Truth in Fiction: A Q&A with Co-Authors on New Book on Dystopian Politics

By Tom McLaughlin

As Americans plunge headlong into another hotly contested election season, punctuated by the possibility of another presidential impeachment process, it will be up to citizens across the country to decide fact from fiction and, ultimately, the future direction of our nation.

Many will wrestle with questions of what makes an effective government and how to avoid a dysfunctional one.

A key element of the book’s approach is contrasting real and fictional dystopias, using the fictional elements to highlight key elements of the real.

In a break from traditional political rhetoric, coauthors and political scientists Shauna Shames and Amy Atchison look to fiction to shed light on these answers in their new book, Survive and Resist: The Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics (Columbia University Press).

“Fiction is a good lens for concepts because it insulates us from the horrors being presented in the narrative and sometimes helps us see our world in a new way,” write Shames and Atchison, associate professors at Rutgers University–Camden and Valparaiso University, respectively.

Balancing humor and political science, the authors use dystopian narratives – depicting nightmarish societies under authoritarian rule – to show real-world examples of repressive governments in action and explore their defining characteristics for those who wish to resist them.

“Ultimately, this is our message to you: Be not afraid,” the authors write reassuringly.

We check in with Shames and Atchison, who explain how dystopian narratives can capture our imaginations and fears, and provide a greater understanding of dysfunctional rule.

Just what is a dystopia and how do we recognize if we are living in one?

Dystopias are characterized by a basic lack of civil liberties. They all have hallmarks and major weaknesses. For instance, you will see the common threads of violent repression, surveillance, and thought control.

What makes exploring dystopian narratives an effective means of highlighting real-world examples of dystopian governments?

Shauna Shames

As we show in the book, dystopian works have always given authors a useful and artistic vehicle for hard-hitting commentary, for more than a century. Dystopian narratives are signs of the times.

A key element of the book’s approach is comparing governments. Throughout the text, readers will see “Comparing Dystopias” boxes that contrast real and fictional dystopias, using the fictional elements to highlight key elements of the real.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

This book is for everyone. It is a great textbook for political science courses, but it is also for anyone who is worried about antidemocratic things happening in their democratic countries. And it’s for citizens of not-so-democratic countries – if they can get copies of it – who want to know why democracy is the best option for governance, what its limits can be, and how to get there from authoritarianism.

How will United States citizens benefit from reading it?

In the United States and many other well-developed democracies today, there are some dangerous trends; concerned people may want to know what dictatorship looks like, how to recognize it, and what to do about it.

However, we also do not want to just run through the streets yelling “Burn it all down!” We are not fans of the lack of government, either. We are political scientists and we want good government. This is our best thinking, illustrated with fun and interesting examples, about how to get there.

Why did you think that it was important to write this book?

The United States and other comparable countries were in trouble long before Trump came along. This is not just about him, although it did stir us to write more quickly. Ever since Aristotle, and probably before, those who study democracy have known that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.

In particular, if the people rule but the people are scared or angry, and if those emotions are manipulated by clever elites, democracy can easily turn into tyranny. This is, in fact, the plot of a lot of fiction works — so we wanted to use both the fiction and the academic thinking to bring forth important ideas that help us understand ourselves, our government, and our options.

What about this impeachment process right now? Does this suggest we are living in a dystopia here in the United States?

Actually, the exact opposite. Impeachment is a political process designed to allow the people, through their elected representatives, to remove a president if he starts doing things that might lead us to a dystopian-like government. So as long as the process is working correctly, with checks and balances on executive power that appear to be “functional-ish,” this is the opposite of dystopia.

This book seems like fun stuff. But is it really political science?

We’re sad that people think of the two as mutually exclusive. This book is first and foremost a teaching tool, and our take on teaching and learning is that they should be fun, for all involved. Learning is fun. Sharing what you know is fun.

This is not political science in the sense of original research, but we actually use tons of other people’s research, mostly from political science, but also some other fields as well, in addition to a lot of political theory, to explain concepts and tell you why they are important. Everything we claim as fact is backed up in the endnotes, but we also wanted this to be something that thinking people all over the world could read, enjoy, and learn from.

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