As we’ve seen so far through the other panelists’ exploration and discussion of various technologies throughout earlier time periods, technology has impacted both life and literature in tremendous ways. However, it is the era of the 3rd Industrial Revolution – or post-humanism – where we see the genre of Sci-Fi, sometimes known as Speculative Fiction, begin to introduce a great profusion of literature that reflects on, and responds to, our hyper-technological world. These literary reactions to the technology that has become so deeply embedded in our society become, on the surface at least, visions of highly dystopic worlds.
Some of the most notable texts that embody these projected dystopias are Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik, and Octavia E. Butler’s first installment of the trilogy Lilith’s Brood, a novel aptly-named Dawn.
Philip K. Dick is well-known for his particular brand of confusing, reality-bending Science Fiction. For anyone who has read his work, or seen the recent film The Adjustment Bureau, which is based off of a short story of his, you will understand his tendency towards psychological dystopia. In Ubik, the connection between the psychological dystopia he creates and technology is undeniable. He thrusts the reader into a world of two distinct consciousnesses ruled by progressing technology: half-life, where technology has progressed to the point where bodies on the verge of death can have their consciousness preserved in something called “cold-pac”, and full-life, or what is perceived as “reality” in this novel, where life has become hyper-technological. Half-lifers inhabit an intensely confusing reality in which everything – most especially products of technology varying from automobiles, to hair gel, to cigarettes, to elevators – decays and regresses. Interpretively, we can see this fact as Dick’s assertion that the use of technology to prolong life is essentially a backward mentality; that the idea of trying to prolong life in such a restrictive state is as counterproductive as living in an existence in which we slowly eradicate every technology ever invented, at the price of our own discomfort, confusion, and inconvenience. This idea is only furthered by the reader’s realization that the half-life Dick has created in this novel is actually a collective hallucination created and maintained by a predatory force, that of the youngest and most vigorous half-lifer in the moratorium where the others lie. Both of these realms of consciousness – half and full life – are distinctly unstable, an imbalance made possible by the technology present in each. Dick creates a reality advanced to the point where technological creations have rights and can demand payment for services granted, asserting the idea that we are indebting ourselves to the technology we create, and simultaneously serving as a warning against allowing technology to control the creator. While those in full-life can communicate with their “dead” relatives in the moratorium, people on the same block even are unable to open the door to their own apartments, make coffee, or even run water without first paying the technology for its services.
Octavia Butler, writing in the late 20th century, responds to the late 19th century idea supported by paragons of science and technology, that the ills of humanity – disease, famine, war – would soon be things of the past. However, when wars soon became more, rather than less, terrible, a growing skepticism emerged. In her novel, Dawn, she illustrates how advanced technology, specifically nuclear warfare, actually destroys civilization, dooming what remains of humanity. In the novel, the surviving humans are forced to depend on the kindness of an alien species, the Oankali, who travel throughout the universe and have come to Earth, rescuing the humans, but are also determined to mingle genes with the human race they have encountered. The aliens then begin to teach the humans how to begin to build life and the human race on Earth anew, starting from the bare beginnings of civilization, with the plan of starting an alien-human hybrid community on Earth. In other words, by creating this nuclear-war-caused dystopia, technology in the novel, becomes synonymous with death. The characters must reckon not only with the technologically aided suicide of humanity, but with the daunting task of rebuilding that lies ahead of them. Unfortunately for Lilith, the main character, the people with whom she is supposed to take on the task of rebuilding civilization represent both the best and the worst of the humanity that was destroyed on Earth: brave optimists, loyal and trustworthy and intelligent humans, as well as ignorant and arrogant bigots, racists, and womanizers.
The various prejudices and pre-conceived notions about others that are illustrated in the text can only disappear once humans have successfully stepped back from themselves – something they can only do when they are willing to live and breed peacefully with and among the Oankali, a possibility that is presented as nearly impossible, with few exceptions, in Dawn. Butler, in the first installment of the trilogy, pictures a dystopia that is reinforced by humanity’s incapability to overlook surface differences or overcome their tendency toward hierarchy based on the physical. Interestingly, despite the fact that the Oankali never do anything to hurt the humans, provide them with the tools and training they need to survive, and promise to return them to their home planet, the humans are unable to accept the Oankali because of their extreme outward differences and their fear of it. One Oankali wisely remarks, “’Different is threatening to most species…different is dangerous. It might kill you. That was true to your animal ancestors and your nearest animal relatives. And it’s true for you” (186). Though this is referring to physical alterations Lilith is endowed with through powers that the Oankali have, and her human companions’ reactions to it, it also mirrors the causes for the destruction of Earth that Butler advocates. War, on Earth, is caused by the differences that arise in humanity – different ways of governing, living, being, and valuing life – and Butler posits that without the necessary tolerance, it will destroy us. Butler’s novel shows how technology is capable of great destruction, through nuclear warfare, and highlights the continuing struggle to deal with the repercussion of humanity’s irresponsibility when the damage is irreversible. The possibility of starting over comes at the even greater price of being forced to live in a dystopia where humans must reckon with the very best and worst of human nature and prejudice, as well as to interbreed with repulsive extraterrestrials.
