“You are right. I understood this myself when I read your novel The Time Machine. All Human conceptions are on the scale of our planet. They are based on the pretension that the technical potential, though it will develop, will never exceed the terrestrial limit. If we succeed in establishing interplanetary communications, all our philosophies, moral and social views, will have to be revised. In this case the technical potential, become limitless, will impose the end of the role of violence as a means and method of progress.” (Vladimir Ilych Lenin, in conversation with H. G. Wells at the Kremlin, Moscow, 1920)
“We have internal enemies. We have external enemies. This, comrades, must not be forgotten for a single moment.” (Josef Stalin, 1928)
“The war will soon be over. We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years. Then we’ll have another go at it.” (Stalin, 1945)
In a version of the afterlife where “the subject and object are the same,” a disembodied consciousness reflects on the countless lives it has lived over the course of eternity, and debates with itself about the nature of consciousness, meaning, and existence. In a tech-saturated London of the near future, a lonely journalist attempts to make sense of his meaningless existence, and finds himself caught up in the intrigues of a sinister and fast-growing social network community, and the shadowy government operatives who want to use him to sabotage it. Two hundred years later, a young soldier finds himself on the front lines of a war with an aggressive hivemind seeking to supplant humans in the next phase of evolution, only to make a choice that will seal humanity’s fate forever. And in the far future, an astronomer in a post-apocalyptic society makes contact with an alien race that appears to have been studying humankind for centuries, potentially disrupting the carefully calibrated world order on the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, a transdimensional being engineers the very fabric of space-time to help give rise to a self-conscious universe, and manipulates the events of the novel to ensure this comes to pass.
Published earlier this year, maverick British science fiction novelist Adam Roberts’s twenty-second novel is an ambitious, intelligent, and thoughtful romp across space, time, and beyond. Connecting the minutiae and mundanities of daily life with an overarching exploration of consciousness, memory, meaning, and morality, The This makes use of cheeky, clever, and creative observations to satirize society and present us with a startling vision for humanity. Paying homage to eighteenth-century German philosophy and the tropes of twentieth-century science fiction alike, it presents us with a satisfying, provocative, and cinematic thought experiment that also doubles as an entertaining novel.
We begin in “the Bardo”, a Buddhist limbo between death and rebirth where a universal consciousness stirs to awareness and begins cycling through all the lives it has lived from the dawn of time to the dusk of existence, realizing that while individual lives may be futile, they are far more interesting than doing nothing (at least from the perspective of a universal consciousness dwelling in eternal limbo, that is). Cycling through these memories eventually leads to the agglomeration of consciousness and matter into greater and greater entities that transcend form to become pure thought, eventually culminating in a single universal consciousness that is at once everywhere and nowhere. We then shift to the life of Alan Richard “Rich” Rigby, a thirty-nine-year-old loner living in London and struggling to make a living as a writer in a world where AI has outperformed humans in producing high-quality writing, thereby rendering writing a niche profession catering to those willing to pay a premium for human-generated content. Rich spends his days pursuing gigs to keep his DifferenceWork (“the Uber-style app for writers”) score high, reliving past relationships, writing a never-ending fantasy novel (“a High Fantasy novel somewhat in the manner of Tolkien rendered somewhat in the manner of Proust”), collecting rare banknotes (“a stylised, and therefore reified and modular and therefore more manageable, version of reality”), and generally living an atomized existence with few friends (“ … social media socially mediated almost all of his friendships nowadays anyway, as it did for most people, as it does for most people, as people like it”) but plenty of distractions to keep him busy and sated.
We follow Rich’s observations of life and society, both piddling and profound, as he cooks microwave meals, plays video games, fights with strangers over the internet, watches pornography, observes a “physically sighted but functionally blind population walking about with their gazes kidnapped by their phones,” and resists being courted by “The This,” a social network sweeping the world by promising the bliss of belonging to a global organic multitude. Accessing this nirvana requires only a simple implant of “Thistech” in the roof of one’s mouth. Enter Helen Susanna, a mysterious and disfigured old lady who reveals herself to be a former member of The This, and who darkly intimates that the rash of bizarre suicides and murders that have been taking place in the neighbourhood (and globally) of late are due to The This weeding out members it deems unfit for its emerging “gestalt” consciousness and “collective rationalisation,” as it quietly works to amass wealth and political influence around the world. After a series of scary encounters with aggressively evangelizing “Thissers,” an increasingly paranoid Rich is recruited by Helen and MI5 agent Hoyle to join the subversive social network—and transfer a destabilizing virus into its very code in order to prevent it from undermining the British government.
