Monday, August 24, 2015

Dystopia (2012)

Book Review from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. (Orbit 2012)

The science-fiction author John Wyndham was known for his novels about the “comfy apocalypse”, where great catastrophes would wipe out all the “wrong” sort of people and lead to a renewed existence.  Ken MacLeod presents us with what could be called a comfy dystopia, where by intricate layers of pressure and compulsion a government forces people to do what it judges to be in their best interest - whether they want to or not.

The novel focuses on Hope, a woman who refuses to take “the fix” – a genetic medicine pill designed to correct any genetic defects in her unborn infant.  Everyone agrees it is in the best interest of the child and totally safe.  Yet, she still refuses, and refuses to give reasons for her refusal.  The “social and free” society cannot tolerate such a refusal in ways that are reminiscent of the totalitarian village of sixties TV show ‘The Prisoner’ (where Number Six refuses to say why he resigned from espionage).

The novel details the way in which people implement their own imprisonment (placing cameras throughout their own homes to protect them from accusations of abusing their children, for example) and how their compliance is used against them.  It is a skilful account of the ways in which surveillance technology and the erosion of civil liberties could be used to control people.  Grimly, it also shows how a sense of solidarity and of wanting to do well by our fellows can be used against us: time and again Hope is urged to comply for the sake of others, for her doctor’s insurance ratings, for the other kids at school and, ultimately, for the child in her womb.

What makes the story particularly chilling is that it is so mundane, the incidents so everyday.  There are no grand heroics or statements of high ideals, there are simply people trying to live under conditions of a claustrophobic paternalism.  It deploys a touch of SF magic, though, to suggest, ambivalently, that the outcome of such submission and control might be a form of civilisation-ending nihilism.  

The tale roots itself in contemporary preoccupations, sometimes taking a reductio ad absurdum, slippery-slope view to suggest, for example, a future fear of fourth-hand smoking.  It illustrates how, when the cheapening of the means of policing is coupled with populist demands for someone to ‘do something’ and for information to be used against people whether or not they are formally convicted, can lead to levels of control undreamt of by the old totalitarian states.  In this, it shows how technology is a dual-edged tool that can enslave as well as liberate.

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