Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Matthew De Abaitua - If Then (2015)

"She had accepted the stripe because people like her had no choice: that was the lesson of the Seizure. That was why they called it the Seizure - it was the moment when meaningful choice was taken away from the majority of people, as their labour lost its value, and they could no longer sell their time, so they had to sell emotions, relationships, access to their bodies. It had felt like the end of the world, but it wasn't. Her humiliation was familiar to the men and women who came into her library, first or second generation imigrants fleeing variations of the Seizure in their own country. The Seizure was not an apocalypse but the moment an advancing front had finally caught up with her."

"Your decisions are made six seconds before you are aware of them. What you think of as free will is post-rationalization. You live in the past, James."

In his debut novel 'The Red Men', Matthew De Abaitua examined our relationship with technology and asked probing questions about artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness. His second novel, 'If Then', is loosely connected to his previous novel - it is set in the same world, and shares a single character, Alex Drown, former Monad employee now working for the Institute - however while it shares some of the same themes and concerns it largely stands alone. Like its predecessor it is a striking and haunting work of modern science fiction, but 'If Then' speaks perhaps even more urgently to our times. The book recalls the classic post apocalyptic fiction of John Wyndham, or the lyrical evocation of an England that never was in Keith Roberts' 'Pavane', but filtered though our modern fears and concerns. It is a rigourous exploration of the nature of consciousness and how our minds are shaped by their surroundings and experiences. It is a reflection on love and marriage, and on the perils of ceding responsibility for doing the right thing. And it is a harrowing portrayal of the horrors of war and the nature of sacrifice.
   Set after The Seizure - a slow apocalypse which has resulted in the collapse of civilisation following a confluence of economic, social and political pressures - the book is set in the town of Lewes, which is now cared for by the Process, a series of algorithms that determine  every aspect of the citizens' lives. Gathering data from implants in the citizens' heads, the Process weighs up the wants and needs of every person in the town and allocates jobs, food and resources accordingly, and evicts those that it determines will cause trouble. The lives of the townspeople begin to change when James the town bailiff discovers a replica of a World War I era soldier on the outskirts of the town, and it becomes clear that the Process is preparing for war. From visiting Alex Drown and Omega John, the eccentric genius behind the Institute and the Process, James discovers that the soldier, John Hector, is a replica of a real life soldier who was involved in the formation of the Institute. Omega John is dying, and the Process is recreating the context and environment of the turmoil that created the Institute in order to create a successor so that the Process won't die with him.
   'If Then' manages to simultaneously extrapolate our current relationship to technology and imagine a world in which much of the technology we take for granted now no longer exists. Thanks to the Seizure, there's no more internet, wi-fi or mobile phones, and most technology-based jobs or middle class office jobs have been rendered obsolete. The people of Lewes have in some ways gone back to a pre-industrial lifestyle, in which everything they need, from food to clothes, is produced in the town. De Abaitua reminds us how tenuous the world we live in is, our technology fueled by nonrenewable energy sources, our lifestyles and jobs unimaginable a hundred years ago and only made possible by exploitation of cheap third world labour. However, life in Lewes is overseen by the Process. Every citizen has an implant which constantly monitors their physical, mental and emotional states and feeds this information back into the algorithms that govern the Process, and they are monitored by surveillance technology embedded in the birds, animals and trees. This is a level of surrender beyond the limits of our current existence, in which we give up our personal information to social media, internet providers and search engines, but it is clearly extrapolated form the ease with which we have made this sacrifice. The citizens of Lewes have agreed to this out of a desire for safety and certainty in a deeply uncertain world. The Process operates under the greater good; it calculates the needs and desires of the everyone in the town and ensures that these are met.
   But of course there is a flip side to this. De Abaitua portrays the restructuring of human society following the Seizure as necessary and inevitable; however he points out that surrendering control over your lives to an authority is essentially a moral cop-out. 'If Then' recognises that the greater good for some is frequently at the expense of others. This is brilliantly explores through the character of James. As the town bailiff, he is tasked with removing those that the Process has deemed to be unnecessary or dangerous. His implant is more extensive and complicated than the other citizens, and allows him, during times of eviction, to become the physical embodiment of the combined will of the town via the Process. This involves him suiting up in power armour and forcibly removing people. The entire point of this is so that the evictions can be carried out without it being anyone's fault; James and the town are ceding responsibility for their actions. This allows them to kick out anyone deemed undesirable by the Process and to not feel bad about it, despite the fact that life outside the town can mean starvation and death, and with the advent of the Process' re-enactment of World War I much worse.
   Everything comes to a head when the Process starts evicting schoolchildren. James' decision to go along with the eviction without questioning the Process is a moral failure, but he is acting under the will of the people, and his implant has made him addicted to the power armour during the eviction period. The moral failure extends to all the other citizens who sit by and let the evictions happen or who happily take part in the eviction ceremony, showing their support of the Process' will. In a particularly haunting scene, Ruth, James' wife and a school teacher, defuses a potentially violent confrontation between James and some of the citizens who don't agree with evicting the children by intervening and placing the children on the eviction cart herself. Her actions save her husband but exile the children under her care. In the evictions, 'If Then' unflinchingly explores the social dynamics involved in casting out people and ignoring other people's suffering, and the way that, for certain groups of people and especially during times of fear and crisis, society condones this to an extent.
