Class, Identity, Progress, and the Future
Authors of literature depicting the future are forced to draw upon their conceptions of the present and to imagine where it is going. Often, these concepts are developed through the process of magnifying perceived crises in the author’s time. When one considers the difficulties associated with making a living as a writer, the prevalence of concern about future economies makes sense. Parable of the Sower and The Time Machine both function as types of warning tales about future economies, though Butler and Wells differ in their concerns and visions. Likewise, “Chocco” and “Hinterlands” provide cautionary tales of how economic concerns can somehow outweigh the survival of our planet and untold human lives.
Parable was written by Octavia Butler during the early 1990s, which was a time of great social upheaval in much of the United States. Some of the changes that were occurring at the time included the move toward greater corporatization, growing wealth imbalance, exploding rates of drug usage, and urban riots. This is highlighted through the lack of social cohesion, unreliability of government, and general hardship for normal people. The general state of hardship included shortages of jobs, food, potable water, and safety. In hopes of protecting their properties and families, pockets of neighborhoods walled themselves in from each other. Despite these apocalyptic developments, the government manages to continue as an ineffective shell which is powerless to help its own people. This is a contrast to the fact that the government still manages to put humans on Mars, the merits of which are debated within the book. Another factor which cannot be ignored in Butler’s future vision is the impact of drought and climate change on the society. Food is so scarce that the protagonist, Lauren, learns to make a flour out of acorns. Lauren’s supply of acorns is ended when bandits break into her walled community and flush out its survivors. This is another repeated theme in Parable; in the process of taking from one another, the people end up destroying their vital means of production. While some people might find this to be a cynical assumption about the future, when considered through Butler’s identity and setting, it might seem more realistic.
Likewise, the concept that different classes of people will evolve into biologically different species probably seems farfetched to most people. Here, too, it is important to recognize how the author’s identity affected those visions. Being an English student and academic in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, H.G. Wells was highly exposed to the prevalent concept of Darwinism. This explains his fixation on the continued evolution of the human species, as well as one of the reasons for this novel’s vast success; the idea had hardly been explored to date. Still, this alone does not necessarily explain his vision of how the classes become separate biological species; this also required a sense of separation between the rich and the poor. This concern was borne from other authors of the era, such as Karl Marx and William Morris. Like Darwinism, these concerns about the directions and equitability of society pervaded the era. For Wells, these concerns became somewhat merged in his membership and participation of the Society of Fabian Socialists. Wells’ membership in this elite group of academics and socialites probably informed his vision of class separation being inevitable. In a similar fashion, the idea that one group of humans would take the responsibility for caring for and managing the rest probably comes from this association.
Though both Butler and Wells are shown to be highly effected by the settings in which they lived, Butler’s future vision is much more oriented towards social survival, with changes being necessary within the individual. While one would assume that survival in times of hardship would require savagery, the author defies expectations by introducing Lauren’s hyperempathy. In a book review titled “The Intuition of the Future,” Jerry Phillips aptly describes the problem, saying “The social disintegration brought on by a market system, based squarely on the competitive drive for profits, with all else going to the wall, leads to the erosion of moral community.” Phillips’ description of hyperempathy and its role as “… a symbolic negation of the psychopathology of atomized, corporate society.” In Butler’s future vision, the problems are matters of ethics, whereas in Wells’ vision the problem is more about stratification.
A few things stand out about Wells’s future vision regarding class. First, considering the man’s humble upbringing, the protagonist and the author both seem to identify with the Eloi, or the future vision of the upper-class. More importantly, the future earth is not dominated by the upper class, but by the evolved workers, in the Morlocks. At first glance, this plot element seems to affirm the Marxist perspective, that workers will rise and overcome the idle elites; but, it is important to remember how far into the future that the Time Traveler went. The existence of abandoned buildings, decaying statues, and lost knowledge indicate that a utopian society has already come and gone. As Matthew Taunton notes in his article “Class in the Time Machine,” “This profoundly pessimistic vision of the future, then, expresses not only Wells’s horror at the realities of 19th-century class relations, but also his fears about what utopian socialism and communism were offering in their place.” Beyond this, it can be said that The Time Machine represents a sort of post-utopian narrative; Wells concludes that the achievement of utopia can only be followed by social and intellectual decay, as wits and self-preservation are traits that are refined in relation to their necessary towards survival.
