It took two hundred years to go to the nearest star and come back, but for astronaut Morgan Harvey it seemed but a short trip of a few months. Such is the nature of relative-time at near-light speeds.
So when Harvey got back to Earth he was still the same young patriotic Free World soldier he had been at the start of his flight. But the world he came back to was seemingly one in which his nation’s foes had triumphed and which now called itself The Perfect World.
And Utopia it certainly seemed, but Harvey refused to be brainwashed into accepting it. But until he met the man marked X, the problem of saving not only himself but humanity seemed beyond solution.
A remarkable new novel by the author of FIRST TO THE STARS.
This week’s book has, in my opinion, the best title of any of the books I’ve reviewed up to this point. If I could get away with it and it wouldn’t be some kind of huge hassle, I would probably rename this whole blog right now. That’s how much I like it. Of course, a good part of that is that it reminds me of such old-timey radio programs as Dimension X and X Minus One. Really, any science fiction title with an X in it is probably going to make me smile. This is a universal law, on par with “Entropy always increases in a closed system” and “T-Rex is awesome but ‘Bang a Gong’ gets too much radio play while ’20th Century Boy’ is obviously their best track.”
Utopiaaaaaa Minuuuuuuuus X
In a perfect world I’d be able to fund and make a film called Utopia Minus XXX.
I just can’t seem to get on topic today.
Well, there’s actually a good reason for that. This book was weird and I’m not in the least bit sure of how to describe it. It’s not that it was nonsensical or hard to follow or anything like that. In fact, we’ve got another book that was actually quite readable and, for the most part, interesting. But that’s what makes it weird to me, because in a way it flies in the face of the rules of what makes for a good story.
See, this book was 190 pages of exposition dump. Our heroes, either individually or as a group, would find somebody and this somebody would regale them with history or anthropology or something. The heroes would then say either “Interesting” or “Nuts to that” or something in between, whereupon they would move to the next exposition dumping device (known as a “character” in English Major terminology).
But what’s tearing me up inside is that I found all of this exposition really interesting. I think I’m probably in the minority here, but tracts masquerading as science fiction novels tend to fascinate me. They may not be necessarily good, but often enough they are interesting. Let’s face it, Brave New World isn’t that heavy on actual plot. It’s mostly a series of “Stuff is like this now” talks. And Utopia Minus X is very similar to Brave New World in that respect. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that this book was heavily inspired by Aldous Huxley. At least it felt that way to me.
Our listening protagonists are Carlin, Melita, and Morgan. I just put those names in alphabetical order without even thinking about it. Library work suits me.
So Carlin and Melita are dating or engaged or something. That kind of thing is sort of weird in this future. Also I’m not sure when this future is supposed to be but it’s over 200 years from now, for reasons I’ll explain later.
Carlin and Melita just graduated from the mandatory state schooling program (Go Wildcats!). One of the last things the school does is an intelligence test that tells people what they’re going to go do with themselves. Melita scored a 150 out of 200, which is pretty great. Actually, and this almost caused me to put the book down, her score “for a girl, and an exceptionally pretty girl at that, was high enough to be alarming.”
Honestly though I put some thought into this one. I don’t actually feel like this was the author’s statement, necessarily. Yeah, it was in narration but it was also sort of in the point of view of Carlin, so maybe it’s Carlin that’s the jackass. Or perhaps it’s just the attitude of mainstream society in the book. Thing is, this statement was in isolation, so there’s nothing I can point at to say what is going on here. The rest of the book wasn’t quite so sexist, but really it didn’t have time to be since it was too busy giving us history.
Carlin, on the other hand, has been keeping his own intelligence score a secret from Melita. The author actually did a pretty good job of letting us think that he was keeping it quiet because he scored lower than Melita and was embarrassed, but it turns out to be quite the opposite. Carlin scored 197. Specifically, he got a 197X.
The X worries him. See, normally that letter would tell him what line of work he’d be going into. As it is, he’s got nothing. So he goes to talk to the Warden of the University. Thus begins a lot of the exposition.
I’m gonna skip that for now and talk about Morgan. According to the back of the book he was probably supposed to be the most important character but really it’s pretty evenly divided between the three of them. Morgan is an astronaut. Due to relativistic effects, he’s returning to Earth nearly 200 years after he left. Things have changed drastically for him, and so he gets to be our “outside looking in” viewpoint character for what exactly this society is all about.
It’s about COMMUNISM.
And now we get to the meat of the book.
Okay so the world is now under a one-world government and it’s called The Perfect World, which sounds like a really lame Korean Free-to-play MMORPG that you’d see advertised on a torrent site by a half-naked lady saying “Join me, my liege, in BEDROOM BATTLE.”
Perfect World is a utopia. Happiness is the chief concern of everybody. Goods are produced so cheaply that they’re free to be consumed. Most work is automated. If somebody wants to do something useful with themselves, they’re welcome to try, but on the whole everybody’s job is to sit around and be happy. It’s run by The Great Computer, as is common in these situations.
Carlin’s problem is that he’s unhappy. He’s too smart to be happy. His talk with The Warden reveals that science is as pointless to pursue as religion in this day and age. Carlin really wants to do science, though. There’s this whole diatribe about how religion and science are both “convenient fictions” that may have had their place in the past, but now they’re at an end. Carlin gets the sads over this, which is bad, because anybody with the sads in this future gets to meet THE DOCTORS.
