eaters gorge on more lotus. Is it only in fiction that people prefer truth?

Watch a CNN focus group allege that Black Lives Matter activists staged the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. See conservatives in Alabama manufacture an elaborate conspiracy rather than admit they support a pedophile. The president himself is building an ever-thickening carapace of FAKE NEWS.

It’s not that such behavior is unheard of in genre fiction — Cypher in The Matrix betrays the whole crew in order to leave his grubby reality and eat juicy steak. But 1) Cypher is a villain and 2) even he asks to forget he made that choice.

But if more or less consciously turning away from reality is weird, even more puzzling to me is the cheerless nature of Trump supporters' alternative vision. Their America is crime-ridden and bloody, a hellscape of violent immigrants and deranged leftists. They believe the best days are behind us and that any positive outcome depends on a zero-sum battle for scarce resources. It's the Thunderdome! It's the version of reality people are usually trying to escape!

Of course, Trump supporters are largely white. They are mostly male. Perhaps they imagine chaos because that's their only conceivable alternative to being in charge. In a dystopia, they can still be the hero of the story.