Mullah Dredd

I confess when it comes to culture I’m middle brow at best. I am about as likely to rush out and purchase this year’s Man Booker prize winning book as I am the latest issue of Ladies Home Journal (or whatever). I like science fiction and non-fiction. Also movies–lots of movies. I thought the latest Judge Dredd film was terrific. Watch the trailer if you’ve not seen it.

And I’m not talking Evil Dead II good, as in, you know, ‘funny, violent…’

Lots of critics liked the film but the smart ones at the New York Times and the LA Times didn’t like it at all. According to the latter it’s ‘clunk headed’ while the former laments ‘Every so often there’s a suggestion that a police state may actually be a lousy idea, but this thought dies even faster than the disposable characters.’ Personally, I think Dredd 3D (indeed the whole Dredd genre, with one exception) is actually rather thoughtful and the high brows have missed the point. Let me explain.

First, I find the dystopic vision of the future more than a little plausible and really rather illuminating for those preoccupied with the character of ‘future war’. Leave aside the precise way in which the world’s landscape gets hammered (in Dredd there has been a nuclear exchange). It’s a detail. The facts are that we are adding new people to the planet and consuming its resources at an unsustainable rate while dreaming up relatively cheap and easy ways of causing megadeath. Taken together, I think this makes a working hypothesis like ‘the future, it will probably suck’ seem pretty robust. The thing is, though, in Dreddworld states have not gone away, nor has interstate war–as various scholars have claimed over the years; the problem is, rather, that states have lost it–the wave of ungovernability that we can already perceive happening in our Network Society has surpassed them–and massive interstate war, while a devastating reality, is not really the major concern of the people. What the people are worried about is that they live in a quasi-Hobbesian virtually lawless state of nature combined with colossal rates of unemployment from which, for most, the only attainable shelter is a securely bolted apartment door behind which they mitigate their fear and sorrow and isolation in cheap immersive virtual environments and/or drugs. Sound unfamiliar?

London Riots 2011

Unemployment

Robots

Internet addiction

Depravity (google it yourself)

The future’s possibly not all bad but it’s mostly not good. I found Ernest Cline’s recent science fiction novel Ready Player One a disconcerting but also somewhat uplifting treatment of the subject–read it! Dreddworld has coded into its DNA the Cold War’s nuclear terror whereas the world of Ready Player One has gone to hell in a handbasket without it. And there has been some excellent scholarly treatment of the new battlegrounds of our increasingly urban world also. Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism really stands out.

Second, I think that Dredd is not a bad way of explaining to people some of the problems of the here and now too. For instance, take the NY Times critic’s point about the idea of a police state being a lousy idea only rarely cropping up in the film (for my part it was rather an overarching theme) and think about Afghanistan.

Dredd and the Gang

 

People often seem incredulous or perplexed about the ‘popularity’ of the Taliban. They’re neck-chopping, schoolgirl shooting, statue exploding bastards. True. But read Ahmed Rasjid’s account of the rise of the Taliban. Mullah Omar rode to power effectively on the slogan of ‘Peace through Justice’ and it resonated with a lot of Afghans (and still does) because they had no peace and no justice. Perhaps, if you’re a soft-living suburbanite like me you find it hard to get into the headspace of an Afghan peasant trying to raise a family while rapacious (and rapist) warlords prey upon you and yours without let up for a generation and with impunity that seems likley to go on and on and on. So watch Dredd 3D instead and imagine yourself in a tower block run by psychopathic drug-addled drug dealing rapist murderers. Dredd shows up all judge-jury-executioner rolled up into one and you too might think ‘Goddamn, he’s a bastard but at least I know how not to get on his bad side.’ Which is better than the alternative.

Anyway, it’s a good film so watch it and think. As regular readers of this blog may know, I am a keen fan of George Orwell. It is interesting that 1948 when he wrote in his dystopic masterpiece Nineteen Eighty Four ’If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face —forever.’ Our vision is always and unavoidably coloured by the preoccupations and anxieties of the present. In his day it was state totalitarianism. I suspect that if in 2048 you were to sit down to write a book called  Twenty Eighty Four you might be thinking The Leviathan not such a bad thing.

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12 thoughts on “Mullah Dredd

  1. Dear Mr. Betz, i don’t understand if you try to be sympathetic or share your political preference with us here, but i read your Curriculum Vitae and i must inform you: ‘Do not worry about, everyone needs to get relaxation times and watch or read or do stupid things, within this world!!
    For details, please be so kind and use your translator tools for my latest post on the http://www.myproblemsinromaniaandabroad.wordpress.com
    Add note: have you intended to propose me, by your latest article on ‘Kings of War’?!

