Stranger than (science) fiction

THE National Theatre is getting mixed reviews for its post-Brexit “work in progress,” My Country.  Described as a collaboration between Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris, the NT director, it is based on verbatim quotations from people of all ages from nine to 97 recorded across the country, from Scotland to Salisbury.

It is variously described as brilliant, fragmented but telling us what we already knew, or just what you’d expect from “the left-wing think tank of the National Theatre” (this last from a participant in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row). You might see these disparate views as a microcosm for the divided state of the country (something denied by the Front Row contributor who appeared not to recognise the maths of the referendum vote – but let that be).

Whether or not My Country is a good play, it is part of an explosion of creative energy that is a direct result of first the Brexit vote and then the Trump “victory” in the American presidential election.

In this country, political comedians and impressionists like Rory Bremner are mining a treasure trove of source material from Nigel Farage to Spreadsheet Phil, Boris Johnson to Donald Trump. The satirical magazine Private Eye is selling more copies every fortnight, poking fun while asking searching questions of our fractious and feeble politicians.

In the USA, the commentators, polemicists and impressionists of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Tonight Show and The Late Show are attracting huge audiences as they bring on the biting humour in a constant and constantly funny onslaught on the horrors and sheer incompetence of the new regime.

Catch up on CBS, NBC and Comedy Central if you haven’t seen Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka, Melissa McCarthy as press secretary Sean Spicer, Kate McKinnon as the increasingly zombie-like Kellyanne Conway (if you query my use of the word, Google photos of her a year ago and YouTube footage now and you will see what I mean – lank hair, grey skin, skeletally thin, her face lined as though Dorian Gray’s portrait had walked into the Oval Office), and Alec Baldwin on SNL or Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, donning the bouffant apricot wig as The Donald.

The more Trump attacks the media (including the BBC), the more stimulating it is for journalists, commentators, comedians, satirists, impressionists, playwrights, poets – and television companies. Humour and satire in print and on late night television have become big business – another example of the way that the more that free expression and creativity is attacked or suppressed the more creative artists become (satire was a vital, albeit subterranean, sign of life under the dead hand of the old Soviet Union’s malign influence, particularly in the former Czechoslovakia).

The current incumbent of the White House and his entourage are so bizarre, so scary and so unlike any conventional government that George W Bush now looks like a decent human being. You couldn’t make it up – the Trump team are the stuff of nightmares or horror movies, their resemblance to cyborgs or zombies so uncanny that we turn to the dark side to find comparisons.

Hence the other unintended consequence of last year’s political upheavals. While some voted from conviction to leave the EU in the referendum or believed Trump’s promises in the US, many voters were demonstrating their sense of alienation, disenfranchisement or anger at the arrogance of the ruling elites.

Science fiction is back in fashion and sales of two of the greatest examples of the genre are soaring. George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale take us into dystopian futures – disorientated by insecurity, many are turning to these fictions for explanations or signs of hope.

Orwell’s 1984 is set in what was then the 35-year future, in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania, in a world of perpetual war and government surveillance. The ruling elite of English Socialism enforces a debased language, Newspeak, with “Thought Police” to persecute individualism and independent thinking, all under the intrusive “eye” of Big Brother, the Party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality (but who may not even exist). If this is ringing bells, you’re not wrong. Orwell’s terrifying world has parellels today.

Atwood’s story is located in a future USA, renamed the Empire of Gilead, ruled by the Sons of Jacob, a Christian fundamentalist dictatorship established after an attack that kills the President and most of Congress. The Empire operates on a militarized, hierarchical regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism. Human rights – particularly women’s – are severely limited; for example, women are forbidden to read. The story is told in the first person by a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred), one of a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and known as “handmaids” by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases.

JG Ballard (1930-2009), one of the masters of science and dystopian fiction, wrote: “Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.”

And another genius of the genre, Philip K Dick (1928-82), wrote: “Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.”

Fanny Charles