Imagining a world where no one can be trusted
Populated by acts of nihilistic terror and domestic surveillance, Ken Macleod's fantastic new novel explores the dystopian possibilities of the present.
In a celebrated and often insightful essay on intra-generational alienation in the 2010 film The Social Network, Zadie Smith could find only one comforting connection between her ‘Person 1.0’ world (also that of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher) and the hyper-networked one of Mark Zuckerberg’s Generation 2.0. Reflecting on a scene of intensely competitive computer programming, Smith confessed to feeling some pride about this coming group of young people. ‘They’ve spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics’, the thirtysomething novelist remarked, but it ‘turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world.’
An efficient rejoinder to that dwindling band of literati who get sniffy about video games and graphic novels, perhaps, but you couldn’t help but wonder if someone would join the dots from, say, Great Expectations, Leninism, Andy Warhol, Citizen Kane through to Farmville and Instagram. Maybe Smith’s experience of being hailed as the greatest novelist of your generation while still at university, and before you’ve even completed that novel, explains the puzzling conviction that kids have somehow failed by not producing great novels or radical politics: or, indeed, that being berated or critiqued for attempting to produce these things is a sign of failure. Generation 2.0 have not only been berated by Smith’s generation (and older), but many other things: praised, venerated, protected, medicated, sexualised, feared, doomed, discussed, jilted and engaged.
It is maybe telling, given how much Generation 2.0 – talking ‘bout my generation here – has been fretted over before we’ve barely taken the stage. Our primary achievement thus far is classed as finding ever more elaborate ways to show off. Sometimes we’re a force for good – saving the planet through flash-mobs or toppling Middle Eastern regimes through ‘clicktivism’ – and sometimes we’re simply up to no good, by rioting so we can get nicer trainers or simply not giving a fuck. We’re so good at being talked about, it’s difficult not to believe the hype.
Yet, while Smith is perhaps expressing some of the growing pains of a one-time wunderkind reaching maturity, you can understand her anxiety. Generation 2.0 is not just competing with the anxiety of influence, but the anxiety of legacy. We’ve barely arrived, and yet we’re constantly encouraged to think about the coming generations: how to pay the financial, social and ecological debts of our feckless parents. Discussions around parenting increasingly invoke the neurological development of infants and babies, with prospective parents being encouraged to think about the lifestyle – rather than health – of the child in the womb and the need for early intervention to counteract social deprivation and poverty. In debates around the environment, youthful activists are encouraged to take their elders to task for crimes against future generations.
Yet, while Smith rather magnanimously concedes that the kids are better off playing with computers than attempting to top the generation-defining The Autograph Man, older heads still seem to possess more faith in the ability of imaginative fiction to compete with the digital natives. Ken Macleod’s Intrusion is set in a dystopian society, where the concern over the unborn has moved beyond mock-trial and opinion-page chatter to ideology. Yet, while its terrain lies in the future, Generation 2.0 and Person 1.0 alike – along with which ever other generation wishes to think seriously about the world today – should be berated for not giving this absorbing and depressing book due consideration.
Macleod presents us, in the best tradition of dystopian fiction, with a world only a few steps removed from our own. Iran has undergone some form of extreme secular revolution; the West and Russia are engaged in a Warm War; and London is under siege from nihilistic acts of terror from the Naxals, provoking security clamp-downs and suspensions of civil liberties.
The plot centres on one young middle-class mother, Hope Morrison, refusing to take The Fix: a miracle cure which eradicates most common genetic defects from an unborn child. Refusing to take this compulsory treatment for reasons she can’t quite explain, while simultaneously not falsely claiming a religious exemption, Hope’s stubborn refusal to submit to an unwanted intrusion into her own pregnancy serves as an entrance point into a vivid portrait of a society where adult autonomy is undermined at every turn.
Macleod, a multi-award winning sci-fi novelist, wrote Intrusion while writer-in-residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum at Edinburgh University and, as such, he is clearly keen to avoid lapsing into headline-grabbing fearmongering over eugenics or designer babies. While Macleod allows some speculation into the potential benefits of certain genetic abnormalities, the reader is never given a persuasive case for Hope’s intransigence. Her choice may have harmful impacts on others, although the policymakers seem to rely on the fears discussed by anxious parents on ParentsNet rather than a sober assessment of the risks involved.
Instead, Macleod is more interested in understanding a society where a technology could be applied to such ends, rather than technophobia per se. It is one where families, of their own choosing, are constantly monitored by cameras in their own homes, in order to defend themselves should they be accused of domestic abuse in a world where child protection trumps presumed innocence. Alcohol is prohibitively expensive, with women of childbearing age needing to provide proof of not being pregnant before purchase. At school, children are taught to report any instance of adults lying to them or encouraging them to lie. In one chilling scene, Hope is reminded that if she does not consent to The Fix, then violating the rights of the child growing inside her will render her subject to the same child protection legislation.
While written as a tense thriller, and work of imagination, Intrusion is not worth reading as an act of a paranoid, tin foil-hat libertarianism. Neither, to its considerable credit, does it attempt to portray the dystopian world here as the just desserts for a gullible and reactionary demos. Instead, it ties together existing threads and trends within society and tests the possibilities. It is a lucid and thoughtful novel which asks probing and difficult questions about what it means to have freedom, and asks how far we should let people do as they please with it? If Generation 2.0 really wishes to define itself from what has gone before, it is the kind of question we should risk being berated for asking.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.