  2. Humphrey says:

    Mr Betz,

    I think you hit the nail on the head – that is exactly why the Taliban were so popular and remain so even now. Their justice is swift, albeit harsh, their religious principles are widely accepted and after a 12 year campaign, they are also pretty good at making their case. For the majority of rural Afghans, life has not changed for the better under the present administration, however, I suspect that there is also an element of ‘the grass is always greener’. Many Afghan friends look back to the halcyon days when the Soviets ran the place, building roads and sending people to college in Moscow. Others remember the Lion of Panjshir, fighting the good fight. Those that await the return of the Taliban with their pure ideals and strict religious code will likely find that the reality is not as desirable as the expectation. Mindless violence, petty but harshly enforced rules and inconsistent dogma were also features of the Taliban regime – the sheer numbers of Afghans preparing escape routes to the West suggests that life will not be a party if the Taliban return to power….

  3. Dears Mr. Betz and Humphrey, thank you for both your commentaries, indeed. In these circumstances, would you please be so kind and tell me in which from these ‘social’ categories i could be fitted in, in order to have the desired personal life that i also describe on my blog?
    I look forward to your replies, thank you.

  4. Paul T. Mitchell says:

    David; check out Cloud Atlas (the book, I haven’t seen the movie). It also riffs on the present dystopian theme in sci-fi in an interesting way, particularly the human will to power and its counter-productive outcomes. On a side note, it is interesting how fixated sci-fi has become on dystopia of late. There are no big idea imaginary futures of the type that Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Niven, and Pohl wrote about in the fifties to early 70s. The current zombie craze also taps into the overall uncertainty about the future. Coker and Rasmussen (and Beck and Giddens) discussion of Risk seems on the money.

    • Madhu says:

      That is a fantastic comment. Neal Stephenson on the predominantly dystopian nature of current science fiction:

      “Neal Stephenson has seen the future—and he doesn’t like it. Today’s science fiction, he argues, is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios—think recent films such as The Road and TV series like “The Walking Dead.” Gone are the hopeful visions prevalent in the mid-20th century. That’s a problem, says Stephenson, author of modern sci-fi classics such as Snow Crash. He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world. So, in fall 2011, Stephenson launched the Hieroglyph project to rally writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, “get big stuff done.”

      Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Dear-Science-Fiction-Writers-Stop-Being-So-Pessimistic.html#ixzz2ApJRN0cF

    • Paul T. Mitchell says:

      However… the genre of fantasy does not seem particularly afflicted by dystopia. By and large, fantasy stories are essentially conservative in nature, hearkening back to fundamental values and idealised societies if only in novel configurations and places. The Dark Lords and Orcs never carry the day, and the Prince always gets his Princess. Curious.

  5. Madhu says:

    I’m not a science fiction reader myself. I’m not a fiction snob but I’m turned off by some of the writing. The ideas within fascinate but whenever I flip through some book everyone says I should read….well, the way the words are strung together and the sentences are written don’t capture my fancy. I mean, I’m not a big fan of a lot of contemporary literary fiction but there has to be some beauty to it.

    PS: I watched High Fidelity in Chicago right when it came out ( in a theater with an audience that pretty much represented the real thing, the kind of people who shopped and worked at that kind of record store in the 90s.) When Lisa Bonet came on screen, entire rows of grungy pre-hipster 90s Logan Square Wicker Park Gen Xers audibly sighed, “did you see? Did you see? It’s Denise from The Cosby Show.”

    PPS: Anyone write like Naipaul or Cheever in Sci Fi?

    • Madhu says:

      Wow, my comment about Naipaul and Cheever came out way more snobby and snottier than I intended, on “reread”.

      I really did mean it as a “readers, what would you suggest for me to read?” kind of thing….

      I like Neal Stephenson. I heard him speak once and he’s actually lively and entertaining as a speaker. Book talks can sometimes be extremely dull so I really appreciated that. I stayed awake!

    • David Betz says:

      It didn’t sound snotty. Literature which is supposed to be good for me has always left me cold. I’ve improved slightly since High School when I had a stand-up shouting match with my English teacher for making us read Anne Tyler’s collected short stories when I thought Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon had vastly more literary merit. Meh. Puberty messes with the brain. Still, I think sci-fi has an enormous amount to offer. I would suggest H.G.Wells’ books, all of which contain pretty sharp social and political commentary.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      I too am keener on Callahan’s than on “literature”. Read Great Expectations (was quite good), gave up on Bleak House. I have only ever given up on two books, and one was a rubbish non-fiction one.

  6. Madhu says:

    No, I can see the artistic merit of the Callahan book. (I read only the intro pages at Amazon. The language is direct and lively. And who doesn’t like a bar filled with human–or nonhuman-interest stories?)

    I have mixed feelings about current (and not so current) literary fiction myself. I want to like Rushdie and all that magical realism influence on books but it just doesn’t do anything for me.

    Maybe Zadie Smith is okay for me, she seems to be doing the Margaret Drabble London/city life thing which seems interesting….

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