‘Looking for the cause of this historical lightning crack in the ceiling of sanity is difficult’
Just recently the New York Review of Books newsletter arrived at my Inbox, and in it is a blog piece called “Portable Hell,” by my favorite poet, Charles Simic, who writes about the effects of our infernal current events and sums up my outlook succinctly with, “The world is going to hell in a hurry. At my age, I ought to be used to it, but I’m not.”
Because no matter whether you were raised reading the People’s History of the world or the Conqueror’s, the distilled point of their synthesis drips bleak, bleak, bleak like the slow water torture of historical consciousness applied ever-so-subtly to human memory.
But the subject at hand is dystopia. To dystope or not to dystope. To diss hope or not to diss hope. I ought to be used to it.
When I was in my late teens, ever hung over from the frightful social turmoils of the late ’60s and early ’70s, like many young geeklings I escaped into literature, hoping to read my way out of impending disaster. I started out by reading the usual suspects — Steinbeck, Hemingway, Roth and Flannery O’Connor — but they quickly reminded me of the colossal wreck of Pax Americana, and deepened my worries about the human condition. So I moved on to other lits — European poetry and novels, biographies of composers, scientific works, art and astrology, before finally tripping over C.S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet) and discovering with great astonishment the worlds of endless possibilities that speculative and science fiction posed.
I read a lot of sci-fi; I liked imagining how new technologies and humanity could evolve together; or I simply mooned over the far future of our species, as you do with, say, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. But most of all I was attracted to dystopic fiction from the start, maybe because the world seemed like such a disaster, while at the same time I was young and needed to understand what had gone wrong and envision how it could be fixed. And for whatever reason, the dystopia that captured my imagination then, and remains a favourite to this day, was George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.
I’m not sure what attracted me specifically to that book, although I suspect it was the title, which reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and, in fact, both titles are derived from the same line in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
Over the years this line from the Bible has affected me more than any other, as it so straightforwardly implies that humans are not the be-all, end-all of Creation, and that Being goes on without us. Considering the source, this deeply resonating chord struck me as subversive, and I’m sure influenced my later decision to major in philosophy at university.
Strictly speaking, Earth Abides is not simply dystopic but, more, post-apocalyptic. Often dystopias present systems turned into nightmares but still functioning on some level. But with post-apocalyptic lit, all systems are down, and even the assumptions left over in the heads of survivors are smoky rhetorical question marks. Human certainty ceases, although the sun continues to rise and set regardless.
I also tinkered with dystopic fictional ideas, too. I’m sure, in my mind, that I was one of the first to invent a machine that allowed a psychiatrist to enter, like a knight, a patient’s dreams and literally battle the patient’s fears; or allow an agent to enter a sleeping person’s mind and seed designs and motives that would influence their waking behavior.
But that machine is now real; and the film
Inception stole my dreams and erased any desire to sue them for copyright molestations. I was sure that I was the first to see domed cities in space comprised of solar paneling, providing endless energy to mad hippies cultivating massive jungles of seriously potent mayjay, which sounds good, until the ventilation system breaks down, and recycled smoke kicks in, and mates start looking like good little munchies to each other, and all that’s left when the smoke finally clears is happy leafery, rather greener now for all the extra human fertilizer plumping up their cell walls.
Yes, invariably, I’d discover that one of the hundreds of sci-fi writers out there had, in one of the dozens of books each had written, already covered the idea and there wasn’t much point in continuing to develop it. (Although I’m reasonably certain that no one else has thought of those spliff trees and cannabis clouds yet.)
Lots of people were reading and writing sci-fi and dystopias from the moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, through to the moment of Star Wars in 1984 (natch), when US President Ronald Reagan forgot to turn his mike off after a speech and drolly uttered, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” (My, how times have changed.)
Remarks made so much more comical by the fact that the world was gripped then by the absolute terror of an impending nuclear war, as evidenced by the US broadcast of the nuclear war film The Day After just 6 months prior and BBC’s Threads, perhaps the darkest film on the subject ever made, about to be broadcast in Britain.
But that’s the thing about these dystopias: At some point, perhaps when Reagan gaffed, people seemed to realize that a world that could spend billions of dollars on a Star Wars system was explicitly preparing for a nuclear exchange of fire, and that whatever didactic power dystopias might have had –admonishing, pleading, painting the world black as visceral symbolism – they’d lost whatever momentum they might have had in preventing the world from going mad.
Like the more recent happy tittering of the White House press corps after Barack Obama made a joke about killing with his favorite weapon of war, the remote-controlled drone, there was no shock and horror, no jaws dropped to the plush-carpeted floor, instead the amused ears lifted champagne glasses and saluted His Majesty’s murderous mirth.
The fact of the matter is we live in world that is substantially over-populated, with longer life expectancies (even in the Third World), requiring ever more resources, leading to ever more drilling, mining and consumption, which results in ever more toxic pollution, and has led humans to the very edge of cataclysmic climate change, bringing with it melting polar ice caps, tsunamis, earthquakes, monster storms, and the catastrophic decline of the bee populations, rain forests and coral reefs.
Instead of reading dystopias now, there are ample samples of our living nightmare — described in the pages of such contemporary sober and rational non-fiction works as The World Without Us, The Sixth Extinction, and the resurgence of Rachel Carson’s prophetic classic, Silent Spring.
Looking for the cause of this historical lightning crack in the ceiling of sanity is difficult, not least of all because we are still in the moment, “the wheel’s still in spin,” as the Dylan lyric goes. But the crack is there. Another book I’ve come across lately is one by two psychiatrist brothers, Daniel and Jason Freeman, titled Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, which argues that paranoia is widespread now, affecting as many as a quarter of the population, and “the days when paranoia could be written off as a meaningless sign of insanity are long gone … because paranoia is centre stage in our culture and in our individual lives.” Big Brother is, by definition, out to get us.