Two hundred years later, Adan Vergara, an unemployed and slow-witted bachelor spending his days playing video games, drinking, and making love to his “Phene” (a type of humanoid companion robot), is shocked out of his complacency when his mother informs him that she is joining the “HMƟ”—an increasingly popular and fast-growing hivemind consciousness descended from The This that promises immortality and eternal companionship for those who join its ranks. She also intends to take away his allowance. With limited job prospects, Adan decides to “sign over his soul to the military,” and is soon deployed to the frontlines of a war with the HMƟ. Here he discovers that, through a strange conversation months earlier with a mysterious figure who hacked into and spoke to him through his Phene, he holds the key to shutting down the enemy’s military infrastructure. Recruited by military intelligence for sensitive negotiations with the HMƟ on Venus—a planet which the hivemind is terraforming into a new home for itself—he finds himself betrayed by his own side, captured by the enemy, and forcibly assimilated into the hivemind, where—in a riff on Ender’s Game (1985)—his “latent abilities for military thinking” are unlocked and deployed to deadly advantage against the Earth government.
Flitting in and out of the lives of Alan, Adan, and other characters is a mysterious figure by the name (amongst others) of “Abby Normal,” an extra-dimensional being capable (as an embodiment of the consciousness of the universe) of traversing space-time, who manipulates events of the “past” and “future” (for those who perceive temporal-spatial observations as such) to fulfill a grand plan that leads to the awakening of the universe itself as a fully realized and self-aware consciousness. As if this is not ambitious enough a topic, Roberts even manages to squeeze in an homage to a classic science fiction novel (that shall remain unnamed) which not only extends the theme of supra-organic life in a new direction, but which also fits in beautifully with everything that precedes it.
At its heart, The This is really a novel about loneliness and belonging in an age of hyper-connectivity, and about the lengths to which people will go to seek companionship and community. At times, it even feels like an episode of Black Mirror, complete with its themes of paranoia and social alienation in a tech-saturated world. In the worlds of Rich and Adan, much like in ours, human interaction comes at a premium, and technology appears to have been inserted into nearly everything for commercial purposes. “The whole world is blind, actually blind,” remarks one character. “This technology wraps a scarf around their eyes. They can’t see the beauty of the day. They can’t see anything.”
Consider Adan’s Phene companion “Elegy” (appropriately named, perhaps, to lament the demise of human relations): while mainly a source of sexual companionship, she supplies an emotional core to his otherwise empty and lonely life. Phenes are widespread and found in nearly every home, and the subject of rich debate and activism regarding their status as persons. The origin of the name is unclear, but Phene-rights activists claim it is derived from the word “phenotype” (or appearance), “because elements of human DNA are included in the coding that acts genetically” in the material that constitutes their skin to give them a human appearance. Others suggest that the word is derived from the word “phone”, because “humanity invented cellphones, and people loved them … Then some dude thought—they really love them, you know? They invest emotionally in them. They weep when they accidentally drop them in the bath or crack their fucken fragile screens. So if they love their phones, and we make a phone they can actually fuck … ” Completing this picture is a bizarre scene in an “iPhene shop” where Phene owners can upgrade their Phenes with add-ons to fulfill their sexual and relationship fantasies, making Phenes both a nod to digital addiction, and a warning about the complexities of using human DNA to create humanoid quasi-persons merely for entertainment.
Indeed, Adan is later involved in the suppression of a riot of Phene-rights activists opposed to a government-mandated registration of all Phenes on the fear that the HMƟ may be able to hack them, turn them into a “fifth column” and “turn them against us.” In orbit near Venus, right before crucial negotiations with the hivemind, Adan learns that the Earth government has shut down all Phenes (effectively killing them), and suffers a nervous breakdown. His need for compassion and tenderness is so pressing that Elegy’s “death” compels him to have a breakdown right at a crucial moment when the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, leading to his capture. “Loneliness corrodes the human spirit,” says one character. “It’s a rust upon our bright metal, yes? Human beings aren’t supposed to be alone. Now … they’re not supposed to live in a fucking hive mind neither.” Quite.
