How Nightmares Come True
Some of the most famous dystopias today are read as anachronisms, some as exciting reflections on the possible path of human development, the intersection of which with the natural course of history has already been passed.
Utopia is a place that does not exist.
A dystopia is a bad place that does not exist.
Welcome to Hell
It is human nature to try to look into the future. For some, it is enough to read newspaper horoscopes, while others build rather slender hypothetical models of how human life can be organised. Optimists make good fairy tales like Thomas More with his island Utopia or Tommaso Campanella with the City of the Sun. Realists and pessimists have moderate horror stories or extreme thrillers, called dystopias in literary studies. In fact, they warn contemporaries and descendants about what phenomena and processes should be feared so that you will not be excruciated after.
Most of the popular dystopias are well known to educated people, starting with the textbooks “We,” “1984,” “What a Wonderful New World,” “Fahrenheit 451,” many works by Vonnegut and Strugatsky, “Hours of the Bull” by Efremov, and even the pseudo- children’s “Dunno on the Moon.” Movie buffs and people who lost their skills or initially did not know how to enjoy reading books managed to consume numerous films (from blockbusters like “Terminator,” “Matrix,” etc.) and series of this genre (from modern ones like “Black Mirror,” “World of the Wild West” based on the motives of “Western World,” etc.), which are not based on literary works.
As you know, the prevailing logic of dystopian plots is to create a coherent picture of public life, which, according to the authors, is destructive for humanity. And the trigger is some radical change in the technological basis of civilisation or social norms. Because of the pressing of this trigger, humanity turns from the main path of development to this moment and begins to experiment in a way that is suicidal for itself or simply acts “perpendicularly” to humanistic ideals.
Unfortunately, not only computers but also literature wear out morally. Some of the most famous dystopias today are read as anachronisms, some as exciting reflections on the possible path of human development, the intersection of which with the natural course of history has already been passed. They lost their sharp satirical flavour of parody of socialism and capitalism, which were fashionable in the XX century. The ideas of technological innovations that scientific thought missed, immediately offering more revolutionary technological solutions, look out-of-date. However, some seers-authors gave predictions in their time quite distant from us, which are coming true right before our eyes. And they exceptionally vividly indicated what such a choice is fraught with.
Arsenal of triggers
Human civilisation can be represented simply as a socio-technical system: there are people and their creation – technology (from the easiest hoes to artificial intelligence). And the authors of dystopias operate with them in various combinations. As a rule, either a scientific discovery changes society in a dangerous direction, an inhuman authoritarian/totalitarian government stimulates the emergence of innovations that strengthen the ruling regime, or everything happens simultaneously, almost like in reality.
And then there are all kinds of scenarios of realising the primary human fears. For example, such as:
– hunger in the true sense of the word or low-quality synthetic nutrition as a result of government manipulation or ecological disaster (in one of the American novels, the main character dies on the gallows, having stolen the last natural steak in the world for the father of his unfaithful girlfriend);
– forced death by the decision of the government and with the tacit approval of other generations (“kzhi” and “samples” from “Hour of the Bull,” all novels about mandatory euthanasia of the elderly to save natural resources and budget funds);
– loneliness – forced severance of social ties by government decision, ban on love, suppression of emotions (“What a wonderful new world”);
– restriction of access to information, manipulation of consciousness, rewriting of history in hindsight (“Fahrenheit 451,” “1984”);
– use of weapons of mass destruction (“Planet of the Apes” – the result of the use of nuclear weapons, “Lord of the Flies” – the threat of using nuclear weapons, all variants of the zombie apocalypse due to pandemics caused by deadly viruses of various origins);
– exhaustion of the Earth’s natural resources under the influence of human action, ecological catastrophe, war of nature against man – volcanoes, “rebellion” of flora and fauna;
– dehumanised eugenics, genetic experiments – the manifestation of initially more competitive offspring of rich people and nations; purposeful creation of combat mutants or limiting the potential of embryos through DNA manipulation;
– uncontrolled trade in human organs, legal human cloning;
– release from the control of artificial intelligence (a lot by Asimov);
– war as it is, regardless of the reason;
All of the above, in most cases in dystopian literature, is the result of either total control by someone (earthly or extraterrestrial, individual or collective mind) over humanity or anarchy (again with pockets of totalitarianism) as a result of a social, man-made or ecological disaster. That’s right because even in the case of an anarchic scenario, the will is limited by the threats coming from better-fed and better-armed aggressive brothers in mind. And weapons, advanced artificial intelligence, breakthrough information technologies (such as social networks), products of genetic engineering, and ecologically dangerous economic programs are most often born by the authorities’ decisions.
