No one can deny that the past year has been rough, politically speaking (to put it mildly). Trump, Brexit, the creeping feeling that no one has any clue what’s going on. As a result, half of humanity has been in a state of collective reflection, as if we’d been ordered to sit silently in the corner and think about what we’ve done. During this period of mournful rumination, media outlets have put out a large collection of comfort pieces posing (sometimes convincingly) as analysis, the kind of fluff pieces meant to be a soothing Band-Aid for the bruised ego of a populace still recovering from the wreckage of the neoliberal consensus.
Not to imply that I haven’t indulged in such reads myself, and I certainly won’t deny that they are often fun, in a clever, self-affirming way. I’ve read comprehensive comparisons of the modern political environment to Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World—the perennial favourites—in the pop culture vernacular of many an agitated political commentator wanting to voice their disaffection via the medium of smug indignation.
Comic books often get tossed into the mix as well. On the Internet, there are myriad comparisons between Trump and Lex Luthor and essays about how Marvel predicted this whole era in the Dark Reign crossover event. I suppose the one that made me most giddy was the Guardian article “Transmetropolitan: the 90s comic that’s bang up-to-date on Donald Trump“. Of course most of these pieces are meant to be fun and playful. However, there are a few that take these fantastical, reality-spanning serendipities a bit too seriously. From the tone of some articles you might think critics took these books as prophetic tomes penned by clairvoyant scribes.
These observations exude an air of immense surprise that the world sometimes resembles a book or movie, a shock that life might sometimes imitate art. But lying behind this is a fundamental misunderstanding (or, at least, lack of appreciation) of fiction. Most narrative fiction has as its implicit goal a simulation of how humans would “realistically” react in a certain situation. Even if that situation is inherently ridiculous, the characters must seem real and must resonate with the audience.
There’s a reason Norman Obsborn seems like Trump: it’s because Trump is not the first self-aggrandizing millionaire-turned-civil-servant with a callous disregard for others. It’s the same reason the Smiler makes us squirm as he lays out his malicious plans—it hits a part of us that makes us think back to some other vile yet broken, misanthropic sociopath who should never have been elected dog catcher, let alone president. As a result, these articles come across as genuinely surprised that the fiction they engage with has done its job, triggering reflection and (hopefully) more critical thinking about the contemporary world.
While these writers obviously don’t believe such “prescient” works are literal prophecies, they do seem surprised every time fiction has parallels with real-world events. No artwork is made in a vacuum. Sometimes social trends resemble each other, especially during cultural stress points. I’ve already written two pieces about how the Thatcher era influenced Alan Moore’s writing. Works of art have a tendency to take on new importance in changing political contexts, and we’ve certainly seen many dystopian or speculative works take on a morbid feeling of at-home-ness in today’s hyper-corporatist, right-wing American regime. These works may not be “prophecy” in the religious sense, but many of them are a caricature of their own times, and a dire warning for the future.
That’s a generous assessment, and one that leaves out the simple problem of confirmation bias entirely. One could allegorize the rise of Trump into Gary Callahan using underhanded tricks and manipulation to win over a beleaguered electorate whilst in secret housing nothing but contempt for them. Or maybe, from a Trump supporter’s perspective, Trump is Tony Stark: a rich, abrasive billionaire who tells it like it is, lives ostentatiously and, despite his flaws, is out to save the day. Or maybe he’s Batman, waging a war to bring order to a lawless land, despite the bile he receives from corrupt institutions. Which works you will connect to any given situation, what players you will choose to see as heroes and which as villains, is entirely dependent on your own outlook. These aren’t passive “readings” but active engagements with both fiction and reality, the construction of an idiosyncratic narrative that serves as perhaps the most vital point of contact between the two.
This is nothing new, of course. Ever since I was a kid, people have been comparing the news cycle in every election to the slapstick satire Idiocracy. Such imputations are more pronounced nowadays, though, perhaps because it feeds into the Internet’s need to analogize everything using pop culture. In a sense, it’s a symptom of our love of transposing familiar patterns in relation to newer trends using familiar stories as vehicles for context. Essentially, it’s us transforming familiar stories into memes.
So, seeing as how I’ve written an analysis complaining about other people’s analyses, we’ve come full circle. Here is the digital snake, finally swallowing its own tail.