The ruminating philosopher in me is tempted to locate the decisive crack of lightning and peal of madhouse thunder at that historical point when the western world’s evolution from tenets of the Enlightenment led to structuralism and a sense of scientific certainty and its attendant idealism for human futures — only to be jig-sawed and relativized by the powerful deconstructive tools of post-modernist thinking.
In science, Thomas Kuhn argued that the truths of scientific outcomes were partially related to the working paradigm of the day; what you observed was changed by the observation itself. The value of the Canon and of Grand Narratives in literature was a value controlled by an academic elite with their own vested interests and agendas to protect. The great motifs of the First World’s enlightened political philosophy — liberty, democracy, equal opportunity, assorted bills of rights — were largely fantasies of assumed power, which, when examined more closely, dissolved from a peaceable kingdom into a frame filled with raw jungle hungers.
This is not a knock on post-modernism, which has made so much social and aesthetic progress possible in the last half-century, but it does point to a naive set of assumptions that neglected to account for the sure surfeit of sociopaths who lay in wait for soft, succulent humanists everywhere. No, post-mod’s promised landscapes of freedom, its liberating relativism that says there are no grand narratives, no essential humanity really, no transcendent function toward which we must strive into the future as One People, is also the same liberating process unleashed for warriors with their ‘humanitarian’ interventions with cluster bombs, for politicians to shed what little shame and fear they had about their lies, for Wall Street brokers to party hearty in the snorkle trough.
You can see this wild maelstrom quietly at work in Thomas Keenan’s Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. In this relatively short book, the long-time technologist Keenan doesn’t so much argue as demonstrate how we have practically reached the point of the so-called Singularity, that evolutionary stage at which machines and humans begin to merge, synthesize, if you will, with the ramifications impossible to predict.
In one area of human activity after another, with example after example, Keenan lays out a future that is now, even if it will be too late to avoid its consequences once we come to full consciousness of this new paradigm shift. As President Obama might have said, with a smile, were he a technologist: We are the dystopia we’ve been waiting for.
Keenan especially focuses on the role of the US Defense Department’s research and development arm, DARPA, and their seemingly unlimited budget to bring into the world all manner of deviant technologies, from halitosis and gay bombs, tractor beams and invisibility blankets, eugenics, and an assorted sordid toolkit of subterfuge, always with a Caligula-esque mirth for the destruction to be wrought.
In one section he calls Robot Creep, Keenan demonstrates DARPA’s key role in future robotics, which DARPA plans not for the betterment of civilization but as proxy battlefield soldiers who can endure more than humans and don’t break down as much. Keenan describes how the military sees the use of autonomous robots: “We might even get to the stage anticipated by science fiction writers where countries in conflict simply duke it out in cyberspace to see who would win, based on mathematical models, and then the proper number of citizens on each side are executed in the settling up. It would be an efficient if chilling way to handle disputes with our neighbours.”
Again, it should be worrisome that the first thought out of the box is how these things can be used to kill more efficiently, but, again, that is the naivety of a humanist on display.
However, it doesn’t end there. Keenan goes on to describe future bordellos filled with picture-perfect robo-prozzies with the clear advantage of being indefatigable (and more cost effective).
In a chilling empowerment of kids with magnifying glasses out looking for creatures to fry, Keenan describes new kits that have come to market that allow kids to hack the nervous system of insects with their smartphones. Maybe it won’t seem so unnatural to them when the technique eventually transfers over to hacking ‘terrorists,’ the definition a moveable feast of lingo. (I vote: people who insincerely employ the word ’empathy’ too much. They must learn to suffer with quiet desperation like the rest of us.).
Most people probably know by now that the planet’s honeybee colonies are collapsing, an event with profound consequences not only for humans but other life forms on the planet as well, and although no one has been able to absolutely pin the blame on GMO giant Monsanto, they are certainly implicated.
But never fear, say techno-cats, no problem, because robo-bees are on the way and they will take over for their live falling comrades. For a price, of course. And lots of contractors want mileage included, so we may need to hire some lay-about bees to keep the costs down.
We are, indeed, the dystopia we’ve been waiting for. So, why write dystopias when we live in one?
Well, actually, that’s easy. Let’s start with myself, because like the passenger on a decompressing plane going down, who needs to take care of himself first in the emergency, if he wants to save others, I sometimes have buoyant, upbeat thoughts, and when I think them they are beautiful as picture cards from Paradise or like those deep space views of the Christmas tree ornament cosmos. (Blow it up and see!) They make me want to live some more.
Second, my family, who take me out of myself, not only with their own needs and requirements, but with their genuine smiles and the connective tissues of their love that bind our ultimately separate destinies.
Third, it’s still green out there, life still surges in its lyrical impetuosity through the countless roots and veins and branchings of Being, Earth abides, and the sun also rises.
Fourth, we are one benign global catastrophe away from a possible reprieve, a solar flare, say, that wipes out world electricity and gets us off the internet arses altogether, and knocks down the surveillance state in one fell swoop. Forcing us to gather again in human commons and listen to each other face-to-face, and negotiate as sisters and brothers in need of wisdom. It’s called hope, and it’s the only real Utopia we’ve ever had or will ever need.
Indeed, I have enough hope to close by saying I am right now working on a dystopic novel that has the one saving grace of assuming that we will get past our current troubles. I’m just anticipating the next disastrous confrontation. That, too, is a product of hope.
This piece first appeared in the Prague Post on August 24, 2014.