Science fiction (SF)is often misread as prediction—when most SF is, in fact, an unpacking of the time and place in which it is written. George Orwell’s 1984 is possibly the best of that dynamic, but Margaret Atwell’s The Handmaid’s Tale certainly reflects both the tradition of Orwell and the power of SF to critique now as if it is the future.
Atwell’s dystopia also stands as a powerful nuance found in SF—its power to remain relevant. In fact, as an adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is poised to begin, many recognize how this work speaks to the current dystopia that is Trumplandia.
Below, then, I am offering a blog from 2013 about the 2011 film In Time because it seems to be a credible explanation for how the U.S. has devolved into a consumerocracy in which most Americans are so entrenched in buying through accumulated debt and incessant working that few have the time to participate as free people in a living democracy.
Imagine a world where time is capital.
This is the dystopian future of 2161 brought to film by Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011) — triggering some powerful parallels to Logan’s Run (both the original novel from 1967 and the film adaptation in 1976).
Both Logan’s Run and In Time expose the human condition in terms of age and mortality — in the first, life ends at 30, and in the latter, people stop aging at 25, but at a price, which involves time.
Science fiction (SF) as a genre presents us with allegory in the form of other worlds, as Margaret Atwood argues, and speculations, but the most engaging aspect of SF for me as a fan and teacher is when SF unmasks enduring and contemporary realities by presenting those other worlds.
One of the recurring messages of SF is the crippling inequity that continues to plague human societies, such as the haunting and sparse Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” that forces readers to admit privilege exists on the backs of the innocent and oppressed.
The world of In Time presents an apparent meritocracy in which all people are given life until 25, when they stop aging but an embedded clock starts ticking forcing everyone to earn time in order to live. This deal with the devil positions all labor as literally necessary to live and puts banks at the center of who survives.
The Frantic Distraction of Surviving
Americans’ faith in a meritocracy is often expressed in claims of the U.S. being a post-racial society as well as a classless society. Like the Hunger Games trilogy, In Time highlights class distinctions with people segregated in Time Zones. Eventually, the narrative brings together the two main characters, Will Salas from the ghetto and Sylvia Weis from the affluent zone, New Greenwich.
Due to both personal tragedy and a huge gift of time from a stranger, Will confronts the norms of this dystopia while being hunted by a Timekeeper, Raymond Leon. One scene, I think, deserves closer consideration.
When Will travels from the ghetto through several Time Zones (incrementally costing him more and more time) to New Greenwich, he steps out of the cab and immediately begins jogging, a habit common in the ghettos since almost everyone is living, literally, from paycheck to paycheck (or under the weight of time loans, loan sharks, or pawn shops) until he notices that in New Greenwich people are eerily casual. This distinction surfaces again when he is eating breakfast and the waitress notices that he isn’t from New Greenwich because he does everything fast.
People in the ghettos, what can reasonably be called the working class and the working poor, lead lives that are so frantic that no one has the time to confront the inequity of the society, and because of the segregated society, these frantic workers have little insight into the lives of privilege, casual lives, that Will witnesses for himself and the viewer.
Also worth closer consideration is the role of the Timekeeper, Leon, who presents a truly complex character who functions under a code of ethics that is perfectly moral within the norms of the culture, but ultimately self-defeating and dehumanizing. Timekeepers enforce the laws, primarily couched in time as capital, but because of their close proximity to crime, they carry with them only small quantities of time, thus leading frantic lives very similar to the working class/poor they help keep both in line and frantic.
Ultimately, Will exposes truths that challenge the norms of this society, truths that are in fact just as relevant to the world we now inhabit Trumplandia:
• Will discovers that time is not a limited commodity; there is plenty of capital, but the privileged create scarcity to keep the masses frantic, and distracted.
• Timekeepers as a police force are unmasked as not seekers of justice (Leon admits this directly), but as agents of the privileged.
• The moving target of the free market is exposed as not so much “free” but an arbitrary mechanism that reduces most people in a life to caged gerbils on running wheels. Interest rates and prices incrementally increase daily as the workers accumulate time. The system is designed to keep workers trapped in their roles as workers.
• And privilege, as Le Guin’s story shows, is always at the expense of others, captured by this exchange from In Time:
Sylvia Weis: Will, if you get a lot of time, are you really gonna give it away
Will Salas: I’ve only ever had a day. How much do you need? How can you live with yourself watching people die right next to you?
Sylvia Weis: You don’t watch. You close your eyes. I can help you get all the time you want.
In effect, while the details may be exaggerated, the lessons learned by Will are disturbingly relevant to contemporary Americans, as much as how it informs us as workers as it highlights that formal education is more concerned with producing workers than proving all children with equity, liberation, and autonomy.
Frantic Students, Frantic Workers: The Rise of the Frantic Class
The frantic state of being among the working class and working poor of In Time is a perceptive dramatization of the American worker, increasingly stripped of rights as unions are dismantled and the essentials of human dignity (income, health care, retirement) are further tied to being employed.
But the allegorical messages of In Time also speak to how and why current education reform, soon to return to the zombie politics of school choice, claims and policies are designed to appease corporate needs for frantic workers.
One characterization of U.S. public education today is well represented in this dystopian world — frantic.
Education reform over thirty years has been built on implementing national standards designed to continue the historical call to incrementally increase both expectations and outcomes (the target for success in education has always been a moving target) so that students, teachers, and schools are always under duress, always falling short, always so frantic that no one can pause to question, challenge, or do anything other than comply.
Imagine a world where time is capital, where all of any person’s time is spent compiling time, a fruitless cycle of acquisition, of seeking to comply with the mandates none of the masses have chosen for herself/himself.
But you don’t have to imagine this.
This frantic world of In Time is the frantic existence of the American worker, and this frantic world is being fed by the corporate takeover of public schools where accountability, standards, and testing have reduced teachers and students to gerbils on running wheels.
Today, workers, students, and teachers are among the frantic class; like Will, we don’t have time:
Will Salas: I don’t have time. I don’t have time to worry about how it happened. It is what it is. We’re genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. The trouble is, we live only one more year, unless we can get more time. Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever. And the rest of us? I just want to wake up with more time on my hand than hours in the day.
The rising frantic class is necessary for the privileged few, the 1% controlling both manufactured austerity and the perpetually moving targets of success—Trump and his billionaire cabinet. While universal public education was created to feed the promise of the American Dream, the current corporate takeover of public schools and the nation is driving the American Nightmare of the frantic class.
We don’t need a movie to see that.
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