Dystopian fiction and radical politics


Friday, October 8, 2021

The Social Network 1.0

"There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world."

-- The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster (1909)

E.M. Forster’s celebrated book A Room with a View is considered one of the greatest British novels of all time. Published in 1908, the Edwardian comedy of manners was Forster’s breakthrough novel, part of a prodigious literary output that would span decades and genres, including fiction and non-fiction, living after his death in 1970 in the form of acclaimed films, including Howards End and A Passage to India. The book describes a young British woman’s adventures in Italy and her pursuit of love within the period’s social strictures.  

One year after A Room with a View was published to wide acclaim, Forster turned his hand to a short story of a starkly different nature, The Machine Stops.

Sometime in the far future, Vashti spends most days alone in her room, wired into an elaborate worldwide electronic network. Run by “the Machine,” the network allows her to give and attend remote video lectures, and to endlessly trade “ideas” with her friends, whose messages arrive with in a clangor of bell-like notification sounds. The Machine fulfils her every need; buttons summon food, drink, even her bed. She only leaves her chair to sleep, her body atrophied from lack of use, just like all of her friends.

When Vashti’s son, Kuno, requests to see her in person, she protests that she is too busy for such distractions, but reluctantly agrees, boarding an airship. She keeps in touch with him out of pure sentimentality. According to the Machine, the duties of the parent “cease at the moment of birth,” when babies are whisked off to public nurseries.

As the airship soars over the majestic Himalayas, Vashti asks the airship attendant to cover the windows, complaining, “These mountains give me no ideas.”

Kuno, unlike his mother, is curious about the surface world, but he fails to spark her interest in his explorations. She returns to her room, and her friends, and her ideas. Years pass before she hears from Kuno again, who calls her on the network with a warning: “The Machine is stopping.” She scoffs, but soon the signs become clear. The music, transmitted over the network, begins to glitch. The air, circulated mechanically throughout the compound, goes stale. The food and water taste bad. Eventually even the bed fails to materialize when the proper button is pressed, and finally, the communication network fails, forcing the near-invalid populace to crawl out of their rooms into the hallways of the underground compound, wailing in despair.

The Machine Stops is a remarkable work. Vaulting far ahead of the steampunk contrivances of his contemporaries, Forster offers the first literary comment on social media—and its limits, subtly noting the vacuity of the “ideas” community and the flattening effect of virtual communication. When Kuno begs Vashti to visit him in person, he says, “I see something like you in this [screen], but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.”

Read the story here


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Beware John Progress

"John Progress" from The World As It Shall Be

And here you are, carried into the heart of the civilization you yearned to know. … There’s no need to be afraid.
-- John Progress, in The World as it Shall Be (1848)

Marthe and Maurice are young newlyweds living in 19th century Paris. Smitten with the idea of progress, dissatisfied with the world as it is, and intensely curious about what the future might hold, they hold each other close one night, idly wishing that they could sleep through the centuries and awake to see what wonders humanity will someday create. As they gaze out the window of their attic garret apartment, lost in such reflections, a man appears before them in an airship of “English make” surrounded by plumes of its smoke exhaust.  

“Here I am,” he announces. “You called me, and I have come!” He presents his card: “M. John Progrès, member of all the Utopian Societies of Europe, of Asia, of Africa, of Oceania, etc. etc.” Described only as a “genie,” John Progress places the lovers in suspended animation and promptly disappeared upon delivering them to the future. While they find wonders aplenty when they awake in the year 3000, Marthe and Maurice soon discover that progress also comes with a dark side.

So begins The World as it Shall Be, an 1848 novel by the French author Émile Souvestre, sometimes referred to as the first “modern” dystopian novel. This was untrue both chronologically, being preceded by at least half a dozen contenders to the title, and structurally, as the book is barely a novel, forgoing a traditional plot in favor of a travelogue through future society.

Nevertheless, The World as it Shall Be is more than just a footnote; it inaugurated several of the most important and recurring themes in dystopian literature—most importantly the perils of unchecked technological progress.

While obscure today, Souvestre was a minor literary sensation during his lifetime and immediately after his death, with “immense sales,” according to one contemporary observer, and many of his more than two dozen books and other works were translated into foreign languages and sold abroad.

Falling in the middle of his career, The World as it Shall Be depicts a future where technology has run amok and traditional social values—such as equality and brotherly love—have become meaningless catchphrases. The book’s skeletal storyline barely supports its extensive social commentary. Known for moralizing, Souvestre walks his protagonists through a long series of loosely connected vignettes depicting almost every aspect of life in the year 3000. His comprehensive review of future society is so sweeping that the book almost defies thematic classification—encompassing corruption and greed, capitalism and journalism, fashion and sexual mores.

Marthe and Maurice are increasingly horrified by what they see—a decadent utopia of unequally distributed wealth and power. The lovers are shown to a stunningly beautiful hotel, which is revealed to be made entirely from synthetic materials with a planned obsolescence of just two years. The hotel restaurant offers a dizzying menu of water selections—spring water, carbon-filtered water, rock-filtered water, a list contained in a gilt-bound volume that continues for 366 pages. Food and drink are served by machines, which cut the meat and apply sauces.

“You can see that in a really mechanized house like this one, there is no need for anyone else,” explains their host, Mr. Atout (the French word for “asset”). “Progress must aim to make life simpler, to ensure that each one lives for himself, and by himself. … Just a little more effort, and civilization will have achieved total individual freedom for everyone; every individual will be able to dispense with the services of the rest of mankind.”

This theme continues throughout the book in multiple iterations. High-speed underground and undersea transport lines relieve humanity of the burden of conversation with fellow travelers. Children are selectively bred in the manner of livestock, raised and educated in terrariums by machines in order to solve “the great problem attendant on the perpetuation of the species… the strong emotional attachment of individuals.” Life is transactional, with financial incentives for husbands to let their wives cheat on them, and children to keep their aging parents alive but in ill health.

Marthe and Maurice come to regret their wish to see the results of progress. Exhausted from their tour of the dysfunctional future, they fall into sleep, dreaming that God will send three avenging angels to raze this world and force humanity to start over “from the ruins.” John Progress never returns to rescue the ill-fated lovers from the dystopian future, but his hidden hand would shape many novels to come.

Technology plays an important role in the vast majority of dystopian stories. In most, technological innovations have been turned to the service of social malfeasance. But in some stories, like Souvestre’s, the inherent nature of technology at large creates the beating heart of a social catastrophe.


For more on technodystopia, check out J.M. Berger's new novel, Optimal, now available for pre-order.




Books/short stories read: 95

Films and TV series watched: 124


The Turner Diaries, the infamous racist dystopian novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978, including the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.

The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language, but it is not a singular artifact. The Turner Diaries is part of a genre of racist dystopian propaganda dating back to the U.S. Civil War. A new paper from J.M. Berger documents the books that directly and indirectly inspired Turner and examine the extensive violence that the novel has inspired.



The Social Network 1.0

Beware John Progress

OPTIMAL: J.M. Berger's new dystopian novel

Let the Game Do Its Work

The First Dystopia

Supergirl: Man of Steel

Deliver Us From Dystopia

When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future

The Turner Diaries on PBS American Experience

Logan's Run


J.M. Berger is an author, consultant and analyst studying extremism. He is an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague and a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. For more about Berger, click here.


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