This is the history of humanity on the larger scale. First: a struggle to stay alive. Then, when that battle was more or less won, a struggle not to be bored … [We live in] not the Anthropocene so much as the Toycene. We have invested enormous amounts of energy and ingenuity and labour and money in making new diversions, new gadgets and games, gimcrack devices and cunningly written computer code and imaginary people’s imaginary adventures on page and screen … Toys everywhere. The toy event horizon … Because the iron law of the Toycene is this: kids wants their toys to be their friends and adults want to fuck their toys.
Rich, too, two hundred years earlier, experiences the pangs of loneliness and alienation in a materially comfortable life. On its surface, The This is merely an implant that frees people from having to use their phones to type and tweet. The drawback is that it sucks them into a proto-hivemind from which viable escape is not guaranteed. With its members organized into specialized cells grouped by function and type of responsibility, The This functions without a central leader, operates purely on collective decision-making at the speed of thought, and is meant to embody an ideal of near-perfect egalitarianism, democracy, and social inclusion. In a society largely composed of emotionally under-developed wastrels wallowing in existential self-pity and sensual self-indulgence, the promise of carefree connection, blissful belonging (“from a solitary atom in an alienated universe to a plenitude of belonging he had not realised was even possible”), and social worth is irresistible, even if it comes at the expense of individuality, autonomy, and privacy.
In any case Rich and his fellow citizens of the future spend their days amusing themselves to death instead of living more self-aware and responsible lives; with full and abundant daily sensory overload, there’s nothing left to want, and yet they feel empty (“he had not realised how empty was his soul until it was filled”). With everything catered to, there's no need to strive for anything, and so their lives feel empty, meaningless, and desperate. If consciously constructing meaning in one’s life is perceived to be prohibitively difficult and beyond reach, then why not reach for the ease and immediate comfort of joining a hivemind? What use are individual rights and privacy if they only appear to be prolonging the misery of an atomized, lonely existence? Can too much choice and too little connection feel just as stifling as its opposite? Can a person feel more free and fulfilled by sacrificing their individual identity to a collective? Is it only in denial and in a sense of striving within a community that can meaning be found? Is true egalitarianism, democracy, and social inclusion—a form of utopia as presented here—actually indistinguishable from tyranny? Questions like these—some old, some new—arise by way of allusion throughout the novel.
Both The This and the HMƟ raise the question of whether morality is (or ought to be) a function of social organization. A key implication of a hivemind emerging in the midst of an organized, atomized society is that it invalidates the need for a political state, or any kind of government at all, because the Western concepts of individual rights, liberty, and democracy—designed to empower and protect the masses from abusive governments—become redundant if everyone is simultaneously and intimately both the government and the governed in a way that democracy can never ensure, and the rights of the collective formally supersede the rights of the individual. In both cases, but especially in the HMƟ’s, individuals surrender their individual rights to the hivemind in exchange for power, “contentment, belonging, bliss” within “a properly co-ordinated human collective consciousness.” Within such an entity, where individuals are reduced to cells within a larger being, members are replaceable or sheddable for the collective well-being of the hive. A member doesn’t fit? They are eliminated, or driven to suicide. From the hivemind’s perspective, how is this wrong?
After all, is the morality of the gestalt any less valid than the morality of humans? Do we weep for the eighty million bacteria we kill with a kiss, or the cells being shed every time we scratch an itch? If bacteria were sentient, any moral system they conceived as cellular life would be quite different from any system we devised as multi-cellular life, and we wouldn’t necessary feel beholden to what they might consider genocide. Our ability to recognize violence depends on what we accept as valid violence. We censure violence against humans but not against bacteria or many animals, because humans (and only a few animals) are accepted as sentient creatures. In that sense, our morality is bounded and arbitrary. The hivemind is no different, and it circumvents this problem by assigning legal and political personhood only to the collective, and by treating individual or unassimilated humans as a less complex lifeform unworthy of personhood (like humans do bacteria). Of course, this undermines the guiding principles of our contemporary political order (at least in the democratic world), because the only rights that remain to be safeguarded now are those of the formal collective, which means a collision with any traditional democratic government is almost guaranteed.
