From Public Books:
We may have only one world, but life unfolds in many layers. A good way to understand our multitiered reality is through three seemingly unconnected cases: the flightless birds of the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean; the inhabitants of China Miéville’s science-fiction classic The City & The City, whom we might call “the people & the people”; and, drawn from my own work, the world-dominating tech giants known as net states.
. . . .
There’s this bird, the white-throated rail. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, a bunch of them flew the 260 miles from their home in Madagascar to the coral atoll Aldabra, part of the Seychelles. The island had a lot to offer, including—most importantly, for the birds—no predators. Absent major threats, the Aldabran white-throated rail evolved to become flightless.
Then, two events occurred. First, about 136,000 years ago, a massive flood hit the islands of Aldabra. The Aldabran white-throated rail was wiped out; these flightless birds became extinct. However, as time passed, the atoll eventually resurfaced. And a new crop of Madagascan white-throated rails, for whatever reason, once again made the epic trek to Aldabra, resettling into a threat-free existence. And once again, without any predators to worry about, the new batch of Aldabran rails also evolved to be flightless.
This matters, because birds are sort of known for their ability to fly. Flight is, I would argue, their defining characteristic. The conditions of the Aldabra atoll—an expanse of 60 square miles stretched out across 46 islands, with no predatory creatures save, today, its 12 or so (nominally peaceful) human researchers—had the same effect on the same species of bird, twice: the loss of their most significant power, flight.
This raises the question: In the same situation—facing the same, threatless opportunity—how would humans evolve? What, indeed, is our most defining characteristic, our most significant power? What would we lose, if we had nothing to struggle against?
The answer may be found, as so many are, in science fiction. Specifically, Miéville’s award-winning 2009 novel, The City & The City. In this book, reality is wholly defined by what people choose to see or to actively not see. Two cities share exactly the same physical space, their inhabitants adapting to the same physical environment. However, the people of the two cities live entirely separate lives.
For the two cities’ residents, existence is perilously maintained. They’re only free to go about their lives so long as they rigorously maintain their governments’ requirements to literally only see their own cities’ people, places, and things—despite sharing the same streets and shops and air and space. So, they learn to see only what they are allowed to see, becoming so expert at the act that they eventually lose their ability to see anything else.
Like the white-throated rails, these two groups of people adapt to their surroundings. Separate from one another yet molded by the same environmental conditions, the people & the people wind up at separate but parallel inglorious ends: partial but consistent blindness.
Link to the rest at Public Books
FWIW, PG read The City & The City some time ago and found it interesting and and engaging. Like more than one science fiction (and fantasy) novel, China Miéville creates an engaging thought experiment and drops an interesting character or two into the middle of it.
However, for PG, it was well-written fiction, not a likely future for any world PG expects he or his offspring will inhabit.
For PG, the OP is a certain style of essay that begins with the author’s feelings or concerns which are then compared and contrasted with the situation in which fictitious characters are involved in a novel.
This genre often continues into a comparison of the way the essayist feels about one or more things that are happening to them or that they are thinking and imagines the extension of those perceptions and feelings into some sort of future existence, almost invariably novelish and dystopian in character.
Perhaps PG is particularly world-weary today, but that essay style seems quite predictable to him and he often perceives a bit of “poor me” or “poor us” in the author’s motivations.
PG is jaded about a number of things and, perhaps, is treating the OP more harshly than it deserves. However, as mentioned, he’s a bit tired of this class of self-expression because he has read so many lately.
Covid and its accompanying political reactions and counter-reactions seem to be a fertile breeding ground for projections of an author’s feelings onto a dark future for the world and every intelligent being inhabiting it.
Unfortunately, history amply records that horrible things happen to humanity from time to time. Some are less bad, some are bad and some are very bad. Covid is certainly not as great a tragedy as the wars of the 20th century or its plagues.
An estimated 20 million people died in World War I. World War II killed an estimated 70–85 million people.
The Spanish Flu infected approximately 1/3 of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50 million people in 1918, far more deaths than were caused by World War I — at the time, the greatest and most destructive war ever fought (at least between Western nations).
There are still an estimated 21 million cases of Typhoid fever and 200,000 deaths worldwide each year. AIDS/HIV, the cause of which was discovered in 1983, has killed an estimated 25–40 million people world-wide.
Without minimizing the suffering, deaths and disrupted lives involved with Covid (currently 1.8 million deaths world-wide according to internet numbers), the first twenty years of the 21st Century have been a walk in the park compared to the first twenty years of the 20th Century.
Perhaps PG is too much of an optimist, but he thinks we’ll come through Covid (and the US Presidential election which is its own bundle of insanity and dementia) in good shape, notwithstanding current concerns.
Humankind has survived and thrived through much worse times than those in which we are living at the moment.