What happens when a Spy Thriller, a Police Procedural, the Sci-Fi genre, and Conspiracy Theories Intersect?

So, I was going to post this thought/observation about scifi and postmodern crime fiction, and what they might tell us about our real world political and social structures and processes, but given the attempted fascist coup yesterday that culminated in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol building, I decided I need to post this today.  Keep in mind that this was drafted before the coup attempt, but it very much speaks to the implications of narrative structures, conspiracy theories, and the potential role of crime fiction in revealing things about our social lives.

As the post-election disinformation campaign by Trump and his loyalists (and/or the opportunists who benefit from his chaos) continued into December, Jochen Bittner wrote an opinion piece in the NYTimes that the legend-building around the “steal” of the election reminded him of the “Stab-in-the-back” myth that grew in post-WWI Germany and led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. That myth went something like this: Germany did not really lose the war, or they didn’t have to. As Bittner puts it:

“Military officers, monarchists and right-wingers spread the myth that if it had not been for political sabotage by Social Democrats and Jews back home, the army would never have had to give in.”

He goes on to explain why he’s worried about the impact of the baseless accusations by Trump about election fraud and a “stolen” election:

“The startling aspect about the Dolchstosslegende [the stab-in-the-back myth] is this: It did not grow weaker after 1918 but stronger. In the face of humiliation and unable or unwilling to cope with the truth, many Germans embarked on a disastrous self-delusion: The nation had been betrayed, but its honor and greatness could never be lost. And those without a sense of national duty and righteousness — the left and even the elected government of the new republic — could never be legitimate custodians of the country.”

“The key to Hitler’s success was that, by 1933, a considerable part of the German electorate had put the ideas embodied in the myth — honor, greatness, national pride — above democracy.”

I’ve been thinking about this — the ongoing threat that two realities poses for democracy — a lot lately. And it’s not because I made the connection Bittner did with 1918. It’s because I’ve recently read/seen two sci-fi dystopian stories that make this “two realities” situation more concrete. But Bittner’s historical framing makes my thinking come into sharper focus:

When there is a decisive split within a society in which one group believes in one reality, or one history, and the other group understands reality/history differently, the ground is established for political and social manipulation to an extent that makes democratic processes (such as free press, fair elections, civil rights, checks and balances on authoritarian or corporate overreach, etc.) perhaps impossible.

My friend recently pointed out to me that perhaps that online “event” that happened early in 2015 regarding the color of a dress was an important test, one that we failed.

And it wasn’t just a test, but the groundwork for establishing a split reality: some saw the dress as blue and black, others saw it as white and gold. And everyone was both right and wrong; and the outcome was the establishment of the following “truth” about reality in 2015 (and since):

There is no verifiable truth because a) the internet is not to be trusted, and b) only my own perception matters. 

I see this now as a mass experiment we all unwittingly participated in.

There are two recent sci-fi narratives that play this scenario of two incommensurate realities out in dystopian terms.

The first is The City & The City, a 2009 novel by China Miéville (and which was made into a series by BBC in 2018).  The novel takes place in a dystopian alternate present where there is “a city” that is actually made up of two cities: entwined and geographically overlapping, but politically and ideologically separated.The novel is part police procedural, part sci-fi thriller. The plot follows a police inspector in the Extreme Crime Squad, Tyador Borlu, who is investigating a case of a murdered woman who is dumped in his city, Beszel. It turns out the “dead girl” is from the “other” city, Ul Qoma. And the more Borlu uncovers about the murder, the more the borders between the “two cities” unravels.

[Spoilers Ahead!] At the same time, Borlu learns that some of the myths of the two cities, including the myth of yet a third city — which everyone knows about but which no one is supposed to know about, making it somehow more real — are just that: myths. In other words, society as he knows it, and the codes that he polices as part of his job, are built on layers of myths that really just benefit multinational corporations that extract resources from the ground underneath the “two cities.”

