The Darkness and the Light
By Olaf Stapledon
I’ll be reading the Retro Hugos this year. Or at least, all the ones I can find. Let’s start with The Darkness and the Light, an examination of two futures for humanity: one a utopia that has enough issues to remain interesting, and the other one of the most horrific dystopias I have ever encountered.
Before I start talking about this story, I have to pause a moment and rip on the quality of the Kindle edition I got. I think someone copy and pasted a PDF without bothering to format it for eReaders. The formatting was painful to read. According to Goodreads, there is another Kindle edition out there by Gateway, but I haven’t been able to find it on the Australian Amazon store. Once I did get into the story the formatting became easier to ignore, which I’m going to say is an accomplishment in itself for Stapledon.
This book is entirely exposition, without dialog or even any named characters appearing. We get a full examination of the future of humanity. Stapledon extrapolates the after-effects of WWII, which eventually sees the Soviet Union and China take over most of the world. The last holdout against these tyrannical Empires is Tibet, and Stapledon explores two far-flung futures based on first the failure than the success of Tibet’s rebellion against the ‘darkness’. Stapledon leaves it up to the reader to decide which of the outcomes is the true future.
The world-building skill in The Darkness and the Light is amazing. Both futures are so well thought out that it is easy to forgive that history has marched on during the past 76 years. There were a lot of things in here that reeked of 1940s views, but there was also a lot of things that were progressive for the time, like a Zulu World President and Eastern traditions playing a huge role in making the good future good. After all, it was the Tibetan people who saved the world here. There are some parts modern readers may find objectional, but it hasn’t aged as badly as some books.
I’m impressed that the exploration of the utopian future was just as interesting as the rest of the book. Utopia can be boring, since struggle and conflict are so essential to a good story, but Stapledon makes it work here. We get to see what happens after the “Tibet saves the world and everyone lived happily ever after’ part. The New World still has issues, and they still face crises, but unlike the dystopian world and our own, the people in this world can work out most of their disagreements peaceably. The people in the good future also progress to the point where they gain a goal that we can never hope to attempt today. A goal that reminded me of Lovecraft in it’s nature but was totally unlike Lovecraft in tone. The best part of the utopian future was that humanity was no longer insignificant and helpless on a cosmic level and I enjoyed reading that.
I expected to come into this review and talk more about the bad future than the good, but I feel that we’re all familiar with what makes a good dystopia by now. I will say that the bad future Stapledon portrays was one of the most chillingly vile dystopias I’ve read in a long time. Stand-out features of this future include a radio device installed in the human brain that allows all thoughts to be monitored and eventually for commands to be issued. The sheer impossibility of any resistance against the state was terrifying. There was also a chapter detailing the state’s attempts to increase population by subjugation and flat-out torture of women that was especially horrific. The fate of humanity in this dystopia was disturbing. Completely implausible, but still a fitting, disturbing end.
I think the best part about this book is how relevant it feels in today’s world. We seem to be faced with two possible futures. On one hand, living standards around the world are the best they have ever been and look to increase, technology has the potential to lift millions out of poverty, to open new frontiers to human exploration, to connect us with our fellow humans in a way never before possible. Everywhere I look I see efforts to reduce the suffering of people and animals, to repair the damage that has been done against our environment and our society, and to push back against those vested interests that wish to maintain the current, exploitive status quo. There is a push towards the Light here in our own time, and the potential is amazing.
On the other hand, if you don’t live under a rock the path to Darkness is painfully obvious. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether it’s too late to save ourselves. In The Darkness and the Light, the bad future reached a point were it could no longer be redeemed long before it’s end. The loss of the Tibetan Resistance was a complete victory for the Darkness. Have we reached that point yet? I think there is a lot of horrible stuff that will happen within the next hundred years no matter what we do now, but humanity has pulled through upheavals before. I think our Tibet is yet to come, but it will come and it’ll be soon enough that we need to start working towards the future we want now.
I encourage everyone to read The Darkness and the Light. And I hope that when people get to the part about the Tibetal Resistance, they notice why it led to two vastly different outcomes. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t because of a natural event, a great man, or a pivotal battle going a different way. It was because of a difference in attitude. It was because of the actions of an entire population. Take note of how Stapledon’s Tibetans reacted to the tyranny around them, because that’s what we need more of today.