Friday, July 22, 2016

2381. Book Review: The Year 200

By David Shullenberger, Los Angeles Review of Books, July 20, 2016

The observation that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism may have become a cliché, but it captures a truth about the contemporary crisis of the imagination — a truth that every new disaster movie and dystopian novel seems to reinforce. If the years after Occupy have witnessed a range of political proposals concerned with imagining the future beyond the neoliberal horizon, the cultural imaginary has, by and large, not caught up. Science fiction, the literary genre most consumed with visions of the future, is no exception. As David Higgins recently noted, “science fiction has increasingly shifted away from utopian imaginings, now either dwelling on the wonders and terrors of the technofuturistic present or forecasting inevitable apocalyptic collapse.”
There could scarcely be a more opportune moment, then, for the appearance in English of the late Cuban science fiction master Agustín de Rojas’s epic novel The Year 200. This final and most ambitious installment of a trilogy is now being published for the first time in English by Restless Books. De Rojas’s book, first published in 1990 as the Soviet Bloc collapsed, has the potential to reintroduce English-speaking readers to the suppleness, complexity, and productive ambiguities of the left-utopian tradition in science fiction. The Year 200 speaks the language of cybernetics, that mostly forgotten ancestor of Silicon Valley futurism, and reveals some of the ways in which it did and did not anticipate our present dilemmas. De Rojas’s lucid fictional world intersects with many of our contemporary technological obsessions but charges them with remarkably distinct political valences.
The Year 200 is a riveting narrative of espionage and geopolitical turmoil set 200 years after the communist Confederation has defeated the capitalist Empire. In de Rojas’s imagined communist future, the human environment is integrated with holographic virtual reality, and advanced cybernetic systems take on most of the functions of government. Yet capitalism’s defeat, we learn at the beginning of the novel, was not as final as it seemed: the Hydras, units of a secretly developed artificial intelligence network, have reawakened after lying dormant for centuries and begun to carry out a counterrevolutionary scheme programmed in the Empire’s last days. Appropriately for a book deeply engaged with transhumanist possibilities, the first “characters” to appear are in fact “bionic brains” buried beneath the Earth’s surface and “exploratory microbots” sent out by the Hydras on reconnaissance missions. De Rojas was known as a practitioner of hard SF, and the opening chapters weave meticulous technical description with briskly paced action; co-translators Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell nicely preserve the efficiency and precision of the author’s prose.
The multilayered story line quickly builds in complexity: the first human character to appear turns out to be not a human at all, but the hero of an elaborate virtual reality game streamed through a “sensoheadset” to a 10-year-old child, Bennie. De Rojas immerses us for several chapters in the lives of Bennie and his mother, Donna, the narrative’s first conventional characters. These early scenes offer the novel’s most extensive picture of everyday life in the Confederation. Single motherhood is the norm; people live in high-tech homes in pristine, bucolic spaces; household “cybernetic brains” supply every need at the snap of one’s fingers; and children spend much of their time immersed in virtual adventures. Most adults seem to be employed in one of three professions: environmental engineers (enviros) like Donna are tasked with shaping exquisite experiences to fill the unlimited free time of the world’s inhabitants. Emotional engineers (emos) work on the inner dimensions of these finely curated experiences. Psychosociologists act as therapists, charged with maintaining individual attitudes in line with collective social norms.
The book’s early chapters explore the tensions and contradictions at play in a society defined by shared, technologically enabled abundance. The Confederation has constructed what recent theorists might call an economy of affect in which the only remaining human labor is to produce, shape, and regulate experiences. The result, paradoxically, seems to be an existence that is emotionally muted, deprived of deep human connections and the real possibility of loss or struggle. For reasons that remain mostly unstated, people exist in relative solitude, at a remove from extended social networks. While this is a surprising outcome for an ostensibly collectivist society, it finds certain echoes in the present: the Confederation’s integration by way of a universal cybernetic communication platform seems to have obviated the need for physical proximity, dispersing humans into geographically isolated but hyper-connected pods. It comes as no surprise that one of the major countercultures offering an alternative to this life of technologically enabled leisure is that of the “primitives.” This group has renounced abundance and returned to a tribal hunter-gatherer existence, in order to regain the vitality and urgency that carefully engineered life in a techno-utopia seems to have sapped away. (De Rojas would not have been surprised by the appeal of Burning Man to Silicon Valley.)
