Free Your Mind (And The Rest Will Follow?)

by Neville Morley on May 8, 2017

If the world is burning, and the walls of western civilization are collapsing around our ears, what exactly is the point of devoting time not only to reading speculative fiction – that might be understood, if not necessarily excused, as a temporary escape from contemporary horrors – but to discussing it in a learned manner? Surely our intellectual energies should be focused on the real problems that confront us, not on the imaginary problems of an imagined future? But, the answer may come, of course these are really our problems; extrapolated and magnified and taken to extremes, but still recognisably versions of the issues we face. Still, time is short; surely a more direct engagement with this world is what’s needed, to have any hope of real solutions?

Friedrich Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen was written at another moment of world, or at least European, crisis; he turned away from the world of politics towards the art and culture of the ancient Greeks, rather than towards speculation about the future, but one might imagine similar accusations being levelled at him. The answer was that this apparent flight from the realities of the French Revolution and European reaction was a wholly political move. As Bernard Yack argued in The Longing for Total Revolution, for Schiller the failure of the Revolution to realise its ideals, and its resort to violence and horror, was to be explained by the fact that people were not yet ready for a society founded on reason and morality rather than force. It was necessary to pave the way for a new society by working on the character of the individual, working slowly towards the sort of human being fit for the moral State, even within the structures of the existing natural State:

“When the mechanic has the works of a clock to repair, he lets the wheels run down; but the living clockwork of the State must be repaired while it is in motion, and here it is a case of changing the wheels as they revolve.”

What is needed is a new sensibility, open to change. It is not so much a matter of imagining specific futures (including the future as a revival of the best bits of the Greek past, as Schiller proposed) as preparing us for a future that will be different, and will require different sorts of humans. The old order may be coming to an end, collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions – but if it persists inside people’s heads, the new order can never be born, and the possibility of a choice between socialism and barbarism (as Peter Frase has revived Rosa Luxemburg’s rhetoric for imagining the end of capitalism) will be missed by default.

It is a paradox of modernity that true change comes to be thought of as impossible; we have, after all, become accustomed to the idea of constant technological change, to the point of being frustrated by our lack of flying cars – though, as one character in Walkaway notes, we tend to see all such change as either as a taken-for-granted part of the world, or as world-changing, or as unremittingly evil, depending on when it occurs in relation to our own lifespan. But the idea that the future is expected to be different from the present, let alone the past, is understood in a terribly limited way, solely in terms of gadgets. The underlying structures of society and the basic nature of the ‘human thing’ are assumed to be constant, and mutually reinforcing – there is no imaginable alternative to a capitalism assumed to reflect innate human drives. Thus, the true battle for the future must take place in the realm of the imagination, and in speculative fiction above all.

Walkaway is explicitly concerned with the difficulty of changing the mindset of a sufficient number of people sufficiently for a new world to become possible. In the near future, ever-growing inequality and immiseration are persuading ever larger numbers of people to walk away “out of the world as it was and into the world as it could be”, and to start living the first years of a better nation – but virtually all of them retain some ties to Default, whether focused on ties of affection, lifestyle and material possessions or conventional ways of thinking. In the early part of the book, the new walkaways are given a crash course in the gift economy and its limitations, emphasising the way that people – and even the great, experienced Limpopo, to say nothing of Jimmy and his meritocrats – keep reverting to old patterns of thought.

We are offered David Graeber-esque reflections on the illusions and pretensions of modern economic thought, to encourage us to recognise that our ideas of “natural” human behaviour are not innate but learned – but also regular recognition that shaking such habit is hard. “This stuff only works in practice. In theory, it’s a mess.” “Habits didn’t die easy, they were so closely tied to her fear and fear was hardest to ignore.” “If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s a project, not an accomplishment.” The parable of what one should do after a disaster – go round to a neighbour with a covered dish of warm food, or break out the shotgun – presents two paths, and makes the consequences clear: once you’ve been a shotgun person for a while, it’s hard to imagine anything else – and then you start using phrases like ‘human nature’ to describe such behaviour. We are the descendants of generations of shotgun people; we need to open our minds to the possibility of being other.

Similar themes are developed in relation to the emergence of the post-human. Whereas William Gibson’s Sprawl sims, the Dixie Flatline and the Finn, respond to their new situation with sardonic insouciance – even if the Flatline asks to be erased at the end of the job – Doctorow wants to emphasise the terror of discovering that you’re a brain in a vat, and the difficulty of helping anyone to make that leap of self-understanding, the need to control one’s own instincts. The idea of a person being brought back, again and again, each time gradually realising not only that they are dead but that they have been brought back unsuccessfully numerous times before, is chilling – but making such a leap in thought is presented, at least tentatively, as the sole hope for the survival of humanity without destroying the ecosphere. (The technological leap is scarcely more than a McGuffin: it’s the cognitive development that matters).