In “Hinterlands,” William Gibson considers the economic impact of a future where humans are contacted by aliens. The effect that he envisions this having seems very akin to the experiences of indigenous peoples who have had the misfortune to interact with technologically superior and spiritually inferior Westerners. In Gibson’s vision, 70 percent of the returnees from alien contact commit suicide. Somehow despite this fact, the Highway, which is the portal through which travelers go to the alien world, remains busy with returnees, who are generally expected to last less than three days before they kill themselves. Ultimately, this job is so hopeless and depressing that nearly everybody involved in the short story is using heavy drugs and eventually attempts suicide. Despite this nasty truth, the uglier truth is that the pursuit of alien technologies (probably for the sake of money) outweighs the waste of human life to the multinational corporations involved in the trade. Although it uses a different future narrative format, Gibson’s vision has a startling similarity to Callenbach’s account of the Machine people in “Chocco.”
In Gibson’s story, the Machine People lived in a society that is identical to our own. Their lack of concern for the environment and their societal structures (or their preoccupation with making ends meet) prevented them from making the changes that would have been necessary to keep their civilization thriving. Hierarchical relationships and the constant state of competition for money and resources eventually led to war, once the planet could not sustain the ten billion human inhabitants on Earth. Although it is not clear within the text, an imaginative reader might assume that the resource demands and collateral damage of war further depleted the means of production that would ordinarily be used for the support of human life.
Considering that Wells lived during the age of Industrialization and expansion of Western influence, it makes sense that he could not imagine the economic or ecological situations which we face today. During his lifetime, there always seemed to be new markets and resources to exploit. The ever-growing world seemed capable of eternally supporting greater demand for resources and assets. Today, though, we are nearing the end of the viability of our own financial and economic systems. The debt-based currency system necessitates that there is always more debt than currency in circulation. While some economists will argue that cheap labor and competition are positive things for our economy, the present reality is that things are only improving for a small minority of people. Likewise, the continued development of previously idle lands has not decreased the cost of housing for most people in the Western world. Quite the opposite has happened, rather. Every quarter, the bottom 96% of American workers are spending a greater amount of their income on basic living necessities. The increase in the cost of living has not been justified with the improvement or enhancement of goods or services. This pressure on the bottom 96% to give labor in order to produce fiat currency for payment keeps people from having the time or the inclination to contribute to a positive change.
Unfortunately, the current landscape of tightening economic conditions is forcing individuals and institutions to search for new places for yield. Wolf Richter reports that “ Revolving credit outstanding of $1 trillion, spread over 117.72 million households, would amount to $8,300 per household. But many households do not carry interest-bearing credit card debt; they pay their cards off in full every month. Finance charges are concentrated on households that use this form of debt to finance their spending and that cannot pay off their balances every month. Many of these households are already strung out and are among the least able to afford higher interest payments.” One of the places where people are trying to make a buck (or some more valuable equivalent of it) is in Bitcoin. While the cryptocurrency revolution might seem like a positive thing for some people, it has the potential to increase our global demand for and usage of energy. According to Anthony Cuthbertson of Newsweek, “Analysis of how much energy it currently requires to mine bitcoin suggest that it is greater than the current energy consumption of 159 individual countries, including Ireland, Nigeria and Uruguay. The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index by cryptocurrency platform Digiconomist puts the usage on a par with Denmark, consuming 33 terawatts of electricity annually.” Considering that the mining for Bitcoin will continue until the production is maxed out, this phenomenon has the potential to waste an even larger amount of energy in the coming years. Regardless
Phillips, Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler's ‘Parable of the Sower.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 35, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 299–311. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1346188.