People fear losing independence. They fear losing their bodies, their minds. While they fear dangerous entities or secret governments or oppressive systems, more than anything they fear losing power over themselves. Those organizations just tend to lie adjunct to those fears.
This is the root of all dystopian novels. The system may have shifted into something horrible, but the true horror is becoming something you’re not. And people will go to terrible lengths to preserve their souls.
In Fahrenheit 451, this meant hiding the bible under your bed and reading stories you don’t quite understand just to learn something different and purposeful about the world.
In Lathe of Heaven, this meant drugging yourself until your uncontrollable mind stopped ripping the world, your world, to shreds.
In Skyrim, this meant building secret shrines of Talos and being willing to die by Thalmor hands while praying at the altar.
Wednesday May 15th, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed an anti-abortion law that would ban abortion in almost all cases, save when a mother’s life was in jeopardy. While Roe v. Wade has been in effect around the nation since 1973, allowing first-trimester abortions for any woman, this law changes that for Alabama women. Now they or even the doctors performing the procedure could go to jail.
Ever since the announcement, people across the internet have been comparing the current political happenings to dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984, citing the lack of bodily autonomy. These are just books, but people are saying these laws are pushing us dangerously closer to these worlds.
For a lot of others, the knee-jerk reaction is that a statement like that is overblown. Or, even some think the anti-abortion laws are just.
Here, the point isn’t to debate that. The point is to look at our world, look at dystopia, and see what’s really happening between the two.
A dystopia is defined as “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic”. The phonetic root of it is to mean a bad place, a frightening one. Dystopian worlds are rooted in fear. Writers create stories around these worlds to explore a deep-seeded fear based on the world they see around them.
No, America isn’t a dystopia. It can’t be because dystopia is rooted in everyone except the government being stilted and afraid or facing a great injustice. For example, Handmaids do have a terrible place in Gilead. However, only the Commanders, government officials, and the most zealous wives are happy or benefit from the system. Everyone else faces the injustice.
The reason people don’t take these laws as seriously, or feel dystopic, is because they only oppress 50% of the population: women.
In Handmaid’s Tale, even many of the men are oppressed or miserable. Good old Commander Fred Waterford himself wishes he had more sexual autonomy than the world gives him. In his own, entitled way, he’s also oppressed.
But here, where bodily autonomy is admonished, only that 50% feels oppressed by the changes. Even some of that 50% have personally decided that it doesn’t oppress them, so that makes it matter even less to the other 50%+.
Our world isn’t a dystopia. It’s not even close. If it was, like Handmaid’s Tale, everyone would be slowly helping the whole thing destabilize. While not apart of the rebellion, Fred’s concessions to June do help break the system down, don’t they? Same with Warren telling Janice he loved her. Even the powerful people break things when they want their autonomy back. And if not that, the only other dystopian society we would be are Fahrenheit 451 or 1984’s brutalized, ignorant automatons. We’re neither.
In some ways, we’re far better. We can still discuss and argue and change things. But in other ways, we’re worse. Because if the whole system isn’t unjust, it’s impossible to get people to agree. After all, if you’re fine and happy, why put yourself at risk to destabilize a problem that isn’t yours?
It isn’t your shrine of Talos, or your mind destabilizing, or your books being burned, or your sex being policed.
It’s someone else’s. And you’re not afraid if someone else is losing themselves, not enough to put yourself in danger.
Individualism created America, and individualism has created art and ideas and so much awesome shit.
But it’s also created this bizarre communal antipathy, where if you don’t personally care about something, it isn’t your problem. It doesn’t matter if it’s the environment, religion, mental health, women’s rights, or abortion. Most people don’t or barely care, but either way it’s not enough to convince them to do anything.
And maybe that’s the real dystopia of America, that has nothing to do with the government itself. We’ve spent centuries fighting life and limb for our individualism, only to grow a country-wide ambivalence to things we deem stupid, irrelevant, or other.
We’re not turning into The Handmaid’s Tale, everyone enjoys sex and monogamy too much. And we’re not 1984, people fight for personal privacy far better than they fight for other people.
We’re not afraid of anything until it affects us. At best we’re all just building our own personal dystopian worlds in our heads and are furious when no one else will help us dismantle ours.
After all, this bill was pushed by the people who cared about it fiercely, wanting to dismantle their abortion guilt/anti-religion dystopia. But they didn’t care how it piled on the internal dystopia for women not ready, able, or willing to care for children.
Dystopian novels come from writers bringing their worst fears into life, growing their own feelings into a real, terrible world. Some writers hope there are ways out (Atwood, Bradbury) while others assume no one can ever escape (Orwell).
Utopia stories created dystopia because the uniformity and bliss of utopia is nigh impossible with individualism. Science fiction writers, over time, decided they preferred individualism, so they counter-argued that these “utopias” would really turn out to be oppressive hells.
The matter of the fact is that people against abortion cannot have their own idealized utopia without creating a dystopia for others.
And that’s how these comparisons started, between Handmaid’s Tale and this law. Because we’re so individualized that the core of dystopia, the fact it’s a society or state of injustice, has now turned into personal injustice, for any and all sides of the political spectrum.
People feel so hurt and they relate so much to the characters hurting in these stories, that they relate their worlds, too.
But none of it’s dystopia, not really, not yet, not the way dystopia was intended to be.
Instead, the better book for this all would be The Martian Chronicles, pocket stories of a planet where things went wrong and thing went right. However, even when things hurt, the planet was still spinning and finding its way, with or without humanity.
Grim for humanity, but not wrong.
This doesn’t mean that this law isn’t oppressive or it doesn’t create some sort of personal dystopia for some people. It just means that humanity, as it is, has a better chance of imploding in on itself over creating a society that brings injustice to almost everyone. That’s the plus-side of our severe individualism. Without all out war, self-centered masses are hard to control.
Either result sucks, so no matter what we still have a long way to go.