Some weeks ago, I took my granddaughter to the ‘pumpkinfest’ thrown by her school’s PTA. No pumpkin chuckin’, alas, but they did hire a balloon twister. So what did the kids stand in line for? Swords and guns. The gym was soon full of balloon mayhem. Observing them whale away at each another, I thought, “The eschaton isn’t going to get immanetized tonight.” Yeah, I really did. Sorry about that.
The great Gene Wolfe had a novel out in October. A Borrowed Man is set in a near future North America. It’s a technologically proficient society. Environmental concerns have been mitigated – the sky is clear, the air and water pure, population drastically reduced, human cloning is common, and some sort of deep brain scan allows memories to be downloaded into clones. The narrator is such a clone, a ‘copy’ of a writer of mysteries and science fiction from an earlier time. At a guess, the original lived maybe a century from our own time, and died maybe 50 years before the time of the story. This is the story of his adventures.
The air may be breathable, the water drinkable, yet the world is unpleasant. The police are brutal. The countryside is littered with wrecked towns inhabited by near-feral packs of poor people. These poor are not fed. The clones, although fully human, are considered property, and may be disposed of willy-nilly. “Library clones,” such as the narrator, maybe disposed of if they are not “checked out” often enough, and the disposal process is cruel. Though Wolfe doesn’t state it clearly, the behavior of the narrator, the actions he does not take, his ready assent to the rules of being a library clone, suggest that they are to some degree conditioned, their freedom of will shackled. This is dystopia. Technology masks the evil and patches the cracked surface, no more. The world of A Borrowed Man is similar to those of Home Fires and An Evil Guest. Human evil persists.
A Borrowed Man shares a bit of the background to William Gibson’s The Peripheral from last year. A catastrophe has nearly exterminated humankind, but high technology emerged that allowed just in time to allow “1 percenters” and wealthy nation-states to survive and accumulate immense power. The surviving 1 percenters are mostly horrible. Their horribleness is barely constrained by governments that are themselves complicit with these horrible people. Through yet another mysterious technological marvel (The Peripheral is full of McGuffins and Alien Space Bats), some of the more minimally decent people gain access to an alternate time line that exists just before the tipping point into catastrophe (it should be pointed out that there are multiple such time lines, most of them kept as private playgrounds by very bad people). They place high technology into the hands of ordinary but clever people who may be able to prevent or divert the catastrophe. It’s deus ex machina stuff. Gibson asks us to believe that a technologically enabled underclass can bring about a better outcome; a bit Marxist, that. I think that the human record is that our normative state is to seek the unconstrained exercise of our will, so I doubt things would actually work out so happily. Gibson tends to work in loosely-bound trilogies, so we will have to await the eventual outcome of the alternate time line until Gibson himself observes it.
Gibson builds up his world through detailed descriptions of things and people and their relationships. In his later style, Wolfe hints, but does not tell. Anything may become significant, even a color, and maybe not until a fourth or fifth reading.
I find it intriguing that, in The Peripheral, much of the action of the protagonists in the earlier, alternate, timeline, is directed to making room for family life: this is a bit similar to the efforts of the protagonist-characters in his previous group, beginning with Pattern Recognition. Similarly, the clone narrator of A Borrowed Man makes arrangements that he hopes will prolong his existence a bit, and make his life bearable.
One could go on. Utopias and dystopias are staples of fiction. We write them and read them out of a sense of human bent-ness. It’s all around us, visible and stark, but we tend to close our eyes, or concentrate on only a part of it. Wolfe’s dystopia seems somewhat more dire: both give us depopulated worlds. Gibson’s is the result of a concatenation of errors, some preventable. I fear that Wolfe’s depopulation was a deliberate, a Stalinist, act. Humankind has shown itself capable of all varieties of horrors; technology seems to magnify but not improve our natures.