‘I want you to rate me,’ he said.
‘Just a rating…’
‘Like from 1 to 100?’
Dave Eggers, The Circle
When we imagine the future, we envision it through the focused lens of our current obsessions. The most successful writers draw on what is known to dream up the unknown: landscapes which, nonetheless, resonate with the familiar – with the possible and with the chillingly real. The preoccupations of contemporary literary authors who decide to tangle with science fiction create an interesting insight into today’s fears and anxieties. Whilst it is tempting to dwell on the more obvious conceived disasters – the pandemics, the environmental collapse, the return to totalitarian regimes – a shift of focus to the minutiae of imagined individual lives reveals a tension seated not in the external elements, but in an internal one: a tension deeply rooted in the changing nature of human intimacy and the ways it is being effected by technology. This is not simply the ‘we don’t know how to talk to one another anymore’ argument or the ‘end of sex as we step into virtual reality’ anxiety. It is a more nuanced concern about the fleshy messiness that has, hitherto, characterised our lives, frequently accompanied by an ironic critique of words and seeing writing as a poor replacement for physical closeness.
The above quote from Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013) – where sexual performance is rated on a scale of 1–100 – is an example of a more humorous take on the effect of algorithmic thinking and self-knowledge, but it is only a small moment of lightheartedness in a novel which envisions an extreme version of Facebook effectively taking over the world. The technological giant, The Circle, is symbolised by a statue of a hand reaching through a computer screen. As the story progresses, we witness the corporation doing exactly that: pushing into every part of a citizen’s life. As the tri-founders of The Circle (Eggers’s nod to the religious triumvirate of father, son and Holy Ghost) seek to ‘complete’ – to make participation in their monitored, online world, mandatory – they mitigate any notion of privacy or extant identity. In this updated version of Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’, the process is called ‘transparency’ and people willingly sign up to, effectively, be on camera 24/7.
To the heroine of the story, Mae, life outside of her controlled, computerised environment begins to become untenable:
Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies – on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community.
This idea of social correction through advanced technology is not a particularly new one and the more interesting consequence is Mae’s changing sexual self, played out in the two relationships she is forced to choose between.
On the one hand, she has a number of clandestine, passionate, fuck-me-senseless encounters with the mysterious Kalden. On the other, she has nothing but unsatisfying pseudo-sex with the premature ejaculator, Francis (it is he who asks her to ‘rate him’)*. By choosing Francis she effectively forfeits physical sensuality for the love of the masses: the approval she receives from the millions of online viewers who ‘zing’ her every move, the obvious equivalent of today’s Facebook ‘like’. In this techno-utopia, the question of reproduction seems to have fallen by the wayside – if Mae hopes to have children she’ll need to actually get some sperm inside her – and intimacy is relegated to an online numbers game. Which would you choose: interactions with thousands of strangers who adore you or the real, questioning presence of a fallible human being? Sometimes, intimacy can seem just too hard.
In some ways contrary to The Circle, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), considers how advancing technology might create barriers within previously intimate relationships. In Faber’s other-verse, a husband and wife are separated on different planets and attempt to communicate via a form of intergalactic email. Rather than focussing on the supposed advances such connections might give us, the narrator, Pastor Peter Leigh, constantly dwells on the inadequacies of words on a screen to convey his feelings and experiences. In the first flush of separation he longs for bodily contact with his wife, Bea, to confirm their need for one another. But, with time and distance, it becomes increasingly obvious they are not just literally, but emotionally, worlds apart. Bea’s struggles on earth with the problems caused by environmental disasters are meaningless to Peter, for he is consumed in the ‘reality’ of his missionary life on another planet. So consumed, it turns out, that he does not comprehend the fleshy truth of his alien acolytes, whose bodies, he belatedly discovers, are fatally fragile. Hence, the aliens have an intense interest in the religious promise of resurrection and an afterlife.
Even the news that Bea is pregnant – the most corporeal of experiences – fails to move Peter in any significant way and his detachment from ‘proper’ feelings is symptomatic of a greater loss of empathy, that unique ability humans have to put themselves in another person’s shoes.
