Heaven and Hell

 
The frontier between hell and heaven is only the difference between two ways of looking at things. 
--George Bernard Shaw.
 
It is everywhere around us and nowhere to be found. Sounds like quite an enigma. However, everybody has their own version of Paradise, their own little Utopia or at least what they think might be a Utopia. For others, it would be Hell on Earth.
 
Utopia, the word, is derived from a Greek word meaning, “no place land.” The word was first coined in perhaps the most influential book describing a utopia. Utopia was written in 1516 by English lawyer and philosopher Sir Thomas More. The book is written in the form of a discussion about a fictional island with its religious, social and political customs, in effect describing, at least in the eyes of Sir Thomas More, the perfect society. The author More was later canonized as a martyr by the Catholic Church in 1935 by Pope Pius XI due to his opposition to Henry the VIII’s efforts to separate England from the Catholic Church, opposition for which he was executed in 1535. 
 
In spite of its influence, Utopia, was hardly the first tale of a utopia. One of the earliest and most famous utopias is described in The Republic, written around 380 BC, by the Greek philosopher, Plato. The ten books are written in the form of a dialogue between Plato and his teacher, the great philosopher Socrates. Plato’s ideal setting or utopian city requires the division of labour each with different rights and responsibilities, including a slave class, as well as differing education and material needs. Certainly, not something that many today would aspire to.
 
Christian utopias were a theme for many early writers as well. They probably drew some inspiration from Plato’s works but also from the Bible itself with its description of the Garden of Eden, a longing to return to that Garden once again. Christianopolis was written in 1619 by German theologian Johann Andreae about a community of Christian scholars and artisans. Dominican philosopher Tomasso Campanella, in 1602, contributed an important piece of utopian writing with his Christian utopia City of the Sun that described a unified, peaceful theocratic monarchy.
 
Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) is a somewhat satiric tale of a utopian society. If you look closely you will find that Erewhon is the word “nowhere” spelled backwards. Erewhon starts out as a utopia, but as the story moves forward the reader will see that it is a far cry from utopian. In 1887, Argentinian naturalist W. H. Hudson, wrote A Crystal Age, a tale about an ecological utopia. American author Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, (1888) wrote of a society set in the year 2000 where economic production and society were in perfect harmony. English artist and author William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890) created a critique of the bureaucratic nature of Bellamy’s utopia by creating a society where money has been abolished and the citizens work at what they enjoy leaving ample leisure time.

H. G. Wells also wrote a couple of tales about utopias. Men Like Gods (1923) is a tale of a utopia set in a parallel universe. It lacks a government, their education is their government. A Modern Utopia (1905) describes a world led by a group of volunteers known as samurai. These samurai rule a world state that encourages progression while preserving political stability.
 
Some modern speculative fiction writers have ventured into the realm of utopias. James Hilton in his 1933 Lost Horizon describes a utopian monastery, Shangri-La, isolated in the Himalayas. Citizens of the monastery enjoy an almost immortal life.  Another classic example is the Culture series by the late Iain Banks. The series is about a galaxy-wide utopian communist society of humans, aliens and advanced artificial intelligences.
 
More often than not, though, speculative fiction authors will place a twist on utopia and create a dystopia. Effectively, a dystopia is the exact opposite of a utopia often complete with totalitarian governments, dehumanizing culture and environmental disaster. However, when you think about it, even in a dystopian society, there is somebody or some group, usually the ruling class, that would see the harshest dystopia as their own vision of a utopia. Do the visions of dystopias of modern speculative fiction authors have any basis in reality? Could the stories be warnings of what is to come, or even more frightening what is happening right now?
 
Some authors have envisioned the world as we know it in the grip of a brutal totalitarian government. In a totalitarian regime, there is an attempt to control every aspect of the social life of the people from the obvious such as the economy and education, but also the art, science and even the moral code of its citizens.
 
Hardly fantasy, totalitarianism is certainly something that has had a place in human history. Two classic and real brutal examples from recent history come immediately to mind, the fascist Nazi regime of Germany and the Stalinist movement, both of the mid-twentieth century. Both were examples of totalitarian governments. Some former monarchist regimes, too, could be looked at as possibly totalitarian in nature. We also have at least one present day totalitarian government in North Korea where the leader, Kim Jong Il is supreme and worshipped almost as a god.
 
