Our 22nd Century Mental Block

January 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Maybe it’s all the descriptions of science fiction, especially of utopian or dystopian inclination, that I’ve been reading at work lately.  Or maybe it’s the turn of another year to another futuristic number (2013, for pete’s sake!).  Whatever the cause, it’s just occurred to me recently to wonder:

Why are we not talking about the 22nd century the way that people from the fin de siecle forward (and even before) have talked about, prepared for, fetishized, longed for our 21st century?  Why have we never done so?  (I mean “we” in the broadest sense: humans, though of course I filter primarily through my Western lenses. I think it applies broadly.)

Wondering that has led me to hypothesize.  My hypothesis is that we aren’t thinking about, writing about, and planning for the 22nd century to the same extent that we did for the 21st because, deep down, on a kind of Jungian global subconscious level, we don’t think we’re going to make it that far, as a species.  Partly this is a matter of the narratives of progress and improvement and various ideologies of purity (racial, governmental, sexual, etc.) that drove so much utopian and dystopian thinking in the past 150 or so years having been dismantled and disproven.  And partly I think that numerology does have something to do with it: those 2000s always seemed so sexy as numbers.

But really, aren’t we also at a time in world history that seems deeply short-sighted, deeply unable to look more than a generation ahead?  The space program is an underfunded shell.  We’re still concerned about the price of gas.  We’re more bogged down in sectarian and political conflict than ever.  The ice is melting. Emblematic of all of this is the tired, tired gag of wondering why we don’t have the flying cars we were promised by 1999, or 2001, or 2010, or whatever date.  The tiredness is what’s emblematic: we’ve been making this joke for decades because our reality has outstripped our dreams.  We don’t believe anymore.

I’m fascinated by this idea that we’ve reached a kind of collective block on visions of the future (though of course it’s not complete, just highly noticeable).  It also seems really terrifying.  Every fictional depiction of the far future that I can think of is post-apocalyptic, and many imply that that apocalypse takes place in this century or the next.

Doesn’t it seem so much harder to look 87 years into the future and imagine anything encouraging?  Doesn’t the 22nd century seem like an impossible dream?  Wouldn’t a utopian thinker from Brazil, or China, or wherever — someone with a convincing vision that’s not utterly bleak — be a godsend?

Or am I just out of touch with all of the folks who are busy building the 22nd century’s castles in the sky?  Are these conversations taking place, convincingly?

A Brief Glossary for Super Sad True Love Story

August 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart.

Shteyngart’s book is full of fascinating names and terminology, so I thought I’d pick a few that especially interested me and look at them a bit more closely:

äppärät: The devices which control social interaction in society, broadcasting information about their owners (all subjective rankings, potentially humiliating and cause for constant anxiety) and also serving as the main entertainment and communication devices.  So, yes: iPhone/iPads.  Everyone is constantly ranking and evaluating everyone else, and monitoring their own rankings, and the rankings as well as the categories of ranking themselves (Credit, Hotness, Sustainabilit¥, Fuckability, Personality) revealing the coarse, striving superficiality dominating American discourse.  As now, the devices themselves are also status symbols, the smaller and sleeker the better.

dachshunds: Kind of the Shteyngart equivalent of Nabokov’s butterflies, they pop up here and there in the narrative.  Mostly, however, this is an excuse to show the inscription to and drawing of our dachshund Bruno by Shteyngart in my copy:

GlobalTeens: The Facebookian social media site that dominates communication, especially for our protagonist Lenny Abramov’s beloved, Eunice Park.  Her side of the story is told through the semi-literate messages, called “teens,” that she sends to her friends and family through her GlobalTeens account.  The emphasis here on an arrested, adolescent-level emotional development and communication is a recurring theme in the work: that the basic messages themselves through which most of society now communicates are called “teens,” to the point that physically speaking is called “verballing” to differentiate it from teening, is both plausible and kind of horrifying.

Media: Both a noun and adjective, as in “He’s so Media,” the ultimate sign of approval.  One of the main Media outlets for news information is called CrisisNet; others are FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra.  But many people have their own streaming entertainment/commentary shows, and ratings for these shows are monitored in real time to react to what people do and do not want to hear about.

