A “comedy/fantasy/sci-fi novel” by Sandra Hodgkinson, who blogs at Composed Almost Entirely of Books. You can read the opening of the book on her site, or buy the e-book.
“ No death, but from great age. No sickness of the body or the mind. No hurt, no harm, but only harmony.’
That was John Constance’s mission statement for his ideal world. It is carved onto the base of his statues; inscribed on a plaque in every Home; available, through Acquisition, on countless mugs and T-shirts and in cross-stitch ‘Have a Happy Hobby!’ kits.
Channel 43 is wont to commence its breakfast programme with various paraphrases to hearten and inspire: “No death, but from great boredom. No visible sickness of the body or mind. No thrills, no fun, but only bloody Harmony.” Mugs and T-shirts for these and similar sentiments are not yet widely available.
Welcome to Harmony: a place of one hundred percent protection from almost all of the leading causes of death. Here, you are part of a thriving community, with a stress-free scheduled existence, a TV channel for every taste and the world to – Virtually – explore, from the safe, comforting confinement of your own home.
But freedom has not been sacrificed: merely redefined. And Governance can always be trusted to have the best interests of the Community at heart. In short, Rosa Larrimer is living in a stone-cold, genuine Utopia and she really shouldn’t be feeling so… twitchy.
Consensus is darkly funny, a dystopian novel bursting with big, mad ideas, clever jokes, and disturbing lights on human nature. It’s an impressive demonstration of world-building, with Knowledge Nuggets, poetry, and extracts from history books, and footnotes galore.
Think of it as a cross between Asimov’s Naked Sun and Douglas Adams or Jasper Fforde, while remaining very much its own, individual book.
And individuality is the issue. Jung thought that we become ourselves through interacting with other people. John Constance, founder of the Unity of Protected Areas and States, thought that people were the problem.
Sensitive, warm-hearted, and utterly humorless, he misread a satire, and turned society into one enormous safe space.
The basic notion – that in order to create a truly safe and happy community, it was necessary to make it a one-hundred percent physically segregated one – struck him as so eminently reasonable that he only wondered why it hadn’t been attempted before.
The citizens of the Unity never leave their homes, and never see another human being. They meet online each day for Amity Hour – but conversation follows the dictates of True Communication, and all opinions and matters of taste are officially determined.
“It was terrible,” says a character from outside, “watching everyone smiling and pretending to shake hands and talking about such trivial, trivial things … and thinking that they’re happy…”
A cocooned existence is no substitute for life. It’s only by plunging headfirst into life in all its richness, and meeting people – sometimes enchanting, sometimes aggravating – that we can develop.
“Besides,” says a character, “can you really be completely yourself, if you become detached from everything and everybody else? If we all contribute to each other, then a ‘you’ without input can only ever be a rough draft…”
It’s a thought-provoking extrapolation from trends in modern society. We’re social creatures, humans – but increasingly we socialize through social media. We may be more “connected”, but how deep is that connection? Is it any substitute for hanging out with flesh-and-blood people? Do our media-saturated, electronic lifestyles cut us off from reality?
We also live in an age of outrage. Careers and reputations have been destroyed for saying the wrong thing; “problematic” speakers banned from campuses; and the Twitter mobs bay for blood. Difference of opinion has increasingly become offensive, an assault on the ego, and the cheerful agreement to disagree is falling by the wayside. People, cut off from others, turn inwards, and lose their sense of proportion.
We need other people to stay sane.
“People can’t be trusted with other people,” Hodgkinson writes. “But, perhaps, we can be trusted even less without them.”