De Rojas introduces radical instability into the narrative when he reveals the true nature of the Hydra project: the dissemination of capitalist agents’ preserved personalities, by means of a body-snatching enterprise strongly reminiscent of the classic films. Microbots containing the distilled essence of these agents sting their victims like mosquitos and inject the capitalist enemy into the bloodstream, from whence it proceeds to take over the frontal lobe of the brain. Donna and Bennie, our protagonists for several chapters, are obliterated in this manner and become body hosts for two rather brutal foot soldiers in the effort to retake the Earth for the Empire. The initial wave of body takeovers paves the way for a second wave, involving a distinct personality transfer technology that can transmit selves from body to body an infinite number of times; some of the agents use this method to occupy several bodies in succession, thereby avoiding detection. A triumvirate of former imperial intelligence directors manage Hydra, and they too come to occupy bodies of unfortunate Confederation inhabitants. Intrigue among these three chief conspirators, each of whom seems eager to do away with the others, adds further complications to the story. Their expedient plotting also reminds readers of the self-destructive individualism that, as historical asides inform us, brought down the Empire in the first place. De Rojas’s leading villains are caricatures, but in a manner that effectively draws a contrast between competing value systems.
The Year 200’s hero is Alice, one of the agents brought back to life and given a new body by the Hydra project. Formerly a severely disabled prodigy in the Empire’s intelligence service, Alice had also been, we learn, a double agent who passed vital information to the Confederation in the period leading up to the Empire’s demise. Her colleague, Stephen, an expert in quasi-Pavlovian techniques of “conditioning,” oversees her return to embodied existence; he also conditions an intense erotic attachment to himself into the revivified Alice, leading to one of the plot’s central conflicts. Remembering her prior ideological loyalty to communism, Alice decides to inform the Confederation government of the Hydra project. At the same time, her artificially conditioned fealty to Stephen, a chief Hydra coordinator, makes her a potentially undependable ally for the Confederation. The question of whether Alice will be able to override her conditioning and spearhead the communist counterattack hangs over much of the novel’s suspenseful middle section.
Alice’s dilemma concretizes larger questions central to de Rojas’s work. His writing reveals an abiding preoccupation with the malleability of human character and its susceptibility to techniques of conditioning. This issue, the novel reveals, had been a key point of disagreement between the Confederation and the former Empire. De Rojas writes, paraphrasing the psychosociologist Stephen, that “[the Empire’s] assumption as to the basic constancy of the human personality had also been a mistake […] [T]he communist theorists had been right. It had proved possible to alter — and alter significantly — the composition of personal values, the very focus of the meaning of life.” Having lost the struggle for geopolitical hegemony in part because of a false belief in the inextricability of capitalist individualism from human nature, the reawakened Empire must now beat the Confederation at its own game of personality engineering. “We’ll have to progressively change the mentality of these ‘effeminate eunuchs,’” one of the overseers of the revanchist project declares early on. Alice, the communist sympathizer and double agent among the forces of the Empire, becomes the first testing ground for this effort.
The enterprise of reprogramming human nature figured centrally in the Cuban Revolution, and de Rojas’s novel implicitly revisits problems famously discussed by Che Guevara in his 1965 essay “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” There, Guevara posed socialist society’s need to forge a “new man” (hombre nuevo) who would no longer respond to the incentives of individual material gain and would instead be motivated by a commitment to the good of the collective. According to Guevara, the prototype of this new personality had already emerged spontaneously out of the guerrilla struggle against Batista, and the task of the new government was to universalize it among the country’s citizens. De Rojas’s fascination with this set of themes also shapes his novel A Legend of the Future (also published in English by Restless last year), in which interplanetary space travel becomes an experiment in social engineering. The spaceship crew members in Legend forge a collective so tightly unified that they and their ship’s AI system ultimately come to form a single psychic organism. In The Year 200, which takes place centuries later, readers learn through several asides that the Confederation has suppressed such social experiments — but it does not become clear why until the final chapters.
By the middle of de Rojas’s novel, the capitalist counterrevolutionaries seem poised to triumph, having occupied dozens of bodies and infiltrated the ranks of the psychosociologists, the closest the Confederation has to a secret police. Their progress is in part due to the complacency of the Confederation’s inhabitants, a quality castigated by the double agent Alice after she finally makes contact with the communist state’s ruling council. Even after she details the threat posed by Hydra, she complains, “they entertain themselves and [make] convivial conversation while they eat exotic delicacies, not showing the slightest disquiet […] as if it were just another game and not a mortal threat.” Can a utopia defend itself? The inhabitants of the Confederation have been successfully conditioned over centuries to eschew struggle, conflict, and ambition, and as a result, they seem incapable of mounting an effective response to the Empire’s return. Having reached the end of history, the citizens of this placid communist society have no appetite for the class struggle.
Alice’s key ally in the struggle to save the Confederation is another outsider: Maya, a member of the “cybo” counterculture. The cybos are the inverse of the “primitives” and another group tolerated but not fully accepted by the mainstream of the Confederation. They are what we would today call cyborgs, or transhumanists: they have opted to merge their bodies fully with technology and thereby developed advanced capacities for telepathy and thought suggestion, as well as a hyper-rapid cognitive processing ability. The Confederation has confined the cybos to an isolated region and obliged them to maintain a distance from the general population — again, for reasons that remain mostly obscure until the very end of the novel — but it calls upon their help in the struggle against the capitalist invaders.
