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Maggie MacDonald remixes dystopian lit

By Ron Nurwisah

Dystopias are nothing new. For as long as people have been thinking about paradise they’ve been thinking about the less pleasant alternative. And as cities became the places where most of us live they also began to occupy a larger portion of our literary dreams and nightmares. Modernists, inspired by Yeats (“things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) produced literature of disorientation and nightmare, notably dystopias like Orwell’s 1984 (first published in 1949) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1931).

In CanLit Margaret Atwood is Dame Dystopia. Now a syllabus mainstay at high schools and universities, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) finds Christian fundamentalists taking over the US and creating a country where women’s rights do not exist. In Oryx and Crake (2003) greedy geneticists create a biological apocalypse. These works expose our fears of technology, government power and control. And in this age of continuous hardware and software upgrades, cloning fears and artificial intelligence it’s easy to see why dystopias resonate.

A constant presence in Toronto’s indie music scene, 27-year-old Maggie MacDonald seems like an unlikely contributor to our dark dystopian lit. Known for her contribution to the Hidden Cameras, she’s now the lead singer for the Republic of Safety. At the same time, MacDonald has been cultivating a side career in writing, finding time to create her recently published debut graphic novel, Kill the Robot.

Set in a dystopian alternate reality where Ronald Reagan doesn’t survive his assassination attempt, a giant corporation is slowly gaining control over our minds and bodies, Kill the Robot explores the rise of technology and loss of individual autonomy. Like Atwood, MacDonald is not only concerned with how we perceive our bodies but also with who ultimately controls them. “I want to promote the importance of the body with my work, because I believe that physical sensation is the root of empathy,” she writes in a recent email interview. “In line with the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, I think we are our bodies, and buying into the idea that the mind is not in the world is degrading to the self.”

Kill the Robot’s protagonist Moore White struggles with what is at first an annoying buzz she hears when around electronics. Technology begins to give her heart palpitations, and, unsure of what’s going on, she becomes uncomfortable with her physical body. She is slowly driven mad. While this technological mind/body corruption is a common sci-fi trope, as well as a critique of the western mind/body dichotomy, Macdonald adds a pointed warning about the rise of a fascistic corporate culture.

“The culture portrayed in the book is similar to our own,” she points out. “But the elements of surveillance and the blurring of corporate and government relations are amplified enough that they seem worse than they already are.”

MacDonald has previously dabbled in dystopian drama. Her play, The Rat King, had a successful run at Toronton’s Alchemy Theatre this past January. Like Kill the Robot, the play is a parable of a young woman stuck in a stark landscape where technology has destroyed or warped life. “The misuse of technology is the inevitable effect of proliferation,” MacDonald says, explaining the play’s theme. “Technology itself does not go amok in my work, but rather my characters engage in the misuse of technology and terrible things ensue.”

With characters named after the H-Bomb creator (Edward Teller) and an influential environmentalist (Rachel Carson) The Rat King, like Kill the Robot, is a remix of contemporary reality. But with a shout-out to the dystopian Modernists, MacDonald samples the opening chorus from “The Hollow Men,” a T.S. Eliot poem: “this is the way the world ends/ not with a bang but with a whimper.”

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