The template for totalitarian literature is George Orwell’s 1984. The title is merely a reversal of the year that the novel was published, 1948. The story depicts a particularly brutal form of totalitarianism, modeled after Stalinist Soviet Union. In the story, the world is in a perpetual state of war, government is everywhere watching the populace, dictating the reality of the day where any individualism and independent thinking is treated as a thoughtcrime. Thoughtcrime is a form of control in which people are not only restricted in their speech but in their thoughts as well.
 
Prior to Orwell’s vision, Jack London wrote of an equally if not more brutal world in The Iron Heel; it preceded Orwell’s tale by over forty years. It describes a tyrannical oligarchic government that oversees the United States.
 
Some totalitarian governments are subtler in their societal control. Such tales are well-represented in science fiction literature. One classic is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. It follows the exploits of a gang of thugs that terrorize the populace of a near future England. When one gang member is betrayed by his cronies, he finds himself arrested and forced to undergo a rigid reform program. In so doing, the book questions free will to choose between good and evil.
 
A chilling nightmare is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 which was published in 1953. Fahrenheit 451 describes with an ironic twist a world in which firemen do not put out fires, but actually set them in an effort to stamp out all books. There have been many examples of book burning to subdue the populace including during the Qin Dynasty of China (221 to 205 BC), the destruction of the library, the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad by Mongols in 1258, the destruction of the Aztec codices by Spanish conquistadors and book burning during the Nazi reign in Germany.  There is also the famous burning of an ancient library in Alexandria. There are many theories as to who actually burned the library--was it a deliberate act or an accident? Suffice it to say, a lot of the ancient knowledge that was once housed there is now gone. 
 
Equally terrifying are the theocratic totalitarian societies. We do not have to look too far for examples of this. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages ruled every aspect of an individual’s life from birth to beyond death. During the Inquisition periods, a brutality was added to the religious order of the day that can rival the most brutal repressive government today. Today it could be argued that the goals of militant Islam can be placed into the category of being called totalitarian. They utilize terrorism in their relentless quest to achieve their goals of true Islamic states.
 
Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaiden’s Tale, describes a world run by a Christian theocracy that has overthrown the American government. Fritz Lieber, in 1947, wrote of a post-apocalyptic world in Gather Darkness, where a science-based theocracy rules with machine-based “miracles,” miracles not to inspire wonder but to create fear in the citizens. We Are From the Dark, by Robert Silverberg is a story that centres around a monastic order whose faith inspires its followers to reach for the stars in order to find God. In order to control its members, though, the followers must live in guarded sanctuaries on an ecologically destroyed Earth. All transgressions as defined by the monastic rulers are met with brutal suppression. The followers’ only hope is that one day they may reach one of the Order’s interstellar colonies.
 
Another truly frightening possibility is a technological dystopia that on the surface appears to be utopia. Aldous Huxley was one of the first writers to explore a technological dystopia in his classic 1931, Brave New World. He even described it as a negative utopia. The government of the day is peaceful and the populace is stable. Resources are aplenty and nobody is wanting. Once we dig deeper we see into the reality of the society, however. Individuality has been effectively lost. Natural reproduction has ceased. Children are created and raised in hatcheries and conditioning centres. People are destined for one of five castes decided upon by the government. 
 
In Paul McCauley’s Fairyland, a medical industrial complex effectively rules the world and the populace is dominated by synthetic memory drugs, government surveillance and underground anarchists. The power is concentrated in the hands of conservative seniors who have access to life-extending technology. On the other end of the social echelon, people rely on government rations and black market technologies. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, a near future society is so mechanized that human labour is not required thus resulting in a class conflict between those who maintain the machines and those whose livelihood has been replaced by the same machines. Philip K. Dick also explored the world of a mechanized dystopia in his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the story, a bounty hunter who hunts down androids begins to question his role of hunting and killing the human androids known as replicants.
 
Frank Herbert wrote of a technological and biological dystopia with his Hellstrom’s Hive, a society of humans evolving towards a hive society or in effect, a single entity made up of many individual parts similar to hiving insects such as wasps, bees and ants.
 
