If ever we needed a good alternate reality, now is the time.
And if I need to tell you why, you’ve not been paying attention.
As the nation continues to sell its soul to unworthy men and the St. Louis Cardinals slide toward irrelevance, I’ve started spending more and more time immersing myself in worlds that don’t exist. Ironically, that pursuit has led me to Philip K. Dick.
Even those who haven’t heard of Dick as an author know the work he produced. His stories were adapted for the films Total Recall and Minority Report. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–and how great is that title!–was the basis for the Blade Runner movies.
And, of course, there is The Man in the High Castle. The novel (and the Amazon television series on which it is based) imagines an alternate reality in which the Allies have been too slow to develop the atomic bomb and thus lost World War II. The American characters struggle to maintain a sense of identity and hope under the totalitarian rule of the Nazis along the east coast and the Japanese along the west.
I’m struck by the point in time that Dick wrote his story. The Man in the High Castle was released in 1962–before MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, before the Birmingham riots, before MLK and the Kennedys were assassinated. Before the escalation of the Vietnam War or Watergate, and certainly before 9/11 or smartphones or the Clintons or Trump.
Way back in 1962, Philip K. Dick was telling us it could always be worse–that things might actually get worse, if we let them.
If you told me that dystopian fantasies are perhaps not the best thing for our collective mental health right now, I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. But I would say that the quality that makes The Man in the High Castle so convincing in its bleakness is the same one that we need for a happier world.
Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time reacting to fear. We imagine terrible things that could happen to the people or things we love, and we try to head off those potential losses by the way we spend our money or cast our votes or treat other humans as potential threats.
But if we have the power to imagine a world that is worse than the one we struggle through now, don’t we also have the power to imagine a world that is better than what we inhabit? Don’t we also have the ability to work toward that vision?
We do, of course. But positive imagination is more costly than fearful imagination. It’s harder to do, and often lonelier. Plus, working toward a positive but not yet realized future comes with its own risk of loss. The failure of a dream always hurts more than other failures.
There’s an alternate reality out there–one better than what we’ve fallen into. If we have the courage to imagine it, maybe we could also find the courage to build it.