Will it work, this leap to a better future? The novel offers us a cheerful closing vision of people growing new bodies or merrily abandoning the physical realm without a qualm; yes, the new world is possible, and we’ll love it when we get there. This might seem insanely optimistic and naïve, as Doctorow has one walkaway remark, but such visions are compared to someone shipwrecked in the open sea, grabbing a spar or just treading water: not optimistic but hopeful, or at least not hope-empty. What’s the alternative, given that the present mindset leaves humanity incapable of saving itself from rampant inequality and species suicide? It’s the exercise or the performance of hope; “It’s all you can do when the situation calls for pessimism.” Schiller had no real expectation that the ancient Greeks could return – but the alternative, that they were gone for good, was worse.

Does Walkaway work as a novel – if it’s understood not just as a dramatization of ideas but as an attempt at having a measurable impact on human sensibility? (Thinking of the late 18th century, I had momentary visions of a replay of the reception of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, with numerous pale young people suddenly walking off into the dead zones of capitalism rather than throwing themselves romantically off cliffs). Aesthetically, I would have preferred a less conventional narrative structure; one might have built the whole thing around the conversations between Iceweasel and Dis, gradually talking the latter into stability and acceptance of her new condition, with other themes being brought in as flashback. The switches between earnest discussions and bursts of action tend to jar; actually for me the strongest sense of peril and drama comes from the psychological conflicts of different characters, and this could have been taken further without needing to put them into extreme situations.

I suspect that I am simply too old, and/or too conventional and comfortable, to experience the feelings this book (I think) seeks to provoke – or perhaps have simply read too much, so that hearing the ideas of Graeber and Piketty being battered back and forth between characters who, for the most part, hadn’t really earned my trust or affection doesn’t really do a lot for me. For what it’s worth, I can imagine an adolescent version of myself finding this revelatory, in the way that, ahem, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was once a gateway to a whole load of ideas I hadn’t encountered before. But I have no doubt about the necessity of this kind of imaginative work, or the validity of taking the enterprise seriously.



William Timberman 05.08.17 at 2:45 pm

Yes. Awkward at best to start with a screed, clothe it only afterwards with the lineaments of gratified desire. Not the way they did it in the 19th century — or the 20th either, for that matter. Take Das Glasperlenspiel, as one example, and 1984 as another, very different one, and it’s easy enough to see how we used to do things the other way ’round.

Is this the difference between the humanist and the nerd, and if so, what does it portend for the future, or as businessmen like to say, going forward? (Businessmen, like nerds, are always going somewhere, it seems. Maybe we should lump them together and call them busynessmen, with Gates as the good prototype, Zuckerberg as the neutral one, and who — Kalanick, probably — as the bad one.)

When the way we educate smart people changes, the walls of the city shake. This may well be necessary if we’re to have any future at all worthy of our hopes, never mind our informed expectations. So — the executive summary here — I’m with you. This kind of imaginative work is necessary. Humanizing it in advance of the experiences it tries to imagine is probably a bit too much to ask. Impertinent, too, inasmuch as Doctorow will have to live in this future, and I will not.


Yankee 05.08.17 at 3:19 pm

for Schiller the failure of the Revolution to realise its ideals, and its resort to violence and horror, was to be explained by the fact that people were not yet ready for a society founded on reason and morality rather than force.

It was ever so … the Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years because they weren’t ready. Having been slaves in Egypt, they were vulnerable to the Aaronist/Golden Calf movement, etc. After Moses died they were still excessively fearful, but Joshua lead them in anyway, whereupon (according to report) they murdered everybody they could. Sorry Moses! Sorry JHWH! Try again later!

It was necessary to pave the way for a new society by working on the character of the individual

Ever so. “… the necessity of this kind of imaginative work …”


Neville Morley 05.09.17 at 7:09 am

Thanks for these comments, especially William’s. My starting point in writing this – which feels a long time ago – was a reaction to a comment on one of the posts in the Ada Palmer seminar, effectively denouncing the whole enterprise for lack of moral and political seriousness. The case for SF, and critical discussion of SF, is of course much easier to construct for a book like Walkaway, set in the near rather than distant future and explicitly rather than implicitly engaged with political, social and economic issues.

The main consequence, for the issue that interests me, is that Palmer can take the existence of a new sensibility, set of social values etc as a given, something that has already developed in the past of her future (even if one of the themes of her books is the return of the repressed, the fact that supposedly obsolete attitudes continue to assert themselves). Doctorow takes on the arguably harder task of trying to show how this new sensibility can develop, as well as pointing to the necessity of this; the outlines of this are in the novel, but I just find myself wanting more, both psychologically and aesthetically, rather than earnest discussion interspersed with flash-bang stuff.

Which is perhaps saying no more than the really unfair judgement that I’d like to read the story written by someone like Julie Zeh instead…

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