This week in the US*, a new television series on NBC entitled Revolution will premiere, imagining a future in which the electricity that powers civilization has mysteriously and abruptly been cut off, resulting in a world that slides rapidly into violence, danger, and barbarism.
The pilot episode has gotten some good reviews so far, such as this one entitled "And darkness fell on the world," by Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal. She writes that Revolution is "not another end-of- the-world fantasy drenched in blood and darkness," describing the landscape after the collapse of civilization as we know it as "a life fraught with dangers, a society devoid of protections, where militias rule."
The show's writers do not portray the collapse as a having much, if any, silver lining, according to Ms Rabinowitz: "there are no messages here about the value of returning to a simpler time, it's a relief to note." Instead, she writes, there are plenty of powerful reminders of what has been lost. The writers portray the new barbaric landscape brilliantly, in her opinion: "a place imagined in detail so haunting in its evocation of the lost past, so romantic even in its bleak present, it's impossible to remain unmoved by it all."
As the great teacher -- and Whitman scholar -- professor Dr. Jimmie Killingsworth once taught me, science fiction (including visions of dystopian futures such as the one found in Revolution) often tells us more about the present than about the future: the fears, issues, and struggles taking place in the world when it is written**. The science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s, for example, often involves political and social themes of immediate importance to the world as it was at that time, in addition to its visions of the future (some remarkably accurate, some less so).
In light of that fact, it is interesting to consider what sorts of issues from our own present day the writers of Revolution are wrestling with -- perhaps questions about the increasingly central role played by technology, and its ability to act simultaneously as both a hedge against tyranny and oppression (by widely diffusing access to knowledge and information) and a tool to enable tyranny and oppression (by those who can gain access to the levers needed to "turn it off" for everyone but themselves, or otherwise turn it to their own ends while denying it to others).
Additionally, it would certainly seem that the show's authors are engaging in commentary about issues of government and the use of power in the United States, particularly in light of their choice of labels rich in historical connotations in US history, such as "militias," as well as the choice of calling the main set of antagonists the "Monroe Militia" (perhaps a sidelong reference to the transformative "Monroe Doctrine" of 1823 which altered the direction of foreign policy in the young nation and which continues to play an important foreign policy role to this day).
Beyond all that, however, the show's premise is intriguing and important in that it imagines and then portrays an entire world plunged into darkness -- not only the literal cessation of electricity, computers, networks, and internal combustion engines but also the metaphorical idea of the loss of "light," which is a word often used to embody learning as opposed to ignorance, civilization as opposed to barbarism, humanity as opposed to brutality.
As such, it is certainly thought-provoking to consider the fragility of whatever level of "light" we now enjoy in the world, and the possibility that it could be lost. Even more thought-provoking, however, is the chilling possibility that such a catastrophic extinguishing of the light of learning and civilization has already taken place once in humanity's distant past -- and that we, even with all our technological achievement, are still living in the aftermath of that long-ago Revolution!
Many previous posts on this blog have presented tantalizing evidence that such a loss indeed took place, including:
Lucy Wyatt argues that an extremely advanced knowledge would have been necessary to get "civilization" going in the first place (breeding domesticated cattle from the wild bovine predecessors would have taken hundreds of generations and required almost unbelievable foresight and patience to arrive at a workable end product, and the same is true for most domesticated grains). She believes that the extremely advanced knowledge that was passed on to the relatively peaceful and enlightened Bronze Age civilization (or civilizations) was gravely threatened by the arrival of more warlike and less contemplative Iron Age cultures, who ultimately stamped it out in the parts of the world that would become "the West," but not before some of the knowledge was passed along (such as to the Greeks from the priests of ancient Egypt, for example).
Lucy Wyatt's book can be found here, and some previous posts which comment on this important thesis can be found here and here.
Is it important to know that such a catastrophe might have befallen humanity in the unbelievably remote past?
If we know (or at least suspect) that a collapse even more catastrophic than that portrayed in Revolution once took place, then we can ask ourselves "How did it happen?" and (equally or even more importantly) "How can we prevent it from happening again?" Indeed, if the effects of that great ancient fall are still being felt today in the civilizations which are descended from those Iron Age civilizations, we can also ask, "How can we remedy or undo some of the forces which led to the loss of that light, and which may still stand between us and something that has been lost?"
On the other hand, if we deny the very possibility that such a catastrophe ever occurred, and if our collective institutions of higher learning selectively suppress the examination of the evidence for such a loss, and ridicule theories that contradict the dominant paradigm of ancient history, then we become less capable of avoiding the developments that might have led to the violent extinguishing of "the lights" the first time around.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the protagonists of the upcoming series appear to have the surname "Matheson." This is obviously a different last name than that of your humble blog author, and no relation or connection is to be assumed or inferred from any similarity. In the event of any future power outages, please don't look at me.
* Viewers outside the US may be able to watch the series directly on nbc.com (the first episode is already available online here).
** Since I published this, Professor Killingsworth has written to me to gently point out that this idea comes originally from Ursula Le Guin's introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, in which she says:
The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the word was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future -- indeed, Schrodinger's most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the "future," on the quantum level, cannot be predicted -- but to describe reality, the present world.Thanks for the correction! Nevertheless, Ms Le Guin's brilliant insights were recognized as such by Professor Killingsworth, and all these years later I still remember his comment on this point. He no doubt mentioned Ms Le Guin as the originator of that insight back then as well -- my apologies for necessitating a gentle reminder on that point!
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.