People’s Literature Publishing House: The publisher of an edition of Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s GlobalTeens messages — in other words, Super Sad True Love Story.  As Lenny says, “it never occurred to me that any text would ever find a new generation of readers,” and did not write his diary entries with publication in mind.  However, the People’s Capitalist Party of China issued, as the last of its “Fifty-One Represents,” the message, “To write text is glorious!”, leading to resurgence of the printed word.  This is one of the few hopeful notes in the book.  Lenny is one of the few buyers and readers of “bound, printed, non-streaming Media artifacts” left in the world, and is something of a freak because of it: his friends and Eunice find the books smelly and somewhat disgusting, and he sprays them with air freshener to get rid of the smell of old paper.  The representation of how reading functions in a society that places no value on introspection or empathy, and what might come to be valued in it again, is a fascinating subtext in the work.

Post-Human Services: The division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation which employs Lenny Abramov.  It is dedicated to achieving eternal youth for its High Net Worth Individual clients through a variety of nutritional, cosmetic, and high-tech medical procedures (“smart blood” being one of the key elements).  The process does seem to work, at least to some degree: Lenny’s boss, Joshie, seems to be in his seventies even though he appears a twenty-something.  But Shteyngart leaves the exact nature of Post-Human Services ambiguous.  It could be seen as a scam for separating the desperate, aging wealthy from their money along these lines.  Lenny clearly believes; Joshie, a smooth operator, may be playing at belief.  Whatever the case, the inclusion of this thread of life-extension technology exclusively for the superwealthy by a giant, foreign-owned multinational is a smart inclusion in a day-after-tomorrow dystopia.

Rubenstein: The shadowy Secretary of Defense who seems to be the true man in charge of the entire American government — or what remains of it, in the form of the American Restoration Authority, a turbo-charged Homeland Security-like apparatus, run by the Bipartisan Party, given to equal parts paranoid security measures and absurd sloganeering (a digital spy/mascot in the form of an otter, cartoonish anti-immigration posters, a PR campaign based on Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses”).  The names are interesting here: in Shteyngart’s dystopia, Israel is SecurityStateIsrael, still a lynchpin of US foreign policy, and our political parties have blended into one “Bipartisan” non-choice, even as the US is eaten from within by its debt, its military misadventures, and its economic inequalities.  So, yes: as with all satire, this is not so much bleak vision of the future as slight exaggeration of the current state of affairs.  I’m curious about the Zionist angle, here, and what kinds of reaction Shteyngart has received to it.

Suk, Reverend: Leader of a Korean Christian crusade, the description of his Madison Square Garden revival is one of the fascinating set pieces of the book, tying together the themes of immigrant families’ assimilation, religion, spectacle, and evolving/devolving language in an astounding display of guilt, shame, and community.  It also calls to mind other famous sermons in American literature, from Father Mapple in Moby-Dick to Reverend Barbee in Invisible Man, but as with so much else in this dystopia of America on the verge of collapse, the rhetoric and the presentation are wildly different: flattened, religious experience debased.  And yet, even though Lenny’s friend Grace believes Korean Christianity to be a matter of assimilation, gone in one more generation, haven’t we been saying the same thing for generations now?  Aren’t we always thinking the next generation will be the one to abandon religion altogether, and aren’t we always surprised to find it still alive and well?

TIMATOV: One of the hilarious GlobalTeens-based acronyms in the book, standing for Think I’m About to Openly Vomit.

Venezuela: Site of the current American military intervention, leading to the veteran-led revolt and credit crisis that finally brings down the US.  As with a number of glancing references to corporations here, oil is the subtext: nationalized corporations in oil-rich countries are running the show, and the US attempt to take over Venezuela is obviously about that.

Dispossession Over the Salton Sea

July 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Read long ago: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In polar opposition to any effective mystery, the climax and ending of most science fiction novels is the least interesting and effective part of the book, pulling out of the world-building and play of ideas that characterize the best of the genre to wrap up the plot in a blaze of somewhat incoherent action and implausible heroics.  In some ways, The Dispossessed is not an exception to this.  One could see its ending as a deus ex machina trick.  But if it is, I found it a marvelously effective and ingenious twist on the device.

So, obviously, SPOILER ALERT, if such a thing applies to a 40-year-old classic of the genre.

That the Terrans — that is, we Earthlings — are the mechanism by which Shevek is rescued from the capitalist police-state of A-Io and delivered to his home, the anarchist utopia of Anarres, is a neat twist indeed.  It’s also a twist that complicates our reading of all that’s come before it: allegorical or ideological readings of the Urras-Anarres relationship don’t work so well when the situation of Earth itself muddies the waters.

And what a situation Earth is in.  Here’s Keng, the Terran ambassador to A-Io:

My world, my Earth, is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species.  We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died.  We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt.  We destroyed ourselves.  But we destroyed the world first.  There are no forests left on my Earth.  The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.  It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is.  This is a living world, a harmony.  Mine is a discord.  You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert….