The second narrative is the Starz series from a couple of years ago called Counterpart. Also set in an alternate present, this series is part Cold War spy genre and part sci-fi dystopian thriller. In this drama, the moment the Cold War ended — when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 — another kind of Cold War began. According to the plot, some kind of “experiment” went wrong and a portal opened up under a bureaucratic headquarters in Berlin to . . .  another Berlin, which is (or became) part of a duplicate world/universe.  When the portal was opened, the two worlds were exactly the same. But as soon as knowledge of the “other” was gained, more and more changes made the two worlds separate in their timelines and experiences. One world experienced the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, for example, and the other didn’t. And one world — and this is important for the plot — experienced a devastating global pandemic in the 1990’s, while the other didn’t.

Only a few people knew about the split, and this served as a new opportunity for a new Cold War: each side had to create systems of diplomacy and spies to deal with the other and to keep the separate worlds as separate (and safe) as possible.  Again, we have two cities which are both the same and not the same. Keeping them separate — and suspicious or unknown to each other — is key to global stability. The authorities on either side in charge of maintaining the balance are simply referred to as “Management.” They are never seen, but They give orders to their respective networks of diplomats and spies.

I bring these two narratives up because they offer allegories that illustrate the machinations and dangers of political and historical maneuvering in our reality.

The “two cities” or “two worlds” narrative frame is a kind of literalization or extreme end to the “two realities” that diverged after WWI, and the two realities that are diverging in the Trump era.

Looking at these two sci-fi dramas that follow the narrative patterns of crime and spy fiction might help us understand ourselves and our political, cultural moment — and the stakes involved in diverging realities.

For example, in The City & The City, people live their whole lives side-by-side to each other but practice something called “unseeing” so that they never acknowledge each other’s existence, except by going through bureaucratic processes to properly cross into the “other” city through legal means. More than that, the cultural and political borders erected between communities are literally not there but are constructed by peer pressure, the fear of the mysterious “Breach” enforcement team, and individual capitulation to the maintenance of difference.

Note: the word “breach” has taken on so much more significance in light of the breach of the U.S. Capitol yesterday by Trump-crazed terrorists. What does it mean when conspiracy theories and delusional white supremacist fantasies breach actual government buildings and electoral processes and the integrity of a democratic republic?

In the Counterpart, we learn new ways of thinking about “double agents” and about “enemies” or “others.”  In other words: we learn that there are “others” who are really just “us,” but we also learn that the “They” (Management) is probably playing us against ourselves for personal profit.

How does all of this connect back to Bittner’s anxiety about the echo of the “stab-in-the-back myth” in the “Stop the Steal” nonsense?

In our social media virtual realities and our distributed news sources and echo chambers, it’s quite easy for us to erect and maintain separate realities: our communities, our media, our politics seem to reinforce separate “safe” spaces. That “dress” experiment helped to establish, perhaps, a comfort with the separateness.

In some ways, the global pandemic has made it even easier for many to get lost in virtual worlds constructed through selected internet channels. And with the rapid growth of the right-wing social media platform Parler in the wake of the post-election conspiracy theories, our worlds might become even more split.

If there is a big enough group of people who believe a myth, and if they are enabled and/or manipulated by elected officials and social meddlers with resources, then a new, alternate reality might become quite dangerous, because it might engender real violence (we’ve seen some of this already).

I believe this is Bittner’s fear, and his historical reference reminds us that we have already, actually, seen the horrific violent consequences of mass delusion channeled into national war chests.

What these other, recent narratives suggest, however, is that this kind of cold war/borders policing arrangement of society is already around us, already violent, and probably sustained by our cultural sense that this is all normal. (As “normal” as the internet being completely divided about the color of a dress.)

The “two factions” framing in these narratives is a reduction or simplification, however; it’s allegory. The real world experience is much more mundane, much more fractured — and it really does take a lot of work to construct a “two worlds” myth. But it also takes gullibility, and a comfort with a certain level of state policing (which, let’s face it, seems to be an epidemic in the U.S.).

But it might also take the sci-fi construction of the “uncanny” to help us recognize all this.

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