The nightmares of the past about today

One of my interests is early dystopian fiction. Dystopian fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century is a rare critter. Before then, people couldn’t realistically anticipate how the world today would end up looking. What might pass as dystopian fiction from before then is better thought of as religious screeds. This doesn’t interest me as much. Apocalyptic cults that preached an imminent demise of the world based on religious delusions have existed since time immemorial. On the other hand, fiction that portrays a society simply getting worse is difficult to encounter. The general perspective on technology was positive throughout much of the industrial revolution. There are exceptions like the Luddites, but we know about them precisely because they were exceptions.

There are a few highlights of dystopian fiction. In 1885, at age 36, John Richard Jefferies published After London. After London portrays a collapse of civilization after a natural catastrophe. The book is interesting, because it tries to portray a society that regresses after reaching a peak in complexity. People forget to read, domesticated animals evolve into wild animals again, political control over society falls apart as strongmen seize power and the world becomes an all around mess again. The book is noteworthy, because it’s one of the first novels that portrays the idea that society’s march towards ever greater complexity could enter into reverse again.

Although the book is certainly worth reading, it is nowhere near as prescient as another favorite of mine however, Paris in the twentieth century. The world knows Jules Verne as a man who preached a gospel of progress. As the industrial titans marketed new inventions to the people, Jules Verne portrayed the exciting new adventures and opportunities such machines would afford to us. After studying one of the first submarines built in France and exposed at the 1867 exposition, he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, a novel about the monsters and adventures that lie ahead of us in the depths of the ocean.

All of Verne’s novels were generally well received by his publisher except for the novel I mentioned earlier, Paris in the Twentieth Century. The publisher feared it would be difficult to believe the novel, the novel would be poorly sold and ruin his reputation. The manuscript was rejected and it was forgotten. It was finally published in 1994, you’ll struggle to find it however, because it’s the only one of his novels still subject to copyright claims. The book portrays Paris in the year 1960, as it follows a young man who tries to make his way in a society that only places value on business and technology.

The irony that is to be expected, is that the novel delivers a scathing critique of our society that is remarkably accurate. A few of the technological developments we use on a wide scale today were correctly anticipated. Entire cities are illuminated at night, cars drive around powered by internal combustion engines, computers can send messages to each other in a manner comparable to a primitive form of the internet and most notably, weapons have become so powerful and destructive as to make war unthinkable. More importantly however, the book delivers a valuable outsider perspective, from the mind of a man who lived in an era when certain habits and ideas we take for granted today were much less self-evident.

It’s the cultural critique, far more than the technological predictions, that make the book valuable. The book anticipates the emancipation of women, but rather than bringing the two genders closer together, emancipation has created a rift between us. Women have become unattractive to men. By participating in a world previously reserved to men, the women have begun to think like men. The woman of Jules Verne is cold, ambitious and cynical, focusing primarily on her career. Poetry, literature and the arts do not appeal to her. Her senses have been stunted by the masculine world of factoids, numbers, deadlines and obligations. She looks like a woman, but thinks like a man.

In Verne’s dystopia, men who pursue the arts live in disgrace. The protagonist’s uncle has become alienated from his family. The family is ashamed of him, because he spends his days working in the arts. He has a job at a library, where the sixteen year old protagonist discovers him while searching for literature in vain, finding only technical books. Here we might say that Verne made a subtle error. Our libraries are filled with literature, but nobody reads it unless obliged by his education.

Our minds are stunted, our attention spans deficient. We’ve learned to skim through articles and pages online to find the information we need. Everyone competes for our attention. There are a billion blinking buttons on your screen, a thousand Medium articles filled with pie to the sky predictions about colonies on Mars, smart blockchains and various other hypothesized innovations. If you find someone reading a book today, it’s probably going to be erotic fiction or a self-help book. To read a book might once be considered escapism, today it’s an accomplishment.

Perhaps most important to note about Verne’s work is that it reveals the impact of a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a society where your status needs to be deserved. The meritocracy generally comes into existence when people are able to achieve prominence through innovation and hard work, thereby making the presence of those who simply inherited their status intolerable to them. If you’re smart and work hard, you can elevate yourself above the average man’s mediocrity in a meritocracy. The aristocratic society seeks a theological justification for the fact that you clean someone else’s toilet. In the meritocratic society, you’re temporarily cleaning someone else’s toilet to pay your way through college.

