Welcome to Space the Nation, a weekly column where we’ll use the back catalog of genre fiction to makes sense of what’s happening today.
My goal is to be as specific as possible. I’m interested in works that engage with immediate questions, ripped from the headlines: What happens when a news environment allows consumers to pick their own reality? What about a society that demands its government employees have absolutely no personal (or at least no contrary) opinions? How do you live through a massive redistribution of wealth? And, of course, what does it look like when a country is ruled by a giant man-baby?
I am not worried about having enough to work with and I will try to be picky; my hope is to curate a media guide — not build a life-sized map of the world.
The improbable Trump era — the Trump presidency itself — may have been made possible by reality television, but our reactions to it have mined the symbols and tropes of the literally impossible. General Organa was recruited in the Women’s March right from the start, and still holds a place of honor in “The Resistance.” Every eye-popping piece of nonsense from this White House is greeted on Twitter with jokes about what's going on over at Earth 2 (where Hillary won). Cultural collisions we couldn’t have imagined two years ago prompt complaints about the unrealistic plot twists coming out of some omnipotent writers’ room. It’s by now standard to greet the latest surreal controversy with the suggestion that when it comes to “this simulation,” “Has anyone tried turning it off and back on?”
People invoke specific texts as well: “Idiocracy,” of course, and other dystopias from The Hunger Games to The Stand. When The Handmaid’s Tale debuted, a thousand think pieces on its relevance bloomed, its premise as fecund as its society barren.
I’m not the first to observe that the notion of this moment as somehow fictional is a mostly comforting one: It transforms what often feels like chaos into something familiar, with a plot, with characters, and — thank God — with an end.
But what if we imagine that we are at a moment truly unhinged from oft-cited norms — the ones about physics and the paranormal in addition to the ones about behavior in the Oval Office? What if the incredible Trump presidency does mean that aliens might walk among us, mind control is possible, the embodiments of Good and Evil will battle at the Mall of America at noon? After all, there is mounting evidence that Trump is a time traveler who tried to warn us about himself. (The most chilling five words of 2017: “There is always a Tweet.”)
If that’s the case, then science fiction isn’t an escape, it’s a user manual. And my intent with this column is to take seriously (well, within reason) the lessons that genre creators have tried to impart. Interviews with them will be part of this, too. After all, even as they may warn us about possible horrors, most of them are also thinking, and then what do you do?
Got ideas for topics you want covered, or works that are relevant? Tweet at me @anamariecox with the hashtag #spacethenation.