In MONTAG's Today’s Dystopia series, our writers explore dystopian worlds of speculative fiction, and see if our world has slipped closer to the fictional one since it was published. Is our cool new technology bringing us closer to a future we’re afraid of - or is it already here?
In the second of our series that looks into yesterday’s tomorrow’s dystopias today, we take a look at one of the masters of science fiction, Arthur C Clarke, and his classic novel The City and the Stars.
Published in 1956, the story charts the journey of Alvin, a “Unique” person, as he gradually breaks the rules and the walls of Diaspar, his futuristic society, exploring the outside world as far as it will take him.
With the help of Khedron, who's – erm – the personification of futuristic tech disruption, he discovers the real history or destiny of humankind through a relentless pursuit of the truth. It’s an allegorical tale about the nature of humanity pushing the boundaries of space and understanding.
But metaphors about the human condition are for doctoral theses…. what we care about at MONTAG is how accurate those future predictions are – and how scared should we be. Clarke’s visionary futurism makes many a wild claim – but which ones actually get close to reality…?
Sagas, a virtual reality: 4 out of 5 Khedrons
We first find Alvin deep in a fully-immersive virtual reality entertainment experience known as the Sagas. These Sagas allow the citizens of Diaspar to get some thrills back in their otherwise mundane lives, facing emotions like fear, excitement and love which have long since been redundant due to the safety of their technologically-advanced world.
They can explore underground missions in which “the illusion was perfect because all the sense impressions involved were fed directly into the mind and any diverting sensations were diverted”. People were cut off from reality, living a dream, seemingly with free will, but believing they were awake, in worlds designed eons ago by artists long since forgotten.
It doesn’t take a huge leap of futuristic faith to see how close we are to this one. From the marathon gaming parlours of South Korea to the emerging VR worlds via the Candy Crush nightmares of every commute, games are already a distraction for the modern human. As they inevitably become more immersive and the psychology of addiction becomes cynically layered in, more and more of our waking hours are spent in games.
The only real difference between today’s Earth and tomorrow’s Diaspar is that our distractions are more about escaping the scary reality of the world outside rather than the mundanity of it.
Insularism: 2 out of 5 Khedrons
Speaking of scary realities, the citizens of Diaspar have an instinctive insular conservatism towards the world outside their known walls. Something in their past has caused them to look inwards and forget not only the outside world but the reason why they are scared of it in the first place.
Pick up any newspaper in any western country from the last couple of years and you’ll be able to see the parallels to today. Societies getting disrupted by the after-effects of globalisation, rising nationalism stoked by cynical fear-mongering and a lack of tolerance, understanding or even willingness to learn about other cultures is creating walls around our societies. Sometimes actual walls….
And while this seems to be becoming more and more real, for now, this is getting a 2 out of 5 rating. Perhaps foolishly, we retain some optimism about the positive, connected, globalised society. But the signs of weakness are showing and the grip on an outer, bigger reality is slipping.
But let’s leave the scary world (that’s, frankly, outside this writer’s comfort zone) of social and political psychology behind and return to tech. Good ol’ reliable tech.
The Central Computer: 3 out of 5 Khedrons
Deep below Diaspar, and controlling its every move, lies The Central Computer.
The Central Computer designs and shapes the environment for people, keeping a map of every minute change made over millions of years. It communicates with the puppet politicians and citizens with an “unmistakable accent of wisdom and authority". It even stores the memory banks where people’s consciousnesses are kept before they become reincarnated at the time of – and in the body of – the Computer’s choosing.
We’re not yet quite at a point where one single machine controls every element of our existence... but the path has been laid.
The Central Computer represents the higher intelligence that every book on AI is either excited about or petrified by. While in the book it has been designed to be seemingly benevolent, there is no question who is running the show.
We’re not yet quite at a point where one single machine controls every element of our existence (and one can certainly argue whether Alexa yet speaks with unmistakable wisdom) but the path has been laid. The only question is what form it will take and how can we shape it. (As for whether it ends up being run by Google, Amazon – or the NSA – I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.)
Telepathy: 0 out of 5 Khedrons
In contrast, the people of Lys, the mysterious, oasis-like city, chose a different path, one that is almost the diametric opposite of Diaspar. Eschewing technology in favour of a return to a more natural existence, they have evolved the power of telepathy, and with it increased empathy.
While there are some interesting advancements in brain-computer interface that may one day lead to all our thoughts being accessible through the cloud-based supercomputer (with some recent hype also pushing the conversation forward), this one seems the furthest away, despite the eyebrow-raising revelation that the US government recently tried to train an army of telepaths.
Inter- and inner-planetary travel: 1 out of 5 Khedrons
If the essence of the novel is about exploration then we couldn’t end our analysis without looking at the transport innovations that enable that and how Elon Musk (who has noted his love of Arthur C Clarke) is almost single-handedly working on this one.
Alvin’s first discovery is a link between his city of Diaspar and Lys on the other side of the planet. To get from A to B, he uses a now-abandoned underground transport system that gets him there in 40 minutes.
This system appears to be a dystopian mix of riding the London Underground (although thankfully with significantly fewer people) and the plans for the Hyperloop which – through the magic of vacuum cleaners, I think? – may radically reduce commuting times throughout the world.
More important (and exciting) than going deep underground to get to the other side of the Earth (sorry Australia), is deep space travel. A hidden spaceship that can travel to the outer reaches of the galaxy brings Alvin into contact with the answers to humanity’s journey.
Right now, however, we have to be happy when the rockets go up and come back down without exploding, so patience may be needed here.
So, how close are we to The City & The Stars' vision of the future?
Average score: 2 out of 5 Khedrons
A mere one billion years in the future, The City and the Stars takes sci-fi extrapolation to a new extreme. Yet, just sixty years after it was first published, some of these far-flung predictions don’t seem so crazy after all.
Immersive VR games, computers controlling our day-to-day lives (and maybe one day our very existence) and spaceships are all close enough to believe in. So the real question in this story is whether humanity can skip the dystopian insularism – and avoid pushing ourselves to the edge of the universe?