Thursday, January 12, 2017

Looking To The Future

     I have always enjoyed reading Science Fiction. My undergraduate alma mater carried a course on Science Fiction (which is often sneered at in literary circles as not really literature).  The head of the English department was looking at my transcript once and noted the course with surprise and delight. Surprise, most likely, because I was planning to major in Medieval Studies, and delight, it seems, because it was an attempt at embracing alternative forms of literature and I was willing to embrace it. The course did not last very long. It did introduce me to some new writers and new visions of what the future holds for humanity. Science Fiction writers are not just about big breasted alien princess and conquest, they have always considered the future  and social advancement which never seems very bright.
     So, I am considering some of the many dystopian novels I have read and what they got right and what they got wrong. First off, most novelists in the more distant past expected life to look more like the Jetsons by this point in time and second, nobody anticipated the rise of radical Islam and the effects of massive migration to the West on the West or the huge income inequality now present in the West.
     The first book that leaps to my mind is Kurt Vonnegut's 'Player Piano'. In the novel, Vonnegut accurately predicts that automation would make the productivity of the worker rise to a point that one engineer can run a whole factory of robots. He made the mistake of thinking the educated men of the executive class would realize that, without a middle class and disposable income, the consumer society is not possible. He thought the CEO's of the world would provide some means of income for people so that there would be a market for their products. He was wrong but Vonnegut, being a good man, could not anticipate how greedy and short sighted educated humans could be. The novel ends with a revolution and the machines being smashed but also with people failing to learn and the effort to rebuild society without replacing it with a better model begins immediately after the destruction. He did consider the flight of capital to third worlds in his other novel, 'Cat's Cradle', but failed to consider its logical conclusion since the world is destroyed by science's lack of ethics. A brilliant scientist created a new way for ice to stack itself and, without considering if it should be done, set about amusing himself with figuring how if it could be done. His children unwittingly unleashed this horror on the world with stupid self interest. They were not terrible people but, like many, figured their one little thing that would make their life better would not have a huge impact on the world. It did. In an uncontrolled chain reaction after Ice-Nine fell into the ocean, everything froze and nearly obliterated all life on earth, human and animal. The handful of survivors would struggle to go on emotionally after such a catastrophe. This puts one to mind of the first attempt to split the atom; the scientists who did so were not certain they could contain the reaction and that the entire fabric of the universe would not unravel but they went ahead and did it anyway.
     The second book that leaps to mind is Aldous Huxley's 'A Brave New World'. In it, individual freedoms vanish in exchange for security of home, job and place in society. Technology replaces the family and people take drugs to keep happy. Nobody suffers but nobody creates or loves or looks up at the stars and wonders. Crime and poverty are nonexistant but the life created by this planned society is not worth living. We see this world through the eyes of John, the outsider, created inadvertently by two members of this social order. He is raised on a free reservation but without being accepted as a member of that social group. Having been raised on reading Shakespeare, he is disappointed with the community that is organized but lacks intellectual or artistic enquiry and which his mother represented to him as a utopia. The leader of Western Europe declines to exile John to one of the islands where misfits live out their days. He is fascinated that John wants the right to be unhappy and wants to watch him a little longer. The experiment ends with John's suicide since he cannot assimilate into society and any means of finding an alternative community is denied him. Interestingly, Huxley's named the leader of Western Europe, Mustapha Ford, after the pioneer of the assembly line and the leader of Turkey who was leading that country into secularism not because he anticipated the later migration patterns but it was remarkably prescient. So Huxley's worry was that we would dumbed down so much that we would stop reading and thinking. Looking at millennials, that may be the case.
     He also deemed, accurately that we are social animals and need some sense of belonging somewhere, even if occasionally unhappy, in order for life to be liveable. This is the conclusion, Erich Fromm came to in his 'Escape From Freedom', in which he, as a psychologist, looks at historical forces to explain why people, having achieved democracy, would elect a dictator. He wrote that book in the 1930's in response to the rise of fascism across Europe but also accurately could see that 'monopolistic capitalism' was already then a danger to social equality and thought that unions had the potential give people the community and support they need. Churches should have been that force in people's lives but organized church is generally perceived by authors (and myself)  as being a tool to preserve the privileges and position of the moneyed classes. Huxley accurately predicted reproductive technology and but, like Vonnegut, failed to take into account the greed of the upper classes, their hatred of people outside their class, and their unwillingness to provide for people. Fromm was not trying to predict the future, his book was the backward glance.
     The fourth book has to be George Orwell's '1984'. The year came and went and people felt a sense of relief that Big Brother did not materialize but they were wrong. The rise of radical Islam has given governments new powers to suspend individual freedoms and privacy so that they can prevent terror attacks. The west has been in an almost constant state of war for decades. One premise of Orwell's book was the the government would artificially keep the country at war, although the enemies of the state kept inexplicably shifting, because social equality has to take a backseat in times of crisis. They ensure the crisis never ends and the need for surveillance never ends. The amusing thing is Orwell thought the danger came from Communism but it was unregulated markets that created the oligarchy with the means to effectively protect their hegemony although, I doubt they thoroughly considered the social instability that is arising from their policies. Again, underestimating the greed of the upper classes and overestimating man's altruism. To be fair, none of these have considered the huge growth of population and its impact on the environment or social stability and or the increasingly large numbers of refugees and the impact this is having world-wide. They anticipated war but it seems they assumed these wars would be imaginary and without consequences.
     There are so many novels. In my next post, I will consider some others.

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