The Doctors make people happy. Often the people don’t want to be made happy. I guess this is supposed to be the dark side of the utopia.
Melita meets Morgan after Morgan crash lands upon returning to Earth. We get to hear Morgan’s story and then Melita tells him what happened after he left. This, actually, was the part I found pretty interesting.
So Morgan was a soldier back during The Moon Wars.
I will instantly listen to anything anybody has to say about something called The Moon Wars.
The combatants in The Moon Wars were the Blue Countries versus the Red Countries.
I did not make that up.
We never actually hear which countries constitute which side, but we can guess. It is revealed that the Red Countries were communists, which is surprising to nobody, I hope. Basically, it seems that the Cold War came to a head at some point and it was because of the moon. We don’t actually get much detail on the Moon Wars themselves.
Morgan and his crew (the crew died on the way there and back) blasted off to Barnard’s Star before the war was over. Their mission was to see if there were any inhabitable planets there, just in case the Moon Wars ended up destroying the Earth and humanity needed to be evacuated. I see many flaws with this plan.
Morgan was staunchly on the side of the Blues (which would be a good name for a B.B. King album). He’s rabidly anti-Communist, and so everything he learns about the way the world turned out is horrifying.
At first he figures that his side lost. It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. The Blues won the war, but this caused the Reds to buckle down and figure out a way to save their economy. What resulted was The Great Computer, which automated everything and made the Reds so successful that eventually the Blues built their own Great Computer. The computers eventually took over all roles of government. Finally they were linked together and the whole world was united under the benevolent control of The Great Computer.
Morgan thinks this is all insane because arglebargle freedom and blahblah Democracy. He’s determined to take it down some way or another.
Eventually Carlin is brought into the conversation. He also thinks that something needs to be done, because if science doesn’t continue then humanity is doomed. Melita goes along because she loves Carlin and that’s apparently her only motivation in life. Still a little sexist, I think.
They all go on the run and decide that what they need to do is break into The Great Computer and disable it. The only way they can do that is by pretending to be so fanatical about their devotion to the Computer that they sacrifice the rest of their lives to working on it. They are caught handily and expositioned some more.
They meet an old, old man who is only called The Briefing Officer. He’s so old, in fact, that he remembers much of what happened to bring The Perfect World into existence. He gives some kind of speech about how The Perfect World is right and just, but also that people like Carlin, Melita, and Morgan are right in their own way. So he drops the bomb.
There were three interstellar missions back during the Moon Wars. Morgan was on the third. No one was told what happened to the other two, but one of them actually made it back. It found a habitable world at Alpha Centauri. So that the whole of humanity doesn’t become stagnant, people like our heroes are sent there to eke out an existence and eventually help spread humanity even further out to the stars. The protagonists accept this offer, and the end of the book is them blasting into space.
Okay so this is a book where not much happens, but we get told a lot about the things that happened beforehand. Not an especially great way to go about writing a book if you want to keep it interesting to anyone but me. It wasn’t so much a narrative as a sociopolitical tract with some science fiction trappings. What really gets me is that I can’t figure out what side of the argument this author is trying to push.
At first it seems he’s as anti-Commie as Morgan. But then it seems like he’s pushing the Marxist idea that eventually the whole world will be Communist, although in this case by virtue of technology and not world-wide revolution. And then it ends with some kind of middle ground, where the idea seems to be that Earth (and eventually other planets that human life spreads to) has reached the pinnacle of its existence by ensuring that the masses are happy and safe and mindless and stagnant. People who think too much, who reject the happiness, are brainwashed or given surgery to put them back in their place, unless they happen to be so super-smart that they get blasted into space to start the cycle over somewhere else. And it seems that he’s okay with that.
Or maybe not? Am I supposed to be horrified by what happened? This book was pretty bland when it came to emotional tone, so it didn’t feel like everything ended with a note of outrage or acceptance. It just ended.
Maybe it was just a thought experiment turned into a book.
Maybe it was advocating some kind of neo-Communism run by computer.
Maybe it was decrying any kind of Communism as impeding human progress.
Maybe it was pro-individualism.
I don’t know!
The book’s lesson, like the concepts themselves, seems to be all over the place. The message seems to be “it’s complicated.” And yeah, it is complicated. But that makes the book pretty unsatisfying.
The history bits, though, were at least interesting. I’m glad it wasn’t something really simple like “The Commies won and everything went to crap” or whatever the synopsis led me to believe. While the complicated morality of the book left me cold, the complicated history in the book felt right. There’s always more of it, some perspective never considered, some truth hidden by the storytellers, and that lesson is one I can get behind. That’s why it’s so much fun to learn history! Humanity is a great big complicated animal.
And at the same time, it’s all pretty simple. Most people just want to be safe, happy, and secure. It’s a fundamental drive. We want food, shelter, sex, and entertainment. Some people aspire for more. We might want knowledge or wisdom or power or freedom or control. Sometimes those goals are in opposition to one another.
And now that I think about it, I think I hit upon the actual point of the book. It might come across as a little elitist, perhaps. I’ll have to think about that part. It makes it easy to decry most of humanity as wanting nothing more than blissful complacence while “real” people go out and make advances in science and philosophy and art. Something in me is repelled by that idea, but another part of me sees a little truth in it. I’m conflicted.
Stupid book! You made me think!