Because most human beings seek to climb to the top if given the opportunity, a meritocracy is a society where everyone is always at work to maintain his status. The politicians are tasked with creating a society where every person can always believe they’re working on raising their own position. The politicians are tasked with ensuring that status is a product of hard work. If anyone figures out a way to escape the rat race, measures need to be taken to force them back in.

In Verne’s days there was still the remnant of a social class of leisurely aristocrats, who lived off their wealth. Keynes however proclaimed the euthanasia of the rentier class, so in contrast to the past wealth now requires hard work. The leisurely aristocrat who becomes a patron of the arts and spends his life entertaining himself and his ilk has become a thing of the past. You don’t demonstrate aristocratic class through exquisite taste any longer. The billionaire is now the guy in a grey T-shirt in a room filled with suits.

What Verne understood is the cultural impact these developments have. The Netherlands had three literary giants after the second world war, Mulisch, Reve and Hermans. There isn’t really an equivalent today, because there isn’t really room for literature that explores the human condition. The human condition is no longer explored. It’s now medicated, through self-help books and “biohacks” that fix your brain. You’re cured when you walk inside the Hamster wheel again and think you’re moving forward.

Aristocracies treat idleness as a virtue. The grass lawns of the American suburbs are descended from the grass lawns British aristocrats had, that signaled all the land they owned that didn’t have to yield crops. Tellingly perhaps, in contrast to the British grass lawns that resulted from idleness, the American grass lawn is almost always an artificial product of hard work.

The problem is that art is not the seed of wealth. Art is its fruit. We produce art when we have no obligations, when we desire to actualize what it is that we feel inside. If the house you live in belongs to the bank, if you’re always one paycheck away from eviction, if your job requires you to continually learn new skills and keep up to date on new developments, you have no time for art. Multiply this a million times over and you have a society that leaves no legacy of itself. Verne’s library should not have been devoid of literature, it should have been filled with literature that nobody has the time, energy or interest to read.

In Japan, we see the culmination of Verne’s dystopia. Sixty percent of young Japanese women insist they’re too tired to care about dating or searching a partner. Japan is a society where work has taken precedence over life, a society that can’t sustain itself because the hamster wheel that’s supposed to roll us to the top of the pyramid takes up all of our energy. We have to comprehend that our society does not so much require hard labor, but it requires us to sacrifice the autonomy of our minds. Work doesn’t end at five o’clock, you take it home with you. Our jobs and degrees become a central aspect of our identities.

I’m a socialist for pragmatic reasons. At the end of the year I’m bothered with a million questions that should not occupy my mind. I don’t want to think about what electricity contract, health insurance, or mobile phone subscription I should pick. I don’t want to waste time figuring out how to get the membership card that qualifies me for a discount at the supermarket. I want the government to make such bland decisions for me, so that I don’t have to waste my mind on such banal questions. I don’t want to live in a country with fifteen different Telecom companies, equipped with fifteen different marketing departments competing with each other in a zero-sum game, filled with fifteen different young pretty interns all of whom think that working hard will leave them with a pot of gold. I want idleness.

Verne made perhaps the most important point there is to make, which is that highly technological societies are ugly societies. Our languages are distorted into mongrelised monstrosities. When Adam Smith wrote about economic growth, he suggested that the era of economic growth would last about two centuries before it would come to an end. If it turns out to be correct and we realize that we’re stuck with what we have and are better off trying to make it tolerable than trying to get more, society might become prettier again.

The ugliness around us is tolerable to us because we don’t think it’s our permanent station in life. You’re comfortable calling yourself an Agile scrum-master because you expect to be managing a team of “Agile scrum-masters” two years from now. You’re comfortable living in a concrete box because you expect to leave it after graduating college. When there is no grand future ahead of us any longer we might start to think about making what we actually have work well for us.

Verne’s dystopia ends with a catastrophic change of the climate. Winter breaks out across Europe and our protagonist begins to dissociate himself from the environment. He is convinced that he is haunted by the demon of electricity. Confused by the bright lights at night, he stumbles deliriously through the streets of Paris, ultimately collapsing in the snow. It is implied that the severe winter has destroyed the food supplies and brought the nightmarish society Michel Dufrénoy inhabits to utter ruin.

What I find interesting about Verne’s dystopia is that it articulates a culturally conservative perspective from a rarely seen angle. Men are more blind to their environment than women. A woman adopts better to her social context, whereas men retract more into their own worlds. Verne feared that introducing women into the boring abstract world of men, would turn them into boring creatures, obsessed with abstractions. To keep her a beautiful, sensual pleasant creature, she had to be locked up in a world of beauty, sensuality and pleasantries. Expose the fragile flower to the harsh elements and she transforms into a thorny thistle, Verne feared.