Despite these dystopian portrayals, these texts become notable in a way that is far less often noticed, because all strangely seek to snatch utopian possibilities from the jaws of distinctly dystopian literature. However technophobic Ubik’s message might seem to be, one cannot help but notice still other technological elements in the novel—elements that seem actually utopian. Dick creates a world so technologically advanced that not only have the machines taken on new forms, responsibilities and roles, but humans have as well. Humans now actively possess talents that, even today, seem like characteristics of a futuristic being – namely telepathy, the ability to time travel, and other mind and earth defying qualities. Also, commonplace gendered and racial stereotypes are eradicated. Glen Runciter’s valued workforce team is made up of men and women of all different races and ethnicities, from the onset, each highly valued for the talents they possess, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. The gendered stereotypes of masculine and feminine outward appearance are also eradicated in this futuristic reality; one of Runciter’s team is described as, “Potbellied, squat and thick-legged… He wore fuchsia pedal-pushers, pink yakfur slippers, a snakeskin sleeveless blouse, and a ribbon in his waist-length dyed white hair” (Dick 65). There are no strict gender identities, or gender or race boundaries in Dick’s future – everyone is regarded for who they are as people, and of course, valued for the talents they possess. When looked at from this point of view, even though this same world is highly technologized to the point of discomfort, it begs the question of whether or not an atmosphere of complete tolerance would make it a worthy trade.
Arguably, Butler’s depiction of the Oankali race transcends racial, sexual and gender boundaries in a different way than the vision Dick proposes. Instead of merely visualizing a world in which old prejudices no longer matter, Butler visualizes an extraterrestrial species in which there never were. The Oankali seem a utopian race – one in which every individual contains the knowledge of their species’ entire past, in which there are multiple genders, no hierarchy exists, and desire for racial “purity” is nonexistent. More importantly, in Butler’s vision, she sees this utopian race as a force that acts on the imperfect relationships between humans, pushing them, however slowly, toward a stage of renewal in which they can broaden their cultural and societal scopes. If, “The core of the utopian impulse is a belief that life can and ought to be improved” (O’Har 483), then the Oankali, from an objective standpoint, can be considered more as angels sent to save the human race than as aliens come to destroy them. The trade becomes a truly symbiotic relationship between the Oankali and the human race. In this light, the fear of inter-breeding with the Oankali species becomes just one more prejudice, just one more human imperfection that prevents us from reaching our full potential. Ideally, interbreeding with a conscientious and utopian race would instill tolerance and acceptance in the otherwise remarkable human species. Ultimately, rebuilding the beginnings of civilization and populating a renewed Earth with a new, more enlightened species could be considered a utopian project after all, instead of a doomed dystopian future.
Butler furthers the reach of this utopian project with her suggestion that the Oankali aliens can actually be seen as possibly a kind of technology built upon different assumptions from much of Western science, including today’s genetic engineering. Genetic engineering focuses on the manipulation of genes in order to create a more enhanced or disease-free body, to replace or transform the “bad” in the body and erase its existence. The Oankali study and learn from the bad, manipulate it and utilize it so that it may function in a positive capacity; the Oankali describe the trade in the novel saying, “’We acquire new life – seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it’” (39). The Oankali’s “trade” is always mutually beneficial: they remove cancer cells from Lilith and correct her genes so she will no longer “grow cancers by accident” (30), and then study and manipulate these cancer cells they have acquired, and are able to later harness Lilith’s body’s “talent” to cause “cells to revert to an embryonic stage” (236) to save one of the alien’s lives. When the Oankali explains this phenomenon to Lilith she replies, “You mean my family problem with cancer, don’t you?” and the Oankali corrects her, stating, “It isn’t a problem anymore…It’s a gift. It has given me my life back” (236). The Oankali’s trade presents less the desire of eliminating a disease like cancer, than it does the yearning to understand it and harness its power on the most basic scientific level so it can be used for good. Butler presents a truly utopian society in which humanity’s weaknesses can be studied, corrected, and utilized as strengths.
Andre de Lorde has argued that, “Fear has always existed, and each century has stamped upon its literature the mark of the fears that tormented it, but the primitive caveman and the contemporary businessman have not shuddered for the same reasons. The sources of fear have varied, but not fear itself, which is eternal and immutable” (82). Both Dick and Butler, however, seem to assert that there are traces of light even in the dark realms that technology is capable of producing. While dystopian realities are certainly possible outcomes of theorized technologies, there is also perhaps the possibility that the finite line between technological dystopia and utopia has become blurred, and we find ourselves in a position quite like the realities that Dick creates – uncertain as to whether the situation is good or bad. The expression of our worry becomes a complicated situation.
Perhaps the shifting attitude in literature regarding technology comes as a result of the realization that without technology humanity could not have possibly progressed to the enlightened stage it has reached – a stage which is still far from perfect. Texts such as Ubik and Dawn, that intertwine dystopian and utopian ideals and destinies, reflect the idea that without the assistance of technology humanity may never reach a truly enlightened or peaceful existence. Perhaps the only way for that existence to ever come about is for technology to shatter humanity’s chimeras so a renewed human society can rebuild itself.