Disunion: Visions of Our Fragmented Future

In the pages of science fiction, the United States of America has been threatened with decay, dissolution, and destruction almost since the moment of its founding. The agent of the country’s extinction might be a conventional military invasion — by humans or aliens — or nuclear war or plagues or climactic changes. Sometimes the country goes down alone, sometimes the catastrophe is global in nature. Sometimes the surface appearance of things is falsely maintained, but the moral essence of the nation proves to have been subverted.

The Last American by J. A. Mitchell from 1889 finds the country a barbaric wilderness shambles, subject to a condescending visit from representatives of the civilized Middle East. The protagonist of M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) emerges as, literally, the last man on the planet after a noxious celestial gas attack, and happily burns down the world’s great cities for sociopathic fun, including San Francisco. Some of these narratives played up racist fears: Philip Francis Nowlan brought the country low with Asian “Han” invaders in 1928’s Armageddon 2419 A.D., the basis for the Buck Rogers franchise, and Robert Heinlein followed suit with an Asiatic menace in 1949 with Sixth Column. A new plague does the trick of dismantling the country in George Stewart’s pastoral Earth Abides (1949). Omnipotent alien Overlords upset all existing geopolitical realities in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). In Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, from 1955, after a devastating war the USA’s amended Constitution prohibits any large-scale settlements, leaving the country a rural backwater. Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1964) conjures up a scenario similar to aspects of both Stewart’s and Brackett’s. And of course, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) looked back to imagine a country divided between the Axis conquerors. Germany and Japan.

While there have been numerous stellar books after Davy that utilize these same bugbears to undo the USA, one particular kind of national collapse rose to prominence in speculative fiction in the mid-1960s: the internal fragmentation or disunion or balkanization of the country, due solely or mainly to systemic or regional or contentious cultural forces. No foreign soldiers, no microbes, no bombs, no bug-eyed-monsters need to be involved. The dissolution of the Union happens strictly due to internal contradictions, forces and factors that compel a splintering or segregation, whether mutually agreed upon by all parties, or unilaterally enforced by some. (And, surprisingly, sometimes the new situation is an improvement.)

This scenario, of course, bears increasing relevance in our culturally and politically divided moment and beyond, and one might predict a growing number of such tales.

The relative scarcity of such speculative splinterings prior to the 1960s seems to derive from a number of factors. Up until about WWII, the powerful impact of the Civil War and its aftermath, still a living memory, made such a new disunion almost unthinkable. Having lived through the horrible, bloody War of the States, the populace seemed determined to honor the sacrifice, almost to the point of being unable to conceive of a likely recurrence along similar or different lines. The WWII era, of course, fostered national cohesion, which held through the 1950s, even as movements to address racial injustice were gearing up.

But starting with the JFK assassination and all the other well-known turbulence and divisive antipathies of the decade, the notion that the old agreements that had cemented the country together might not hold any longer began to seem more probable.

One early outlier of such a notion is certainly Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, from 1935 – a work that’s been cited almost into cliché over the past twelve months. But Lewis’s notion of a strictly political battle, between a nascent dictatorship and rival parties, even if it evolves into a grassroots resistance movement, did not quite capture the feeling that the average citizen had had enough of the federation. In Lewis’s story, the urge to dissolve the country did not bubble up from below but represented the standard political coup from above, an ancient Machiavellian maneuver as old as Caesar, Brutus, and ancient Rome. Heinlein, of course, was there not long after with If This Goes On (1940), a tale of an American theocracy and a resistance working to bring it down. A forerunner of this riff occurs in Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), and an extension of the motif might be found in such coup d’état novels and films as Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove.

There were also earlier precursors: Scholar and anthologist Mike Ashley, in his collection The Feminine Future, unearthed “A Divided Republic” by Lillie Devereux Blake (1887), a story that posits a division of the country into separate male and female enclaves. Damon Knight’s Masters of Evolution (1959) develops an urban-versus-rural split into rival polities, with the ruralists being dubbed “muckfeet.”

But the sense that the center cannot hold truly became manifest only during the 1960s, and the certainty that the nation would cohere despite all the differences of its components has never been fully restored.

Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) adumbrated the sense that there were unseen factors at work in the USA and around the globe that might cause new divisions in old structures; that there existed factions with unconventional allegiances to causes other than national federation. In the real world, the retreat by disgruntled hippies into country communes that functioned almost as independent feudal fiefdoms seemed to spell out allied splits. But it fell to a genre writer to crystallize the motif of fragmentation in instantly recognizable form.

In his heyday, Ron Goulart was the funniest, wryest man in science fiction. Robert Sheckley or William Tenn might have held that crown in the 1950s, but they had slowed down by the time Goulart hit his peak. With his first story published in 1952 (giving this still-active writer a sixty-five-year career to date), Goulart took a while to perfect his style. But by the time of After Things Fell Apart, he had his shtick down. It was a combination of vaudeville slapstick with screwball comedy, updated with Firesign Theatre surreal irreverence, Mort Sahl wit, and the Yippies’ spirit of anarchy. Although published in 1970, his second novel, surely written in the ’60s, represents the crescendo of that era, and we can assert in persnickety fashion that 1970 was technically the final year of that decade.

After Things Fell Apart opens without preamble in the offices of the government of the San Francisco Enclave. We quickly learn that the USA is long gone, the country a fading memory to a few elderly survivors, but just ancient history to most. Goulart never explicitly details the downfall of the nation, save for a few hints such as a Chinese invasion of the mainland. It’s simply the blithely accepted status quo for all the future citizens of these tiny feuding kingdoms. This normalizing of the condition makes it even more believable.

Our hero is a government investigator named Jim Haley. He is tasked with tracking down a group of assassins headed by the mysterious Lady Day and named Mankiller, Inc., who are slaughtering male power figures. In best Ross Macdonald tradition, Haley’s relentless bloodhound excursions take him across a patchwork of polities and bring him face to face with a bevy of eccentric monomaniacs, from the recreationists of Olden Towne to the historians of the Nixon Institute and the hedonists savoring the resorts run by the Amateur Mafia; from the anti-feminist New Punch and Judy Theater to the psychobabble spa center of Vienna West and the G-Man Motel run by the ex-head of the FBI. Along the way, Haley becomes enamored of a repentant ex-Mankiller named Penny Deacon. Her abduction by her former comrades adds urgency to Haley’s quest. Eventually the mass execution that the Mankillers intend to stage at the Monterey Mechanical Jazz Festival — “Her brother plays an aluminum marimba, and they got two garbage trucks and a street-sweeping robot working with them” — is stymied, and the terrorist group busted up.

The pacing is antic, a nonstop Marx Brothers riot. The dialogue is arch, deadpan, full of non-sequiturs and rife with smart allusiveness.

[Penny]: “You grin like the Shropshire cat.”

[Haley]: “You’re thinking of the Cheshire lad.”

But the core effect of the book — the depiction of an absolute abandonment of civic mutuality — is conveyed in the endless self-centeredness on display, and the ethnic and racial slurs that the characters throw at each other. Empathy and compassion and a spirit of compromise have shrunk to zero. This familiar phenomenon from our own year of 2016, plus the continuing relevance of all the hot-button topics, make this book read as if it had been written just last month.

The fact that Goulart could present his scenario of a patchwork North America in a humorous fashion speaks of the basically still optimistic and sunny tenor of the Age of Aquarius. But as has been frequently observed, the post-Altamont decline of the Hippie Dream into the oil crisis stagflation of the 1970s brought darker visions to the fore. One novel that straddled the transition, dealing with the secession of Texas from the union, was 1974’s The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop. And the black humor in Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979), which finds the USA divided into a heartland of “Undergodders” and coastal liberal elites, still speaks to our present. And the topic was plainly on the mind of editors Edward Bryant and Jo Ann Harper, who gave us the anthology 2076: The American Tricentennial (1977).

Additionally, a new impetus to fragmentation had arisen, surprisingly enough, in the form of the ecology movement, later to be rechristened environmentalism. If Mother Nature’s boundaries were the only valid ones, then mankind should organize itself along bioregional lines. Thus Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) had Northern California, Oregon and Washington hiving off from the USA to form that titular state. Spiritually allied novels of subsequent decades such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990) would continue to play with these ideas.

