Sunday, April 29, 2007

Everything falls apart

James Grainger on Jim Crace's The Pesthouse and the new-style dystopian novel, in which the dark visions of the future are predicated on the collapse of all governing systems, rather than their freedom-quashing hegemony:
The 20th century saw the social, political and religious hierarchies that defined Western society for centuries collapse under the organizing principles of the new technocratic state. The 20th century dystopian novelist followed suit, dramatizing the horrors of this dehumanizing brave new world with stories of Big Brother-style dictatorships that enforced demands for total social conformity with nightmarish surveillance technologies and high-tech brainwashing techniques.

But these fictionalized predictions, as prophetic as some proved to be, already have the quaint feeling of old newsreels. Overwhelmed by non-stop coverage of constant low-level warfare and terrorism and mounting evidence of an impending global ecological crisis, the 21st century world citizen is less worried about the threat of identity loss and political oppression than the total collapse of the technological and ecological systems that sustain us as a species.

Where the present goes, the futurist follows, as a slew of new dystopian novels demonstrate. The bubbled hive-like cities of Zemyatin and Orwell and Huxley have been replaced by endless ruins, social anarchy and environmental degradation.

In other words, being controlled is now less scary than the loss of all control. H.G. Wells's The Time Machine probably counts as a kind of stylistic and ideological ancestor to these books, with its vision of humankind eventually devolving into two species, one of which eats the other. Wells's The War of the Worlds depicts this breakdown even more explicitly – especially in its second part, "The Earth Under the Martians." (Which can be read online right here, not that the book is all that hard to come by.) In that book, English society comes apart in a matter of days. Wells goes to great pains to depict the crumbling of every possible bulwark of civilization – science, government, the military, the family (the narrator is separated from his), religion (in the form of the curate), and simple, human determination (in the form of the soldier who dreams impotently of a new subterranean humanity).

The whole genre of post-apocalyptic novels and movies is based on this notion that, as civilization's struts are pulled out from under us, we will very quickly and without too much fuss, revert to simpler and more primitive forms of social organization – gangs, bands of scavengers, etc.

Part of the fascination with post-apocalyptica isn't fear, though: it's a kind of vicarious wish-fulfillment for our inner D. H. Lawrences. Here's Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover:
"Quite nice! To contemplate the extermination of the human species and the long pause that follows before some other species crops up, it calms you more than anything else. And if we go on in this way, with everybody, intellectuals, artists, government, industrialists and workers all frantically killing off the last human feeling, the last bit of their intuition, the last healthy instinct; if it goes on in algebraical progression, as it is going on: then ta-tah! to the human species! Goodbye! darling! the serpent swallows itself and leaves a void, considerably messed up, but not hopeless. Very nice! When savage wild dogs bark in Wragby, and savage wild pit-ponies stamp on Tevershall pit-bank! Te Deum laudamus!"

[...]


"Because when I feel the human world is doomed, has doomed itself by its own mingy beastliness, then I feel the Colonies aren’t far enough. The moon wouldn’t be far enough, because even there you could look back and see the earth, dirty, beastly, unsavoury among all the stars: made foul by men. Then I feel I’ve swallowed gall, and it’s eating my inside out, and nowhere’s far enough away to get away. But when I get a turn, I forget it all again. Though it’s a shame, what’s been done to people these last hundred years: men turned into nothing but labour-insects, and all their manhood taken away, and all their real life. I’d wipe the machines off the face of the earth again, and end the industrial epoch absolutely, like a black mistake. But since I can’t, an’ nobody can, I’d better hold my peace, an’ try an’ live my own life: if I’ve got one to live, which I rather doubt."
Given all that, who wouldn't occasionally want a peek at a world where the most important thing is having some gas in your car?

1 comment:

Alex said...

It's also an expression of our neo-Darwinist culture. It's no coincidence that Darwin is so big these days. Shows like Survivor. American foreign policy (no legal restrictions on the use of force, a return to what critics rightly call "the law of the jungle"). Basically we've come to accept that might is right, the strong do what they want and the weak what they must, etc. Try talking to business school kids these days, or any young entrepreneurs. They seem to care more about "destroying" their competition than anything else. The marketplace is their jungle.

I know this kind of thinking has been around for a while, but I can't think of a time when it was so unabashedly dominant. Maybe at the end of the nineteenth century with the heyday of Social Darwinism. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was no such thing as "society." It's just a war of all against all. Hence these dystopian futures (and zombie/living dead films). It's really just a vision of "no society", the triumph of the jungle, a Darwinist battle among individuals or brutal tribes for survival with no wimpy safety net.