Future Noir, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electric Toads
Talk of utopia is thick in art and theory these days. Implicit but often unacknowledged in such invocations of a better society, however, is the dark possibility of ever worsening social conditions. In a remarkable recent essay on utopias, Fredric Jameson distinguished the merits of dystopian thinking as opposed to conservative tendencies of “anti-utopianism,” the latter discouraging even tentative speculations about the outlook of the future. Dystopian fantasies, most importantly those of classic future writers H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and on through current iterations penned by George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem, harbinger the course of a present inattentive to the social and ecological consequences of the exploitation of people and resources which are now clearly attributable to untrammeled globalized capitalism.
This call to accountability in dystopian literature is a plea to see in the now the portent of a dire future especially because of its uncanny continuity with the forces that have shaped today. Dystopianism is then, like utopianism, a powerful way to think historically in the present about the possible shape and texture of the future. At times the prescience of dystopianism is its construction of an almost banal parallel present issuing from a mild realignment of historical forces. The precarity of the past and the ambiguities of understanding how exactly we came to the current organization of society are exploited in the best examples of sci-fi. Dick and Saunders are particularly adept at activating simple though ingenious thought-experiment devices: what would San Francisco be like today if Japan and Germany had won the war, what if there existed a theme park of prehistoric culture in which underpaid workers replicated the tedious existence of Neanderthals…
At the end of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the novel’s protagonist, the bounty-hunter Deckard, is exhausted after having “retired” several escaped robots and retreats to the post-nuclear landscape north of Los Angeles. So blighted is the novel’s environment that little biological life survives. Nonetheless, Deckard is thrilled to notice a living toad, which in his ennervated state salves his suicidal thoughts and brings him home again. His wife discovers, however, as she flips its underside open that the toad is just another of the novel’s mechanical animals. Yet even counterfeit creatures demand to be nurtured as an effect of humans having squandering the plentitude of nature. She calls an electric animal accessories store and orders the toad some artificial flies. The hybrids Dick and others imagine question the peculiar responsibilities and effects of today’s substitutes for experience, giving a forecast of a time out of joint which is neither the past nor the future but rather the fearsome parallax of the present.