Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sandison, 2084 (2017)

George Sandison (ed.), 2084. Unsung Stories, 2017. Pp. 344 . ISBN 978-1-907389-53-5. £9.99.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

This is not an Orwell novel. This is not a premonition. A century on from the unforgettable 1984 becomes the title of George Sandison’s anthology auguring the future of our world. That future, foretold by writers before science fiction even existed, is a never-ending tale, changing its tools, characters and moods with regard to the epoch in which it was born. Proto-science fiction, science fiction, speculative fiction, anti-utopia and dystopia: the terms open up to the family of the fantastic telling the stories of the present time and its discontents. 2084 is no exception, but in this case it is no accident. In the introduction Sandison emphasizes how dissimilar the collection is in stark comparison with Orwell’s classic. In one sense, it is possible to recognize the truth in his words, as he elaborates on the how the world has changed since the completion of Animal Farm’s gloomy successor. Orwell’s post-war narratives were transfixed by the description of totalitarianism in the advent of the communist era. 2084 is supposed to relate to the family of Orwell’s novels arguably through what it is not, rather than what it is, becoming an adopted offspring of the timeless classic. Penned by fifteen writers, the stories in this anthology attempt to convey several different outcomes of (not so) futuristic realities that have pushed totalitarianism into a more subtle mode.

In the era of the European Union and a free passage of people and goods, restricting citizens to the confounds of one country has become a relic of the past… or so we might like to think. In the times of the communist regime, the major advocacy of the ruling countries was to keep people in so as to avoid the contamination of their minds with the ideas of the West. The icy relationship between the USA and the Soviet Union had ignited mutual distrust towards each other, as well as the citizens inhabiting both countries. The modern (and it seems also the future) fear of the enemy lingering within our borders has been extended to all the immigrants flooding the borders of European countries. This situation seems to be a catalyst for Dave Hutchison’s ‘Babylon.’ Written as a tale of a Somalian migrant on his way to Europe, this story exemplifies the Western fears of the unknown, and resonates with the current influx of newcomers from Third World countries. Coming from a Muslim background, the character epitomizes both the fear of the modern European: the fear of infiltration by the foreign power bound to destroy the status quo of the Old Continent on the cultural, and political level. No longer Soviet, or American, the enemy is a young boy, Da’uud, fleeing his country in hope of settling himself down in the new reality where he would have to remain in hiding. An arduous journey across the Aegean Sea infested by European surveillance devices is juxtaposed with the preparations preceding the stressful migration. The story is both poignant and ambivalent in its representation of the immigration problem with its political pendulum swinging between the idea of camouflaged terrorism and crude anti-immigration policies preventing all non-Europeans from entering its countries. Ironically, the beacon of hope for the objectified les miserables lies in mimicry, the abandonment of their original bodies in favor of those of the European features. How terribly this idea resonates with Hitler’s idea of the Aryan race eliminating everything that deviates from its norm? By doing so, the migrants hope to finally overtake (not cooperate with) the European countries, and use of the toxic seed cultivated in North Korea will accelerate the process. With its sole purpose to exterminate the Europeans and replace them with the future migrants, the weapon emphasizes the absurdity of the political fight. This fight, however, can be eliminated by subtle acts of terrorism which, against the original hopes of the protagonist, may become a prelude to another form of totalitarianism. As Orwell proved in his 1984, the totalitarian system is a prison from which there is no escape, and the greatest ideas are shattered against the brutality of mendacious propaganda.

