I Am The Law
How Judge Dredd predicted our future
(2023) Michael Molcher, Rebellion, £14.99 / Can$22.99 / US$19.99, pbk, 368pp, ISBN 978-1-786-18570-9
Even if you do not know of Judge Dredd but have an interest in policing and legality, then this is a fascinating introduction into twentieth and early twenty-first century trends, that, if they continue, lead to a worrying future
For SF fans, this book is an exemplar of science fiction's value to society and how the genre can, on occasion, seem to predict the future. In this case the seeming predictions note the plural, for there are many are unnervingly spot on and so if Judge Dredd is some sort of quasi-reflection of our future, then it is an unsettling one, and one at which we should rail against.
Judge Dredd should come with a health warning when given to kids.
If perchance you have never heard of Judge Dredd (is there anyone in the western world under the age of 50 who hasn't?), then he is a comic-strip character from the British weekly 2000AD as well as, now, the titular character of the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine. He is a 22nd century law enforcer of Mega-City 1: Mega-City 1 being effectively the amalgamation of former 20th century cities along the US's eastern seaboard. Life in Mega-City-1, though futuristic, is harsh. Only a few Mega-Cities survived the early 21st century nuclear war and much of the middle of America (less protected by anti-missile shields) became a wasteland called the 'Cursed Earth'. Meanwhile, the ocean off the city is now the polluted Black Atlantic.
Life in Mega-City 1 is also harsh for its citizens because the high automated future and advanced robotics have made many redundant and the majority are simply unemployed living on 'welf' (welfare benefits). Crime is rife as is the discontent and those who regret the loss of democracy. And then there are the threats from the technology used itself as well as external ones from other Mega-Cities both from within the former continental N. America and beyond.
So, to keep law and order, policemen are now both police, jury and judge who enforce the law and decide on guilt and punishment. These enforcers are the Judges.
This book is jam-packed with so many instances of where the strip has seemingly predicted the future that this review can but give you the barest of tasters.
Let's start with the premise that if you do not support the Judges and the law then you are a criminal. And even if you peacefully demonstrate and campaign for democracy you are, in the eyes of the Judges, bordering on if not an actual criminal. This premise was there from Judge Dredd's beginnings way back in 1977. US President Ronal Regan was elected in 1980 and he went on in part to base his on that anyone who fought against America is terrorist not a freedom fighter. Meanwhile Mega-City 1 already had its Democracy Movement (that had its terrorist factions) that fought for, not against democracy and as such were in firm opposition to the Judges. In addition to its what were to become 'predictions', the Dredd stories from the off rehearse philosophical arguments about democracy and soon the strip was taking nods to Plato and the ironies of the French revolution ostensibly for the people that gave rise to the 'terror'.
Perhaps one of the earliest major 'Democracy' stories in Judge Dredd was published in 1991. That story saw a referendum held in Mega-City 1. The Democracy movement thought that they would be a shoe-in to win but actually lost: the people voted to keep the strict Judges in power. Naturally, the Democracy movement cried foul, but actually the people wanted the security of the Judges. In real life, people would never lose faith in democracy would they? Yet as Michael Molcher points out, in the US the percentage of people who consider democracy a 'bad' way to run a country doubled from over 10% in 2019 to over 25% in late 2021! Another Cambridge University study found that in the US it was young people whose faith in democracy was least and their dissatisfaction was the greatest of any age group: something that does not bode well for coming years.
Of course the US has had the Donald Trump years starting in 2016. An orange haired President that some might say lacked a certain intellectual credibility surely could not be predicted? Well, prediction or not, one of the earlier Dredd strips, decades before Trump, saw orange-hair Dave the Orang-utan elected mayor of Mega-city one, Dave was a popular character to the people of Mega-City I and the parallels with the TV personality Trump are arguably not hard to draw.
Molcher draws other parallels with the recent Trump era and Dredd stories of yore. Back in 1978, one of the early Dredd sagas was that of Judge Cal. Cal was based on the I Claudius TV adaptation that saw the actor John Hurt play the mad Roman Emperor Caligula. Cal was mad and harsh and his brutal treatment of the Mega-City 1 citizenry was such that many preferred to take their chances away from Mega-City 1 out in the Cursed Earth. Seeing the mass exodus, Cal orders the construction of a giant wall to keep citizens in. As said, the Judge Cal story was an early Dredd saga and Cal himself was taken out by Dredd, but the giant wall was kept and regularly featured in many subsequent Dredd stories. In these the wall was less about keeping citizens in Cal's raison d'être for the wall's construction but to keep the lawless and the mutants of the Cursed Earth out. Jump forward from 1978 over a third of century to one of Trump's election campaign centrepieces and he too called for the construction of a giant wall along the USA's southern border with Mexico. He said he would: 'build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me'. (When Trump left office, Molcher notes that only 47 miles of new border wall have been constructed where none had existed before and not the over 500 miles needed.)
Yet again, Molcher points out, just as Cal was upset with him being unpopular with the Mega-City-1 citizens and their preferring to leave the city, so Trump was unable to see that he was less popular with his inauguration's crowd turnout being much smaller compared with that of his predecessor's, Barack Obama.
Another feature of Dredd's world is the Judges practice of crime swoops code named 59c that first appeared in a Dredd story back in 1985 by selecting a block of flats and bursting in on citizens' homes without knocking to see if they could find any evidence of crime. Of course crime raid on illegal bars were common in the US prohibition years, but not random swoops on people's homes. But, as Molcher notes, by 2019 there were thousands of no knock police raids in the US a year.
