This novel, set in 1921 and published in 1923 is in a subgenre you don’t see much now — utopian science fiction. Yes, I did say ‘utopian.’ You may be more familiar with this subgenre’s ugly brother, dystopian science fiction. The latter has more shock value so it gets more attention, but I prefer the older, wiser sibling.
The essential difference between utopian and dystopian fiction that I see is their different perceptions of humanity. Although both begin with the premise that the human race has problems, utopian fiction posits that, in the course of time, mankind will solve them. Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, posits that humanity, if it is lucky, might survive.
I don’t read fiction to be shocked. I can get that from the news. I read fiction to be entertained. Occasionally I come across novels that also present a new thought or uncommon perspective, and I consider these welcome bonuses. ‘Men Like Gods’ provides all of these.
The protagonist, Mr. Barnstaple (no first name) is stressed and in desperate need of a holiday. The way he contrives to get away unaccompanied by wife of children, is humorous and charming, in an understated British way, as are his musings on the events of the time. He succeeds in escaping by himself in his little yellow car with no specific destination in mind but ends up much farther away than he could have imagined. A scientific experiment in an alternate dimension goes awry, and Barnstaple and a few others on the road that day find themselves in a strange land with clean air, tame animals, and beautiful people who enjoy unparalleled personal freedom. He’s obviously not in England anymore. The rest of the novel explores how he and his fellow Earthlings react to this strange utopia and how the Utopians react to them.
Considering this book was written almost a century ago, and making certain allowances for that, one thing that struck me was how relevant it remains. There are passages about droughts, famines, and fighting going on around the world that sound almost as if they could be referring to today. This description of economic concerns especially caught my attention:
‘… The great masses of population that had been blundered into existence, swayed by damaged and decaying traditions and amenable to the crudest suggestions, were the natural prey and support of every adventurer with a mind blatant enough and a conception of success coarse enough to appeal to them. The economic system, clumsily and convulsively reconstructed to meet the new conditions of mechanical production and distribution, became more and more a cruel and impudent exploitation of the multitudinous congestion of the common man by the predatory acquisitive few. That all too common common man was hustled through misery and subjection from his cradle to his grave; he was cajoled and lied to, he was bought, sold and dominated by an impudent minority, bolder and no doubt more energetic, but in all other respects no more intelligent than himself.’
The economic system he speaks of is, essentially, the one we still have; one in which common people simply trying to survive can be economically used and abused by those with wealth, power, and low morals. Although, on the bright side, we do have laws and regulations in place now to mitigate the worst examples of such things.
Then there was this about the media of the time:
‘…newspapers had ceased to be impartial vehicles of news; they omitted, they mutilated, they misstated. They were no better than propaganda rags.’
This claim especially seems appropriate to some of today’s media outlets.
What you won’t see in this novel is a detailed description of how the civilization in this alternate universe got from something like early Twentieth Century Earth to a free and peaceful utopia, although the process is said to have taken three thousand years. The point is that people not unlike us were able to overcome things like superstition, prejudice, selfish ambition, and violence. They were able to work together to build a better society in which each individual is free to think, act, and explore the mysteries of the world as they wish.
I won’t say the utopia presented here is exactly one that I would imagine or hope for, but it does seem attractive and maybe even possible. The ideas the novel presents are certainly worth thinking about, in any case, and the story is enjoyable in its own right. I highly recommend it.
The odd future described by this book is both depressing and hopeful. It is a world in which humans regularly retreat into virtual reality, often corresponding to their chosen ‘belief circles,’ as an interface to the real world and yet they remain curious, productive and creative. There are large ‘Big Brother’ governments but they are mostly benign. There is very little privacy and yet people seem to respect one another’s individuality. There is an ever looming threat that terrorists will use real weapons of mass destruction against civilians but people in general seem to honestly abhor violence. People group themselves into belief circles with complex mythos based on various things from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld to something that sounds much like Pokemon but these seem to be viewed more as matters of taste than uncompromising religious “truths” so there remains room for compromise and agreement among their followers.
This juxtaposition of positive and negative extends to the characters. It is told from multiple points of view, primarily that of Robert Gu, once a renowned poet and a complete jerk in his personal life who is being successfully treated for several aging related illnesses including Alzheimer’s. Once he begins to regain his mind, he starts out as the SOB he used to be but he grows into far more empathetic person. The antagonist, Alfred Vaz, is attempting to develop something that sounds very much like mind control but he is doing so in an effort to protect people and create a more peaceful world and he is honestly upset when Gu’s granddaughter is endangered because of events that unfold ultimately from Gu’s efforts to stop him.
The book requires some work on the part of the reader. First of all the virtual reality aspect often makes it difficult to tell what is “real” and what isn’t. It also isn’t a simple good guy versus bad guy adventure tale. The characters are more complex than that and they grow and change through the course of the book. And there are a few loose threads left hanging, most notably who or what is “Rabbit?” But I hesitate to call these flaws. This ambiguity is part of the theme of this book and Vinge’s merging of dystopian and utopian views of the future make this an interesting and thought provoking read.