Taken to its extreme, technology may one day supplant humanity altogether. We will cease to exist as individuals but become a part of the technological singularity. A technological singularity is a theoretical emergence of superintelligence through a technological means. It was first coined by mathematician John von Neumann as early as the early 1950’s. He was speaking of an acceleration of technology which would eventually result in a singularity; humanity would effectively cease to exist Essentially, we would all be equals. Would this be a true utopia? It really would depend on your definition since in a singularity our identities or individuality would be forever lost. Several authors have looked at the singularity and its implications for humanity.
 
Vernor Vinge, a computer scientist, mathematician and science fiction author sees the singularity  as a possibility through any number of technological means including artificial intelligence, biological enhancement and computer interfaces.  He writes extensively on his ideas of the singularity in his novel, Rainbow’s End. Another science fiction author, Charles Stross, in Accelerando discusses the lives of three generations of a family before, during and after a technological singularity.
 
We should always remain vigilant because totalitarianism can be just around the corner for any society. If one reads the history of how Hitler came to power in Germany we find that he quickly erased all safeguards of rights and freedoms. The United States is not immune either. The McCarthy era from 1947 to 1956 is a dark era in the history of the United States and should always serve as a reminder about how vulnerable our populace can be to the excesses of government. McCarthyism, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin who led the anti-communist crusade against America’s own citizens, was a period of time in United States history where people were suspected of disloyalty, subversion and even treason without the rules of evidence and law. In 1970, the Canadian government enacted the War Measures Act to counter the Quebec separatist terrorist organization, Front-de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) that was operating in Quebec. Through the authority of the Act, the federal government detained 497 individuals in Quebec without due process. All but 62 of the arrested were later released.
 
There is a more sinister view of totalitarianism and that is the view that democracies such as the United States and many of the Western world practice a form of government that is termed as “inverted totalitarianism.” It actually argues that we, in western society, may be experiencing a form of totalitarianism without even realizing it.  The term was coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin. It is a somewhat frightening prospect of our society. Wolin’s theory has been developed to illustrate the similarities between Nazi Germany and modern United States, hardly something that one would expect on the surface.
 
One, for example, is that in Nazi Germany, the state dominated the economy whereas in inverted totalitarianism, corporations dominate the United States with the government acting merely as a tool in the corporate arsenal. Two, the Nazis mobilized the population politically and held rallies to stimulate the population. In inverted totalitarianism, the population is in a state of permanent political apathy. Citizens are expected to vote but low electoral turnouts are the norm. Three, the Nazis mocked the principle of democracy whereas the United States maintains that it is the pinnacle of democracy serving as a model for the world.
 
Is there any validity to Wolin’s theory? Is there a truth to the idea that corporations are the true leaders in the world with governments acting as only a puppet? Interestingly enough, there is a study by a group of Swiss mathematicians that analyzed the network of corporations across the world and found that there is a core of only 1318 companies, made up mostly of financial institutions with interconnectivities with an average of 20 control links between themselves. When one adds in the 59.8% of the revenues from the companies, the analysts determined that the companies actually control about 80% of the world economy.
 
Such linkages across the world are not lost on a relative newcomer to the field of speculative fiction, in the form of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is somewhat of an enigma. On the one hand, it incorporates a technological utopia with advanced computer networks and even artificial intelligence set against a dystopian background ruled by corporations. Conflict in a cyberpunk tale often centres on the conflict between computer hackers, artificial intelligence and mega corporations against a backdrop of social upheaval. 
 
One of the first cyberpunk novels was John Brunner’s 1975 groundbreaking novel The Shockwave Rider. In a world of extensive computer interconnectedness, the hero is an escapee from a government program that seeks out gifted children that are indoctrinated in order to further the power of the state. Like many great science fiction tales, it predicted a future that is coming to pass. It developed the term of a computer “worm” to describe a computer program that can integrate and disrupt a computer network. It also speaks of a Delphi Pool which bears a close resemblance to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) controversial but now cancelled Policy Analysis Market first developed in 2003 and cancelled a year later due to a critical backlash. DARPA’s mission is to develop new technologies for military application. Its Policy Analysis Market was based on the idea of the development of online futures markets which are speculative markets that are created to make decisions. It would allow for the prediction of market prices, for example, based on the probability of certain events. It could even be adapted to predict the winner of an election with more accuracy than any opinion polls.
 