Maya, along with Alice, infiltrates the Hydra project, and the climactic chapters of the novel pit her against the Empire’s top agents in a drawn-out sequence of psychological guerrilla warfare. De Rojas’s skill at building suspense across crisp action sequences is on full display in this part of the novel. More surprising is the way he riffs in a postmodern manner on heterogeneous literary traditions, especially by setting the entire sequence in a virtual-reality simulacrum of a gothic castle: an abandoned children’s theme park used as a base by the Empire’s agents. It is an outrageously bizarre backdrop for an apparently solemn struggle over the fate of civilization, but de Rojas’s catachrestic gambit succeeds, in part through its unintended resonances with contemporary cultural eclecticism.
The novel’s gender politics are fascinating and ambiguous. Both the aggressive individualists dispersed by the Hydra project and the Confederation’s most fervent defender, Alice, repeatedly deride the communist utopia’s citizenry as “effeminate,” given over to a passive life of precious emotional indulgences. We hear echoes here of the machismo that characterized certain strains of revolutionary culture in Cuba and elsewhere. De Rojas seems to share some of the anxiety about complacency wrought by utopia, but he is also at pains to distance himself from such attitudes. After all, the heroes of the novel are Maya, a cyborg who Donna Haraway would surely admire, and Alice, a severely disabled (before she came to occupy a new body) genius who becomes the driving force behind the Confederation’s defense strategy. Moreover, the technologies at the center of the novel — identity transfer between bodies and transhumanist body extension — create possibilities for gender fluidity that, though only briefly glimpsed, are among the novel’s more relevant implications for the present. The Year 200 imagines the body as so much hardware that can be discarded, adapted, and upgraded, and the self as software that can be downloaded to many kinds of bodies, organic, machine, or hybrid.
For de Rojas, we can infer, the problem with the future represented by the Confederation is not its alleged “effeminacy” but its hesitation to embrace the fully cyborg destiny embodied by Maya and her cybo compatriots. Similarly, the communist state’s abandonment of the social experiments carried out by interstellar space crews (occasionally referenced in The Year 200but at the center of A Legend of the Future) seems to represent a failure to pursue the logic of its own utopian development. The destiny of communist collectivism, for de Rojas, appears to be the dissolution of the embodied individual into hybrid human-machine collectives that unite and subdivide according to whim and exigency. An unexpected twist at the very end of the novel reveals why the Confederation has refused to embrace this destiny during the first two centuries of its existence; the concluding chapter positions Maya as the prototype for a new phase of social transformation. If the Singularity looks to most of us like the male Silicon Valley elite’s scheme to “disrupt” death, de Rojas’s poetic, collectivist, gender-fluid transhumanism offers an alternative perspective from which to contemplate the politics of a cyborg future.
Just as refreshing is the way that The Year 200 allows us to imagine and think along with different contradictions than the ones that we currently face. As Slavoj Žižek frequently observes, we live in an era where everything seems possible when it comes to technology, yet nothing seems possible when it comes to politics. The tech industry promises us a future of infinite convenience and frictionlessness in all realms — but if we want to pass a carbon tax, house the homeless, or regulate hedge funds, the range of what is possible abruptly shrinks. De Rojas’s novel projects a future in which the progressive political agenda has been achieved: material abundance is equally distributed, hard labor is done by machines, a means of extracting unlimited solar energy has been discovered, and the hierarchies of the family have been dissolved. What has been declared impossible, however, is the full integration of human and machine, and the result, as de Rojas portrays it, is an apathetic stagnation comparable to ours. In our own moment, David Graeber has argued, the key task is to reassert political possibility as the only means to socially equitable technological progress. De Rojas’s novel makes the opposite move, suggesting that the Confederation can only achieve full collectivism by taking technology to its full consequences — as the cybos have already done.
It has often been said that to reimagine the future, we must also reimagine the past, and visions of the future from out of the past are a rich source for such reimaginings. In this moment of openness between the United States and Cuba, a place often misleadingly imagined as a time warp, there is great potential for fruitful encounters of the imagination and The Year 200 provides just such an encounter. Restless Books, and Caistor and Powell, should be commended for carrying over de Rojas’s epic into English. Translating a novel of this length and complexity, littered with a technical language that is partly invented and partly drawn from the antiquated jargon of cybernetics, is no mean feat, and they pull it off with aplomb. Thanks to these efforts, English-language readers are gaining access to the riches of Cuban science fiction, a body of literature that surely has more revelations in store for us.

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