This brings us on to Britain's SUS laws: SUS being a suspected person stop in which the police may not see a crime being committed but just merely suspecting one gives them the right to stop and search a person. This was enshrined in the Public Order Act's section 60 (1994) and it echoes the way the Judges police Mega-City 1. Fortunately, the European Court of Human Rights ruled it unlawful in 2010. (One of the reasons why Brexit campaigners for the UK wanted to leave the European Union (EU), even though there is a difference between the EU and the European Court.) And then, as Molcher notes, in 2014 in the US George Floyd was killed by the police after a life of many stops.
The parallels between Dredd and subsequent real world developments are fundamental. Dredd sees the world in black and white and in 1979 explained that citizenship is a privilege and not a right. The implication being that if they want to the Judges can take away that privilege. This comes to pass and those whose genes have a certain degree of mutation are no longer allowed to stay within Mega-City 1 and are expelled to the Cursed Earth. And if normal Mega-City 1 parents give birth to a mutant then they are given a choice: give up the child for a Cursed Earth orphanage or go live with the child in the Cursed Earth at one of the mutant run farms that provide food for the city Jump forward to 2021 and the Home Office in the populist Boris Johnson's government claimed the right to remove a person's citizenship when a young British woman who it is claimed to have been trafficked by ISIS sought to return to her home country. Such examples make Dredd's world chillingly real.
And of course there is the SFnal technology, from the rise of public surveillance (Mega-City 1 has a dedicated Public Surveillance Unit), CCTV, to eye in the sky cameras in Dredd strips decades before aerial drones and facial recognition appeared in the 2010s.
The armoured Manta Tank for crowd control complete with a giant Judge shield emblem on the front first appeared in a Dredd story in 1981. Years later the UK deployed armoured land-rovers complete with gun ports. And in 2017 Russian anti-corruption riots saw the police use the Kalashnikov Shield tank complete with a shield on the front. You could not make it up, yet clearly the writers of Dredd stories did.
Chief of the Dredd writers were the duo of John Wagner (Dredd's co-creator with the artist Carlos Ezquerra) and Alan Grant. Together they wrote a number of key Dredd epics and did much to create the Dredd universe with many of the predictions cited in I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd predicted our future. But how did they do it? Well, if you are on a trend line that stretches into the future, then one way to predict a future of a potential trend is to look around you and see what is happening in the real world and then extrapolate that to a ridiculous extreme. And so Wagner and Grant would spend hours going through newspapers for stories of some new and worrying social development and then take that a stage further, often to a black-comedy extreme.
The result of all this is that Judge Dredd's character, motivation and world is far richer than most comic-strip heroes. DC and Marvel's heroes may each have a back story but they are not that complex, and to make their universes complex and engaging they both do so by numbers, by having a multitude superheroes and super villains. Yes, Dredd has many villains including some super-villains, but on the side of the law there are only the Judges and more often as not the criminals are 'normal' folk without super-powers. Give me a Judge Dredd story any day over one in the Marvel or DC universes.
I think by now I have made my point that Molcher has drawn many, many parallels between elements of Judge Dredd stories and subsequent developments in the real world. But I Am The Law: How Judge Dredd predicted our future is not just about Judge Dredd's world or its predictive dimensions. Even if you have little interest in Dredd, but just know of him as some comic-strip, super policeman character, Molcher's book is also a description of how over the years we in the so-called developed west have been sleep-walking into a dictatorial world that ignores the real causes of much crime: social inequality and lack of opportunity. And this is not just the underclass, former British Prime Minister, Theresa May's, 'just about managing JAMs'. Today we have hospital nurses having to use food banks, junior doctors, teachers and head teachers, striking because of real-term pay erosion over the past 12 years of around 20% or so. Today, we have those in the GIG economy and those on zero-hour contracts. Today, we have student graduates emerging with degrees that may or may not help them get a job but attached to the graduate certificate are tens of thousands of pounds worth of student debt. Today, we may not have the Cursed Earth but we are seeing the planet face a climate extinction crisis (remember Judge Dredd began over a decade before the first UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Report), plastic pollution pervading the oceans and even entering the human food chain (a threat unrecognised two decades ago), and even if we do not have the over-populated Mega-Cities of Dredd's universe we do have a growing planetary overpopulation problem which itself will get worse due to climate crisis induced population displacement around the middle of this century. (Assuming Putin or China, or even Trump if he gets re-elected, have not by then started a nuclear war.)
I began early on in this review saying that Judge Dredd should come with a health warning when given to kids. Trust me, try as you might to get a youngster on the path leading to a decent science degree (biology should do but I also mention physics for our late founding co-editor, fellow Dredd fan Graham's sake) and believe me I have tried give them Judge Dredd to read and before you know it they'll be studying something like politics, philosophy and economics. (It could have been worse, with that oxymoronic subject 'political science'!) Frightening, huh?
Finally, this book's academic value. Virtually every page comes with footnotes that often include a reference. The references here are not in full academic style, which would have been a major flaw a couple of decades ago but today nearly all the references are easily searchable for on the internet. So this book does have an academic value for those at university reading the softer sociology and media studies subjects. For the rest of us, Molcher has an easy-to-read style and so can be digestible by the casual SF fan, Dredd aficionado as well as the societally aware.
This book warrants a wide readership: it truly does. I'd like to think that it has the chance next year (2024) of being short-listed for an SF 'Best Related Work' Hugo Award (especially as next year sees the Worldcon in Britain), but sadly I am not sure that the SF Worldcon voters are that sufficiently worldly. (This last is not so much a criticism but an observation that the real-world politics of law enforcement has not had much of a profile -- if any -- among Worldcon's Hogo voters.) Nonetheless, there's nothing stopping you getting this book for yourself.
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