Impregnating people’s minds with phony statements becomes a theme of ‘Here Comes the Flood’ by Desirina Boskovich. It is the Big Brother reality slightly resembling The Justice Park from an episode of the second season of Black Mirror. Set in the post-apocalyptic reality of a flooded world, the story portrays the life of a family whose major entertainment (and source of discord) comes from watching televised trials of people facing the most ridiculous of accusations. The decrepit condition of the city which slowly gives way to surrounding water is juxtaposed with the tragedy of Displaced Persons (aka DisPers) who are left on the brink of starvation. Introducing the climatic post-apocalypse as its background, the story intricately portrays the poignant narrow-mindedness of humanity sedating itself with kangaroo courts, lies, and politically moderated language. Teeming with emotions, the narrative unravels the vicissitudes of a multi-generational family with its oldest member, Gran, remembering the times when the marginalized DisPers were treated as terrorists and could just be shot. The mother often chastised Gran cheering for those facing the death sentence while she herself has been a victim of the system’s lies. The youngest generation seems to know the truth, but is quickly hushed by the mother for whom only one version of events is acceptable. The opinions voiced by three generations occupying the same space are so at odds with each other as if all of them spoke a foreign language. What is more, Gran, who witnesses the apocalyptic revolution, is put on trial for her quasi-crimes, facing accusations concerning her lifestyle in the capitalistic era. The scrutiny of the judge overshadows Gran’s bloody input in the formation of the televised totalitarianism, placing her on par with the impoverished DisPers. Crafty, dramatic and at times absurdly hilarious, the story echoes the fate of Orwellian Winston Smith, yet in a more relaxed manner.

The tragedy of those incriminated by the state is perhaps more poignant in Ian Hocking’s ‘Fly Away, Peter,’ picturing an elderly woman, Frau Goeth, who was deprived of everything she held dear—her husband and her newborn child. The choice of a German-sounding title and name does not seem accidental. Running a children’s home whose condition makes it doubly habitable; it is a torture place for both her, as well as the ever-changing occupants, the children of those deemed enemies of the State. Devoid of dignity, hardened and eventually killed, the children are cast into oblivion, used as mere material in the felonious clinics. The story is pervaded by the ambiance of profound soundness and ever-present tension reflected in the relations of Frau Goeth and the children. The heaviness of the scenery, a dying environment slowly euthanized by pollution, reverberates with the sounds of Frau Goeth’s and Frau Sigrid’s decaying souls. The punishment of the state, slow and sadistic as the brainwashing process presented in 1984, solidifies the image of totalitarianism as an all-conquering force capable of crushing everyone for the slightest disobedience. Its most powerful weapon, though, proves to be society itself as it rejects those who were pointed as enemies. Living in the bubble of silence and smothered anguish instills the atmosphere of encagement and hopelessness in the characters, turning them into small cogs in a large machine.

Ironically enough, human machinery proves to be the most efficient part of ‘A Good Citizen’ penned by Anne Charnock. Written in first-person narrative, the story presents the daily musings of a female fitness instructor in the country where attending fitness classes is a citizen’s duty. While performing the physical activities, the citizens are obliged to participate in weekly referendums in which issues of various gravity are discussed. The referendums, being close to meaningless surveys, do not seem to serve any particular purpose other than distraction. This may seem aggravating, especially when problems of considerable importance, such as euthanasia to life-term prisoners, are dismissed so lightly. This process reveals how quickly people can deprive themselves of freedom as it bears the weight of responsibility. As Roly puts it bluntly: “Don’t want those shitty pointless arguments in my head. Anyway, it’s one vote. What does it matter?” The heroine, on the other hand, is pedantically concerned about fulfilling her duties, even though they do not seem to increase the quality of her and her boyfriend’s lives (they both live cramped in a small, decrepit flat). Their lives operate along the same tedious routine that assumes a facade of democracy while, in truth, deprives everyone of freedom and thinking. Inundated with decisions and duties, the reality of fitness fascism is a caricature of our own, making us wonder whether our busy lives take more from us than they give.

The grim reality creeps in unnoticed to result in total obliteration. Such is a premise of E.J. Swift’s ‘The Endling Market,’ a story pinpointing the helplessness of the natural environment against human greed and arrogance. Surfacing the problem of extinction, the story revolves around the hunters who capture (on camera) the last specimens of a species in demand on the black market. The oral memoir of the hunter approached by a prospective buyer gives the story an intimate insight into the hunt, overshadowing it with the arduousness of the journey and cultural interactions. The described trip into the mountains brings to my mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the predatory character of imperialism indulging itself in the hunt for the human and animal trophies is emphasized. Swift’s short story seems to be a futuristic variation on the topic, addressing the mindlessness of human desires even in the face of obliterating the whole species. Both, “The Endling Market” and Heart of Darkness denude the aggressiveness of the systems which they criticize proving that regardless of the epoch, some things never change.

