Easy Chair — From the August 2017 issue

Apocalypse Always

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As a teenager in the Mormon Church, I was led to believe I might live to see the world end — the fallen world of sin and imperfection, that is, which would be replaced by one more glorious. This sparkling, exalted epoch would emerge from the ashes of a vast calamity and be centered, so prophecy told us, in Missouri. Faithful Mormons from around the globe would be called to set forth — on foot, if necessary — for Independence, not far from Kansas City, there to erect a great temple of the Lord on a lot that had been designated for this function in 1831. I didn’t know what to think. Nuclear war I could picture, or so I thought, but the Missouri angle made me laugh. Even more heretical was my lack of enthusiasm for the whole prospect of a heaven on earth, wherever it might be headquartered. A never-ending Sunday morning of harmony, hygiene, birdsong, and good posture struck me as overpoweringly dull.

Far more stirring and plausible were the gloomy futures described in the books I read in high school English, particularly George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Their heroes were not deities but average people — a bureaucrat, a fireman — who one day grew fed up with the conformity, the hypocrisy, the cant; turned against the system; and went underground as hunted fugitives. Their predicament felt much like the one I faced as a dreamy adolescent in a drab public school that was oppressed by petty rules and given to grandiose notions of its own worth, which it celebrated with assemblies and pep rallies.

The fears explored in these classic novels hadn’t occurred to me before I read the books, yet even once I’d thought about them some, I wasn’t as troubled as I sensed I was supposed to be. Bradbury’s book-burning anti-intellectuals were no more alarming than my gruff neighbors in our rural Minnesota county. Orwell’s enveloping surveillance state didn’t particularly scare me; I lived in a small farmhouse where conversations penetrated walls and flushing toilets went off like bombs. Even 1984’s infernal amnesia machine, the “memory hole” that swallowed up contraband documents and artifacts, didn’t disturb me all that much. My family had moved a lot when I was little, and I was used to mementos disappearing. To Orwell, memory equaled sanity, but to my Midwestern family, when it came time to pack the U-Haul, the past was a luxury we couldn’t afford. We could barely fit the sofa.

My dystopian reading tailed off as I grew older. Books about misfits trampled by ruthless overlords who sent them off to be brainwashed in soundproof rooms represented a rite of passage that I’d successfully completed. My political suspicions had been raised, my distrust of unbridled power cemented, my ear for bombast tuned. Occasionally an advancement in technology or a story in the news would trigger discussion of a certain title for its “uncanny prescience,” but so far there was no Big Brother, no Brave New World–style lab-bred drone class, no Handmaid’s Tale–like caste of female slaves, and no Lord of the Flies–worthy outbreak of juvenile savagery. Yet the genre flourished, yielding examples such as P. D. James’s The Children of Men and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. By the mid-Nineties, when the best of the new dystopian novels appeared — David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — books and films about nightmare worlds to come were almost as common as romantic comedies. They tended to be equally predictable. The people were cowed, the leaders sinister, the language hollow, the libraries locked or empty or on fire. The writers attracted to the genre truly looked out for their own, affirming the importance of their vocation in a way that sculptors and dancers can’t. If we go, if literature goes, these authors insisted, everything and everyone goes with it.

Yet here we still were, with a new millennium looming. Maybe the books had worked, either as warnings or as spells. The urgent way our teachers pushed them on us betrayed an element of magical thinking beyond the realm of simple education. If you worry enough about something, it might not happen. If you dream it, maybe it won’t come.

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