But there were other, more malevolent forces at work tearing the country apart. Racism, pollution, foreign wars, income inequality, crime, new plagues, liberalism versus conservatism. Sounds like a snapshot of 2016, doesn’t it? But it’s all in the pages of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972), an appallingly prescient and still hard-hitting novel. Starting with Stand on Zanzibar in 1968 and continuing with The Jagged Orbit (1969),  The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider (1975), Brunner completed a quartet that took the pulse of the planet and unerringly diagnosed its ills, offering scant mercies.

The tenor of The Sheep Look Up, in contrast to that of Stand on Zanzibar four years earlier — which, while far from a comedy, still held out some hope — is unrelentingly despondent and grim. Entropy rules all.

Using the mosaic “multimedia” approach he borrowed from John Dos Passos and honed in Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner splits his attention among numerous protagonists and a bricolage of documents and other artifacts.

A short time into the future, Phil Mason works for an insurance firm until his company begins to go under, due to the amount of claims being made for various disasters, natural and otherwise, and he is let go. He hooks up with an entrepreneurial maker of water filters — a necessity, along with face masks, in this vile contaminated world — but soon they encounter major setbacks, thanks to an unknown bacterium in the drinking water supplies. Austin Train is a professional gadfly, curmudgeon, deep thinker, and critic of society who has inspired rebellious followers called Trainites. He has to stay undercover for most of the book. Peg Mankiewicz is a reporter with allegiances to Train, in search of ways to make a difference with her journalism. The rich Bamberly family has earned part of its fortune through Nutripon, a disaster-aid emergency foodstuff. When contaminated batches kill Third World victims, the corporate image goes to hell. Scion Hugh Bamberley hits the road to atone. Pete Goddard, a black man, is a working-class cop who suffers a disabling injury during an act of heroism and is taken onboard the same filter company employing Phil Mason. These main characters, vividly limned, along with their families and scores of others, all seek some measure of security, love, and prosperity in a world where those same hardwired hominid drives have conspired to produce knock-on effects that will doom the whole planet.

The cultural details that Brunner provides — a clownish ineffectual president nicknamed Prexy; a mediagenic, publicity-seeking showboat, Petronella Page; a chain of organic markets named Puritan whose products are rip-offs — resonate down the decades. When we encounter such lines as this — “The frontier between France and Italy has been closed since midnight to stem the horde of starving refugees from the south” — the shock of recognition is palpable.

In the section titled “Statement of Emergency,” Prexy’s blustering, whiny address to the nation outlining the sorry cascades of crises and assigning blame everywhere but where it belongs is the tipping point to the end times. “[Philip] glanced up uneasily . . . helicopter gunships . . . against the insurrection in Cheyenne.” Were the landscape and morale of the populace not so devastated, one could almost read this as the prequel to Goulart’s future.

An important nonfiction work that began the 1980s’ dalliance with disunion and carried forward some of the impulses behind Callenbach’s Ectopia is The Nine Nations of North America (1981) by Joel Garreau, which made the case that cultural, economic, and environmental parameters dictated a rearrangement of all the old familiar districts of Canada and the USA into the new homogeneous zones. Robert Heinlein, cognizant of such themes for four decades at this point, turned North America into a set of balkanized enclaves in his late-period novel Friday (1982). And J. G. Ballard’s depiction of the collapsed USA in Hello America (1981) brought back some satirical zing to the subgenre.

But a strong candidate for the decade’s chief example of the USA ripping itself apart due to internal strains, one that harks back to the primal Sinclair Lewis mode, yet with a metaphysical overlay, is Radio Free Albemuth, by Philip K. Dick. (In its hybridization of politics and spirituality, it’s a curious kissing cousin to C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength from 1945.)

Although released in 1983, a year after Dick’s death, the novel was written circa 1976, and thus might be expected to exhibit more of a Nixon era vibe than a Reagan era affect. But despite its earlier origin, it still encapsulates the ongoing tensions between authoritarianism and independence of thought being played out under the Reagan presidency.

The first half of the novel is told from the first-person viewpoint of a hack SF writer named Philip K. Dick, who is watching his close friend Nicholas Brady undergo baffling communications from a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Dick and Brady live in what was already, at the time of Dick’s composition in 1976, an alternate timeline. In this continuum, the USA is a dictatorship run by President Ferris F. Fremont — a mélange of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — who strives to protect the country from a fictional enemy dubbed Aramcheck. Beside the usual government agencies, Fremont employ the Friends of the American People as spies and vigilantes, and a young woman member of FAP seeks to entrap Phil.

