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Creators of dystopian sci-fi are as shocked by the events of 2020 as you are

"To me, if 2020 were a movie, you just wouldn't believe it," author Scott Westerfeld said. "Because it doesn't just seem to be one apocalypse."
V FOR VENDETTA, Hugo Weaving, 2006, (C)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
Hugo Weaving in a scene from the 2006 film "V for Vendetta."Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

"V for Vendetta" director James McTeigue said the decision to pick 2020 as the year in which his film was set was a coincidence.

Neither he nor the screenwriters — Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who adapted the original 1982 comic book series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd about a masked revolutionary (Hugo Weaving) and his protégé (Natalie Portman) pitted against an authoritarian regime ruling Britain — could have predicted that so many parallels from the near-future-set allegory would arrive this soon.

"When we set the film, we were just abstracting it into the future," said McTeigue, whose film is getting a timely rerelease in theaters Friday.

"Look at the Wikipedia entry for 'V for Vendetta' and it reads, 'The world is in turmoil and warfare, the United States fractures as a result of a prolonged second civil war and a pandemic of the St. Mary's Virus is ravaging Europe,'" McTeigue said. "That's the synopsis written 15 years ago or whenever."

"Is it good fortune [in timing] or something that happens every once in a while in history?" asked the Australian filmmaker. "I don't know."

Either way, the real-life developments of 2020 are proving uncomfortably familiar to many creators of dystopian science fiction.

The genre has been a popular form of catharsis for audiences slogging through their present existences since before H.G. Wells tinkered with "The Time Machine" at the end of the 19th century. Written 35 years before its title, George Orwell's "1984" posited a totalitarian world full of mass surveillance that already bore a resemblance to Stalinist Russia of his era.

In recent decades, movies have also plumbed our fears of a future in which humanity has been devastated by overpopulation ("Soylent Green" in 1973), societal collapse ("Mad Max" in 1980), technology run amok ("The Terminator" in 1984 and "The Matrix" in 1999) and a turn to authoritarianism ("Blade Runner" in 1982 and "The Hunger Games" in 2012).

For the most part, though, those cinematic visions of a post-apocalyptic future have been more about popcorn than the kernels of truth. And in the pages of books like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (2006) and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), the dark visions laid out for the future seemed years away at worst.

Then the calendar turned to 2020.

"A lot of societal norms have stopped," McTeigue said. "A lot of what we expected of government has completely changed. The paradigm has been completely been turned on its head."

The global Covid-19 pandemic, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the 1918 flu pandemic, blanketed the planet and has killed more than 230,0000 people in the United States alone.

Wildfires unprecedented in scope and damage scorched Australia and the West Coast of the United States — a coming attraction to a bleak future marked by climate change.

Democratic norms are teetering across the globe, as exemplified by the Trump administration's continued disregard for the checks and balances that have been the bedrock of the American political system.

Protesters of racial injustice have taken to the streets across the U.S. and elsewhere, often coming into conflict with police and government troops.

And heading into Tuesday's U.S. presidential election, there's an overwhelming fear in the zeitgeist that it's only going to get worse.

"To me, if 2020 were a movie, you just wouldn't believe it," said Scott Westerfeld, author of the young adult dystopian franchise "Uglies," which is currently being adapted into a film for Netflix. "Because it doesn't just seem to be one apocalypse: It's not just the pandemic, it's also government dysfunction and it's murder hornets. I spent the early part of the year in Australia, where there were incredible fires."

"It seems like we have a lot of things piling up on each other in a way that wouldn't really be believable in a serious apocalypse movie or fiction," Westerfeld said.

Back in 1976, writer John Wagner co-created the comic book character of Judge Dredd with editor Pat Mills with a goal to entertain, not envision. Climate change, a deadly pandemic, the fall of democracy and automation taking away jobs from humans were all baked into the story, but largely as a backdrop for the titular hero's violent adventures.

