From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
Failed paradises crosshatch America. Look and you’ll find them: in the precise gridding of cities, in the plaques nailed to former agricultural communes, in the way we’ve named our national parks. No dystopia is built without a utopia in mind, and no utopia has ever unshackled itself from the dystopia needed to sustain it. Whether couched in nostalgia or envisioned on the horizons of Mars, this country’s pet dream of perfect safety and uninhibited growth is dreamed at the expense of those it kills.
In a famous scene from the Wachowski sisters’ 1999 film The Matrix, an artificial intelligence called Smith describes a deadly paradise. He explains while torturing Morpheus, a freedom fighter bent on breaking the human race out of its slumbering prison where millions of bodies are plugged into a network of supercomputers, powering them with biochemical energy, dreaming of earth at the turn of the millennium — naked batteries sealed in amniotic goo.
"Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered? Where everyone would be happy?” Smith asks. "It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
There’s a shot, once lead character/Christ figure Neo wakes up into a reality he's intuitively sensed all his life, that shows two circular towers of human pods. They look like the Marina City towers, twin condo buildings in downtown Chicago, the Wachowskis’ hometown. Also known as the corncob towers — and eventually, colloquially, the Wilco towers, Marina City was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who intended it to be a self-contained "microcosm of the city” — a structure whose residents seldom needed to leave because everything they wanted was right there. "It is a total urban center. A total environment,” Goldberg said in 1959. "It is a way for people — some people — to live.” Radiant, utopian, empty of need — for some.
In the foreword to her 1997 novel Paradise, Toni Morrison identifies five characteristics of heaven as described by Milton in Paradise Lost: beauty, plenty, rest, exclusivity, and eternity. "The idea of paradise is no longer imaginable or, rather, it is over-imagined, which amounts to the same thing — and has therefore become familiar, commercialized, even trivial,” she writes. "Exclusivity, however, is still an attractive, even compelling feature of paradise because so many people — the unworthy — are not there. Boundaries are secure, watchdogs, security systems, and gates are there to verify the legitimacy of the inhabitants ... Exclusivity is not just a realized dream for the wealthy; it is a popular yearning of the middle class.”
In 2017, factions of America compete to realize their exclusionary utopias. The white supremacist movement, which never left America but whose ranks were reinvigorated by the election of the 45th president, dreams of a white ethno-state — a bordered utopia that won't be achieved until it ejects every racialized other from the continent. Even less explicitly racist conservatives pine for the days when men were men and women were women, when one’s reproductive potential delimited one’s participation in the labor force and public sphere.
Some popular strains of feminism seek paradise by exclusion, too. Radical feminists, preoccupied by anatomy, rally for movements and communities from which trans women are forbidden, while liberal thinkers suggest, more softly, that trans women are men, or men who have decided to become women, or, OK, women, but not the kind of women subject to meaningful misogyny, not the kind of women deserving consideration or protection by the same feminism as the rest of us.
These visions have clear directives: Get rid of the wrong kind of people — non-whites, queers, people born with dicks — and paradise is yours. They are dreams that exempt the dreamer from responsibility for human suffering or human thriving. All of history’s bad vibes could have been dodged if only there were fewer of the wrong people.
While accepting the Human Rights Campaign's Visibility Award in 2012, Lana Wachowski discussed the murder of trans teen Gwen Araujo, who in 2002 was beaten and strangled by four men in California: "Here was this person like me murdered by ignorance, by prejudice, murdered by intolerance ... murdered by a kind of fear that seeks to obliterate any evidence that would prove that the world is different from the way they want to see it, from the way they want to believe it to be.”
Gwen’s existence, like that of slain queer kids before and since her, was a glitch in someone's Eden. So were those of Timothy Caughman; the nine men and women shot in Charleston, South Carolina; the millions of others destroyed in the name of peace and safety. Their deaths had nothing to do with who they were as people. Their lives were just incompatible with someone’s idea of paradise. All were individuals, all flattened into threats by the anxious gatekeepers who killed them.
Here, maybe, is where the idea that hating Nazis is the same as hating anyone else falls apart. They’re hated individually, down to the last micron of individuation, for how they’ve chosen to engage with the world. A Nazi will hate me because I pose a threat to a world he’s imagined that doesn’t exist. I’ll hate a Nazi because he threatens to knock me clear out of the world I’m already in.
Morrison’s Paradise begins with nine men hunting five women living in a makeshift matriarchy called Convent. The men are citizens from the nearby black town of Ruby; the women are orphans, runaways, castoffs from all over the country. When they find life-size chalk figures etched in Convent’s basement, the men become convinced of what they’d suspected: The women are practicing witchcraft and are a threat to the sanctity of Ruby, where no one ever dies. The men find and shoot the women. They kill at least one.
