Wednesday 4 December 2013

2121 by Susan Greenfield

Unlike Helen Lewis, I was able to make my way through the entirety of Susan Greenfield's debut novel, 2121. What Helen has to say about the prose and the lack of plotting is spot-on, so I won't be expending any wordage on the book's stylistic merits. If that's the right phrase. What I'm particularly interested in are the ideas Greenfield pushes, and the trap she and many scientists and science fiction authors fall into.

Just so you know, this isn't really a novel. It's a thought experiment and polemic dressed up as one. Set in the eponymous 2121 (itself, a pun on 20:20 vision - one that Greenfield had to explain in the postface), human society has schismed. On the one hand you have the Neo-Puritans, a group of dull, grey bureaucrat-philosopher-scientists who plan everything to the nth degree. Who they marry. What they do for work. How they spend their time at home. For them, the iron cage Max Weber prattled about is less a danger and more a security blanket. And over the mountains exist others or, rather, Others. Theirs is a technologically advanced society that sees everyone plugged into their own personal VR space near enough from birth.

The two societies are irreconcilable. The NP's are dedicated to pursuing personal (and social) growth through the power of thought. The Others exist in worlds of their own, living lives of pure sensation.

The plot, such as it is, involves the NP's sending their top man - Fred - over to study The Others. The powers that be are concerned that the existence of The Others is the greatest threat to the human race. As creatures of the moment, the grey beards back at home want to know if an Other can be prised away from their technology and develop normally. When Fred arrives at a nearby Other settlement, we are told they live together in domed Dwellings (capital D). One or two are designated carers by the faceless automative mechanisms that holds their society together, and a handful of the women are tasked with giving birth (via IV treatments). But crucially, everyone barely has anything to do with one another. So addicted are they to their VR machines that they haven't the time to build any kind of social relationships. Nor is there any wish to.

The lead character on the Other side is Zelda. A middle-aged Other who can remember a time before the all-immersive VR came along, we're often treated to reminiscences about her grandparents who, as teachers, were made obsolete by advancing technology. But unlike the other, um, Others, because she has a memory and was brought up "the old way" she retains a sense of self, albeit a melancholic one.

The third protagonist is Sim, Zelda's birth-daughter and object of her maternal affections. Sim is a typical Other. She is fully immersed in the daily barrage of digital sensations, loud music and flashing lights. She is but a bundle of narcissistic sense-impressions. It is only when Fred latches on to the pair that his experiments begin and slowly, over time, Sim's cognitive abilities are boosted and a sense of self starts coming through. Yet in the mean time, Fred's isolation from NP Land sees him slip from the ingrained puritan routines. The loud music, the flashing lights, the bright clothes, the Others' "Yakawow" slip their nihilistic tendrils around his mind. Like a Ying and Yang metaphor covered in fag burns and then dragged through a hedge backwards, everything balances out as one new person is born and another is destroyed.

I don't know if 2121 is a parable of the author's own addiction to Twitter. But her account has vanished of late, so perhaps. Yet, Greenfield has form. Rather than using her celebrity science status to investigate the issue scientifically, she has inveighed against the danger our media technologies pose toward the young. Too much sensation, apparently, bludgeons and destroys young brains. The Others are merely an extrapolation of what's happening to our kids today. Since the Walkman started out on its quest to inflict humans with premature hearing loss, technology has entered into increasingly intimate relationships with us. At the risk of sounding like an extropian surfer dude, our society has long been a cybernetic one; a vast community of humans and machines that depend on each other as condition of our mutual survival. Though, of course, machines aren't self-aware. Yet.

So, yes. This is yet another trip into Terminator/Matrix territory, but without killer robots and genocidal computers. It's a warning of the sinister potentialities inside every innocent-looking Wii U, Kindle, and iPhone. As Arthur and Marilouise Kroker might put it, Greenfield's vision is the end point of a civilisation in recline. But what is at risk is not the obliteration of the planet or even of our species. It's our souls that are up for forfeit.

