Martin marvels at a government that doesn't understand the basic rules of sci-fi dystopia

Jonathan Price lost in the control-freak society of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Now that I’m living in the future, I am a bit disappointed. Flying cars are thin on the ground (or in the air), laser guns are only found in grotty old Laserdrome and I cannot crane my head up to the crescent moon and espy the faint lights of the Sheraton Tycho.

Linguistically though, I’m laughing, because barely a week goes by without some science-fictional phrase entering the language in the effort – usually – to explain something that was perfectly well-explained by already-existent words or phrases.

I’m not going to cite the obvious example – ‘rendition’ – however, since the practice of exporting your prisoners outside of the confines of the Geneva convention for the purposes of evil and immoral interrogation has lacked any kind of lexical reference at all until recent years (nor, to the shame of our age, was any definition necessary before). In any case, ‘rendition’ is certainly more elegant than ‘torture-bussing’, ‘pain-farming’ or ‘coercion excursion’.

No, I’ll descend off that familiar hobby-horse for the moment to show you my new science-fiction word of the week, drunkorexia, currently defined as ‘the practice of replacing meals with booze’. This is, apparently, a syndrome that mostly affects young women who want to paint the town red without spoiling their figures.

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Though trading off nutritional calories for the empty calories of alcohol is not a new invention, its systematic (some say potentially epidemic) use in society may warrant this new linguistic shorthand. A drunkorexic stands, it seems, at the confluence between two of British society’s greatest pressures – the urge to be attractive and the urge to be drunk.

Time was that the latter could convince you of the former, but that won’t do anymore: we still want to blast away the cobwebs of our days with booze, but we don’t want to wake up to the grim reality of the mirror and the debris of bad sexual choices – we want to wake up beautiful and thin, preferably with other beautiful and thin people. Even if we have to navigate a 4-megaton hangover and scar our liver to do it.

Nutritionists and scientists decry the hyper-toxic effects of alcohol on the unfed system, which is probably not unreasonable; but since they decry everything else under the faint British sun, who will listen? Living is toxic; it kills you. In the face of this bald fact, we are being ushered inexorably to a zero-toxin, zero-tolerance cardiovascular utopia.

Perhaps it is a chicken-and-egg situation. Perhaps we will be happier when we are healthier. Perhaps when the free-radicals are out of our system, we won’t want to lie face-down in the Tottenham Court Road, wearing our lunch anymore. But we will still be surrounded by urban ennui and hard financial realities, and we will still be scampering down the narrow runnels of our daily lives. Therefore we may…just may want to escape that now and again, that we might afterwards count our blessings again.

But that doesn’t fit into the current vision of Britain’s future, and I fear that private and popular culture here are diverging at an alarming rate; not because the government fails to understand the perennial British interest in unhealthy living, but because it now sees a way to wash its hands of the consequences, to abandon the notion that a society with tolerance and latitude is affordable anymore…

The government’s (and prevalent UK culture’s) constantly-accelerating impetus to slim us down and detoxify us is as cynical as its rather older policy of charging us a levy for toxifying ourselves, and stems back to the late nineties, when the ambulance-chasing practice of ‘no-win no-fee’ entered UK culture from America.

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The ensuing blast-wave of frivolous litigation has changed the landscape. Go into a sweet shop and pick up a bar of ‘Dr. Nutty’s Nutty Nutfest’; flip it over and read the deathless legend that follows every specious lawsuit: May contain traces of nut. And apply it to your own society. For this is evolving into the dystopia of utter citizen-accountability as envisioned by Terry Gilliam in Brazil (which is also a nut), via Orwell.

A society where health insurance may depend on passing random NHS-provided checks for alcohol or drugs, and where treatment in hospitals is denied or delayed to those who aren’t healthy enough. A society where you may one day receive a government-controlled ‘calorie-salary’ depending on your weight and condition, dictated by your cashless food purchases (and anyone with a ‘loyalty card’ is already building up a profile that may be used against them later in this regard).

A government, too, that encourages us to eat unaffordable health-food, yet rests in the pockets of the mainstream food industry, ensuring that the unhealthiest foods remain within reach of the most meagre purse, 24/7. A government that urges abstention and thrift while the big business that has purchased its silence is allowed to play our paranoias, fears and wishes like a harp, exhorting us to excess in every way and from every media outlet.

When I was imagining what the future would be like, I was kind of thinking of Logan’s Run, where at least I could hang around with a mini-skirted Jenny Agutter in a glittery shopping mall for a while before the government blew me to pieces in a gaudy public spectacle at aged 30. Instead I get a government that will neither let me die nor live.

This government, then, is not happy about drugs, tobacco or alcohol. What remains? Even the worst sci-fi dystopias left their protagonists a vice or two: poppers and ‘Muscle’ in Logan’s Run; soma’ in Brave New World; the spice melange in Dune; Can-D in Phillip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch; even Winston Smith got some ropey fags and gin off Big Brother now and again; hell, in THX1138, the citizens were medicated by law.

Gambling. We may slimly and healthily gamble. It’s non-toxic, non-polluting, fully controllable by the government and constitutes, for all practical purposes, sending your spare money to the chancellor in a neat brown envelope on a regular basis. To quote that cowpoke in Back To The Future Part III (when talking about jogging to Doc Brown), ‘What the hell kind of fun is that?’.

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In the meantime, the road to Wellville is well-signposted; in the corner of any 6-foot booze poster sits – in effect – a phrase that sums up the mixed messages that we must unravel unaided:

‘Be responsibly drunk’.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.