Later, when a woman from Ruby called Lone discovers the basement, she sees that the drawings aren’t witchcraft at all. They’re illustrations drawn by each of Convent’s hideaways of how men in their lives had hurt them.
On the cover of Anohni’s new Paradise EP, nine women appear in pain. Like the artist's 2016 album, Hopelessness, Paradise interrogates the relationship between pleasure under capitalism and the destruction wrought by globalization: the drone bombs that keep “us” safe, the factories that keep “our” consumer goods cheap. The EP’s title track sees paradise — pronounced here under a thick veil of irony — as an endlessness. Pleasure and consumption go on forever, face no limits, encounter no friction. Shop until you drop.
Against that urge, another, contrasting urge bubbles. There is only so much we can do to the earth before it breaks, Anohni intimates. What is there to do against violence on such a massive scale? Who will stop it? Who possibly could?
"Mothers, your sons are trapped in a nightmare; they are not capable of responsibly negotiating the destructive agency that they now wield,” Anohni wrote in a statement accompanying the EP. "More profound even than a crime against humanity, fathers and sons now compulsively prepare to commit ecocide, in a final and irreversible assault upon creation itself. Only an intervention by women around the world, with their innate knowledge of interdependency, deep listening, empathy and self-sacrifice, could possibly alter our species’ desperate course.” As it’s set, the course we’re on now is easier to envision than the alternative: a utopia made real by the affirmation of every single one of its denizens.
Did the Matrix’s original paradise fail because humans need suffering to live, as Smith suggests? Did it fail because humans need not suffering but differentiation — the knowledge that, whatever pleasure they experience, they’ve earned it more than someone else? "An open, borderless, come-one-come-all paradise, without dread, minus a nemesis is no paradise at all,” Morrison writes in Paradise’s foreword. Or did it fail because the contrast was too great between the infinite freedom of the mind and the total subjugation of the body? Did those who died in paradise detect the nemesis somewhere beyond the edges of their consciousness?
Beneath the Matrix’s towering hardware, there is a city called Zion where free humans live. Some are born there; others are freed from the Matrix after rigorous vetting by Morpheus and other fighters. Before one can be freed, one’s mind needs to be ready to accept its new reality. Not everyone can be pulled from the false world into the real one. Some die of their freedom. Even Neo barely makes it. There is a dividing line between the free and the unfree, and only the leaders of the free can say where it is.
At the end of The Matrix Revolutions, the third movie in the Wachowskis’ trilogy, the machines and the humans cut a deal. Neo has completed his savior arc and died for the sake of those living. Those still in the Matrix who want to be free will go free. Those who don’t will stay asleep, powering the computers. Everyone gets the reality they want for themselves deep down, as far as the computers can tell.
If they can tell. It’s a muddled, bizarre ending. The free people of Zion trust their oppressor to, well, cut it out. Not that they have much choice — at least the robots stopped shooting at them. Everyone gets to be with their own kind: those who crave freedom above everything else, and those who choose sleep. The implication is that, more than suffering, humanity is attached to boundaries — that peace can be realized temporarily, but people are fundamentally split as to what it means.
There’s a hidden track at the end of Anohni’s Paradise, though you won’t find it by letting the EP run on for 10 silent minutes. If you’re just learning about it now, you probably won’t find it at all. The singer asked listeners to exchange their thoughts for the track. “Share with me in a sentence or two what you care most about, or your hopes for the future,” she wrote on Facebook. "Send this to me instead of the dollar you used to send me in the olden days. The price for this song is a gesture of anonymous vulnerability. That may be too expensive for some of you, and that's okay. I want to hear your collective mind. I want to see that river of thoughts ... Take a risk and break out of established ways of doing and perceiving. It is what you have expected of me as an artist, and just for a moment, it is what I ask of you.”
She took a weekend to email the song to those who had reached out. I missed the deadline. She might not do it again. But to ask for labor in exchange for a song is new, or at least new in recent memory. Anohni asked listeners to write something meaningful and true in order to complete Paradise. She asked them to reverse the designated flow of information from producer to consumer, to step out of those easy roles into a hard conversation. Instead of money — stiff, masculine, quantified — she asked for vulnerability.
What would it take to build utopia — a universally humane, livable earth — without walls? How do human beings achieve that porosity? On a material level it seems possible. It’s said often that there is enough food to feed everyone, more empty houses than houseless. Maybe it is the possibility coupled with the denial that makes the façade of paradise so painful. There are so many of us, and only a few we can afford to pour our hearts out to. It is easier to believe we have no choice, that human suffering arises from the intrusion of someone unlike us. It is harder to believe that we do have a choice — to believe there is no one unlike us.