This week, the bimonthly magazine of international literature World Literature Today released its March 2017 issue, with the timely theme “Dystopian Visions.” The issue features thirteen writers’ dark speculations on the future, crossing the globe from Cuba to Japan. In this time in the United States when dystopian fiction isn’t seeming quite so fictional anymore, the international voices contained in this issue are illuminating and chilling, highlighting themes of autocracy, bureaucracy, government rhetoric, and class stratification, to name a few. In the Editor’s Note prefacing the issue, Daniel Simon asserts the importance of dystopian fiction today:
In 2017, when the line between truth and fiction seems more tenuous than ever, wouldn’t it be best to eschew speculative fiction in order to sort out present truth once and for all? As the writers in our cover feature repeatedly insist, however, the literary imagination is more urgent than ever.
Egyptian novelist and nonfiction author Basma Abdel Aziz contributes a story about an autocrat’s mission to control the lives of his citizens down to the smallest detail—for their own good. “Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat,” translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, portrays the nameless autocrat in an absurdist light that would be funny if it wasn’t disturbingly close to real life. In one instance reminiscent of certain vaguely worded executive orders from President Trump, citizens and government staff scramble to decipher the meaning of the autocrat’s opaquely worded, unvetted, and constantly issued directives for things like “health tea,” which every citizen must drink, and which it takes everyone several days of panicked confusion to determine means tea without sugar. Citizens caught with sugar are later arrested, because “the Department cared deeply about citizens’ well-being, perhaps more than they did themselves.”
Likewise, in a move that brings to mind recent and current assaults on the rights of transgender youth, women’s body autonomy, and discrimination against LGBTQIA people in businesses and the workplace, the powers of the government in Aziz’s story are expanded to dictate the minutiae of citizens’ lives, even down to their personal decisions: “Nothing could be left to independent judgment because people didn’t know what was in their best interest or how to tell right from wrong.”
Additionally, the autocrat’s contributions to the national lexicography are numerous, contributing to the government-sanctioned warping of truth and rewriting of meaning that accompanies burgeoning dictatorships:
He spearheaded the advancement of countless definitions relating to values, morals, and proper behavior. Prior to him, none of them had been adequately precise. He also deleted words that society no longer needed, like “elect,” and introduced new terms of great importance, which outlined groundbreaking ways of being patriotic that no one had considered before.
(If that excerpt doesn’t chill you to the bone, you’re not reading enough “fake news.”)
While Aziz may or may not have had Donald Trump in mind when writing “Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat,” the parallels can be easily drawn, from his ridiculous and alarming rhetoric (“turbo justice”: noun, immediate execution without trial) to his astounding narcissism and hubris:
He concentrated on urging the sun to rise early like he had, but it didn’t respond. Perhaps the reflective glass prevented it from receiving the order, he thought. He almost issued a decree to remove the glass, but then he hesitated and decided he would wait until he finished his tasks for the day…
As Aziz takes her story toward its close, she reminds us that the autocrat is only a person, with a human body and human powers. This is a shallow solace, however, because Aziz also reminds us that humans, given too much power, are dangerous, even lethal, and capable of irreparable harm, and when one autocrat falls, there is always another willing to take his place. Simon, in the issue’s Editor’s Note, writes that “rather than mere escapism, the literature of dystopia imagines the darkest possible futures that await humanity if we persist in our hubris, avarice, and violence.” It’s up to us to pay attention to Aziz’s cautionary vision and that of the other writers in this issue and elsewhere, in the United States and across the globe, and ensure that these dystopian fictions do not become reality.
Logo art by Max Winter.