The real issue is that traditional society’s laws and morality are inadequate for accommodating the needs and nature of the hivemind. They are incapable of comprehending the organic and social reality embodied by it, and therefore require wholesale revision. The hivemind isn’t necessarily evil as much as it is following its own intricate internal system of evolutionary and moral logic, one which happens to be apropos for an entity of its scale, but which puts it at odds with the laws and morality of the traditional human society around it. Just as Machiavelli argued for a difference between personal (individual) morality and public (state) morality, The This opens up the possibility that, when it comes to dealing with a hivemind, a separate paradigm of morality might be required to govern or accept its processes—that is, if we choose to accept them at all. Perhaps it is little wonder that in nearly every timeframe within the novel, the hivemind, in whatever form it happens to take, finds itself inevitably at war with some government. Perhaps the differences are simply too irreconcilable to be surmounted, and peace can only be achieved with the extirpation of all competition.
Maybe they are right and they are the next evolutionary step—maybe they’re Homo sapiens and we’re Homo neanderthalensis. So what? [...] Should Neanderthal men and women just lay down and die? Of course not. Evolution isn’t a script, it’s a struggle. If the Neanderthals had defeated Homo sapiens, then Homo sapiens would look like the evolutionary dead end.
There’s also an interesting side-theory that the novel posits about social media, the senses, and our ability to perceive the divine that underwrites the success with which The This and HMƟ are able to spread: humans primarily evolved to navigate the world by smell and touch (olfactory and tactile) rather than by sight (visual). Over time, as our visual capabilities developed, we began to navigate the world more visually, even as our minds preferred to interpret things through olfactory and tactile impulses. So when we encountered phenomena that could be observed visually but not interpreted through smell or touch (for example, the sun rising and setting, death etc.), we begin to attribute these things to the numinous, divine, or supernatural. It is from this gap between the primacy of our visual inputs and the preference of our minds for olfactory and tactile inputs that our sense of the numinous, divine, and supernatural emerges.
According to novel’s theory of “The Odourless God,” social media feeds this impulse by giving us a stream of emotionally-charged visual inputs which carry no olfactory and minimal tactical stimuli, and so we respond to it with the same intense emotion and feeling that we would to something perceived to be divine, numinous, or supernatural. And so social media (and more broadly, the dominance of visual culture as whole—images, movies, digital video, the internet—in a trend starting in the twentieth century) comes to supplant religion, and inspires us to worship it in a way. The This’s profound offering of a vibrant social media experience, combined with the apparent safety and security of belonging to a hivemind, overwhelms the natural skepticism of most, and replaces it with something akin to a feeling of awe in the presence of the divine, making those who interact with it more amenable to being convinced to join it, surrendering their individuality to it, and allowing it to connect all of them into a god-like super-entity. The theory is far-fetched, but plausible enough to provide a justification for the way the plot unfolds.
Suffice to say, The This is a layered work: a wildly imaginative novel, a thought experiment on morality and social organization, and a meditation on time and consciousness all bound together with fluid, crisp, and vivid prose alive with a sense of its own possibility. Crackling with wit and intelligence, it succeeds in pushing the limits of the science fiction novel to explore the moral, political, and social implications of group identity and collective consciousness, but at its heart is essentially a meditation on the nature of morality in organized society, and a haunting portrait of modern loneliness that will be familiar to many.
With its interesting theories about the roots of human social behaviour, organization, and culture, and its intense explorations of life within a hivemind, The This explores the nature of being and belonging, and what people might be willing to do to find belonging when they reach the limits of social atomization, language, and technology-based connection. This is an intricately constructed science fiction novel deserving of wider readership. I found myself constantly marveling at what Roberts was doing as I made my way through it. Judging by the plots of his other books, Roberts is an exciting and underrated author, whose works featuring picaresque protagonists, grand themes, and erudite philosophical explorations may help us navigate the complex moral choices we face at a time when our future as a species feels increasingly uncertain—and unearth startling, if unsettling, visions for how we could reimagine ourselves as a society for the sake of our survival.