It's cobblers, of course. There is absolutely no sense of agency in Greenfield's book. Fred meets his demise because the loud music and flashy colours are too much. They relentlessly dissolve the boundaries of his sense of self until he becomes an indistinguishable twitching body swathed in technology, his consciousness wrecked by the sensations pouring into his mind. Likewise, Greenfield's premise is devoid of it. Society splits between those who don't want owt to do with "the screens" and those who carry on Facebookin'. There is no sense of the social uses to which we put technology, how it is and always has been used to create new experiences, enjoy life, educate, and make new connections. Yes, in the age where social media is on its way to becoming the hegemonic way we use technology to mediate our relationship with the world (as papers, radio and TV have done in the past) it is amazing that Greenfield's Others have withdrawn into pure sensation, when communication is the most ecstatic pleasure of all.

On another level, Greenfield's novel does annoy me. The NP's are dull bureaucrats. The Others are mindless hedonists. But no thought at all has been given to the sociological basis of these societies, or the social processes that drove her great schism in the first place. Well, nothing more than lifestyle choice which, sadly, is a much-invoked trick science fiction authors like to call upon when speculating about the future divisions of the human race. In his otherwise super-hard SF Eon, Greg Bear has our descendants falling out over the use of technology. Inexplicably the technophobes refer to themselves as 'Naderites'. Yes, after that Ralph Nader.

What Greenfield lacks, like so many other scientists and sci-fi authors is a sense of the sociological imagination. Scrupulous attention can be paid to the science (be it speculative or otherwise) of space travel, of astrobiology, of computing, biomedicine and, in Greenfield's case, neuroscience; but the naivete when it comes to the understanding of social dynamics, social forces, and social formations is inexcusable. It's so lacking it's embarrassing. And on all three of these levels, 2121 shows its ignorance on page after turgid page.


Anonymous said...

a few science fiction authors, such as isaac asimov in his foundation trilogy, or to a lesser extent, larry niven, tried to incorporate some sociology or social psychology into their work, but, to be frank, the sociological models they drew upon tend to be somewhat "clunky", i.e. heavily quantitative and deterministic (especially when it comes to technology), or seem based on their memories of some intro to sociology course they took as college freshmen. but they don't really write from the perspective of any deeper understanding of the social dynamics and processes or set of conditions that would make their future societies actually operate, let alone be more believable. all of which is too bad, because the combination of speculative writing with a sociological imagination could actually be a real treat to read, if done well.

Phil said...

That's why I do rate science fiction authors who do capture the sociological imagination, be they from the left (Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod) or the right (Peter F Hamilton, Richard Morgan). Curiously, all four hail from these islands ...

Anonymous said...

Am I moderated/censored? Best wishes

Phil said...


Unknown said...

Richard Morgan is *not* on the right - he is self-identified 'leftist' and anti-capitalist (of sorts). Just read his hardly subtle book, MARKET FORCES (2004).

Or the quote on his Wkipedia page: "Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses."

Perhaps not a classically Marxist approach, sure - but hardly "on the right".

Phil said...

Ah, the only Morgan sci-fi book I haven't read! I always found his Kovacs trilogy politically problematic - even if you strip out the over-the-top violence. And as for Black Man, I wrote about it a wee while ago.

guthrie said...

I just found "ALtered carbon" to be boring, pedestrian, not new and the technology of the brain transfer stuff broke the requirements of believeability, given what we know about how brains work. So I gave up.
I did find the racing car dog eat one dog to be somewhat satirical; he certinaly dind't come across as openly right wing, whereas Hamilton couldn't not be right wing if he tried.

Phil said...

But what I like about Hamilton as a writer is his clear baggage. I don't know his political history, but socialism weighs on his brain in a manner reminiscent of a nouveaux philosophes.

Mat said...

Another worth mentioning is Corey Doctorow who is I think writes in a non preachy but clearly left-libertarian influenced way and always with as much if not more of an eye on society with books like 'For the Win' and 'Makers'.

Charles Stross as well who has written several fascinating as well as entertaining thought experiments like Greenfield only with far more imagination - see 'Accelerando' for the singularity, 'Glasshouse' for a panopticon society, and the 'Family Trade' books for an externally imposed capitalist revolution