A recent tweet from the poet Michael Robbins: “a billionaire launched an electric car playing bowie into orbit. the 8 richest people own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of humanity. ‘dystopia’ is too gentle a word for it.”1 I’m aware that there’s a vaguely dystopian element in the very act of opening an article with a tweet from a contemporary poet, but that’s the point: Everything feels dystopian nowadays, so much so that, for many of us, this particular subgenre is looking less and less like a fictional category and more and more like a generic description of the basic quiddity of 21st century life.
One major contributing factor is that reality keeps besting our dystopian visions. If current entertainment continues to take human intimacy to new technological frontiers, breakthroughs in the respective fields of virtual reality and robotics alone are far exceeding our wildest Tinseltown fantasies.
Did you know there’s now an entire sub-discipline known as “human-robot interaction (HRI)”? No, that’s not a plotline from a Philip K. Dick story. In a Wired magazine piece2 chronicling the Promethean efforts of robotics wiz Hiroshi Ishiguro, journalist Alex Mar describes HRI as “a hybrid discipline: part engineering, part AI, part social psychology and cognitive science. The aim is to analyze and cultivate our evolving relationship with robots. HRI seeks to understand why and when we’re willing to interact with, and maybe even feel affection for, a machine.”We don’t just need this world to be improved; we need to see it broken and remade.
Examples don’t stop there, of course. Scour the dystopian landscape for anything as efficient, lethal, and menacing as drone weaponry.3 Once-cutting-edge shows like Black Mirror are screaming themselves hoarse telling us what we already know — what we already see.
The dystopian genre works well as prophesy but fails as news. Just the other day I came across this (serious) headline: “Transgender Woman Breastfeeds Her Baby After Experimental Treatment.” As you well know, it’s not even a particularly exotic story.4 Our current way of life is putting Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, et al., out of a job.
Arguably, all of this technological novelty pales in comparison to the deep-seated unrest that characterizes the global scene. Tensions in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America continue to escalate; Putin is doing much more than furrowing the venerable brows of politicians and diplomats these days; and the social fabric in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom is gossamer thin.5
Of course, these sweeping brushstrokes hardly do justice to the widespread anxiety that registers in the gut every time we scroll through the news. The proliferation of headlines with words like catastrophic, toxic, outrage, and indefensible continues after every refresh. The feeling that the world as we know it is coming to some kind of end is ubiquitous, something on everyone’s backburner. It’s all so bleak. So terrible. And so boring.
Many of us are suffering from what I’ll call “apocalypse fatigue,” a paradoxical condition wherein our expectation of impending cataclysm meets with deep-seated exhaustion and apathy resulting in guilt (why aren’t you more outraged?) and a near-constant sense of agitation that persists like a low grade sinus headache. Responses vary according to temperament. For every Benedict Option, there’s an equal and opposite option.
But that’s the problem: We’re so inundated with options we’re paralyzed. This lethal abundance only beggars our appetites. David Foster Wallace called it “input too intense to bear.” This is why streaming services cause more stress than relief. Stop scrolling and commit already! But we can’t. There’s always something better among the titles we haven’t selected.6 If the world is reduced to a sepia-toned hellscape of ashes and debris, maybe we’ll remember life outside the digital funhouse, and what it’s like to do one thing at a time.
In his essay “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” Walker Percy writes, “And if it is true that we are living in eschatological times, times of enormous danger and commensurate hope, of possible end and possible renewal, the prophetic-eschatological character of Christianity is no doubt peculiarly apposite.” As acute as the observation is, I don’t think it’s quite right because it seems to conflate the human and Christian apocalypses.
The human apocalypse is certainly a formidable threat, but — as any survey of the news will readily confirm — it’s also insular and crushingly short on imagination: “Look how much stuff we can break!”7 On a microcosmic level, my toddler wreaks a similar havoc in his room every day. What’s missing is the possibility of an invasion from the outside with an accompanying thief-in-the-night quality.
I’ll always envy literary critic Terry Eagleton’s title Hope Without Optimism. Though not a Christian himself, in that book he offers one of the better descriptions of the Christian apocalypse, one that reminds us that Christ’s return is “an event that breaks violently, unpredictably into the human narrative, upending its logic, defying its priorities, and unmasking its wisdom as foolishness. The Messiah does not sound the top note of the tune of history but breaks it abruptly off.”
However, only the eschaton precludes the myriad knee-jerk reactions and “takes” that seek to explain every ersatz apocalypse away in terms of a particular customized view. Even a book as accomplished as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seems a bit naïve in its assumption that the leveling of humanity will do away with most of our superficial categories and arguments, and result in a kind of elemental struggle for survival. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that nothing short of “breaking history abruptly off” will get us to shut the heck up.
Meanwhile, the Church continues to loiter on the dilapidated scene, doing what faithful Christian men and women have done down the ages: Waiting. What unfolds before our eyes isn’t always pleasant, but it remains a timely reminder that we don’t just need this world to be improved; we need to see it broken and remade. That’s not an excuse to litter and blow off our neighbors, of course. Christ was fully aware of the temporal nature of his surroundings when he commanded us to love others as ourselves. We don’t get a free pass on sycophantic outrage or complacent despair just because we’ve got a phone in our hands.
Writing in the midst of great turmoil and distress, the apostle Paul said, “Maranatha! Oh come Lord!” Today, we can look up from our phones and say, “Come Lord! Break our apocalypse fatigue!”
1. I’ll skip the multiple [sic’s] and simply remind the reader that Robbins’s grammatical idiosyncrasies can be chalked up to the fact that this is a tweet.
2. The piece is fantastic, but it’s also pretty unnerving. I haven’t cringed as much since the Platonic-cum-Gnostic sex scene in Spike Jonze’s Her.
3. With their remote control approach to mass killing, these machines put a whole new spin on Hannah Arendt’s controversial phrase “the banality of evil.” According to anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, “the operation of a drone requires about 170 people in multiple locations. The people with their hands on the controls are the tip of a spear that extends from ground crews in Middle Eastern deserts to generals and lawyers in air-conditioned control rooms in the United States.”
6. Even when we finally do pick a show or a movie, though, the whole ritual often serves as nothing more than a pretext for coming up with our own “take.” In other words, it’s all about our reaction, not the artifact. Hence most of our entertainment habits become little more than a relevance rat race. Sure, we’ve all got an opinion on Westworld, but the real question is: Who’s actually enjoying Westworld?