Given the state of America in 2020, some days feel like we are stuck in the middle of a dystopian storyline. The economy is in free-fall, most people are sheltering in place to avoid the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, and our government is fumbling its response to effectively handle this crisis.
In these times, literature echoes “reality” in uncanny ways. More specifically, Trump’s defense of his pandemic performance is analogous to the fictional justifications found in Sam J. Miller‘s gripping science-fiction novel Blackfish City (2018).
In Miller’s novel, much of the Earth has been swallowed by the oceans as a result of climate change. One pocket of “civilization” that survives is Qaanaaq—an Arctic city where refugees from around the world have come, having escaped their flooded homelands. The city was created by a wealthy elite who had the means to establish this new society in the Arctic.
Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Blackfish City focuses on the disparity between the rich and the poor and the role businesses and institutions play in manipulating systematic power for profit.
Prior to writing Blackfish City, Miller spent 15 years as a community organizer at Picture the Homeless. His day-job as an activist informs his creative work in profound ways. Like modern-day New York, where Miller worked as an advocate for the city’s homeless, Qaanaq is similarly determined by an economic elite who hoard the city’s goods and services.
Among the many challenges plaguing the inhabitants of this floating city is a terrible psychiatric pandemic referred to as “the breaks”, which is a contagious disease that infects the mind, causing debilitating visions that lead to insanity. In the opening chapters, many theories are floated about the virus’s origins. One such theory, promulgated by the city’s elite, is that the virus, spread primarily through sexual transmission, is caused by and only infects “criminals and perverts”.
In this sense, Blackfish City is a clear allegory for HIV/AIDS in Reagan’s America. This dominant narrative reads the pandemic as “evidence” that non-normative practices are a sin against nature and God. This narrative, of course, is animated by homophobia and makes explicit —a theme running throughout this Reading Pandemics series—that pandemics are political events. Pandemics mandate a political response, and moreover, become interpreted through political filters.
In contrast to this dominant narrative, an emerging theory is pieced together that this virus is actually caused by corporate exploitation. There’s a strong correlation between the breaks and people who were known as “nanobonded”: “a whole community of people who were either deliberately or accidentally exposed to experimental wireless nanomachines” (Miller 73). The networking-experiment-gone-wrong is discussed in an excerpt from a Qaanaaq broadcast entitled “City Without a Map”. The broadcast quotes a scientist, Wilhelm Ruhr, who recalls a corporate-sponsored experiment that was widely misunderstood because of mass-media representations:
“It didn’t go well. Everybody knows that by now. Personally I think a lot of what got reported was exaggerated, or that the atrocities were due to other causes. Either way, talking about it isn’t going to make much difference.”
Still, Wilhelm Ruhr doesn’t feel guilty about what happened.
“We were trying to do something good. It if had worked, think of what we’d been able to accomplish…” (Miller 72).
This experiment, called the “Hive Project”, is sponsored and supported by Big Pharma. The project’s purpose is to network the emotions and knowledge between humans for the ostensible purpose of economic benefit for all. While the experiment was successful in mice-trials, the implementation with humans goes wrong. It’s important to note that the choice to experiment on humans before knowing more about the process of nanobonding is financially motivated. The scientist admits: “We probably should have done monkey trials, but the way things were going in America it was much more cost-effective to just get a waiver signed and try it out on people” (Miller 74).
As alluded to in the novel, there was a Deregulation Period in the US where the FDA was an impotent institution that allowed dangerous experimentation to take place either with or without the complete understanding of its citizens. Big Pharma used this regulation to prey upon the at-risk communities.
As a result of these corporate miscalculations, a virus developed and multiple generations of people suffered and died. The virus evolved into a pandemic that’s decimating cities like Qaanaaq, a city largely populated by poor, precarious refugees.
What’s particularly striking about the passage quoted above is how it echoes what we hear in our current crisis of COVID-19. Taken out of context, the same quotations from the scientist cited above, Wilhelm Ruhr, could be a transcript from the White House Coronavirus Task Force presentation. Notice the similarities in content and tone between the corrupt fictional character in Blackfish City, Wilhelm Ruhr, and President Trump:
Wilhelm Ruhr: “It didn’t go well. Everybody knows that by now. Personally I think a lot of what got reported was exaggerated, or that the atrocities were due to other causes. Either way, talking about it isn’t going to make much difference.”
Donald Trump (4 May 2020): “It’s a terrible thing. A terrible thing that happened to our country. It came from China. It should’ve been stopped. It could’ve been stopped on the spot. They chose not to do it, or something happened. Either there was incompetence or they didn’t do it for some reason, and we’re going to have to find out what that reason was”.
Wilhelm Ruhr: “[I do] not feel guilty about what happened.”
Donald Trump (13 Mar 2020): “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Wilhelm Ruhr: “We were trying to do something good. It if had worked, think of what we’d been able to accomplish…”
Donald Trump (30 Mar 2020): “And so, if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — that’s a horrible number — maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job. But 2.2, up to 2.2 million deaths and maybe even beyond that. I’m feeling very good about what we did last week.”
The similarities between these two sets of statements—one from a fictional dystopia and the other from our present-day pandemic—stem from an abdication of responsibility. Just as Ruhr refuses to confront his complicity in the experiment’s disaster, so too does our president refuse to acknowledge his blame for his administration’s dysfunction in addressing a global pandemic in America. Just like Ruhr, the current US president wages a continuous battle with the media due to his displeasure with their reporting; he refuses to admit mistakes were made and opportunities were blundered; he reframes failures as successes; and he continually revises history.
However, there is a key difference between the two figures. Whereas Rhur is a clear villain in Blackfish City, Tump is a symbol of the nation-state and “the people”. Whereas Rhur’s corporate narrative is critiqued and countered by other broadcasts, Trump continues to steer mass and digital media, and hence, steers national narratives.
But sometimes the tables are turned, and fiction can reveal a truth overlooked by the dominant culture. In Blackfish City, during another broadcast of “City Without a Map: The Breaks”, the script reads, “Epidemics do not have medical causes; they have social ones” (Miller 192). In the novel, the social causes of the breaks stem from corporate greed and a systemic cover-up. Likewise, the brutality of COVID-19 highlights the significant human flaws of our country. The broken US leadership, beginning at the federal level, has exacerbated the pandemic. Scientific warnings were ignored and the voices of scientists are still muffled. When we can’t turn to the federal government for the truth, sometimes we need to turn to fiction.
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