What Wagner and Mills dreamed up for the British magazine, "2000 A.D." — adventures set in a future in which the irradiated landscape is pockmarked by giant crime-ridden cities policed by officers who serve as judges, juries and executioners — would grow popular enough on both sides of the pond to lead to two film adaptions, including a 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle.

"It was just a story, a bleak dystopian future colored, I suppose, by our own politics and the increasing dominance of the right wing, but we never thought that deeply about it at the start, or ever really expected the future it portrayed to happen," Wagner said by email. "I mean, people had more sense, hadn’t they?"

Judge Dredd
American actor Sylvester Stallone stars as the titular law enforcement officer in the dystopian sci-fi film 'Judge Dredd', 1995.Richard Blanshard / Getty Images file

Wagner said he's been particularly taken aback by the degradation of democratic norms, or "a strange idiocy," as he calls it, in countries like Britain and the United States.

"Dredd was a creation of his time — it’s just that his time never seems to have ended," Wagner said. "The world just keeps getting crazier."

Westerfeld set his "Uglies" books, the first of which was published in 2005, in a future where teenagers are considered "ugly" until they receive government-mandated plastic surgery to be turned into socially acceptable "pretties."

The saga presages the obsession present-day teens have with social media and selfies, but the backdrop of scarcity and fossil fuel depletion that he created has proven to be even more unsettling.

"Part of the 'Uglies' aesthetic is the assumption that 'Rusty' civilization (as our current society is dubbed in the books) didn't have forever to go, it wasn't something that was sustainable," the author explained. "The way that we use fossil fuels and the way we use every other resource available to us doesn't seem a sustainable path. And on top of that, we don't seem capable of changing our path to something that is sustainable."

"It always seemed to me that this civilization was one that was not going to ease into some other form gracefully," Westerfeld said.

Among the books that Claire Curtis, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston who specializes in dystopia, considers most prescient of this period-preapocalypse nonfiction are the Octavia Butler novels "Parable of the Sower" (1993) and "Parable of the Talents" (1998).

"A lot of people have talked about those books because in 'Parable of the Talents,' Butler has a right- wing presidential candidate whose slogan is, 'Make America great again,'" Curtis said. "Even though it was published in the 1990s, there's a clear sense of worry about climate change and a sort of societal breakdown, this notion that the United States is no longer the country that we think of it as being."

If there's a silver lining on the mushroom cloud, however, it's that the main draw of dystopian drama has always been the undercurrent of hope. As dark as the visions of autocratic futures are in films like "Blade Runner" and "The Hunger Games," respectively based on novels by Philip K. Dick and Suzanne Collins, there's always a Harrison Ford or Jennifer Lawrence around to fight the power.

Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."Lionsgate

"What [these stories] are channeling is sort of two interrelated things," Curtis said. "There's a piece where we imagine ourselves in that possible future that causes us to feel fear, to feel dread."

"But, I think there's also a hope piece, too. This idea that, 'OK, so in the future things might be radically worse and I'm fearful right now that we're going in this direction, but I also see that in the future people are working against this radically worse possibility,'" Curtis said. "And maybe that gives me a sense that now I, too, can work to keep that future from happening."

Case in point, women have been dressing up in costumes straight out of the "The Handmaid's Tale," made popular recently through the television adaptation on Hulu, to protest the conservative encroachment on women's rights.

As McTeigue noted, the Guy Fawkes mask in "V for Vendetta" also became a symbol of defiance at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, during the Arab Spring protests and for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

McTeigue, though, cautioned not to put too much emphasis on the prescience of "V for Vendetta." Moore and Lloyd had produced their original graphic novel as a rebuke to Thatcherite Britain; the Wachowskis and McTeigue filmed their version with the Bush administration in mind.

"Stories like 'V' and the political climate we find ourselves at the moment are cyclical," the filmmaker said.

"You always get these anomalies that pop up in our system. For whatever reason as human beings we embrace them — and then our better angels usually find a way to quell them," McTeigue said. "But we're definitely going through a period like that now."