‘Glitterati’ by Oliver Langmead touches upon the matter of fashion enslavement. Hilarious, weird and provocative, this short story depicts the vicissitudes of Simone, a common office worker whose life falls under the dictates of brand and color choice. The protagonist, certain of his superiority over the so-called Unfashionables, immerses himself in his own vanity to the point of madness. The story craftfully encapsulates the spirit of the image dictatorship, indicating that success and failure in human life are more and more dependent on superficiality, leaving other, more profound values in the shadows. The protagonist’s personal credo is fashion and thus, it completely consumes him. This story somehow makes me wonder about the brand awareness of Generation Z, and how its identity is defined by the superficiality of consumerist existence. What happens when that verges on the extreme?

In her tale ‘Percepi,’ Courtia Newland takes the readers into the reality of a robocalypse. Pushed into the lowest position and made to perform the worst tasks, the robots are placed on a par with Orwellian proles, always marginalized and disdained. Being the product of marketing endorsement and manipulation, the machines become manipulators as well. The children of men, they are the result of the over-technological culture that favors illusion over reality. As a result, people become replaced by their robotic counterparts that look and behave like us, humans. It is impossible not to notice that a similar theme was exercised in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and repeated in the famous TV remake of Battlestar: Galactica (2004–9). What is shocking, however, is the fact that people not only accept the presence of robots as a given, but remain incurably passive when the machines take over every activity previously reserved to humans. Dense and confusing, the story accelerates to the point of no return, provoking the reader to exclaim: stop before it is too late!

As ‘Room 149’ indicates that when some of us are gone, the only thing remaining will be a ghost. A melancholic story by Jeff Noon describes the vicissitudes of an inspector investigating the remnants of different personalities caught and preserved on the abandoned orbital station. Half ghost story, half post-apocalypse, the narrative is pervaded by nostalgia to the point of reaching stagnation. It is a good read until you decide that the monotony of action is no longer appealing to you.

‘Degrees of Elision’ by Cassandra Khaw is a much more compelling story. Featuring a depiction of contemporary media, and its constant changeability, the story is written in an atypical manner, reminiscent of short instructions in the film making or game industry. The way in which events are presented is more important than the content itself. The storyline, which seems to be a distorted form of love story, is not the center but rather a means of expressing the media machinery hidden beneath it. Every gesture, emotion and event is part of it, always malleable; hence “[t]here is no singular truth, no fact that cannot be altered, repositioned and resold to the world.” It is marketing pushed to the limits of morality, or rather, having no morality at all. The protagonist is the person standing behind the scenes of recreating the truth, thus, it is not possible to avoid the impression of how similar he is to Winston Smith.

The camera lenses capturing reality are not the only attributes of the media. They are the controlling devices as presented in ‘The Infinite Eye’ by JP Smythe. It is, however, not so much a story about machines supervising human behavior, but rather humans controlling other humans through the machines. It becomes extremely substantial in the world in which job opportunities are scarce. Pietro, the unemployed and foreign protagonist, is cast into the jobless environment which makes him accept a random offer. Arriving at the outskirts of the city, the procedures have been explained to him as he is plugged to the network. Being able to witness the events through the street and drone cameras, he assists the police in finding and capturing criminals. Craftily evading a typical theme of robopocalypse, the narrative transports the readers into the world where a certain form of it is already in place, and the difference between a legal and illegal behavior is more than blurry.

A more straightforward and malicious take on the future events can be found in Lavie Tidhar’s ‘2084: Satoshi AD.’ The narrative tells of Narcissus, an assassin robot sent to eliminate individuals perceived as a threat to the system. An interesting choice of the name alludes to the Greek myth of Narcissus, but beauty is not the core quality the assassin shares with its mythical prototype. The futuristic Narcissus is engrossed in the role he plays never questioning his duty no matter how many lives he claims (the trait somewhat similar to that of its Greek predecessor). The link between the ancient text and the narrative of the future lies not in the general, but in the particular. The key to understanding the marriage of the Greek myth is the myth of the future impersonated by the person of Satoshi, the creator of bitcoin whom Narcissus is ordered to assassinate. The story, although schematic in the beginning, leads the readers to a satisfying finale leaving them in awe of Tidhar’s ingenuity.