Meanwhile, VALIS, or Radio Free Albemuth (Albemuth being the name of the star system where VALIS originates), is revealing much useful information to Nick, such as how to cure his son’s illness and that time really stopped at AD 70, resulting in “Black Iron Prison” status for a duped planet. At the midpoint of the text, the first-person voice switches seamlessly to Nick’s (thereby cementing the identity of Brady and PKD). The two men, along with a similarly touched woman named Sadassa Silvia, strive to utilize VALIS’s help to set things right.

Dick’s patented blend of paranoia, anti-authoritarianism, and droll self-deprecation, his roller-coastering between optimism and despair, and his continuous and continuously frustrated attempts to balance saintliness with the demands of the flesh, achieve a fine expression and balance here. And while he would rework much of this material into more sophisticated form in VALIS (which actually saw print earlier, in 1981), this rudimentary form better highlights the civic issues over the esoteric ones.

Readers will chuckle at the closing paragraphs, where a distant salvation arrives in the form of a rock group named Alexander Hamilton. But they will surely jump with surprise at this passage, testament to Dick’s sage-like tap into futurity:

[The] Soviet Union . . . still holds [Fremont] in great respect. That Fremont was in fact closely tied to Soviet intrigue in the United States, backed in fact by Soviet interests and his strategy framed by Soviet planners, is in dispute but is nonetheless a fact. The Soviets backed him, the right-wingers backed him, and finally just about everyone, in the absence of any other candidate, backed him. When he took office, it was on the wave of a huge mandate. Who else could they vote for? When you consider that in effect Fremont was running against no one else, that the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by his people, spied on, wiretapped, reduced to shambles, it makes more sense. Fremont had the backing of the U.S. intelligence community, as they liked to call themselves, and ex-agents played an effective role in decimating political opposition. In a one-party system there is always a landslide.

Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash (1992) kicked off the ’90s as a brilliant contender for exemplar of the fragmentation trope, with the entire planet being divvied up among billionaires and various NGO’s, including the Mafia, who run a superlative USA pizza delivery service. But John Barnes’s Kaleidoscope Century (1995) took national fragmentation — or was it a new unity? — several radical steps further.

Featuring an “intensively recomplicated” plot — to utilize the critical terminology that James Blish pioneered for the novels of A. E. van Vogt — involving immortality, time travel, space flight, and gender swapping, as well as extensive Realpolitik shenanigans and much warfare, and inheriting much of its allure from the compulsively readable SF thrillers of Keith Laumer, the book has at its core the revolutionary concept of “meme wars.” The Richard Dawkins−inspired term “meme” is generally taken as a simple idea that can leap from mind to mind through some kind of audiovisual inspiration. Barnes literalizes this: mind viruses propagate in warring tides through humanity’s wetware until finally one is dominant: Resuna.

There are no more borders . . . whatever runs the Earth is called Resuna . . . One identical personality for everyone, human or AI, on Earth, that will add up to One True . . .

“You’ve got it all right,” he said. “Every other meme you can at least destroy, locally, by killing a carrier, and every other meme requires a long time to download, you have to get tricked into talking to it for hours in realtime. But Resuna is so simple, it’ll spread like a bad cold in an airport. And the more it copies, the bigger and stronger One True gets.”

Probably three quarters of the world’s human population was now running One True or one of the other memes. They weren’t exactly not themselves but they weren’t exactly themselves either. Like after a religious conversion, kind of.

And so the USA dissolves into the totality of the world’s new homogeneity.

In terms of the Zeitgeist, Barnes was both intimately of his period and prophetic. The 1995 publication date of Kaleidoscope Century exactly coincides with Microsoft’s launch of the first practical browser, Internet Explorer, and the subsequent explosion of online activity that has come to dominate the lives of every twenty-first-century wired citizen. All the “echo chamber” and “fake news” and “trolling” and “social media” and “gaslighting” and “catfishing” that followed the advent of the Web are the separate component apps that constitute Resuna a-borning: humanity’s new operating system, installed whether you want it or not. The Meme Wars are being enacted daily in 2016 and often appear likely to dissolve the old Union.