In fact, the key distinguishing feature of dystopia is the violent restriction of a person’s will, which causes protest in the most gifted individuals, whose behaviour in a society where no humanity is left becomes deviant. Of course, in many fine utopias, people are also relatively free, but this is part of the social contract – and everyone is happy. But in dystopian worlds, the best survivors start a fight against the system. Or they choose their path in such a way as to get out of the reach of its social norms.
The world we live in
So what has already come true from what dystopians have been scaring us for so many years?
Quite a lot, but not all. Fortunately
Synthetic food of questionable usefulness and safety? Go to any store – it is there. And organic “organic products” is also not always absolute.
Forced death? So far, the matter has not progressed beyond voluntary euthanasia in the civilised world. Although the lament of domestic ignoramuses that older adults should be deprived of the right to vote, as well as the peculiarities of the Ukrainian pension system, is a serious call.
Loneliness has become especially evident with the start of social networks and smartphones. What you don’t use, it atrophies. And the lack of need to communicate face-to-face objectively leads to the inability to do it and then to voluntary and inevitable isolation. According to some reports, 70% of unmarried Japanese people are not in a romantic relationship: the National Institute of Demographic and Social Welfare Research found this during the “XV Major Fertility Trends Survey”. Kitamura Kunio, director of the Japan Family Planning Association, cited a lack of communication skills among young people, a lack of money for relationship-related expenses, and the digital era as the reasons. “Maintaining and deepening acquaintance and communication takes a lot of effort. Today’s youth are terrified of failure, and I feel that more and more young people are turning away from the relationship with the opposite sex because of the fear of rejection from the other… Due to the difference in income, there is a stratification between those who can afford a relationship and those who do not have such an opportunity,” he noted.
Restrictions on access to information and other censorship-like features? As much as you want. From the self-censorship of the intimidated journalist to the authorities’ censorship, from the ban on the topic to the ban on the language of the text. The word of the year, according to the version of the compilers of the Oxford dictionary, was the word “post-truth” – an era when objective facts ceased to be necessary, and a vast number of people could not distinguish fiction from an event that actually happened. Ignorance has become the norm, polemics – a populist scream, critical thinking – a rarity, common sense – a deviation from the social norm. Precisely according to Orwell, “The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise but that they might be right. After all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable?” (“1984”).
Use of weapons of mass destruction? The threat level is increasing. Not only because of the underdevelopment and aggressiveness of the countries that are potential nuclear club members but also because of the rapid scientific and technical progress and the lifting of moral taboos among those in power. Climate weapon? Weapons that affect carriers of specific genes? Many things can be implemented in practice from the theoretically possible assortment under current technologies.
Depletion of natural resources? The question is rhetorical.
Eugenics for the purpose of breeding a race of superhumans? There are rumours that China is actively involved.
Human cloning? Conspiracists believe that it has been successfully practised for a long time.
Artificial Intelligence? Journalist bots, teacher assistant bots, robot victories in intellectual games with humans. The European Parliament is deciding whether to consider them “electronic personalities” and is thinking about ways to protect people in case their much more annoying creatures get out of control. Everything is just beginning.
War? Countries not at war with a specific enemy are at war with terrorists. And the number of flashpoints is rapidly decreasing.
So our world is different from a sweet utopia. And dystopia, on the contrary, is quite a lot. It is evident if you look at several current trends.
