The Dystopia of all Dystopias

September 15, 2013

Dystopia, Science Fiction


The abrupt change in J.D. Ballard’s life, from a youthful pampered existence to a struggle for survival in a Japanese internment camp, has been immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s film Empire of the Sun. Later, Ballard went on to become a well-known English writer of dystopian novels, such as The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World, where barbarism lurks just beneath the surface of civilized life.

Many of us today share similar dystopian sentiments, agreeing with the English philosopher John Gray that we live in a culture “transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility”. This has become even more true since the 2007/8 financial crisis, as we have become only too aware of the inherent fragility of debt-laden economies. Debt never goes away so debt-fueled economies cannot even tolerate a slowdown without risking an implosion. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote an entire book, (Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder), to tell us that fragile things usually break under stress.

Ballard was also a great fan of surrealism which he believed reflected the fact that “the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘false’”. Ballard’s surrealist vision of society appears particularly prophetic today when Toqueville’s “soft despotism” is called freedom, mass surveillance is called protection, mass murder is called liberation, banksters shake down taxpayers for trillions of dollars in the ‘public interest’ and torture is defended by leaders of the ‘free’ world.

However, it was another English science fiction writer, Olaf Stapledon, who crafted perhaps the most disturbing and at the same time the most majestic dystopian vision, in his novel, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Last and First Men does not privilege our problems by placing them at the center of history, rather it assumes, even more shockingly, that history has no direction and no center. Stapledon charts the course of human history from the 1930’s to the extinction of the human race in two billion years, detailing the evolution, both through genetic engineering and natural forces, of 18 human species that rise and fall because of disease, geological upheaval, climate change or war. Stapledon’s universe is completely indifferent to man’s struggles until finally the last men are wiped out by a disintegrating sun.

However, surprisingly, Stapledon remains convinced that mankind has no excuse for descending into nihilism. By accepting our insignificance he argues that the human crisis gains in stature and becomes more, not less urgent, making it all the more important that we stay engaged and play some part in the struggle:

“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.”

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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18 Comments on “The Dystopia of all Dystopias”

  1. sally1137 Says:

    Reblogged this on Tin Foil Hat Book Club and commented:
    Malcolm points out some excellent books!


  2. Clay J Mize Says:

    Another Great post


  3. matt Says:

    Excellent post, and (because I needed more to do than I’ve already got) thanks for the reading list, Malcolm!


  4. NeuroProf Says:

    Empire of the Sun was a wonderful movie. Underrated too, I think.


  5. hunt4thought Says:

    Thanks Malcolm. I will add these to my reading list. I recently picked up 1984 again and felt as if I was reading a harrowing prediction of the horror to come. Then I thought to myself that if we were to describe the story of current America as it has been becoming over the last two decades and allow our founders to read it, would they not feel the same way?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Shh! I’m sure you’ve seen the quotation from the distinguished historian, Charles Austin Beard:

      “One of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the great struggle for independence.”

      Seriously, while I think we are on the same wavelength regarding our dislike of what we see happening in the way of civil liberties I think some humility is in order as to what is actually going to happen and when. Very few of the momentous events in history could have been foreseen at the time. Best live life to the full now and take things as they come.


      • hunt4thought Says:

        Although I agree there is a level of uncertainty in the world, I would not say that it an absolute rule. When looking at the world as a whole, objectively and from a far, one can use a process of elimation in combination with logic, reasoning, and knowledge of the past to at least cut the list of possible futures. For example if a humongous wrecking ball is on a large hill, centered at the crest, and four goons are pushing it in four equally opposite directions, one can conclude that eventually that wrecking ball is going to fall down the hill. Now let’s imagine you were the Mayor of a town at the bottom of said hill and you were to observe these four men jockeying to push this ball around. It would be in your best to come up with some means of stopping the ball from rolling over your township. Now I realize that not everything in the universe is as cut and dry as this example; however, a lot the tragic events, abhorrent policy changes, and diplomatic blunders were far easier to predict then try to foresee which side of the hill the giant ball would rumble down.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          While rationally this all makes sense we also know that we are hard-wired to see the bad news rather than the good news. For example, in 1980 we had just come off 15 years of recession and nobody could have predicted that the next 30 years would bring the greatest bull market in financial history. A U.S. government default might have catastrophic effects but it is just as likely to trigger a phenomenal stock market rise and soaring dollar as both stocks and the dollar figure in the effect of a future without the cost of servicing government debt. By all means prepare for the worst but be ready to embrace alternative scenarios.

  6. Gregoryno6 Says:

    Among all of Ballard’s books the best (if that’s the word) for my pick is High-Rise. Civilisation, as represented by a towering apartment block, reaches its pinnacle and then descends back into barbarism.Ballard’s calm storytelling style makes the fall that much more chilling.
    That fall has happened many times during history, but each time we’ve preserved a little piece of what was good and rebuilt with that. Our distant descendants, after another ten thousand years of up and down, would be interesting people to meet.


  7. Iris Weaver Says:

    Interesting, thanks for the post, Malcolm. I struggle to stay out of despair, so I don’t think I will be reading any dystopian tomes, but it is interesting to see what you glean from them. I am glad that the last author had something good to say about humans, as I think humans do have a place and a purpose in this world, though perhaps far different than we currently like to think it is. We will someday disappear from this planet, but when we do I hope that we will have been a gift in addition to the curse we currently can be.


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