Two Dystopian Visions
Today we’re going to take a look a two dystopian visions for the future. But before getting into the nitty-gritty, let’s take a step back and think about stories in general and what their purpose is.
Fiction works somewhat like a funhouse mirror. It gives us a different perspective, but ultimately we are still just looking at ourselves. Fatter, taller, skinnier, with a bigger head and a smaller body, but it’s still just us. Sometimes the image makes us laugh, sometimes it makes us grimace and scrunch our nose and say, “that’s not me,” but it is us, refracted and stretched and reimagined into a different package.
Fiction doesn’t show all of reality. It can’t. But by focusing in on one aspect or a few—friendship, courage, falling in love—it shuts out all the distractions and let’s us see things that full-blown experience makes us miss. Paradoxically, it is the very distortion which fiction provides that makes things clear. Because fiction is also a pair of bifocals that correct a defect in eyes weary of life and numbed by constant familiarity with the truth.
When we wander these invented paths we open ourselves up to all sorts of new possibilities. An essential part of growth and change is vision, the ability to see a new way of doing things, a different way of life. When this happens, if our vision is informed by truth and motivated by goodness, wonderful things can happen. Broken hearts may be mended, downcast spirits may be lifted up, and empty, colorless days may be filled with joy and laughter. The best stories remind us of truths long forgotten or perhaps even introduce them to us for the first time. This can be an exhilarating realization, but it can also prove unsettling. For some stories provide a warning, a wake-up call, that the decisions we are making and the direction we are headed in may be leading us astray.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
In an age of seemingly limitless digital information available at the press of a button, fiction offers a desperately needed counter balance to help us process and take in everything bombarding us from the 24 hours news and social media cycle. Instead of giving richer meaning to our experiences, this avalanche of information leaves many wondering if there is any meaning at all. Conflicting viewpoints ping-pong across our screens. The idea of objective truth, that some information or viewpoint might be wrong and another might be right is written off as purely subjective. “That’s fine for you, but I believe differently,” or “We’ll have to agree to disagree,” are common refrains. Even as technology and science promise to meet more of our needs and answer more of our questions, some of us wonder if there is more to life than just increasing its speed and drowning in data. What is the point of it all?
Writers are by definition those who sit on the outside and look in, trying their best to describe what they see around them, to project the inner life onto the page. And in the response to this info-mill of subjectivity, it is no surprise that some writers are turning to bleak depictions of what tomorrow may be like. The word for these visions of the future is “dystopian.” This word was first used in a speech in the British Parliament in 1868 by J.S. Mill as an inversion of the word “utopia.” A dystopia is a society with systemic dysfunctionalities, where people are mistreated and abused as a matter of course and there is little hope for change . Dystopian societies form the backdrop for books like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. In these stories the government or those in control of society have created a world of systemic injustice and oppression, where a few, powerful individuals control the fates of the masses. Humanity has lost its way and it is up to a few brave souls to set things right. I call these “hob-nailed” dystopias because they function very much like totalitarian dictatorships. The hob-nailed boot of a few powerful individuals keeps the masses downtrodden and oppressed.
Stories of this ilk resonate with readers because they are living with the same questions and fears that the writers are wrestling with. Where is this all headed? How can we stop injustice? What happens if society falls apart and descends into something even worse than what it now is?
Coming off the twentieth century, the bloodiest in all of history, and entering into the twenty-first where terrorism and immorality have already risen past the high water mark of anything in recent history, what hope is there that tomorrow will be any better than today? Like the coming horror in William Butler Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, the new age that some writers imagine in their writings is inherently bleak, grim, and pessimistic. Instead of Christ’s glorious appearing to usher in a new and triumphant age, humanity lives in fearful expectation of what awaits. In 1919, after the end of the first world war, Yeats wrote these words:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Such words are as poignant and timely today as when they were written. Where is our hope? What does the future hold? If the hob-nailed dystopias are any indication, a dark and dismal future awaits.
We Are the Technology of the Future
In the waning years of the twentieth century, the movie series, The Matrix, came out of nowhere. Like the stories already mentioned, its vision of the future was grim. But even more frightening, the enemy faced was not a corrupt society or oppressive leaders, it was the very technology which men had created which turned against us. In this film it took the spiritual “awakening” of a man named Neo to break humanity out of its artificially induced sleep.
Like The Terminator series before it, The Matrix drew its inspiration from a sort of simultaneous fear and reverence for technology. Men had given over control of themselves (albeit inadvertently) to the machines they created. I call these “chromium” dystopias. In them, technology takes on the role of the oppressor, not some totalitarian regime. But the result is the same. Whether controlled by evil societies or by heartless robots, these dystopian worlds are dominated by hopelessness and oppression.
