Although the current Corvus version of The Holy Machine was published in 2010, I actually wrote it in the mid-nineties. The backdrop for the book is a global phenomenon called The Reaction, in which people all over the world, alienated by liberal, secular, scientific modernism, have reverted, violently, to older religious ways of seeing the world. (I had watched the Iranian revolution and I thought something similar might happen in the West.) In the world of the story, the old liberal order has been overthrown and replaced by theocracy in most countries, including Britain and America. Among others, scientists of any kind are actively persecuted.
(My second novel, Marcher, had a similar theme, though here I described a threat to modernity posed by pagan intruders from other dimensions, whose desire to take the world back to the age of the Vikings had a strong appeal among those on the margins of society. The short story, ‘To Become a Warrior‘ was a precursor of this novel).
In a way, I was proved right. The real Reaction is much more complex and varied than my fictional one -among other things, it was naive of me to think that fundamentalist theocratic regimes would not be perfectly happy to make use of science when it suited them- but it has happened (or would it be more accurate to say, ‘it has begun’?) We’ve seen a shift away from secularism in Palestine, Israel, India, Turkey, America, and the rise of Hindu nationalism, Islamism and Christian fundamentalism. We’ve experienced the phenomenon of Trump, and so-called populism in many countries (a rather vague word, but it seems to mean a kind of politics that privileges the values of the general public over those of the most educated section of the population). And, while scientists are not (yet) actively being persecuted in the way described in the book, there is a distinct anti-science strand in all this: anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change denialists are all part of it.
I saw this coming. I saw it coming because I had a sense of how very alienating secular scientific societies must be for many people. The ‘knowledge economy’ is not so great if you are not particularly educated, and/or not particularly bright, or if you depend for your livelihood on something that the knowledge economy is making obsolete. (But this isn’t just about economics, it’s about the human need for meaning and continuity.)
But I have much less of a sense of what is coming next. Is what we’ve seen so far just the beginning of ‘the Reaction’, or are we already swinging away from that to something else? And if the latter, what is that something? If secular modernity was thesis and ‘the Reaction’ was antithesis, what is the synthesis that will emerge from their clash? Because we won’t just go back to the way things were. That’s already in the past, and with it the destination it seemed to be heading towards.
In gloomier moments I see places like Dubai as the future: shining, ostentatious modernity, plutocracy thinly veiled by ‘tradition’, a citizenry made acquiescent by a combination of ruling class largesse and the ruthless application, where necessary, of state power, and a non-citizen underclass to do the dirty work. This is not a particularly original observation: a lot of imagined futures seem to be like a sort of hellish polluted Dubai. (Though Dubai itself, I imagine, will cease to be a significant player once the age of oil has run its course.)
But to predict the way that societies will go next we have to factor in not only the usual historical flux caused by changing means of production and the rise and fall of social classes, but also global movements of population on a scale never seen before, which will become increasingly driven not just by political upheaval but by changes in the weather and the physical environment: climate change, ocean acidification, changes in things like soil fertility.
But we aren’t just observers, you might object! It’s up to us which way this goes. And of course this is quite true, so long as we remember that ‘us’ isn’t just ourselves and our like-minded friends, but all the billions of people on the Earth, and all their different interests and ways of seeing things, and all their incredibly varied amounts of power and influence. And as long as we remember too that, while our own individual actions do indeed have consequences, they are almost never exactly the ones intended, and are not infrequently the opposite to the ones intended.