This Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin died. The news broke yesterday. I don’t know what to say, but I’ve written so much about Le Guin since I started reading her work in 2009 that I thought I would just go through it and post whatever seemed appropriate here from my own notes and the quotations I’ve taken from her work. I hope that it can be taken in some way as being in honour of her. There was no one else quite like her.
Twenty Seventeen was a strange year. After the political turmoil of 2016, we started facing the repercussions of those choices, which were largely – but not exclusively – terrible. From my perspective as a citizen of the UK (albeit one who lives in Canada), the political highlight came just after 5pm EST on Thursday 8th June when, after a dispiriting build up the exit poll from the General Election revealed a hung parliament with Labour gains in extraordinary places. Nevertheless, this was not a victory (depending on how you define victory, that is); it was, however, a salient reminder that we must not give up hope, and that fighting towards a better future is always a good idea.
“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”
It’s not new to argue that Brave New World is a more threatening and likely version of the future – or our present – than Nineteen Eighty-Four, although the latter gets more attention. The above quotation comes from an article in The Guardian from earlier this week in which Andrew Postman points out that his father predicted our current state in the mid-1980s. I first encountered the argument when I was listening back through the archive of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, before I had even read Brave New World, but a while after I’d read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley, of course, thought so himself, and told Orwell as much.
In the aftermath of 2016 the world is coming to resemble a dystopia. Parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are easy to come by, hence the book’s surge in sales over the past week. But aside from the more obvious rise of authoritarian governments there is a creeping apocalypse that has long been on the horizon: the rise of the robots. It first came to my attention in the morning email by New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush, who mentioned the ascent of Benoit Hamon as a presidential hopeful for the Socialist Party in France. Hamon’s campaign promise (as reported by Bush) is that the rise of robots will fundamentally change the world of work, necessitating a tax on robots and universal basic income.
The rise of robots is far from a new story. I first encountered it in the mid-1990s in the pages of Sonic the Comic. In an early storyline based heavily, I later realised, on the Terminator franchise, the Sonic-like robot Metallix travelled through time, changing history so that they ruled the planet Mobius without contest. But this storyline, those from which it was derived, and subsequent robot conquests such as The Matrix Trilogy are not quite the story that is playing out in the modern world. These stories posit that artificial intelligence will turn on its creators and overthrow humanity, either trying to wipe us out or using us as batteries. The robot uprising against which Hamon is fighting is the mechanization of the workforce. It is much more similar to the original robot story, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.
The 1920 play is not subtle. It begins with universal robots in use all over the globe as they dramatically reduce the cost of production. The robots were created by the elder Rossum in defiance of God; they were commercialised by his nephew to make money, though some allies dreamed to “shatter the servitude of labour”. But the robots, guided by the newly designed Radius, rise up against their creators. With the robot uprising underway, their creators lament the fact that they did not create “National Robots”, in different colours and speaking different languages, who would not have been able to unionize. The robots, having defeated the human race, continue to work without orders – it is, after all, their purpose.
Many of R.U.R.’s themes remain prescient. International solidarity has always been the stumbling block of labour movements, exploited by capitalists stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. It lies behind the U.S. and Canada’s celebration of Labor Day in September instead of International Workers’ Day in May with the rest of the world. More immediately, the ‘freedom from servitude’ offered by robots necessitates the universal basic income proposed by Hamon. But workers in the modern world are not only forced to compete with robots that can produce things at half the cost. The increased surveillance made possible by other advancements in technology mean that human workers must operate like robots and limit their human interactions – eating, resting, talking – as outlined in this article by John Harris. Again, only solidarity between workers and unionization can challenge these demands.
In R.U.R., the robots are workers, unionized, international, and thus threatening to their overlords. In the modern world, workers are forced to become robots or to be replaced by them, with their every action controlled by their employers. Like many other stark and horrifying visions of the future science fiction has to offer, this one is coming true. To challenge it, we must be universal, not national, robots.
After the release of Ken Liu’s translation Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem it ended up on the reading lists of a lot of powerful people. A recent interview with US President Barack Obama in the New York Times includes his reflections on the trilogy, which he read over the last couple of years of his presidency. He commented,
“The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade.”
I found it interesting to see such a powerful figure comment on a book about the big picture, but it also reminded me of something I’d thought about the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series while reading The Dark Forest and Death’s End that hasn’t yet make it into any of my writing about those books. In these novels [SPOILERS AHEAD!], there are a number of reactions to the Trisolaran invasion, from the ETO collaborators to the Wallfacer project, but no one in the trilogy, as far as I can recall, simply denies that the invasion is happening.