IF THEN. Matthew De Abaitua’s chilling contemplation of an algorithm-driven society
IF THEN is both fascinating and chilling, not only for its recreation of an episode of the First World War, but also because the society we know has become controlled by an algorithm. It decides who is allowed to live within the protected communities where the inhabitants are provided with just enough food and clothing for their needs. Expulsion can happen at any time if an individual is deemed unnecessary. Then they must fend for themselves, with all the consequences that will bring in a pastoral landscape with none of the conveniences of a developed society. A landscape where the First World War is about to be painstakingly recreated.
The narrative may be the result of Matthew De Abaitua’s fertile imagination, but there is much in it that resonates with the way people can be overwhelmed and subjugated by totalitarian regimes and yet a few determined souls are still prepared to rebel against it.
The first book of the trilogy, The Red Men, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
So what is going on in Matthew’s mind as he creates a sinister world run by an algorithm and slides a seemingly idyllic countryside into the horrors of trench warfare?
The novel is derived from a great many different historic events, people and scientific concepts. Go through how these all came to your attention and why you decided to use them in IF THEN.
I was researching an obscure interwar camping movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift for my previous book, a history of camping. The leader of the Kindred was John Hargrave, who had been a stretcher bearer at the landing of Suvla Bay, a battle within the wider campaign known variously as Gallipoli or the Cannakale. I was walking around the South Downs when I had a vision of a member of the Kindred in their characteristic hood and jerkin, lurking around a freshly dug trench cut in the English countryside. The vision suggested the return of the First World War in the near future and on home soil. This image had a luminous strangeness. I was intrigued and began working through, rationally, how this might come about.
Two contemporary trends provided an answer. Firstly, the rise of the algorithm as a way of mediating between our desires and technology. Secondly, austerity and the failure of the Western economies to get going again in the wake of the financial crisis. The sense that capitalism is whimpering, particularly for the middle class who are being hollowed out. I combined these two ideas to create an English town full of redundant people who are maintained by an algorithm called The Process that monitors need and allocates resources accordingly. The Process can manufacture goods for the town – because the labour of the people has no value, they don’t have enough money to function economically, and consider themselves lucky to have The Process to look after them. The Process is a proto-artificial intelligence. It is not self-aware. It is not conscious. Nor is it entirely explicable to the people caught up in it. The Process is a stepping stone between Google and the Singularity or, you know, HAL 9000. The Process is a mystery and so when – in addition to manufacturing tools and clothes for the people – it starts to make the living but hollow replicas of the soldiers from the First World War, this represents an opportunity to study it.
At the same time I started to notice other interesting writers and philosophers who had served in the First World War as stretcher bearers or ambulance drivers. The philosopher priest Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, for example, and the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. The mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson who devised an equation to predict when the war would end. Reading the letters of these men, I saw the war through their eyes: as a moment when the future broke through into the present, unleashing the murderous technology of a mechanical age: the machine gun, explosive shells, barbed wire. On those terms, the war becomes a science fiction event rather than a historical one. This material forms the inspiration for the second half of the novel.
How did you work out how to weave all of these details into a narrative and where do fact bled into fiction?
Jonathan Lethem described science fiction as ‘dream fiction’ and ’think fiction’. You have the will-to-strangeness of a dream. That’s the images or scenes that give you a frisson as a writer because they are going to be cool or intense. ‘Think fiction’ is the way science fiction reasons its way through this strangeness. My way of working is to dream or imagine six or seven moments or images, and then to use patient reason to join them up.
In terms of fact, the section in IF THEN cleaves closely to a seven-day period during the landing of Suvla Bay. There were historical events such as stretcher bearers trying to drag injured men from a burning trench that I had to use because they are dramatically intense.
The other factual choice I had to make concerned my then-hometown of Lewes. I vacillated about inventing a new town. In the end, I enjoyed the frisson of placing this strange future within a town that is beautifully old and cosy. There was a trend within British science fiction of the 1960s called the ‘cosy catastrophe’. I grew-up with those visions of the end of the world within the English pastoral, and wanted to explore a contemporary version of it. Actually that sounds far too reasonable and rational for the impetus that drives me to write what I do.
What degree of historical accuracy do you feel you need to achieve for this kind of writing, given that this is supposed to be a recreation of Gallipoli by an algorithm.
I love Philip K Dick. The sense of a reality being entirely convincing and then slowly decaying in front of the characters. To achieve that effect, I had to make it historically accurate and then, bit by bit, degrade the accuracy. In terms of how the Process achieves this, the answer lies in the interplay between the implant that the protagonist James has, its efforts to reshape the landscape and recreate the soldiers, and a crucial third element that, you know, SPOILERS.
All the characters in the book seem to be meekly allowing the algorithm to run their lives for them. What type of society or model of human behaviour have you based this compliance on?
They submit to the Process because they are afraid of life outside the Process. Also, the Process fulfills their pastoral fantasy, in return for giving up freedoms here and there. It’s an austerity narrative, really. Inspired by my own experiences of hardship from 2009 onwards. The characters have been damaged by what happened to them in a crisis called The Seizure, which is ongoing in the novel. The Process is a refuge, a bargain they make, exchanging freedom for security. I think this is a common deal to make.
This is in every sense an epic tale. How do you prevent your characters becoming insignificant alongside the complex and overwhelming events going on around them?
I write science fiction because I’m suffering from Future Shock. I feel that technology is reshaping us, overwhelming us, every day. I am in awe and terrified by the technological sublime, the sense that we are on the cusp of being completely swept up in changes we will not control. To express this, I write characters with a realistic emotional range, who are faced with a terrible choice derived from strange technology. I haven’t cracked the conventional hero yet.
Why choose the First World War as the event that ignited this dramatic change into the country being run by an algorithm?
Lewis Fry Richardson’s Mathematical Psychology of War, devised while he was in the trenches, made the connection between the war and mass computation. Also, the repetitive nature of trench warfare, the same tactic employed over and again with minor variation suggested iterative calculation. Most of all, the First World War is analogous to the age of the algorithm in that it confronts humanity with the technological sublime, albeit in more murderous form.
What will be the follow up to IF THEN?
IF THEN is the middle book to a loose trilogy of novels that all lie on the same timeline over a forty year period. My first novel The Red Men kicks it off. One of its characters, Alex Drown, is instrumental in IF THEN. I’m in the final lap of writing the third novel The Destructives, which will be published by Angry Robot in the UK and US in the Spring. The Destructives explores the disruption caused by the emergence of artificial intelligence in our society, and that’s what the AIs prefer to be called: emergences. They dispute the term ‘artificial’ as a few of them consider themselves to be a natural stage in evolution. They are not even happy with the term ‘intelligence’ as they think that prioritises biological consciousness, which they believe is only one option they can explore. The novel sees the return of Dr Easy, a robot from The Red Men. Dr Easy is an emergence that has decided to follow the life of the protagonist Theodore Drown in its entirety. The robot was there when Theodore was born. It was his midwife, his babysitter, his teacher, his case worker, his parole officer, his best man – and it hopes to be at his bedside when he dies, and then it will submit this project to the other emergences as his contribution to their understanding of humanity.
Matthew’s twitter feed is @MDeAbaitua