Unconditional income and Shackley’s “Morning After”
In the same European Parliament, the consequences of the increase in unemployment due to mass robotisation are being discussed. And they offer as a probable solution the introduction of an unconditional basic income, which citizens of EU countries will receive simply for citizenship. The Swiss have already spoken out in a referendum against such an innovation (about $2.5 thousand each), as it would lead to the “loss of initiative and responsibility” of the population.
The rightness of the inhabitants of a prosperous mountain country is confirmed by Robert Shackley’s filigree dystopia “Morning After” (1957).
In the world in question, “For many years, the Supreme Eugenics Committee, established under the United International Government, has kept the world’s population within stable and reasonable limits. People once again became as spacious on Earth as they had not been during the last millennium, and much more attention was paid to them than ever before. Thanks to the successes of underwater ecology and hydroponics and the comprehensive use of the Earth’s surface, there was enough food and clothing for everyone and even a surplus. With automatic construction methods and an abundance of building materials, the housing problem ceased to exist, especially since humanity was relatively small and was not going to increase in the future. Even luxuries were not luxuries for anyone. A prosperous, stable, unchanging civilisation was formed. Few of those who designed, built and serviced the machines received a generous reward. Most did not work at all. They had neither need nor desire.
There were, of course, ambitious people, tools of wealth, power, and high positions. They were engaged in politics. Using generous public funds, each fed, clothed and entertained the population of his constituency to secure a majority of votes and cursed the treacherous voters who were always ready to defect to whoever promised more.
It was a utopia of sorts. Everyone forgot about poverty, the wars stopped long ago, and a long, carefree life awaited everyone. And what, apart from innate human ingratitude, could explain that the number of suicides has increased to truly terrible proportions?”
However, if you check, utopia smells strongly of dystopia. The main character, Piersen, spends his life between free restaurants, entertainment and distribution of goods financed by the same ambitious politicians from public funds. And he says this about his friend, “Benz was so lazy that he didn’t even go to the elections. And this is already too much. Voting is the daily bread and sacred duty of every citizen.” In the end, such an existence led our hero to a drug salon, which turned out to be the point of departure for the wild world of the colonised planet Venus, the discovery of which he did not even suspect. How Piersen miraculously survived, having learned initiative, responsibility, and critical thinking, “He was dying, and thoughts were swarming in his head – long-forgotten dreams, hopes, fears. Pearson remembered his one service and the mixed feelings of relief and regret with which he had left it. He remembered the eccentric workers-fathers who stubbornly did not want to use the undeserved, as they said, benefits of civilisation. Piersen never had to think so much in his life.” And where they explained to him what the same unconditional income and other good intentions of the government led to, “People no longer have to fight for their existence; however, I fear they have achieved this at too high a price. Humanity has stopped in its development. The birth rate is constantly falling, and the number of suicides is increasing. The boundaries of our possessions in space continue to expand, but you can’t lure anyone there. And they must be settled if we want to survive.”
The Transparent World and “The Eve of Rumoko” by Zelazny
Transparency, which has long been a fetish for corporations, banks, and social and political organisations, is rapidly approaching ordinary people, aiming at the inviolability of their private lives. The fight against the shadow economy, electronic declaration in Ukrainian realities, restrictions on cash payments, and manipulation of databases of carelessly left personal data. All this is very reminiscent of the world described long before the advent of the Internet and the beginning of the digital era by Roger Joseph Zelazny in “The Eve of Rumoko” (1969).
The main character, on whose behalf the story is told, once discovered that “the whole world exists in a record,» all data about everyone goes to the Central Bank of Information. At first, he was inspired and wrote for one closed research-applied project, a computer program that facilitates this process. And then, he got scared when he understood this model’s limitations and conditional justice and assessed its consequences.
