Cezary Michalski's book is a collection of six short stories. They take place in - consecutively - the forties, fifties and twenties of the 21st century, in real and fictional places: Germany, Sussenland, Iraq, and Poland. These separate places and separate times can, however, be combined into a single tale of worse worlds - though their chronological order is in reverse.
Their most important theme is lack of alternatives: whatever the protagonists do, whatever part of reality they try to change, their idea for change has been "already executed." Except that via this execution it has become somehow twisted.
This is a world in which the private property has become so devoured by corporations that is has ceased to be in any way private. Divided by the big companies into spheres of influence, this world produces everything: dreams and their fulfillment, consumers and opponents of consumption, supporters and adversaries, office workers and traitors. The resulting power structure, which is absolutely dependent on technology, has become global in character - in other words, total. It oversees social peace and social resistance. But it so resembles the public's desired system of authority - democratic, liberal, and free-market - that it has become unnoticeable.
The media has become truly independent in this world - in the dangerous sense. Taking advantage of social pressure to "tell all" (secrets of confession inclusive), they aim for an authority greater than that of the political powers. Mass media thus becomes - much like capital - a murky structure of total power that turns social life into an arena, and this arena into ongoing manipulation.
There is no destiny in this world apart from genetic codes, which have taken the place that gods once held, dealing out verdicts. Nor is there history in these worlds - there exists only fiddling with virtual historical plotlines. People therefore put aside their courage, nobility and integrity for the time they play computer games, while in "the real world" they maintain total subservience to the Principles of Reality.
There is no longing for freedom in these worlds, because freedom is guaranteed by doctrine. Censorship was long ago abolished, and so subjects that aren't discussed are (allegedly) subjects which simply aren't chosen by the public. Art either drowns the public in cheap stories about happiness, or - reaching for its only weapon - makes use of parody. But mocking the ready-made slogans of this post-contemporary world only serves to more strongly emphasize the lack of alternatives to it.
The only form of rebellion that can't be compromised is gnosis, i.e. a refusal to have contact of any kind with reality. But as long as gnosis seeks to not even touch the world, it hardly stands as an alternative.
It should be rather apparent that Michalski is telling a story about the times we live in. Although he situates the action in the remote future, the dilemmas his protagonists face are absolutely contemporary: the market devouring freedom, the media becoming tyrannical, the vanishing of history. This is why his collection of stories can be thought of as Social Fiction - a type of prose which plays with inventing other, new social worlds. Social Fiction constructs plots about other possible developments of our history, about lost alternatives and the suppressed forms of social life. It is a prose which asks about the roots of our present time, and the effects of today's progress which may go unnoticed by the average person.
The author's finesse and scorn have led him to represent our world as the world of the future. In this way he has given himself the opportunity to carefully scrutinize the world of today. And wonder if we are capable of inventing any sensible alternatives.
- Przemysław Czapliński
When he left, it all seemed a bit silly to him. The mad geneticist was, all told, something like an old-fashioned fortune-teller: He'd received a Kazimierz address from his girlfriend, whose best friend had sent a boy there. The school lab had given him a referral to the seminary. The game turned out to be worth it, because her second vision was different from the first. It turned out the cassock was really a uniform, and the boy was an officer of the Brigade. Of course, the second test confirmed the vision that was dealt to him at the mad geneticist's office. The school sometimes ran this kind of test - they were an open society after all.
Arranging things over the phone was embarrassing. "Come on, boy, you know that my test results don't have any authority..." - everybody knew that.
Later, standing by the door, what had before seemed funny was suddenly degrading. The stinking staircase that led through his building, which was one of the last municipal ones in Kazimierz. All of the rest were already private-owned, held by seven families - those who were in the top five per cent.
The existence of the top five per cent was first noticed in the USA, then in England, Canada, and finally here. From generation to generation, decade to decade, the gulf between them and the remaining ninety-five per cent grew wider and wider.
Two hundred years of democratic delusions finally came to an end, they had come to an end and nobody wanted to sustain them. Money, power, key media positions, everything was gathered up in the hands of the top five per cent. Or here for instance, the posts were filled by the children of the seven families.
The rest no longer tried to catch up. They didn't even move anywhere, they simply rooted themselves to the spot. In a world of decreed progress nobody lost anything - after all, that would signify recession and crisis.
In a world like this, either something was someone's property, or it remained nobody's, common. The concept of "community," just like that of "society," no longer had any value. The new world order was composed solely of individuals. Perhaps families at most, but these were after all emanations of the individual. They were strong or weak depending on the strength or weakness of the individuals who founded them (the father was the founder, the mother the founderess of the family...).
"The strength of the individual is housed in their loins." This is a biblical aphorism, or rather not so much an aphorism as the fruits of negotiation. A language hybrid, with whose help over half a century ago it was possible to reconcile the Reformed Church with the idea of scientific progress, which had earlier inspired a superstitious terror in their ranks.
It was in precisely this kind of language that the Concord was written, as if one was reading the leading article of "The Scientist" edited by a disciple of Jehovah, or the reverse, the Book of Genesis edited by a column editor from "The Scientist."
The strength of the individual is housed in their loins, in their DNA, which is why everything depended on their Test results. Parents prayed for good Test results for their children. Yes, two hundred years of democratic delusions were good and finished, and nobody wanted to carry on lying about such things anymore. Now it was fate dealing a good result that played a key role. And fate was hereditary, much as blessings were hereditary. Wasn't this the reason why the Chosen Nation once introduced tight racial selection criteria, or the reason why every known religion had produced a Holy Writ that looked like a manual for breeding pedigree cattle?
People are capable of sanctifying everything, man is a creature of faith. He can see God in even a row of numbers, even in the results of the Test.
It sufficed that the Test results weren't withheld, 99.97 per cent of the applications were rejected at any rate, and they were already set to idolize him in their customary manner, offering him their first-born as sacrifices.
All the old powers had merged into one, under the patronage of the holy science of man, Genetics.
Every religion grows, sooner or later, into unwitting heresy. Perhaps God can't be compromised, but you can still compromise his priests. Or have some other God on the sidelines, a lesser one, even a demon. Yes, it can even be a demon, if the first God offers us nothing, or too little.
Let it be a demon, as long as it promises to have something up its sleeve for us. The genealogy of the mad geneticists was simple, even simple-minded, and just as transparent as the mystery of their popularity. They were most often old school geneticists whom the Brigade had caught for corruption. The Criminal Code here isn't too severe, and it was possible to fight off the conservatives' attacks by making a law. They were spared their cherished "appeal to God" so as to get it out of the way, and a new Constitution was inserted in the preamble, in which the citizen's main right and obligation became the Test. It was an appeal to "God or to Nature as sources of the derivation of humanity, whose entire fate is encoded in DNA."
The certainty of the execution is more important than the severity of the punishment. And these days the verdicts of science are being rampantly executed, and its laws are everywhere binding.
The old school geneticists who haven't turned out to be capable of executing knowledgeable verdicts can be compromised without discretion. They can accept "gifts," but only so long as the tests they run do not gain any administrative power.
Translated by Soren Gauger