the-utopia-experiment

The Utopia Experiment | Dylan Evans

What will our world be like post the apocalypse?
Without specifying exactly what would propel the chain-reaction of cataclysmic proportions (global warming, rise of peak oil, limited resources of fossil fuels; there seems to be no lack of stimulants) it seems a reasonable notion to at least contemplate a world that could potentially rise from the proverbial ashes. A world that perhaps would return to a pre-industrial era with its few survivors; and could then start the story afresh.
This is what Dylan Evans, academic and artificial intelligence researcher, proposes in his ‘simulated’ experiment. It is one that he decides to carry out for eighteen months in the Scottish highlands with a band of online recruits to recreate a scenario akin to what it could be like when the world as we know it and its facades begin to crumble.
But this recount, categorically described as narrative non-fiction, is more than an impartial observation from a researcher’s perspective focused on analysing how a group of diverse strangers would coalesce into a functional unit of humanity – it is in fact a deeply personal and introspective descent into depression of a man with a grandiose vision and few project management skills.
Yet despite its self-indulgence it’s an unexpected page turner. Evans is a likeable character and despite his doomsayers tendencies (and there are certainly plenty in support that judgement day is around the corner) he charts his journey with a reflexivity that is admirable – especially because he has to admit that much of what the project was about was NOT the notion of pioneering a sustainable future living in Mongolian yurts and baking fresh bread; but the slow and all-encompassing realization that returning to the hunter gather days is a lot harder when you’ve got used to simple luxuries of modern technology.
The story is related to the readers, not chronically from beginning to end but through various episodes across the experiment itself and snippets from the years of recovery that followed. There is a mixture of jubilant optimism that is almost infectious (after all is there anything better than returning to nature and living off the land) few slightly disturbing manifestoes (the Ted Kaczynski better known as the Unabomber for example) anecdotes of a fork being flung across the table by an otherwise quiet inmate at the psychiatric hospital (clearly it’s not those who are obviously mad you need to worry about) and woven throughout an almost repentant effort made by Evans to acknowledge with some shame his ‘god complex’ – one that led him to tinker with the lives of others and question through its disguise his own fragile grasp on mortality.
The other volunteers, whom Evans confesses he was tempted to blame for the various inconsistencies in the camp, are a colourful if somewhat Tolkien inspired lot. There is Adam, a Gandalf figure who with a personal hotline to the Great Spirit is inspired and capable to make yurts and compost toilets (that he interestingly enough never seems to think are good enough thrones for his bottom); Agric, a ‘hobbit on speed’ who takes the lead from overseeing crop management to baking responsibilities and a motley crew of other occasional volunteers who come and go adding their own touch to this romantic microcosm of life after the apocalypse. There is even Bo, Evans’ girlfriend and although their relationship is on the periphery of the main narrative thread (she lives in a nearby cottage and offers her eccentric boyfriend hot showers and a decent bed) their relationship not unsurprisingly starts to unravel under the various pressures of the environment.
As non-fiction (and as always seen through the lens of retrospect and memory) there is a slightly frustrating emphasis on the glorification of the ‘noble savage’. As a high-level researcher surely Evans would have been familiar with the inadequacy, and indeed inappropriate use, of such a term? The Mayan civilization may have come to an end but it’s’ people have not died out nor have the Rapa Nui of Easter Island (who never get named) and his continued and rather glib recitation of such nostalgic nonsense seems an awkward juxtaposition with his apparent ability to question and interrogate his own mental demise. Even more frustrating is that the narrative seems to have moved very little forward from where he started: yes, a few weeks spent in hospital have enabled him to set about rebuilding his life but like a ‘chastened animal’ he realizes that he must seek the ‘zoo’ that he once decried for his ultimate survival. He tells us that although he burnt his bridges in the UK he secured a job in Ireland once again in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics – once again immersing himself in the safe sanctuary of the institution that despite his initial revulsion and horror for bureaucracy has enabled him to lead a life that tilts towards a degree of normalcy to which he is accustomed.
It seems that his options take the forms of binaries: primitivism and rewilding with the potential of returning to the golden age of man’s humanity; or at the other end of the spectrum, high-level capitalism and consumerism with imminent collapse. It seems unfortunate that it’s one extreme or the other and despite the many years it’s taken him to actually finish this book that has been simmering away for a long while does it ever amount to more than grotesque hedonism and the consequential permissible indulgence of rebuilding of one’s life post systematic decimation of the privileged pillars that upheld it?
It’s worth reading to find out.