Such stories are not for everyone. Many find them too dark , too depressing. Why contemplate a world like that when today’s world is bad enough? And yet part of gaining a vision for the future is looking at ourselves hard in the mirror and asking where we’re headed. Because in order to fix a problem you must first diagnose it. And if society really might be heading for a world dominated by despair and oppression, we would do well to think about what might be done to change our present course.
(Note: mild spoilers in the next section if you haven’t read Into the Vast)
I wrote The Chronotrace Sequence as a synthesis of these two types of dystopias, hob-nailed and chromium. Like the Hunger Games the world of the Chronotrace is dominated by a few powerful, but deeply flawed individuals. But like The Matrix this domination is perpetuated through technology so that the vast majority of people living in the society have no idea that anything is wrong. Their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and aspirations are not their own. They are instead provided for them by a group of scientists known as The Developers. This control is accomplished by transforming them into essentially organic machines. Society is maintained by a pervasive, invisible network that keeps them connected at all times. There is no way to “unplug” or “disconnect.” Control comes not through a jack in the back of peoples’ heads, but their very brains and organs have been reengineered to function as a part of the system.
Far from simply oppressing the people in the world of the Chronotrace, the leaders have given their subjects perfect health, perfect happiness, and immortality. All wars and conflict have ceased. It’s as utopian as a dystopia is likely to get. Like the robots in The Matrix, the Developers have a vested interest in humanity’s future. But unlike the “human batteries” of Neo’s world, the people of the Chronotrace live normal lives, moving and working inside a technologically advanced paradise.
Humanity’s Greatest Enemy
Unlike The Hunger Games, the leaders in the world of the Chronotrace actually have good intentions. They believe they are creating a perfect society. Instead of being controlled by technology, they are they ones in control. But in a world where natural law is the only one that is accepted, where science and progress are exalted as the ultimate standard for what is right, the leaders decide that any deviation from their meticulous plan for saving humanity must be squelched. And in so doing, the very technology that enables this paradise is the force that destroys the true freedom, worth, and dignity of those who benefit from it. As C.S. Lewis put it:
Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car…
For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.
Humanity’s ultimate enemy is not the dictators or the machines. Humanity’s ultimate enemy is itself.
In my opinion, the world of the Chronotrace is a lot closer to the direction we seem to be headed in than any from the other series I have mentioned. Scientists and politicians who throw off ethical concerns in order to create a “better tomorrow” truly believe there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. And technology consumes more and more of our waking lives to the point where certain segments of the population are literally in front of it almost every waking hour. But again, as a writer, as a thinking person, I have to wonder where all of this advancement is headed?
There is not space here to cover all of the current developments which are heading towards this kind of dystopian trajectory, but I’ll just mention a few. Within the last year, British scientists have announced their intention to clone and perform research on human beings. They say they want to eliminate genetic diseases and birth defects. They believe they are doing the right thing.
Within the last week a group of scientists met behind closed doors at Harvard Medical School to discuss the possibility of creating synthetic DNA. And make no mistake, if a box like that is opened (the stated goal of those gathered was to realize such a development within 10 years) the pursuit of fully synthetic human beings like the ones I wrote about in my books will be an almost certain inevitability.
Other researchers are pushing the limits of organic computing (i.e. creating biologically based computers.) They site benefits like diagnosing disease and “smart drugs.” One group of researchers has labeled their approach as a “doctor in the cell.”
It is not far-fetched to think that these technologies might at some point converge into the sort of political and technological perfect storm I imagined in The Chronotrace Series. And these are not isolated stories. Technology marches on with little ethical restraint in many cases because, for many, morality is just a social construct. And if it gets in the way of “progress” morality, human worth and dignity, often become secondary concerns.
Progress as Regress
Part of the goal in writing this series was to create a cautionary tale that would rouse readers to think about the role technology and science play in our lives. Not all progress is good progress, after all. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Chronicles of Narnia:
“I have seen them both in an egg,” said Caspian. “We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia…”
There is hope for the future, but it doesn’t come from our scientific and technical prowess. I hope you’ll read the novels to find out where that hope ultimately comes from, even as the world races along a dangerous path at breakneck speed into an uncertain future.
So what do you think? Are there any dystopian stories you’ve read which made you think? Are there developments in the world that seem a little too close to what you’ve read about in fiction? Let me know in the comments below.