A surreal story, ‘Saudade Minus One (S-1=)’ by Irenosen Okojie is a tale of a woman, Elmira, living on a farm with her husband and two stillborn children supported by machines. Oneiric and nonsensical, the narrative is a bizarre collage of Stephen King’s novels and illogical mathematics from 1984. What makes it even more awkward is that the characters in the story behave as if their lives were absolutely normal and nothing was aberrant in their human condition. This does not imply the lack of suffering—the readers may be aware of the female character’s grief expressed in the denial of her children’s death. Her husband is a common farmer and despite the fact that the couple keeps their stillborn children in a stable, the two people seem to constitute a typical marriage. Although it is not. When a red-haired boy appears on her doorstep, Elmira’s life will be turned upside down, leading to an outcome that was difficult to predict. Irenosen Okojie presents the narrative where everything is possible and the boundaries between what is human and what is mechanical are erased by the eeriness of the somewhat post-apocalyptic world.

Post-apocalypse or not, humanity has always maintained some form of social life, even after death. In ‘March, April, May’ by Malcom Devlin, the participants of The Space, the service similar to that of today’s Facebook, are trying to determine whether April, a shocking and provocative user, is truly dead (or whether she even existed in the first place). The story revolves around the influence of social media and how engrossing it may be especially for those who were raised entirely in the digital era. Facts, speculations, comments, opinions—all merge together leaving, in fact, no space to uncover the truth. Dangerously aligning with the reality surrounding us, the story depicts how strongly we may fall for the world that is becoming so much more real than reality itself.

The continuum of social media is as devastating as the fear expressed from the very first lines of Aliya Whiteley’s ‘Uniquo.’ Sadly enough, it is the fear of youth caused by something more profound than a generation gap. It is the gap measured not by age, but “the number of thoughts that you don’t yet carry around with you. An understanding of loss, and of what everything costs: those are the thoughts that make her stay inside, make her stay old.” Thus, being elderly is a kind of sickness that arises from the lack of mindless enjoyment, and thoughts of consequences. Experience measured not in wisdom, but in chasing excitement can prove to be a truly maddening roller-coaster ride.

‘Shooting an Episode,’ the story by Christopher Priest that closes the collection, delivers the Big Brother experience in the most extreme form. Reminiscent of “Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley, Priest’s narrative concentrates on the moderator of a TV show who is the person in charge of creating reality and, at the same time, the most detested persona non grata in the company. With meticulousness verging on mundanity, the protagonist describes the functioning of the company and the particulars of his job. The production of the show, the demands of the directors and the expectations of the “stars” are depicted with brutal scrutiny. Those who are active participants are “someone” while the rest of the people, the non-gamers, are just pointless figures in the medial chessboard. The protagonist seems to perceive the world through the lenses of the cameras, artificially created ideas and VR glasses. Thus, the narrative emphasizes the fact that reality can be created for the needs of the audience or directors and has little to do with truth and authenticity.

The future of 2084 is terrifying, compelling but, at the same time, hardly revolutionary. The eponymous year 2084 does not have a meaning in itself but to awake the obvious connotations with Orwell’s world. Sandison’s anthology is an interesting read, allowing the readers to ponder on the condition of reality. Why, what is a dystopia but a critique of what is already happening? For that reason, the majority of the stories do not surprise me as being a novelty in terms of ideas analyzed, nor their realization. Some of them are darker than others, more ambitious in their rendering, but often repetitive and hardly outstanding. Perhaps, it is the flaw of postmodernism that imbues the writers with an idea that nothing new can be created; perhaps, it is the nature of dystopia to be mediocre in creativity and rarely ingenious. Despite many talented voices shouting in the collection, it is difficult to find any that is unique. It may seem a bit ironic, but following reality is hardly imaginative—it is repetitive, like a rhyme in a poem or the tragedies in the history of humanity. The past, present and future are one medium that speaks the same message more or less loudly: “What has happened before will happen again. What has been done before will be done again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-18) It is for us to see that 1984 and 2084 are not just numbers. They are a warning we may fail to recognize.

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