Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

Isaac Asimov’s classic 1954 novel The Caves of Steel might not sound very relevant to this blog but bear with me.

The Caves of Steel is usually considered to be important and interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a crucial book in Asimov’s famous robot cycle. Secondly, it’s a genre hybrid – it’s both a science fiction novel and a traditional fair-play puzzle-plot murder mystery. And it’s a rare example of a novel that is a success in both genres.

There is a third reason why this book should be celebrated. It’s an extremely interesting dystopian novel with very strong political overtones. I personally don’t agree with Asimov’s politics but he was an intelligent liberal (yes such creatures once walked the Earth) and his work has been immensely influential.

The future Earth of the novel is massively overpopulated. Almost everyone lives in enormous cities. It’s a world that makes the world of Orwell’s 1984 seem benign and even idyllic. Food is in short supply (the rationing is nightmarish in its pettiness) but living space is in even shorter supply. There is zero privacy. Zero. Even high status individuals do not have bathrooms. A washbasin is considered to be an almost unimaginable luxury. Absolute social conformity is enforced. This is the soft totalitarianism of Brave New World but combined with the squalor and misery of 1984. There is an all-pervading atmosphere of resignation and pessimism.

It’s fascinating to see overpopulation hysteria in such a fully developed form as early as 1954.

Of course being a science fiction writer of the golden age Asimov saw the answer to the problem as lying in the colonisation of space. This is something that has always seemed rather fanciful to me.

Leaving aside the overpopulation hysteria it’s a fine example of what I would consider to be a plausible dystopia, enforced by propaganda rather than overt repression. And it’s an interesting look at the psychological consequences of soft totalitarianism – the way people end up not even contemplating rebellion because they can’t even imagine doing such a thing (or even thinking such thoughts).

It’s also actually a very entertaining book and while there’s plenty to disagree with it is an interesting example of intelligent dystopian science fiction. And the murder mystery part is fun.

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Orwell vs Huxley

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

In a comment to my earlier post jvc expressed surprise that I thought Huxley’s Brave New World predicted out current situation more accurately than Orwell’s 1984. I can see where jvc is coming from. I probably should explain my view in more depth.

Obviously both Huxley and Orwell were remarkably prescient. Between the two of them they predicted the present state of society almost completely. Both authors missed things but what’s interesting is that the points that Huxley missed Orwell picked up n and the points that Orwell were covered by Huxley.

Huxley’s future was a world of unlimited material prosperity while Orwell foresaw grinding poverty and chronic shortages (Orwell was obviously very impressed by the low-level soul-destroying misery of rationing in post-war Britain). So far Huxley has been proved right, up to a point at least. Even as it has drifted slowly towards totalitarianism the West has maintained material living standards quite impressively. There are some caveats I should add. Huxley thought that technology would provide vast material prosperity and almost unlimited leisure. We haven’t really seen that unlimited leisure yet. And the prosperity we do have is maintained by credit and no-one really knows if that can be sustained in the long term.

And wealth is today very unevenly distributed, which Huxley didn’t predict. Orwell expected a tiny wealthy elite, the Inner Party, with everyone else living a fairly poverty-stricken existence. In the modern West there is certainly relative poverty and some actual poverty (which is increasing). But contrary to Orwell’s prediction there are a very large number people living in luxury. Rather than a tiny rich elite we have maybe half the country doing very nicely and half the country struggling. Whether that will end up being a stable situation remains to be seen.

Eric Blair AKA George Orwell (1903-1950)

Where I feel Orwell really got it wrong was his assumption that power in a totalitarianism would be exercised openly, that coercion would be overt and brutal and that the violence that sustained the system would be on open display. His famous vision of a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Huxley’s totalitarianism is essentially voluntary totalitarianism. In Brave New World the citizens welcome their oppression. They don’t want freedom. The very idea frightens them. They want to be told what to do. They have lots of material goodies and they can have sex in unlimited quantity and unlimited variety. Huxley realised that people would gladly give up all their political and legal freedoms in exchange for sexual freedom and consumer goods.

And that is exactly what has happened. The sad truth is that most people in the modern West do not care about all those freedoms that classical liberals used to get so excited about. Most modern westerners understand that democracy is a charade. They don’t care. They really don’t care. Which could of course suggest that the classical liberals had no understanding whatsoever of what makes people tick and that democracy never was particularly important anyway.

In Huxley’s future power is exercised in subtle ways. There might be an iron fist in the velvet glove but it is never seen and it is not needed. There is coercion certainly but mostly people are happy to conform.

And that is pretty much what we have today. It’s depressing but most people are happy to conform. As in Brave New World they drug themselves with sex and happy pills and they don’t even realise how empty their lives are. They don’t miss all the things we’ve lost over the pasty half century because they don’t know about those things. Millennials have never lived in a society in which you can say that you think. They can’t imagine it and if they try to imagine it it makes them cry. They have lots of nice shiny toys to play with and non-threatening movies and lots of porn and they have apps so they can have anonymous sex with total strangers. They can’t imagine anything better than that. And if you suggest to them that maybe there is something more to life that makes them cry as well.

We don’t have the complete despair of Orwell’s future. That despair only affects the tiny red-pilled minority. What we have society-wide is the blankness of Huxley’s vision. A bland empty face staring at us, forever.

The Machine Stops

I’ve posted a review of E. M. Forster’s fascinating 1909 science fiction short story, The Machine Stops, at my book blog.

The Machine Stops has been credited (with some justification) as being the first story to predict the internet, and social networking. More importantly it is uncannily and disturbingly accurate in predicting the social consequences of such developments.

It is also an uncannily accurate prediction of so many of the characteristics of early 21st century life that are of concern to those who value tradition and view progress with scepticism.

It was written as a counter to the socialist utopianism of the science fiction of H. G. Wells, of which Forster very strongly disapproved.

It’s one of the first great dystopian science fiction tales and an intriguing anticipation of the soft totalitarianism of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Here’s the link to my review.