William Gibson in the 1980’s resurrected and captured the world audience with his Sprawl trilogy which includes the novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. The novels all take place in a near future where the corporation dominates and advanced technology is everywhere. Against this backdrop is a slowly evolving artificial intelligence unhindered by hard wiring. Bruce Sterling, another pioneer of cyberpunk, wrote Islands in the Net, in 1989. It describes a highly technological world dominated by seemingly peaceful delocalized networking corporations.
 
What would happen if society just collapsed altogether? The Hittite Empire of the Anatolian area disintegrated after invasion around 1180 BC. Other ancient cultures too disappeared after invading armies conquered the land including the Mycenaean Greece around 1100 BC. Others such as the Assyrian empire succumbed to numerous invasions with the final blow in the 7th century when Arab invaders conquered Mesopotamia.  The western Roman empire collapsed from constant invasion at its borders but was probably already declining due to an apathy of its government; it had grown too large to be interested in furthering its influence and instead started to turn inward. The Anasazi of southwestern United States collapsed due to a combination of invasion and ecological disaster as did the Classical Mayans of Mexico and Central America. The predecessors of Mayans, the Olmec suffered the same fate. The inhabitants of Easter Island experienced a slow decline due to exploitation of their island home in the Pacific from their first arrival in the first century to the late 1800’s. What would replace a collapsed society? Could we create the perfect world in a societal vacuum?
 
Many speculative fiction authors have looked to the future and visioned societal decline and looked at the aftermath. Perhaps the most classic series of novels discussing societal collapse are the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Asimov suggested that the story was essentially a retelling of the Fall of the Roman Empire set in a galaxy-spanning civilization. Philip K. Dick wrote a novella entitled The Last of the Masters which describes a world where society has stagnated after a global anarchist revolution. In Ayn Rand’s libertarian Atlas Shrugged American society slowly collapses due to government regulation and taxation which leads to a silent rebellion of the country’s industrialists who disappear, shutting down their vital industries. In John Brunner’s multi-award winning novel Stand on Zanzibar, the world of 2010 is described as a world burdened with overpopulation leading to social stress, eugenic legislation, increasing class division and extremism.
 
Bleak as the visions of the speculative fiction authors may be, perhaps it is better to see them as a warning of what might come to pass if we remain apathetic and let world events unfold before us. Perhaps we must realize that the concept of Utopia is not possible and the striving for such a vision may drive us into the dystopian nightmares as described by the authors. We must participate in government to let it represent us. That way we can all play a role in society instead of being dominated by the corporations or special interest groups. That would approach a true utopia. We must savour our differences of thoughts and viewpoints instead of looking for uniformity in every aspect of life. We must remain ever vigilant of the potential societal impacts of our governments, religions, technologies and even our very own thoughts and belief systems.
 

Further Reading:

Arendt, Hannah. 2001. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Houghton, Mifflin.

Bernanke, Ben. 1995. The Macroeconomics of the Great Depression: A Comparative Approach. Journal of Money, Banking and Credit. 1-28.

Clardy, Alan. 2012. Galt’s Gulch: Ayn Rand’s Utopian Delusion. Utopian Studies. 23:238-262.

Diamond, Jared. 2011. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin.

Drucker, Peter. 1995. The End of Economic Man: The Origins of Totalitarianism. Transaction Publishing.

Kumar, Krishan. 1987. Utopia and Anti-utopia in Modern Times. Blackwell.

Kumar, Krishan. 1991. Utopianism. Open University Press.

Kurzwiel, Ray. 2005. The Singularity is Near. Penguin.

Manuel, Frank and Manuel, Fritzie. 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Belknap.

Mendelsohn, Everett and Nowotny, H. (eds.). 1984. Nineteen Eighty-Four: Science Between Utopia and Dystopia. Springer.  

Payne, Stanley. 1996. A History of Fascism, 1914-1945.  University of Wisconsin Press.

Olander, Dr. Joseph. et al. (eds.). 1983. No Place Else: Explorations Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Southern Illinois University Press.

Tainter, Joseph. 1990. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press.

Vierra, Patricia. 2011. Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought. Bloomsbury Academic.

Vitali, S. et al. 2011. The network of global corporate control. PloS one. 6(11):e25995.

Wolen, Sheldon. 2008. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton University Press.

Yoran, Hanan. 2011. Between Utopia and Dystopia.  Rowman and Littlefield.





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