A review of “Lethe” by Joseph MacKinnon, (Guy Faux Books, 328 pages, $13.99)

The Political Philosophy of Anti-Woke Science Fiction

Fashionable educators and publishers of “English literature” would leave you blind to “anti-woke science fiction.” I have coined the term as an update to a long tradition. Think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins (1953). These works were anti-Marxist, before the failed Marxists recast themselves as “woke” by replacing economic justice with social justice.

The literary elite doesn’t like to admit anti-Marxism as a motivation for great literature. Indeed, the elite shoves uninspiring writers down our throats just because they were Marxist—such as the ever overrated Ernest Hemingway.

Anti-woke science fiction tends to get shadow-canceled. If it survives, it gets conflated in the “dystopian” category. As it becomes widely read, it gets spun as consistent with woke politics. The elite spins Brave New World, for instance, as anti-consumerist, anti-industrialist, and anti-American. In fact, Aldous Huxley was disaffected with Britain’s Bohemian, libertine circle when he penned Brave New World

George Orwell had fled Communist infighting during the Spanish Civil War, and subsequently fled British metropolitan Communism, before slowly realizing his lessons as Animal Farm (1945). 

Ayn Rand fled the nascent Soviet Union before imagining in Anthem a global future in which the collective bans names, singular pronouns, families, history, and science. 

Evelyn Waugh lamented Britain’s slide into authoritarian socialism during World War II, with several real-time war novels (including Brideshead Revisited in 1945), before writing his one and only science fiction novel. In Love Among the Ruins (1953), some “near future” British government keeps criminals in such luxury that they choose crime in order to return to prison, while “welfare weary” citizens seek official euthanasia.

Joseph MacKinnon’s Lethe combines the quest to escape state-prescribed happiness in Brave New World, the quest to escape surveillance and misinformation in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the quest to rediscover past knowledge in Anthem, and the quest to pair up and burn down in Love Among the Ruins. Further, Lethe reminds me of the quest to escape bureaucracy in Terry Gilliam’s film, “Brazil” (1985), and the quest to escape cyber mind-control in “The Matrix” (1999).

Like “The Matrix,” Lethe reminds me of Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (1974). One of the political philosophical questions that Nozick explored in a hypothetical world was: If you were plugged into a machine that simulated happiness and denied pain, would you reject it? His answer was yes, because you’d still want choice (even before we consider the advisability of admitting pain in order to appreciate happiness).

Most of the population in Brave New World, Anthem, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Love Among the Ruins, “The Matrix” and Lethe do not develop the self-awareness to reject their prescribed artificial worlds. Some even re-embrace the machine having tasted the ambiguities of freedom.

In Lethe, a few in the authoritarian elite develop the self-awareness to seek what is forbidden, then seek the help of specialists in wiping their memories before cybernetic implants upload the evidence to the central regime’s servers.

The hero specializes in wiping those memories. The “resistance” nickname him “the Lethe” (an ancient Greek word for “forgetfulness”). The rulers are the “English Democratic Socialists,” who had won a majority democratically, but traded “a minimum income” in return for supplication to “advanced linguistic policing and centrally-planned mobility.” They now control their population through implants that stupefy and monitor. The resistance survives in Scotland, Wales, in tunnels underneath English cities, and in the still independent United States—hiding behind digital cloaking devices, jammers, and force fields.

The rest of the world is dominated by a transnational alliance of authoritarian states: China, an “Ottoman Federation,” and a European Union. The details are vague, given the authoritarians’ manipulation of history and memory. At one point, resistance fighters speculate that the current year must be between 2060 and 2070.

Communist China is the key enabler: the implant technology, the foreign electrical power that makes England’s virtual rule possible, and the nuclear strikes that forced the Americans to retreat into the stratosphere. England’s democratic socialists are not anti-Marxists. As one of their luminaries says: “The world can only be healed through ceaseless revolution.”

English Democratic Socialism is woke. One of its banners reads: “From each according to their guilt, to each according to their oppression.” Anyone with natural advantage is especially stupefied or denied nutrition in order to promote equity. Everyone is scored with a “trust value”: non-compliance lowers the score, while “intersectionality” raises the score. Meanwhile, the regime’s enforcers wear visors “to prevent guardians from being recognized as individuals with privileges.” The Lethe enters the story struggling with newly inserted “mental dampeners.” Walking unsteadily home, he gains enough self-awareness to worry, ironically, whether the “guardians” are asking themselves if “his physical strength [is] a subliminal assault on the emotional security of his comrades?”

Physical exercise is discouraged for fostering physical inequity. Going outdoors is discouraged as polluting. Most residents are restricted to apartments in high-rise buildings, to which food, medical care, and other services are delivered by tubes. Residents spend most of their time suppressed by a cybernetic dopamine drip and a “feel-good channel” projected within their eyeballs.

Everyone participates in jury trials compulsorily, and virtually: individual motive is considered irrelevant given collective identity; “not guilty” is not an option. Every so often, a “timely purge eases congestion, lessens demands on scarce resources, and reduces England’s ecological footprint.”Some residents get to move about the city to perform work that cannot be assigned to automatons. Of course, the elite is least restricted, but everything depends on trust value.

The Lethe uses cloaking devices, virtual private networks, mental blocks, and memory restoration devices to move freely. He uses the proceeds from his illicit services to invest in extra nutrition, physical exercise, and weapons, which enable him and his co-conspirators to raid Blackpool’s regional government in search of a rumored cyber weapon that could prevent the regime’s escalating mind-control.

The locus for the book’s action is Blackpool, in Lancashire, which takes on a larger regional significance than the county we know today. The resistance fighters seem to use the local dialect as another act of rebellion against the collective. Transliterating a foreign dialectic is an unusual effort for a North American author (McKinnon is Canadian, with education in America and Britain). The foreignness doesn’t end there. No Americans appear until near the end. Indeed, while the resistance hopes for help from the Americans, free Englanders are cynical about American reliability. Most of the time, they are rediscovering their own resources and culture.

Names are important to the ruling regime’s spin, and to the resistance’s culture. Notably, one of the characters switches between the English name “James” and the Indian name “Jaglit,” depending on whether his mind is free to identify as English or forced to display his intersectionality.

Former resisters are prominent in the regime, after redirection by implants. They are helpful in running a society that is nominally equitable, but also, I imagine, numbingly mediocre. But then I might just be reflecting too much on academia.

The fictional regime’s spin reminds me often of academic speak, and ultimately the “doublethink” and “newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, before that, the binary official moralism in Brave New World and Anthem. For instance, we learn, in passing, that “the EDS broke up England’s couples and families citing research showing that parental units undermine the will of the People, poisoned young minds with old-fashioned ideas, and created cognitive inequalities through unevenly-distributed domestic instruction.” New humans are centrally “bred,” from those with high intersectional value. The rest are sterilized. Clones are grown so that their organs and cells can be harvested to keep alive the elite.

The details of the fictional world emerge slowly—teasingly, as short asides, while the narrative screams along, punctuated with violence, heroism, despair, discovery, and sacrifice. “Drones,” “mechs,” “plasma,” and “cyborgs” enter with little definition or description, as if written for the science fiction veteran. The twist at the end is terrific. “Lethe” would make a movie as thrilling and dissonant as “The Matrix,” but would be more meaningful.

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About Bruce Oliver Newsome

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Permian Basin. He is also the author of the anti-woke satire "The Dark Side of Sunshine" (Perseublishing, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @riskyscientists.

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