“‘The Quiet Revolution’ reads like an episode of Black Mirror. Here’s a dystopian world that’s carefully imagined and reveals itself effortlessly. It’s similar enough to our world to feel real and possible and different enough to disturb and leave the reader with a sense of foreboding.” – Naush Sabah
(Warning from the author: this story contains scenes of discrimination, particularly xenophobia, and may make some readers uncomfortable)
12th August 2097: Before they knew what was happening, it was too late. Social media had already begun spreading but when COVID (and then the other diseases) swept across the globe, reality went digital. No one saw the Network clot together. Fascinatingly, its rise was neither forceful nor resisted. Empty streets continued to be empty. Soldiers remained self-isolating in their barracks. It was paranoia which held each citizen hostage.
2066-03-14 18:02:34.583294 Exhausted from his boring day, Peter pulled out his phone to check the leaderboard.
4,650,798,255th. Up by 36.
Peter felt a flare of satisfaction as he located his beaming face firmly above Amanda’s uppity grin. She’d been hovering over him in the rankings for months, but the propaganda posters Peter tacked up the other day had given him an edge.
Now Peter could gaze in peace at his pasty-skinned portrait with its forgettable mop of drowned-rat hair next to the vibrant cosmetics advertisement. But peace lasted until he thought about how high his father would be on the leaderboard. He’d been in the top billion ever since he’d turned Mother in.
Why haven’t you made the bed? She would have scolded him.
Why isn’t that sock in the bin?
Why don’t you put those sweaty yellow shirts in the wash?
She always asked too many questions.
Peter stretched his sore legs and achy arms – a little flex of freedom in his little box. Christ, it was hot, wasn’t it? Only March, too.
His eyes fell on the round face of his oppressor. The clock whose hands chopped up his life: 6am: wake up. 7am: log on to work. Work till 5pm. Sleep at 11pm. Peter couldn’t recall if he’d ever made a single deviation from the ham sandwiches he digested, the chips he savoured or the beer he drained away. It had been three days since he’d been outside, and that had only been for a fifteen-minute expedition to the shops. The number of faces he saw in real life each week rarely climbed to double-digit figures. The only friends he’d ever had were video gamers online. Mother used to whisper to him that most of those profiles were just bots, to
Peter’s horror. Of course, he didn’t believe her now, his friends were far too lifelike. His only joy came from the plastic tack he sometimes bought – a stylised lamp, a branded water bottle, toilet paper printed with the face of a TV villain – all to be thrown away on a bored afternoon.
The clock struck dinner time and he stumbled downstairs, collapsing at the food-stained table. His father shuffled over with the takeaway – a man who’d staggered into middle age and refused to abandon the knitted jumpers, crumbling slippers and thinning comb over. They ate the greasy chips and battered fish-corpse efficiently. Why do you have to be so lucky? Peter thought viciously at father. The man was utterly emotionless, a lumpy shell. He always had attention for the TV but barely noticed Peter. Didn’t he deserve some affection, some appreciation?
Back upstairs, a rogue breeze had decorated the floor with his papers, but Peter couldn’t be bothered to pick them up. He was bored. Tired of the reality shows, video games, even the pornography. Most of all, he felt like a nobody. Who cared about the 4,650,798,255th? He was flicking absently through his phone when he saw “Suggested Groups – Agency”.
Why the hell not?
12th August 2097: While not technically affiliated with the Network, underground organisations (see also ‘radical splinter groups’) were allowed to flourish, loyally deposing and disposing of opposition.
2066-05-02 14:44:12.090238 After an irrelevant period of time, Peter smiled as he sent the thumbs-up back. His friends at Agency were always attentive and made lots of sense about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the place of immigrants and of women too. They believed in the art of capitalism and prized meritocratic, free society. They called it Square Zero. We had completely eradicated racism, transphobia, sexism, xenophobia, etcetera so if all the governments and all the mindless, screaming liberals across the world were to ignorantly bluster on with their “reforms” they’ll tip the scales too far in the favour of groups that were once oppressed. The Network promoted a much better solution – they didn’t give people jobs just because of their race, class, or gender. They restored justice, making sure that no group gets more than they deserve, but they needed Agency to do their dirty work, to fight against those who would topple civilization into oblivion.
The streets were grey and dusty. The feeble, leafless trees were just continuations of the cracks etching across the dry ground. The thumping of a pop song in the distance faintly pierced Peter’s ears, and his thin arms concealed two
growing pools of sweat on his shirt. Heat from the pavement grasped around his legs like clammy hands. Mother would have blamed the temperature on climate change and the individualistic capitalist culture which persisted to burn coal for convenience. The Network denied climate change and called the heating natural. Furthermore, traitors like Mother were deluded fanatics blinded by rage at a capitalist system which only served to benefit them. The heat was becoming suffocating.
He saw the woman’s electric thicket of brown hair as he turned the street. She pulled two crying children close. A couple of men in balaclavas stood by, blocking her from the shop in which something was thrashing about.
“-all I care about!” Peter heard her say in a high, desperate voice which sounded distinctly foreign.
“Shut up!” one of the balaclava men said, and pulled out a small baton, which he waved over the three of them.
“We’re only reclaiming the money that you and your people stole from us.” The other balaclava man asserted in a raspy voice.
“Bloody immigrants.” The other man chimed in. The children’s shrieking reached a crescendo.
“Help! Please!” The woman was looking at Peter who was passing them now, and was peering into the shop. Splintered tables, dismembered chairs, fractured picture frames – a shipwreck in the driest ditch of the city. He felt a flare of pity for the woman and her family before remembering what Agency had told him about people like her. Immigrants. Peter had never been particularly violent before, but the fury he’d locked up for his whole life seemed to crystallise in that instant. He spat at the ground, a fleck of dribble down his chin, but the message successfully sent. “Why? Why do you hate me?”
“Shut up!” The man with the baton showed all the diplomacy of a 12 calibre rifle.
“Why does Agency hate me?”
Somehow, Peter couldn’t bring himself to watch her futile attempts to reason with them. Not for her, but for the howling of the children.
12th August 2097: The chilling concept of the Glimmer evolved from a gimmicky social media feature. The algorithm would consume data from people’s internet searches, purchases, everything it could get its digital fingers on. After chewing it up, it spat out a persona for that person at first predicting silly trivialities like such-and-such being hungry (having deduced they’d skipped breakfast). The catch was that the Glimmer was visible to everyone apart from you. Decades on, the Network removed the feature from smartphones and established sophisticated institutions called Oracles where people would go to access someone else’s Glimmer. It became a terrifying, high-security ordeal which deterred many people from ever venturing. But the paranoia of deepest secrets being publicly accessible kept everyone in line. There remains an unanswered question, though: how much of the Glimmer was truth and how much was the Network’s truth?
2066-06-10 12:43:51.100883 She was called Hannah. That wasn’t what took him several weeks to find out. It was the slow realisation after hours of melancholic reflection that Peter realised that his encounter with that woman and her family had been his golden opportunity. Perhaps if he’d joined in looting the shop instead of fleeing like a coward, he could have surpassed his father on the leaderboards and won the respect of his friends. It was becoming self-evident to Peter that some people were not like him. All his internet searches on her, the painstaking research he committed, it all seemed to triangulate upon the fact that she belonged to a class of Other.
On the bus, he clutched his papers, accidentally crinkling them. There was a sparse scattering of anxious strangers, each terrified of what lay ahead. As he got off, the large, gothic Oracle loomed above. Two “receptionists” (armed for trouble) glanced over everyone’s documentation in the shadow of the greying monolith. As the short-haired, bristly “receptionist” was reading about how Peter was a ‘conscientious member of the public interested in the purity of the neighbourhood for the good of the community’, Peter nearly passed out.
The “receptionist” nodded Peter onward. He advanced through the ferocious oaken doors and the icy concrete halls until he practically flung himself into the small cell they’d provided him with.
No one ever openly talked about what they’d found in the Oracle. He had no idea how he’d receive the Glimmer, perhaps a video, song, sculpture… He took a
careful seat at the desk provided and, after ten minutes, began to wonder if he’d done something wrong. After an hour, he heard shouting outside. After two hours, the sweat patches had become sweat puddles, and he would have killed for a crisp, clean shirt. After what he estimated was three hours, when his body was threatening to relieve his aching bladder, something caught his ragged attention. A piece of paper emerging from a narrow slit in the wall.
Hannah. She’s all lies. Down the whole page. She’s all lies. Black ink staining yellow paper. She’s all lies. The words overlapped and lost meaning. Peter made up his mind what he needed to do.
12th August 2097: Stories like this are not isolated. They are a repulsive plague infesting our historical records. Now society needs to move in a new direction, but if only we could have started 80 years ago! If only we hadn’t ignored the pressures of climate change, the havoc of the old capitalist system which created it, and arrogantly assumed we were at Square Zero. If only we had hope for change in the bewildering legacy of our past.