“At first, I thought that this project seemed very useful. I thought it was great and totally on point with the times we live in that it’s precisely what’s needed: any book or play written, college lecture given in the last couple of decades, any statistical data. Now you will not cheat because everyone has access to the source of information; all government and commercial institutions will be informed about your property and annual income; they will have a list of the expenses you have made; any prosecutor in court will know about all the places where you once lived and with whom and in which cars you travelled. Your whole life, all your actions became clear, like a diagram of the nervous system in a neurology class – all this impressed me very much… It seemed to me that a golden age would come.
Nonsense! A friend of mine, who was somehow connected to the mafia, laughed at me, at the twinkle in my eye, and went all the way from the university to the federal services.”
“Do you seriously believe that all property will be registered? Will all trades be made?” he asked me.
“They still haven’t reached Switzerland; if they do, they will find other places.”
“Yes, there are flaws in any business.”
“Do not forget about all the machinations. No one knows how much money there really is in the world right now, and no one will ever find out.”
Our hero told the project manager about his fears, “I told a grey-haired man with a yellowish face and sad eyes that we are probably creating a monster and encroaching on human personality.” To his surprise, he shared these fears. Then the hero erased all data about himself in the Central Bank of Information and became “a person who does not exist in our world.” The price of personal freedom was the need to create a fake identity, abandon legitimate ways of earning and choose a job associated with the risk of life in a private detective agency.
Dystopia and “A Brief History of the Future” by Attali
There is a futurology read as a dystopia. Up to that moment, until you realise what an erudite wrote this. “A Brief History of the Future” by Jacques Attali (a member of the Bilderberg Club, the first chairman of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) is the same case.
According to Attali, in the next 50 years, several unpleasant transformations will take place in our world. First, American hegemony will be replaced by hyper-empire. Under this social order: “Self-control will become a higher form of freedom, and the fear of non-compliance will limit it. Transparency and openness of information will become mandatory: people who hide their origin, social status, state of health or level of education will arouse suspicion a priori (hello, “Rumoko’s Eve”. – Author’s Note). States will become weaker in the face of corporations and cities. People will stop trusting each other. Contracts, court systems by arbitration, and police by mercenaries will replace laws. Resources will run out; more robots will appear. Timing will be entirely subject to market objectives. Everyone will be able to engage in self-treatment, make prostheses, and then clone themselves. Man will become an artefact that consumes artefacts, a cannibal that devours their own kind.”
In the hyper-empire, the war of all against all will begin: “Governments, pirates, mercenaries, criminals, religious movements will gather armies, invent new means of surveillance, intimidation and attack, using the latest advances in electronics, genetics and nanotechnology. Everyone will be rivals. People will fight for oil, water, the right to occupy or leave the territory, impose their faith or laws, and subjugate others. A military dictatorship will rule the world. The most brutal hyper-conflict will possibly end humanity.”
And only sometime in the second half of the 21st century, Jacques Attali predicts – and not with a hundred per cent probability – the victory of “altruistic and universalist forces” that will establish a balance between the market and democracy. He says that their actions will be aimed at creating new forms of organisation of public life, limiting the consumption and waste of natural resources, and establishing an economy of “relationships” that will defeat the market one. “We want to believe that the threat of hyperviolence will force humanity to change its views on life and relationships radically,” Attali hopes.
Both utopia and dystopia are “places that don’t exist.” It’s just that one is considered good (although it can be suitable for a rebel by calling), and the other is bad.
Today we see dystopian predictions come true, realising that there are still many ideas whose authors were ahead of their time and ours. Ideas that can come to life with unprecedented horrors…
But the more there are talented dystopia warnings and the works of competent futurologists, the smaller the probability of a dire future. If these works are read by the “right” public and non-public people – those who possess the expertise, have authority, informal power, and, most importantly – can understand both the text, the subtext, and the context.
And they are able to love this world and remember what humanity is. Because even for the hero of the work “The Rumoko’s Eve,” there was another way in his situation. “She couldn’t leave her underwater dome, and I couldn’t give up my dream. I wanted to get this whole huge world – completely. However, now I understand that I should have agreed to her terms. But I’m too independent. If only one of us was a normal person…”
Persha Strichka 2017