Another early dystopian novel worth examining is The Inner House, by Walter Besant. That last name is familiar to you because his brother was married to Annie Besant, the well known socialist and theosophist who campaigned for Irish and Indian self-rule. Published in 1888, the Inner House is set a few centuries into the future. It portrays a society in which a group of elite scientists have cured the aging process. Besant suggests that after aging has been cured, society becomes stagnant and boring.

In Besant’s dystopia, a few non-lethal ailments persist, but aging has essentially been eradicated. Everyone maintains bodies equivalent to those of people in their early twenties. The only deaths that happen are due to homicides and accidents. Private property has been abolished, crime and violence have become nearly non-existent. The men and women dress subtly different from each other, but other than that there is no real differentiation between the genders, both fulfill the same social roles. Family ties have been abandoned, as children are raised by the state.

The faces of men have started to look very similar to each other and sexual passion seems to be dying out as well. Besant suggests, reminiscent of Verne, that sexual passion has died out because men and women have become very similar to each other. Procreation in society is forbidden to avoid overpopulation, but there is no genuine risk of overpopulation because people don’t have genuine sexual passions. In Besant’s perspective, the old society was a society where everyone fought each other, the Hobbessian concept of the war of all against all in the absence of the state. Now that the government takes care of everyone, men no longer need to protect and take care of women, so men are no longer attractive to women. Women now look and behave more like men, so women are no longer attractive to men.

The dystopian society of Besant comes to an end through a rebellion, when people rediscover the old gender norms. The men begin to fight again, the women adorn themselves with dresses and jewelry. The women are excited to hear about the men and their adventures fighting each other. Society falls apart, as people return to the old Victorian gender norms. To Besant, to be a man is to engage in violence against other men. The book is seen as anticipating Brave New World, but to me it is perhaps more an anticipation of Fight Club, the novel of Chuck Palahniuk in which men who have found material prosperity unfulfilling resort to an insurrection against society out of a nihilist yearning for adventure.

It might seem as if I am singling out early dystopian novels unfairly to make a point about our era, but we have to consider that Victorian society simply functioned differently from our society. The Victorians idolized the idea of medieval chivalry. The Victorian era stands apart in its conservative perspective on gender. Periods of gender egalitarianism in Western history are interspersed with eras of stricter segregation. What frightened the Victorians about socialist attempts at constructing utopia was the effect it would have on the relationship between men and women. If women join the labor force, if women are no longer dependent on men for sustenance, then why would the two genders still interact? The Victorian authors I mentioned here struggled to imagine how such a society might function. A woman for them is attractive because she is a sensual creature rather than a number-crunching bureaucrat, a man to them is someone who takes care of a family.

Modern academia seems to have a habit of reading older literature, not to understand and entertain the point it sought to make, but to take a thick red marker and mark the various *isms and *phobias of which the authors might be accused. I would suggest that we might benefit from genuinely entertaining the ideas that were professed in these books, rather than dismissing them out of hand as the bigotry of men and women with outdated mentalities.

There are other dystopian novels written back then that I haven’t yet mentioned, but they generally have less relevant social critique to offer about our era. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is relatively well known. It features a world where all hard labor is done by a brutish underclass, while leisurely aristocrats are taken care of above ground. The reason it struggles to be relevant today is because in our world we recognize that the bigger threat is that there wouldn’t genuinely be any labor for the underground Morlocks to engage in. The story is a product of naive extrapolation of trends that worried elites at the time, inspired by the discovery of evolution.

Other Dystopian novels from the 19th century might be seen as being in poor taste today, while struggling to deliver any genuine message of value to us. There were authors like Jerome B. Holgate, who published novels in which emancipation of slaves led to widespread miscegenation. White men in such novels would mate with black women, without the slightest bit of hesitation. The degeneration of society here is depicted as a product of the intermingling of ethnic groups. By intermingling with black people, white people in these novels are suggested to begin devoting their minds to frivolities and banalities. These novels don’t really take an effort to portray a picture of the future beyond warning about the consequences they feared would follow emancipation of the slaves. As a result, they have little of value to offer to us.

