At what point does the near-future depicted in a novel stop seeming dystopian and become more-or-less realistic? This is from Super Sad True Love Story, the bestseller by Gary Shteyngart, who read Wednesday at Rutgers-Camden:
An armored personnel carrier bearing the insignia of the New York Army National Guard was parked astride a man-sized pothole at the busy intersection of Essex and Delancey, a roof-mounted .50-calibre Browning machine gun rotating 180 degrees, back and forth, like a retarded metronome along the busy but peaceable Lower East Side streetscape. Traffic was frozen all along Delancey Street. Silent traffic, for no one dared to use a horn against the military vehicle. The street corner emptied around me until I stood alone, staring down the barrel of a gun like an idiot. I lifted up my hands in panic and directed my feet to scram.
Deeper in the park, I spotted a single book on the ground. It was marked “OWSL,” for Occupy Wall Street Library, also known as the People’s Library, one of the key institutions that had sprung up in the organic democracy of the movement. By the latest count, it had accumulated 5,000 donated books. The one I found, amidst the debris of democracy that was being hauled off to the dump, was “Brave New World Revisited,” by Aldous Huxley.
As the night progressed, the irony of finding Huxley’s book grew. He wrote it in 1958, almost 30 years after his famous dystopian novel, “Brave New World.” The original work described society in the future where people had been stratified into haves and have-nots…
“Brave New World Revisited” was Huxley’s nonfiction response to the speed with which he saw modern society careening to that bleak future. It seemed relevant, as the encampment, motivated in large part by the opposition to the supremacy of commerce and globalization, was being destroyed.
You could argue we’ve been living in Huxley’s Brave New World and are transitioning to Shteyngart’s dystopia, in which cops are everywhere and armed to the teeth, and people are monitored by devices that read their credit rankings and are detained in a “secure screening facility” if they attempt to keep any secrets from the government.
But who really would have thought a few years ago that paramilitary cops, in a nationally coordinated assault, might suppress the First Amendment rights of non-violent protesters tired of being used by the one percent of the population that holds all the money and power?
Shteyngart did. He lived until age 7 in what used to be the Soviet Union. He has a wild sense of humor and writes with a lot more flair and empathy than Huxley, which make his depiction of the near-future all the more disturbing.
Here’s Shteyngart at a pre-Occupy Wall Street reading, when fewer readers were focusing on the darker themes in Super Sad True Love Story: