Review of Evan Shapiro’s short story
The Counting (Cilento Publishing, 2019, 33 pages)
This story may be set in the future, but its themes are very contemporary, and a welcome relief from the optimistic diatribes of large corporations and politicians. We need more dystopian narratives like Evan’s. The Counting is technological science fiction, but in some ways a very contemporary view of social relations. China watchers, for example, will enjoy an account of what it’s like to be almost constantly surveilled with an authoritarian regime calling the shots - individual behaviour that is monitored and assessed for credit is just what happens in contemporary China. In the context of a capitalistic and notionally free enterprise society, we ought note that the practices of Google and Facebook may be portrayed as expressing the cultural values of freedom and creative individuation, but really their harvesting of data is just a path to the capture of our selfhood by a self-interested ‘collective’. This is precisely what The Counting describes.
Given the edginess of our present situation, it is not hard to envisage a future world managed by a faceless collective intent on personal downsizing: less stuff, more surveillance, and less wild nature. This ‘brave new world’ is the setting for The Counting. Loss of ecological connection is probably the most poignant theme in Evan’s short story. The only source of joy and release comes when the narrator eventually returns (briefly, it’s clear) to nature. Other than that the story is a bleak and edgy tale – and all too recognisable.
The psychological effects of over-crowding and ‘the count’, when everyone has to conduct an audit and list their possessions, are fascinating to contemplate. With the possible exception of homeless people and those in extreme poverty, we all need to downsize and chuck stuff out from time to time. The last time I shifted home, the agony of throwing old files and books out was huge, again. Reducing our possessions and reducing our carbon footprint is always a highly fraught process. Overcoming attachment to anything is never easy, which makes Evan’s story even more interesting - since downsizing is definitely viewed as a good thing. Maybe in some future world, everybody will value weightlessness and Spartan lifestyles. I hope so, but we are a long way from that. I would think it will take many small catastrophes to even possibly change humanity’s addiction to over-consumption.
We live in a world that is declining because of overpopulation, overconsumption, over pollution, and remorseless economic growth. And because much of our world is managed by corrupt political classes, and autocratic dictators, it is hard to be optimistic and filled with hope. It is also hard to imagine a benevolent technologically reshaped future.
Perhaps we should be grateful for some of the recent reactions of children to parts of this scenario. We do indeed face an extinction crisis and need to factor a declining ecology into positive assessments of human progress through technological change.
Evan’s short story is more than a cautionary tale. It is a chilling foretaste of things that are already happening.