   The book is split between James' life as the town bailiff in Lewes, followed by his experiences in the Process' recreated World War I, where he serves with John Hector as a stretcher bearer at the landing at Sulva Bay. While the former are told in the past tense and are filled with lyrical descriptions of the English countryside, the latter are told in viscerally immediate present tense and are almost overwhelmingly vivid. Omega John gained the ability, following experimental brain surgery at Sulva Bay on a sniper shot to the head, to pass on the lived experience of being in the trenches in the war, and attempted to stop it by passing on this experience to the Allied leaders. De Abaitua accomplishes something of this in theses sections, his punishing accounts of the horror and suffering of war would surely turn the most jingoistic reader into an avid pacifist. The book compares the many needless deaths of World War I to ritualistic blood sacrifices, asking what the need was for all those people to die and who could have possibly benefited from such mindless slaughter. The Institute was founded by Omega John following his experiences in the War; appropriate seeing as World War I did change the face of the 20th century and set the stage for the technological advances that would be responsible for its most infamous horrors. The recapitulation of the 20th century some hundred years later also suggests a cyclical nature to our history, an inability to escape the tragedies of the past due to being stuck in the same modes of thinking.
   James' life as a stretcher bearer is contrasted with his life as the town bailiff. As a stretcher bearer, his role is to bring help and comfort to those in pain, whereas as the bailiff he found himself ending the safety and comfort of people's lives. James finds a new sense of meaning in his new life; whilst surrounded by fear, pain and death, in his role as a stretcher bearer he has the opportunity to show compassion and kindness. James volunteered for the role of bailiff despite understanding the risks and the price of the invasive surgery because he felt he and his wife would be safer if he was closer to a position of power. His old life is motivated by fear and selfishness. Despite all the horror and the dangers the stretcher bearers face, James recognises that in that life he has the greater potential to do good and so finds it more rewarding. 'If Then' is also very much about James and Ruth's marriage. De Abaitua explores the idea of marriage as a shared experience. James and Ruth clearly love each other very much. Their relationship has weathered the Seizure and a complete change of their lifestyles, and James' memories of Ruth support him in the trenches. However they are ultimately driven apart by their experiences, after James' experiences in the War and Ruth's experiences trying to look after the children she and James evicted force them to examine the moral choices of their lives before and how their relationship actually gave them a place to hide from their moral responsibilities. Just because people love and care for each other doesn't necessarily mean that they will encourage each other to be their best, or that they will always still have a place for each other in their lives.
   The book's most indelible character is Omega John, the dying genius behind the Institute and the Process and the man whose braincells the implants are developed from. Omega John used to be John Hector before his experimental brain surgery and his experiences in the War awakened him to his full potential. He is a fascinating character because he started off as a pacifist who signed up to the war as a stretcher bearer because he still wanted to serve his fellow man even as he refused to fight, but ends his life being responsible for recreating the War and so being responsible for many people's violent deaths. Somewhere along the way his increased intelligence, his artificially extended lifespan and his god-like plans for protecting the remains of humanity have lead him to lose touch with what it means to be human, to the extent that he dresses up as one of the butcher generals his younger self would no doubt have been disgusted with. Again, De Abaitua points out the fallacy of using the greater good to justify slaughter; perhaps the new John Hector created by the new War will ensure the future survival of humanity by the continuation of the Process, but this has only been achieved by murdering thousands of innocent people.
   The idea that Omega John needs to recreate World War I in order to create a copy of himself links to the book's most intriguing concept. 'If Then' explores the idea that, as Omega John says, "The mind is a process. It's not a thing." 'If Then' asks very interesting questions about the way our minds differ from computer programmes and artificial intelligence, the extent to which we are a programming of our instincts, urges and desires. The Process operates, like a computer, as a series of algorithms, but human consciousness cannot be broken down into these. Omega John requires a recreation of the complete context surrounding himself to recreate himself because his mind is not just the meat in his head; it's how that meat interacts with its environment. It's not enough just to make a physical copy, that copy must have the same experience of being forged in the fighting of World War I in order to make it the holistic thing that it is. The creation of a single person's mind requires the wholesale creation of Sulva Bay on the coast of Lewes, huge chunks of land bulldozed and quarried to make it the correct shape, heaters hooked up to raise the ambient temperature, artificial flies created. There are links to psychogeography here, the idea that the physical surroundings influence the way people think, but in this case extended - the relationship to the environment that produced the mind is integral.
   Like 'The Red Men', 'If Then' is a vitally intelligent book that asks the difficult, probing questions we need to be asking ourselves about consciousness, morality, how we are going to live in the future and our own humanity. If it is less fast-paced and pithy than 'The Red Men', it makes up for that in De Abaitua's growing maturity as a writer. 'If Then' is a deeper, richer and more assured book, more emotionally affecting, its prose more lyrical and powerful. De Abaitua once again taps into our fears and concerns to look at where we as a people might be heading, but this time connects it back to the past and where we've come from. It is, in the best sense, a profoundly worrying novel, one that the reader's mind keeps returning to long after finishing.