The Time Machine Revisited (or To Not Become a Morlock, Just Say “Thank You”)

quiet

Oh, don’t worry. This sign doesn’t apply to you.

I recently returned from my first vacation in a few years. It taught me a few things:

  • Children between the ages of 5 to 8 make all the decisions. Parents can make alternate suggestions, but should be prepared to be corrected, admonished or insulted for speaking out of turn.
  • Waiting in line is for suckers. You should (literally) run up to the front of the line, state some halfhearted apology about being late (while not making eye contact) and then go about monopolizing the agent’s time. It helps to say it will “just take a second” regardless of how long it actually takes.

  • Children come in three settings: Shouting, shrieking and whining.
  • Be as loud and profane as possible at all times so everyone can hear what a fuckin’ bitch your mother-in-law is.

  • You don’t need to look where you’re going. Keep your eyes on your phone, something off to the side, or just walk backwards for 20 paces. If someone runs into you, that’s their problem.

  • The “This space reserved for guests over 18 year old” sign does not apply to your precious little darlings.

Has decorum become déclassé?

I’m being facetious, but polite behaviour and consideration of others has taken a nosedive since the last time I was out. And as a science fiction and horror writer, I can’t help but think how this observation relates to fiction writing.

Now, a culture where people are so wrapped up with themselves they’re oblivious to others is nothing new. (WALL-E, below,  nails this idea on the head.) But I’m not talking about sacrificing real-world relations for those in cyberspace.

And this also isn’t a “damn kids” rant since I saw everyone from children to grandparents acting like this. Nor is this a classist diatribe against hipsters, rednecks, nouveau riche, lefties, white trash or spoiled rich kids. This behaviour ran the gamut—Bud Light swillers and martini drinkers, those with John Deere ballcaps and those with Dolce and Gabbana shades, complaining about “fuckin’ Obama” or “those NRA cocksuckers”.

It’s not about one group. This is about collective civility. It’s like the Internet Fuckwad Theory has migrated into meat space.

Which led me to consider dystopic and utopic fiction.

Utopia and Dystopia: The relation between a society and its systems

Both utopic and dystopic fiction deal with the relationship between a society and its systems. By “systems” I mean technology, government, the environment, the economy, etc. Some of these are human-made, but are beyond the control of any one person or group. “Society” is simply us—how people interact under the influence of these systems.

The false utopia of Huxley’s Brave New World was based on Ford’s assembly line concept. To bring it about, systems like commerce and reproduction were changed.

To bring about a utopia, some belief or morality drives a society to reform its systems. For example, eliminating poverty would require massive social change—increased taxation, curtailing the free market and establishing coercive systems to redistribute wealth. Few think poverty is a good thing, but most would not accept these reforms at the expense of their own well-being. Yet what if some new belief system arose? Let’s say a religious or charismatic leader who convinces us to act and reform our economic and social structure, even at the expense of our lifestyle, so that no one has to live in poverty.

In other words, societal change causes systemic change, which leads to utopia. Rarely does some new technology lead to a perfect world. Rather, that new technology causes some societal change and that societal change brings about systemic reforms.

Yet in dystopic fiction, it’s the opposite—systemic failure leads to societal failure, be it economic collapse, climate change or zombie apocalypse. Consider the “Great Panic” in Max Brook’s World War Z where hoarding and mutual suspicion caused more harm than the zombies. Group A has food and Group B has ammunition, but neither group wants to traverse the infected areas to trade. To say nothing of a lack of trust. So either Group A is overrun and Group B starves, or one group has to raid and displace the other.

Or The Handmaid’s Tale where the Sons of Jacob create panic through a staged terrorist attack in order to have the support they need to launch their theocratic revolution.

Societal collapse leads to systems collapse?

Yet rarely do we have fiction where society breaks down before its systems. Simply put, this would mean a people “gives up” and stops working, having children and pursuing leisure (G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate notwithstanding). In fiction, we would abhor this. We crave characters who fight against long odds where most people—including the reader—would give up.

From Idiocracy, but I heard conversations just like this. (What makes this especially amusing is the grammatical error—intentional or not?)

(Aside: A film that explores this concept is Mike Judge’s under-appreciated Idiocracy. Set 500 years in the future, two cryogenically frozen people from the present awake to find the results of the trend where educated, middle class couples delay having children (or don’t have them at all) while dumb people continue to have large families. Over multiple generations, humankind is stupid, ignorant and incapable of maintaining the technology that previous generations build. However, this is not exactly what I am getting at since in this film society has not given up; they are too dumb to even make that decision.)

Yet could we be moving in that direction? Is this rudeness and lack of mutual respect a symptom of a larger issue? Consider that voter turnout continues to drop. Membership in service organizations like the Lions Club or Kiwanis is declining. Interaction with neighbours is limited to a polite wave.

The Time Machine revisited

In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, evolution had split humans into two species over hundreds of thousands of years. The working class became monstrous Morlocks, who maintained ancient subterranean technology. The wealthy aristocracy became the frail Eloi, who don’t require strength or intellect since technology has solved their problems.

This division reflected Wells’ sociopolitical views. But through the lens of today, might it be sooner than the 8028th century before we have these divisions?

Societal norms, which enforce behaviour better than laws (e.g., we feel more compelled to not pick our nose in public than obey the speed limit) are breaking down. We are disengaging from our larger society. Yes, there have been systemic problems—economic uncertainty, allegations of election fraud in virtually every election, climate change. But I’d argue people simply don’t care anymore. There’s no consequence for being rude or uncivil, so why bother? Especially when selfish behaviour results in positive outcomes for you? So it’s not that our systems our failing, by disengaging from society we will come to ignore our systems, leading to their failure.

Rather than Morlocks and Eloi, in several thousands years might humanity evolve into two species different than what Wells envisioned? One might be loud, rude, oblivious brutes incapable of cooperation. But another would be the descendants of those who held to societal conventions. Might this latter group, through cooperation, manipulate systems to their advantage and use the former group as cheap labour? It won’t be The Matrix that enslaves us, but those few among us still saying “Please” and “Thank you”.

It could make for some very interesting science fiction.

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