An honorable mention should go to Samuel Butler, who wrote Erewhon, which was first published in 1872. In Erewhon, Butler portrays a society in which machines grow steadily more complex, until eventually they begin to resemble a life form of their own. He suggested to his readers that the Earth was once a hot flaming ball. Anyone who observed it back then would consider it far-fetched that it might one day host various forms of life. In a similar manner, he suggests that although it might seem far-fetched to us that machines would become lifeforms themselves, it might very well happen. It’s not directly clear from the surviving material whether Butler considered this a genuine prospect to be frightened of, or perhaps a satire of Darwinian evolution. It seems to have been meant primarily as a thought exercise.

There are also a number of dystopian books that criticize the collectivism seen as intrinsic to the socialist utopias prophesied by socialist authors of the time. Generally speaking, the economy might malfunction in such books, people’s individual liberty is restricted in absurd manners and people whose mingling was seen as shocking at the time would mingle without hesitation. I won’t zoom in too much on these books, as I haven’t read them and haven’t seen evidence to suggest they might be seen as relevant to our day to day experience.

What I wish to do instead, is to consider the existential ennui that people historically feared we might come to suffer today. The modern romantic ideal is that of a man and woman whose personalities are perfectly shaped in accordance to each other. To the Victorian authors I’ve read this seems to have been an unrealistic scenario. The relation between men and women depends upon something more. A woman becomes a woman through the feminine environment she lives in, a man becomes a man because of the duties he has towards society. The lifelong romantic marriage Victorians idealized was not something they expected could be sustained in the wake of emancipation and gender equality.

In dystopian novels this leads to different outcomes. There is the asexuality of simple worker bees, who are immortal or produced by machines. In other cases, sex survives but it is severed from romance. In Brave New World children are encouraged to play sexual games with each other and nobody forms any exclusive relationship. The nuclear family as an organizing principle dies out and is replaced with an abstract organizing principle that decides upon the outcome of everyone’s lives.

There is also a sense of meaningless seen. To make life bearable and enjoyable, people are kept sedated with drugs. In Brave New World, the drug is Soma, it leaves them perfectly content. People’s dissatisfaction with their lot in life can also be addressed by terrorizing them with the prospect of an external enemy. In 1984 the people are indefinitely at war with other nations and hate a mysterious man known as Emmanuel Goldstein, who was once part of the ruling regime. The revolt in Brave New World takes on the form of unhappiness. To revolt against the nightmare means to be unhappy. It’s better to be unhappy and free than to be happy and enslaved, so it’s argued.

We can question whether this dichotomy is justified. Shouldn’t it be possible to be happy and free? It seems as if every man’s utopia reads like a bore to anyone else’s. It’s clear that it is easier to criticize what we have, than to come up with an alternative. As an example, I haven’t encountered a story so far where aging is cured without making the world a worse place. The world becomes overpopulated, people become scared of taking risks and procreation comes to an end. This is the general outcome I’ve read.

The question becomes, isn’t it possible to make today’s world a better place? Is it a lack of imagination on our part, do the laws of physics not allow it, or are the different variables configured in their optimal state? Do we need villains to have adventures and do those villains need to hurt people? Can we bring more joy into the world, without removing joy elsewhere or creating suffering? I’ve seen authors who have portrayed lives that are more exciting than ours, but I’ve seen few who have portrayed more exciting lives, in better worlds than ours.

It seems as if the hedonic baseline is inevitably zero, that happiness is like the waves we make when we throw a stone into a lake: Elevation anywhere must come at the cost of a decline elsewhere. The comment I often see from people who take anti-depressants is that it blunts their emotions. Is this how it is, is there nothing we can do to make even our own lives better? If your carelessness leaves you hit by a car, do the endorphins released simply compensate the pain you feel?

The hedonic baseline theory may be dangerous to accept, but it is equally dangerous to dismiss altogether. There are non-zero sum measures to improve society. Stop burning witches, stop throwing homosexuals off buildings and society inevitably gets better without increasing suffering elsewhere or in another form. It’s dangerous to believe otherwise. On the other hand, the hedonic baseline does exist elsewhere and should be acknowledged as such. When you satiate a desire through a simulacrum, the desire goes unfulfilled in the real world. Play video games in which you conquer the world and you’ll temporarily quench the desire to gain power in the real world, until it comes back with a vengeance when the brain realizes it fooled itself. Watch pornography and you inevitably remove your desires in the real world that should lead you to action.

Technology today has usurped the place of philosophy. Instead of making peace with death or aging, we look for ways to eliminate it. Instead of making poverty dignified, we seek to bring it to an end. If we accept the dream of progress, that the world steadily becomes objectively better, then we have to conclude that the world we were born into was evil, formed in accordance to laws that work against us. It was possible for there to be a better world, but it was not created. Imagine we discovered that a subtle tweak to the laws of physics would have objectively led to less suffering, as fewer infants would have died in their mothers’ arms. If this were the case, what purpose could there be to progress? It would be like trying to escape from the paws of a cat who is merely playing with us for its own entertainment.

