by Devon Maloney)
If you’re exhausted by the glut of dystopian literature that has dominated the entertainment world over the last few years, take heart: We’re almost free of its chokehold, but it’s not just because the stories are all starting to look the same.
“Pretty much dead,” is how one literary agent described the subgenre to the Christian Science Monitor back in November. It’s the same line an agent gives any writer who so much as breathes the phrase “dystopian YA trilogy.” But while it’s true that any new futuristic allegories would drown in a sea of Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner trilogies, market saturation isn’t its biggest problem. The truth is that we’re realizing what those books promise; we’re trading our fiction in for something bigger, scarier, and more real. If you want a totalitarian world that obscures its suffering and oppressed under a gleaming state-sponsored banner, look no further than the Sochi Winter Olympics—or as we might want to think of it, the Dystopian Singularity.
The two-week event, which kicked off this weekend, has oozed unease for months: draconian anti-gay laws that have “welcomed” participating athletes; eerily unfinished/oddly designed/intimately surveilled hotel accommodations; government-funded, systematic “destruction” via poison darts of hundreds of stray dogs (many stray in the first place due to Olympic displacement); absolutely ludicrous amounts of alleged corruption that went into readying the city for international competition. Every headline about the Russian games seems so incredibly, darkly fictional—even athletes’ yogurt supply has come under fire!—that our bafflement finds its most visceral outlet in trending topics.
But simple authoritarianism does not a dystopia make. As UCLA English professor Ursula K. Heise explained to WIRED back in August, most effective dystopias are slicked with a utopian glaze, a grim (if glossy) insistence that this is the paradise we’ve always dreamed of. Since reports began pouring in from Sochi, Russian authorities have aggressively chased criticism, attempting to redirect attentions from horror-show hotels to their glittering, multi-billion-dollar stadiums. Instead of outright gay-bashing (which, considering the relatively safe climate for homophobes in Russia, wouldn’t be that absurd), Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov simply claimed the conversation was moot, because there simply weren’t any gay people in his city. Besides, check out these dancing bears! And this terrifying selfie-building! And this awesome opening ceremo—oh, wait.
But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success.
Existential misery at the hands of the government isn’t exactly missing from Russian literature, either, whether recognizable science fiction like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We or political screeds like dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s scathing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. These writers, along with other Eastern Europeans like Franz Kafka, essentially blueprinted the concept of a true futuristic hell, for us and for the authors who would eventually lead our recent dark trend in young adult fiction. It seems fitting, however self-fulfilling, that post-Soviet Russia — a world we thought was on the mend before it threw its people into chaos once again — would be the stage where we met the genre’s maker.
If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.
There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.
Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.