The human personnel who live on the alien planet base lack two elements: curiosity for anything not within their present situation and sympathy for anyone outside of their immediate vicinity (and even within that vicinity little sympathy is shown when one of them dies). Unlike Mae in The Circle, this outpost has ‘switched off’ from technological interconnectedness but, in the same way, has become disconnected from all other suffering beings. They have, essentially, turned into non-humans, automatically responding without recourse to the most old-fashioned of emotions: love.
Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood’s version of our future pops up to reassure us – just as we might crumble in the misery of the Eggers and Faber dystopias – that words and stories connected with flesh, as opposed to the cold embrace of cyber-tentacles, will continue regardless of the circumstances. Her spliced-gene creations, the Crakers, in Maddaddam (2013) return to the oral storytelling traditions of the past: they gather together at the end of each day to hear the tale told of their creation, as well as the adventures of their ‘heroes’, much like people used to gather around campfires. Her depopulated earth is devoid of technology and the survivors must return to environmental lore and communion with nature, most obviously played out by a group identified as ‘God’s Gardeners’.
In the third of her Maddaddam trilogy, Atwood clearly signals her belief in the inevitability of human intimacy maintained via one-on-one storytelling: Zeb tells his life story to Toby, the woman who has loved him without hope for so long, as a testament to the need for knowledge of one another, both physical and symbolic. They must know one another in all senses of the word to attain any kind of happiness. (This is not to say the novel does not have its ambiguities. Having the Craker men and women ‘turn blue’ when they are ‘in heat’ implies a less than sympathetic eye towards current mores, as if we’d all be better off if the sexual act was separated from the notion of romantic love…)
From one perspective the ‘new’ humans Atwood dreams up present the possibility of a return to simplicity and Edenic conditions: they eat leaves, do not need clothes to protect them from insects or the sun, have no violence or fear, reproduce when necessary and have no experience of individual relationships nor the jealousy which can result. From another, their simplicity is a liability in a world full of danger and when Toby inadvertently begins to teach one of them to write, the implication is that no one can truly survive without some inscribed knowledge of their past; without preserved language. What is left, though, if there are only words and no physical connections?
At the end of the narrative, the copulation between the Crakers and three of the female God’s Gardeners, and their subsequent pregnancies (like Bea’s condition in Faber’s novel), do place natural reproduction as a rather essentialist (and commonplace) symbol of hope. Unlike Atwood’s earlier version of the future, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984) (where economically lowly women were forced into procreation due to increased infertility in the higher classes), or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) (where human clones are created to ‘donate’ their organs to others), reproductive technologies seem to have become less central to stories of our future. They are overshadowed by the more prevalent issue of everyday communication technology and the ways in which these are defining our self-knowledge and our relationships with one another’s bodies.
Both Faber and Atwood foreground in their plot resolution the reuniting of real bodies – Peter returns to earth and Bea; the Crakers physically breed with the survivor humans – while Eggers makes it clear that Mae’s decision to betray Kalden is a foolish one. All three writers have a realistic suspicion of the areas technological advances will lead us into and an anxiety about its impact on our ability to be intimate and to empathise with our fellow beings.
In writing novels, they are, by implication, fighting against the groupthink of social media, celebrating the words inside one’s head which narrative creates and which, at its most idealistic, helps us step into the shoes of others.
A character in Maddaddam describes the process of writing in this simple way:
She made these words on a page, and a page is made of paper. She made the words with writing, that she marked down with a stick called a pen, with black fluid called ink, and she made the pages join together at one side, and that is called a book. …and she showed me how to turn the marks back into a voice.
Will this step-by-step description of the process of writing and creating a paper book be needed in the not-too-distant future? These writers imply their trade is under threat from the transparent, anti-private, anti-individual babblings of the digital world. At the same time, their crafted tales fight cold, disembodied words and celebrate the whisperings of the individualised narrator.
Let’s hope that their fight is unnecessary, and their imaginings turn out to be more products of our present concerns than accurate representations of our future. A ‘mash up’ of these authors’ landscapes might look something like this: a herd of fluorescent green rabbits hop down an empty road, overhead a drone camera whirls and swirls, recording their every move to an audience long since evaporated while, in the distance, a large chunk of earth crashes into the grey sea.
* For those who are curious, she gives him a rating of one hundred, and thereby gets a good night’s sleep.