On the other hand, it might be the case that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, that what we interpret as pointless suffering serves a purpose after all. In that case, all progress must be in vain too. If it’s possible for us to progress it would be part of the original plan. We think we make the world a better place, but in reality, we’re either merely following along a carefully crafted maze, or worse, going against the original plan.

There is a third possibility of course, that there is no design or purpose to the world, other than that we give to it. It is the idea that the world is fundamentally chaos, that gave birth to us through sheer chance. Although popular, this is the most disturbing conclusion of all. It is a comforting thought that there is something or someone that prevents the world from slipping into a cosmological mistake. It could be the case that you become immortal, the world accidentally gives birth to malicious artificial intelligence and you will spend eternity being tortured, for no good reason whatsoever. It could be the case that every animal in a factory farm experiences suffering equivalent to that a young child might experience under similar conditions. It could be that genetic deterioration will ensure that over generations most people gradually become mentally ill and spend a lifetime unhappy. If suffering is at its core merely a particular arrangement of a number of molecules, we might accidentally fill the universe with it for all of eternity. If there is no grand omnipotent galactic referee watching along the sidelines ready to blow his whistle, there are no limits to the amount of suffering we might give birth to.

Most of the dystopian fiction I’ve read falls into the second category. There is a natural order to the way things are. Although we can deviate from it, and inevitably will, it merely confronts us with the reality that things work the way they normally do for a reason. The society without aging teaches us the benefit of aging, as the world becomes overpopulated. The universe with an infinitely large Earth has lessons of its own to teach. Eliminate material poverty and everyone succumbs to bourgeois ennui. Make women and men equal to each other and they cease to be attracted to each other. Give everyone anti-depressants and they become happy little slaves leading pointless boring lives. Give everyone a chance to rise through the ranks of society and everyone spends every day unhappy with their lot in life.

And whenever someone looks at this shoddy situation and thinks he can imagine a better world, he ends up giving birth to a new dystopia. Make everyone equal and we find that they do not seem free. Make them free and equal and they start to seem less than human. There seems to be no escape possible. To have an adventure, there needs to be something that can be lost, there needs to be genuine suffering that is averted. Eliminate suffering from your universe and you do not describe utopia, you describe a boring world. We do not even like to read about success, unless it was preceded by painful failure. End your novel with a happy ending, because describing it in depth inevitably turns it into a disappointment. “Reader, I married him.” To say a word more reveals that even this is the start of a disappointing marriage.

The Buddhist Nirvana is not infinite bliss, because ultimately this seems impossible to us. It is simply dissociation. The world around us is recognized as illusory, we are freed from any yearnings that might cause rebirth. It seems less like a goal to strife for, more like an inevitable consequence of life itself. Inseparable from Buddhism is the fundamental assertion that the absence of joy is a price worth paying for the absence of suffering.

If there is anything dystopian literature can teach us, it is that we must inevitably accept the good together with the bad. Remove one form of suffering and you replace it with another. Remove all suffering and you take away all joy. When a new form of suffering is introduced, it brings with it an unanticipated form a pleasure. The overpopulated cities filled to the brim with neon lights seemed nightmarish to Jules Verne, to another author they are merely the location where the cyberpunk outlaws of the future struggle against the tyranny of megacorporations. And if we consider, that the authors of yesterday who prophesied today’s society warned of forms of suffering we do not ourselves experience, we must consider the distinct possibility that they might have taken delight in pleasures we can not comprehend either. If ugliness doesn’t bother you, it might be because you can’t recognize beauty.



  1. I really like this one, and good timing because I’ve been looking for a new book to read and I think I’ll give Paris in the 20th Century a shot. It’s endlessly fascinating to me that, whenever some new technology or change comes about and it has negative externalities, the general sense that people have is that it was unanticipated. Almost 100% of the time you can find a novelist or academic who was spot on.

  2. Funny, I was just talking with a friend about how I had recognized in my own life the value of suffering and that I always want to have the proper sort of negative stimulus present. That’s part of why I will always refuse to take medication for any psychological issues that I may face.

  3. I notice you chose not to include a couple of good dystopian novels in your review:
    “Iron Heel” by Jack London (1908)
    “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster (1909)

    Perhaps they were outside your scope.

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