Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Year Zero

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Year Zero is the best album Trent Reznor has ever done. A concept album whose plot is an alternate reality game is a really great idea, one that lends the album an intellectual and emotional depth that's simply not available otherwise. Here's the wiki if you're already interested.

For those who haven't heard about it, the idea is that the album is a warning from the near future - around the year 2020, as best as people have been able to tell - sent back in time along with a number of cached webpages through some quickly squelched development in quantum computing. The world that is revealed by this information is one in which the sinister cabal that currently controls the US government has metastasized. Democracy has been completely destroyed in all but name, a feat accomplished by scaring the shit out of the population through repeated and ever worse false flag operations, first a nuke and then a bioweapon. The latter gave them the excuse to start dumping a drug into the water supply that was purported to defend against the pathogen, but in reality is simply a drug designed to stupefy the population. The government is using it's newfound power to savage every part of the world with which it has contact: organ-farming the population in Guatemala, mass drug testing in Africa, and of course a continued war in the Mid-East - Iran's been nuked - which has long since ceasing making any sense save as a way of keeping the population distracted (it was those damn terrorists who nuked us and released the virus!)

That's the setup. What happens is that aliens, or God, or the entities that are running our simulated universe - my favored hypothesis, but really it's moot - appear and give humans an unmistakable warning. Either we change our ways right quick, or we get wiped out. They've been watching the species very closely, for a very long time, without interfering in our development, but things have reached a crisis point and they've revealed themselves.

In the end, of course, we get wiped out, deleted utterly from the universe. That's why the warning gets sent back.

This makes a kind of sense to me. We're approaching a time when a single state will be able to control the entire world, and once it's in place it will be stable for a very long time, having subsumed all other competitors. The initial form of that state will thus be of enormous importance to the future evolution of humanity, and more to the point, post-humanity: what spreads out from the Earth will either bless the universe around it or taint it with a horrible blight.

The aliens were hoping for something good. That's why they watched us so long, let us develop and grow. It's probably something they've done many times in the past, on millions or billions of other worlds (or in billions of other computer simulations): patiently watching a world for hundreds of millions of years, waiting for it's life to develop intelligence, and then closely watching the civilization as it advances through the inevitable technological stages. Eventually, the Singularity approaches, and it's at that point, one way or another, that the watchers reveal themselves. If the growing seed looks like it will grow into a benign coinhabitant of the cosmic civilization, it's inducted; if it's become something malign, it's terminated, quickly and without ceremony.

Neither permanent dystopias, which the state in Year Zero would have developed into, nor god-like aliens - the only creatures that could put an end to the malignancy - are exactly new ideas. Nevertheless Reznor has managed (uncharacteristically enough for a musician, though not so surprisingly given the obviously collaborative nature of the project) to combine them into a superlative and thought-provoking work of SF, one that is both deeply thoughtful and creepily plausible. It's not really a warning from the future, but it most certainly is a warning, sincere and frightening, one that all of us should take the time to think over.

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