I flew to San Diego last month, finishing the book on the flight.  As we neared San Diego I looked out the window and was confronted by a mysterious sight, a huge body of water surrounded by an artificial oasis of agriculture amid the desert and the scorched mountains.

I did not know what I was seeing, but much of the flight over the deserts of Arizona and California had reminded me of Anarres, the arid planet to which the Odonian anarchists exiled themselves, and on which they had learned to survive without any state, any money, any rigid family structure.  This view spooked me; it looked so oddly out of place, oddly desolate, and the shore of this body of water gave an impression that it was saline, not freshwater.

This, I learned by asking a local, was the Salton Sea.  Created by a flood of the Colorado River in 1905, it is in a state of rapidly increasing salinity.  This, combined with fertilizer runoff and other manmade problems, has led to a body of water being taken over by algae and bacteria: a nearly dead sea, a system in environmental collapse.

It was eerie, seeing this right after reading about the desert planet Anarres, the beautiful Urras, teeming with natural abundance but in the process of tearing itself apart through sectarian strife, and the obliterated Earth, its decimated population of 500 million people clinging to survival through the harshest of methods (euthanasia, rationing, centralized control over every piece of land).  It seemed a microcosm or an omen.

Keng argues that Earthlings have “outlived” hope, only capable of looking at “this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside.”  Anarres, to her, is “a world I cannot even imagine.”  The horizon of her imagination is Urras, even with all of its bloodshed, injustice, and waste, simply because it is a living planet, not a shell of its former self.

Shevek’s response hinges on his research into time’s operation, his deep insight into how it works.  “You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed,” he explains.  From this point of view Urras is the present, the living moment.  “And you think that it is something which can be possessed!” But Shevek argues that constant change is the true state of time, a simple truth which it is very difficult to accept. Anarres, this “enduring reality” in which people live together, value each other, work together amid hardship and strife and are imperfect but imperfect without oppression, is always possible.  It is a matter of letting go of the idea that it is a future to be reached.  It is a matter of embracing the possibility of not possessing, and of being dispossessed.

The idea that we — as Americans especially, but also as Earthlings — need to live more simply, and more intelligently, and more sympathetically, remains both quite obvious and immensely unpopular.  As the Salton Sea shows us, we haven’t gotten any closer to where we need to be since The Dispossessed was written; its description of A-Io, if anything, appears much closer to the ugly truth of everyday life in America than it would have in the 1970s, when the descriptions of violent governmental oppression were surely read as hyperbolic commentary on Vietnam War protests, to be dismissed as insertion of a timely social issue into the work rather than critique of American governance in general.  Now it just sounds like the description of another crackdown on a college campus, of the brutal dismantling of another peaceful protest in an ostensibly public space.  A-Io’s monsters of consumption are more and more recognizable.  And yet hope must remain, even for us, the Terran monsters.

The crime of Cincinnatus

January 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov. Edition: Capricorn Books, 1965.

Invitation to a Beheading was originally published in its original Russian in Paris in the 1930s, under the pseudonym Sirin. It is nothing so much as a phantasmagoria; a nightmare with beautiful, dreamy interludes. It’s also a dystopia, although Nabokov would surely despise this categorization (in his 1959 Foreword to this edition, he encourages his readers to disregard the significance of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions to the work, and heaps scorn on the “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction” of Orwell).

Cincinnatus has “a certain peculiarity” which, so far as I can tell, is his crime, for which he is sentenced to death and locked away in a fortress to await his beheading (the date of which his guards refuse to reveal). The peculiarity is described:

“He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another… In the midst of the excitement of a game his coevals would suddenly forsake him, as if they had sensed that his lucid gaze and the azure of his temples were but a crafty deception and that actually Cincinnatus was opaque…

“In the course of time the safe places became ever fewer: the solicitous sunshine of public concern penetrated everywhere, and the peephole in the door [of C's cell] was placed in such a way that in the whole cell there was not a single point that the observer on the other side of the door could not pierce with his gaze.”

The crime of Cincinnatus is opacity. A reluctance to be utterly “transparent,” open with fellow citizens. Reserve might be a word for it; so might individuality. We, today, in the free world, are utterly basking in “the solicitous sunshine of public concern.”

This is no brilliant analysis, I’m afraid. But the crime struck me as a remarkably contemporary concern, and documenting it occurred to me as a lovingly ironic way to open this utterly public, utterly opaque discourse.

As a footnote: Mikhail Bulgakov, in his brilliant The Master and Margarita, allegorizes Stalin as the sun. Coincidental, surely, but interesting nonetheless.

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