Indifference under the axe

9 March 2012 | Essays, Non-fiction

In the forest: an illustration by Leena Krohn for her book, Sfinksi vai robotti (Sphinx or robot, 1999)

The original virtual reality resides within ourselves, in our brains; the virtual reality of the Internet is but a simulation. In this essay, Leena Krohn takes a look at the ‘shared dreams’ of literature – a virtual, open cosmos, accessible to anyone, without a password

How can we see what does not yet exist? Literature – specifically the genre termed science fiction or fantasy literature, or sometimes magic realism – is a tool we can use to disperse or make holes in the mists that obscure our vision of the future.

A book is a harbinger of things to come. Sometimes it predicts future events; even more often it serves as a warning. Many of the direst visions of science fiction have already come true. Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth are watching over even greater territories than in Orwell’s Oceania of 1984.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1934) was a political satire ostensibly set in the future, yet it was actually a depiction of the era in which it was written. H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free (1914) was an early vision of the destructive power of nuclear energy and radiation, and Wells also wrote about a global brain. We’ve already got that sort of brain, in the form of the internet. Is it a blessing or a curse? A bit of both.

Books have been chased down in order to destroy them, as in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, burnt in bonfires and even executed with an axe. Even in early science fiction, people were described as a burden on the planet, while machines were regarded as more sentient and more intelligent. Artificial intelligence and synthetic life forms were the stuff of science fiction even before such scientific disciplines came into existence (cf. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1818). Isaac Asimov believed that robots and cyborgs could be programmed with a permanent moral code that would prevent them from harming humans. How in the world would that be possible when it appears we haven’t got a code like that within ourselves?

Technology is evolving at a furious pace, and it is barely possible to make predictions more than a couple of years in advance. How ploddingly slow the evolution of ethics appears next to that of technology – so slow that we cannot even be certain whether it is even happening. Many others besides Isaac Bashevis Singer’s character, Mr Tortshiner, have suspected that our future is likely to hold barbarism and a loss of morality in store. In fact, he guessed that the last human being would be both a lunatic and a criminal. That is a view I do not yet wish to share.

Every living being needs to have a map of the environment in which it has to function. The map is usually invisible and unique to each species. Language and mathematics are our own species’ maps, refined extensions of our intelligence and senses. In all their differences, they are nevertheless inextricably linked as the enduring foundation of humanity.

Literature is a part of that linguistic system, but it is also a rendering of accounts, a continuation of basic arithmetic, because writing began with a line drawn by a finger in the sand as an aide-memoire. It shall forever retain this character of an account.

World literature embodies mankind’s spiritual and moral balance sheet. We can use it to remember, but also to surmise, anticipate, predict and even calculate probabilities. Using only what has gone before, the regularity of the past, we can know – though not with any certainty – what is to come. The world does not equal chaos, even though it may seem that way sometimes. If it really did, we could never acquire any knowledge, could never learn anything. Change and impermanence are at the core of our dreams as well as of reality; there is no permanent truth carved in stone. Yet the same laws of complexity hold true in all systems: biological, atomic, economic, sociological.

Consciousness is interaction, not directly with reality but with our own perceptions. The original virtual reality exists not on the internet but in our minds – an artificial world which we perceive in the first instance, a simulation that has been substituted. It could also be termed a ‘shared dream’, as it is quite similar for all of us as a result of the characteristics of our species. Though it may be just a shadow or a reflection of the Real, it nevertheless constitutes the entire foundation of civilisation and our whole social existence.

Literature, too, is a virtual cosmos, secondary to the simulation created by the human brain, but much deeper in terms of time than the interactive worlds of computer networks and social communities. Literature is an open cosmos that any reader can join without a user name or password.

Fewer and fewer readers get a jolt from new technical gimmicks nowadays, and fewer and fewer writers are interested in inventing them. This means that sci-fi is already somewhat antiquated as a concept. Its emphasis has shifted away from techy adventures to the place where it has always resided in world literature: consciousness and the evolution of consciousness.

I have avoided using the term ‘human’ here because human consciousness is not the only kind. For a long time, we – scientists as well as the general population – thought that our Earth was unique in our galaxy in many respects. Science fiction, however, has been embracing other inhabited worlds for hundreds of years. It is only now that we know for certain that every star is orbited by more than one planet on average, that the Milky Way contains billions of planets similar to Earth and that such planets are the rule in the universe, rather than the exception. How could anyone continue to believe that mankind is a rare exception and there is nothing else comparable to our intelligence in the universe?

The current world order is reminiscent of the House of Usher. There was a crack in that house, barely noticeable at first, but now impossible to miss, ugly and deep. The foundation was faulty. The foundations of society are nowhere near as rational as we would like to believe. We have built on misleading values and pursued completely unrealistic goals. Our society and economy are built on impossible junctures, hopelessly tangled facts, illusions and hallucinations. The crack of ruin, that irregular line, will not stop spreading. It is already threatening the entire structure. Is it possible to patch the crack, can the structure be dismantled in a controlled manner, or is it just a matter of waiting for the house to fall down, so it might be possible to build something more sustainable in its place?

It is possible to awaken from a coma; indifference and lack of interest are diseases for which reading can be prescribed. A physical book can be executed with an axe, but the work itself cannot. Whether we read it in the form printed on Gutenberg’s press or as an e-book, a book, as Kafka wrote, must be like an axe for the frozen sea within us.

Translated by Ruth Urbom

This essay was written for the launch of a first novel, Emmi Itäranta’s Teemestarin kirja (‘The tea master’s book’, Teos), on 26 January 2012. The publisher Teos organised a fantasy novel competition in 2010–2011, and Itäranta’s book was considered the best of 350 manuscripts.
Sfinksi vai robotti (Sphinx or robot, WSOY, 1999), a collection of short prose, can be read in an English translation here.

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