When Society Takes A Wrong Turn

"We're so close to our time, that some things disturb us even more", Øyvind Vågnes says in a radio debate about the dystopian tendency in modern TV series.

Øyvind Vågnes
Siri Flatlandsmo

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The radio debate on NRK took place earlier this May. Together with Vågnes, author of the dystopian novel "Sone Z" and researcher for ViSmedia and University of Bergen. Alongside him, two other participants were on air: Janne Stigen Drangsholt, author and Associate Professor at University of Stavanger (UiS), and gender researcher and Associate Professor Ingvild Hellstrand, also at UiS.

Vågnes is currently conducting research on the TV series Black Mirror, one of the series they discuss in the debate.

"Is there something [in Black Mirror] that frightens you?", debate leader Kristin Aalen asks.

"Everything frightens me," Vågnes replies.

A way to discuss darkness in sociey

And perhaps he has a reason to be. Drangshol explains that Dystopia is a dark place that does exist, often set in the future. It's the opposite of the happy Utopia.

"If you're going to tell a story, you need resistance", Drangsholt says, as an explanation to why books and series set in a dystophic world has grown in popularity, especially since the 1900s. This was  at a time of several wars and the hardships following the Wall Street Crash.

Hellstrand has written her PhD about Battestar Galactica, where robots start to look like humans themselves. The society is crushed by an enemy humans didn't know about. The first season of Battlestar Galactica was released in 2004, and is often viewed as a commentary to the 9/11 attacks.

Drangsholt claims that the times we currently live in are challenging, and that this may create fertile soil for dystopian stories:

"We have destabilization of traditional political regimes. Wars don't happen between countries and established states, there are splinter groups. We lose overview over political, gorgraphical and social landscapes. The traditional categories are breaking down. The diffuse isn't merely diffuse any more. There's a reason why science fiction gains so much attention and popularity right now".

"It challenges us in ways to think about society. What kind of society do we want, who's going to live in it, who's going to be excluded and included, what kind of political and ethical challenges do we face when we have an insecurity connected to the future?" Hellstrand asks.

She adds: "It creates a critical distance, so we can see our society in a different light".

Vågnes agrees. "It's important to connect these stories to a concrete context they're created in. I experience the present today as very different from when I grew up. Now, my kids are worried about the future environment. We are meeting the collective unrest in society in different ways through these series", he says.

The impossible Retrotopia

This worry Vågnes' kids feel, may be similar to what Zygmunt Bauman called Retrotopia. He  thinks we've lost all hope and strayed off a sensible path. After world war two, a nameless anxiety caught us. Now there's a raging nostalgia to a time we can never go back to, and a hopelessness when looking at the future.

One of the TV series they talk about is the Handmaid's Tale, a series based on Margaret Atwood's books and feminist manifest from the 80s. It describes a dystopian future after the second American civil war. People have become unfertile, and the women who still can bear children are ripped of identity and used as sex slaves, being used to give birth for wealthier women.

"I can't watch it, I think it's so gloomy", Hellstrand says

"It's hopeless, and it's painful to see something this hopeless", Drangsholt says.

They think the series can be used as warnings, as a way to think critically about contemporary time.

A future approaching disturbingly fast

The gloomy scenarios of dystopia may be happening in a not very distant future, if society takes a wrong turn somewhere along the way.

"I wanted to describe a realistic universe", Vågnes explains, talking about writing his novel "Sone Z", that was published in 2014. "The realistic stories kept disappearing, because the present moves so fast. We live in a time where the future constantly is really close. I think that's one of the explanations why dystophia has so much resonance in our time", Vågnes says.

When Drangsland read Handmaid's tale for the first time, in college, it felt very different from when she read it recently:

"I thought Handmaid's tale seemed very unlikely when I first read it, but now it seems like it is on the verge of happening".

There's a Danish-produced Netflix show on the way, The Rain, where the rain has become poisonous.

"This seems almost too familiar," Vågnes says.

A useful starting point for conversation

But even though it's an uncomfortable possible future, dystophia can still be useful, they argue.

"The world isn't a good place for many people... It reminds us that there are challenges in the world. Black Mirror is uncomfortable, because it reminds us of that", Hellestrand says.

"Stories give us hope no matter how hopeless the plot can seem", Drangsland says.

"They are a good starting point for conversations about our own time", Vågnes concludes.



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