By the time the USA arrived in the twenty-first century, the notion that our country’s political union was not written in stone or eternal became so normalized that such books began to look like a small neighborhood of SF. The graphic novel saga by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ (2005−12) posits a new civil war in the USA, with a number of states bailing out of the union, and Manhattan rendered a contentious interzone. We also got Harry Turtledove’s The Disunited States of America (2006) an alternate history tale in which the nation had never quite gelled, and Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America (2008). And the robot successors to humanity in Ariel Winter’s Barren Cove (2016) certainly do not maintain the old jurisdictions.

But perhaps once the old ways and borders are discarded, something better might emerge. Or at least, some new strategies for living together can be tried. That is the thesis of Ada Palmer’s Too like the Lightning, the first of four books in the Terra Ignota series. (Seven Surrenders appears in March 2017.)

There are a few SF novels that prize cognitive estrangement above all. Perhaps the most famous is the cult classic Murder in Millennium VI (1951) by Curme Gray. Other recent contenders are Counting Heads (2005) by David Marusek and The Quantum Thief (2010) by Hannu Rajaniemi. This style tosses the reader into the deep end of the futuristic pool and lets them sink or swim.

Too like the Lightning is in this vein, and ultimately quite successful. The book is narrated by one Mycroft Canner, a citizen of the year 2454, and its worst criminal. Normally, his telling would entail immersion in all the patois and ideations of the future. And we do get that. But Mycroft complicates matters by simultaneously using the assumed voice of an Enlightenment-era gentleman (due to the revived popularity of that historical period in his day and age) and by addressing his tale to hypothetical readers yet unborn. The latter tactic allows him logically to insert many explanations that contemporary readers can also utilize.

Mycroft’s world has discarded religion and gender among other sacred cows, and is divided into seven “Hives,” vast regions that each share certain cultural shibboleths. (One immediately thinks of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which featured similar clades.)

Our Thomas Carlyle, genius thief, co-opted the simile in 2130 when he named the Hive, our modern union, its members united, not by any accident of birth, but by shared culture, philosophy, and, most of all, by choice. Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than Carlyle, an inevitable change ever since 2073 when Mukta circled the globe in four-point-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

So much for American exceptionalism. All part of the trash heap of history. The actual dissolution of the country is detailed later, during a commemorative event.

“What is a people?” the speech continues, the actor’s voice resonating through the dome. “It is a group of human beings united by a common bond, not of blood or geography, but of friendship and trust. What is a nation? It is a government formed by a people to protect that common bond with common laws, so its members may enjoy life, liberty, happiness, justice, and all those rights we love. Americans, America is no longer your nation. Your nation is the friends who live and work with you, in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, all of the Americas, and all the other corners of this Earth. Your nation is those who went to school with you, who cheered beside you at games, who grew up with you, traded intimacies with you over the internet, and still today break bread with you in your own house, on whatever continent it stands. Your nation is the organization which you chose to protect your family and property, in sickness and in health, as you traveled the globe to find your ideal home.

“I call on all Americans who do not support this war to renounce your citizenship and trust us — any one of us, you have your pick. Let us protect you and your families in this new, free world. I call on the citizens of all other countries of the world to respect our members, and accept the passports we will issue, just as you would the passports printed by a country which can boast a blotch of territory somewhere on the globe.”

Underlying the Alfred Bester−style pyrotechnics of its plot (a Kuttneresque wonder child named Bridger plays a large role), Too like the Lightning is intimately concerned with all the Enlightenment controversies that birthed the USA in 1776. How to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority; the obligations of the government to citizens, and vice versa; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That this future world, manifestly better than ours in many respects (although the indentured Servicer class that Mycroft belongs to raises many moral quandaries, along lines similar to those dealt with in Damon Knight’s famous story “The Country of the Kind”), should still be struggling with these issues is testament to the eternal striving to perfect the imperfectable stock of humanity — America’s dream of a “Shining City on the Hill.”

* * *

Perhaps the ultimate moral of all these novels from the past century or so inheres in the famous line uttered by Ben Franklin after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when he was queried about what kind of country the conventioneers had just delivered. “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

To maintain the USA as an integral entity is a constant struggle, with no guarantees of success. Science fiction shows us some of the many ways to fail at the task.

NOTE: I would like to acknowledge and thank the members of the Fictionmags listserv for their invaluable and erudite suggestions of relevant titles.