Following the recent release of ChatGPT, artificial intelligence has joined human genetic modification, virtual reality and climate change as a potentially disruptive issue, garnering significant public attention. Interestingly, 2023 also marks the 90th anniversary of a science fiction novel that remarkably foresaw these concerns, which now shape our current cultural moment. The brief novel, The Man Who Awoke, by Canadian author Laurence Manning (1899-1972), was serialized in the science fiction magazine, Wonder Stories, starting from its March 1933 issue. The science fiction genre permits authors to delve into the ramifications of conjectured technological and societal advancements. Occasionally, these writers can appear prophetic as their concepts gain wider cultural significance or even inspire actual innovations. A famous example is human space travel via rockets, a notion anticipated in numerous science fiction narratives.
A story of time travel
In The Man Who Awoke, the author employs the literary device of a “time traveller”, as previously done by H.G. Wells in his renowned 1895 novel The Time Machine. Manning utilizes this narrative mechanism to probe potential future evolutions of human society. However, instead of relying on the wholly fantastical concept of the “time machine” conceived by Wells, Manning endeavoured to illustrate a more credible method for a 20th-century individual to encounter life in the far future. Specifically, he envisaged his protagonist, Norman Winters, as a wealthy man who concocts a plan to lie in a concealed subterranean chamber on his New York estate, in drug-induced hibernation. Winters successfully awakens to experience fleeting periods of life outside his chamber in the years AD 5000, 10000, 15000, 20000 and 25000, with each awakening providing an opportunity for the author to explore a different facet of humanity’s potential future.
A fully sustainable world
Upon awakening in 5000 AD, Winters discovers a world blanketed by dense forests, wherein much of the 20th-century infrastructure, including New York City, has disappeared. A stable and relatively prosperous human society persists, although Winters learns that this civilisation had to be rebuilt following a total collapse. Around AD 2500, humanity had attained “the height of the false civilization of Waste! Fossil plants were ruthlessly burned in furnaces to provide heat; petroleum was consumed by the billion barrels; cheap metal cars were built and thrown away to rust after a few years’ use..”. The new civilisation that then emerged was intensely focused on sustainability. The majority of the populace resided in villages of approximately 1000 inhabitants, each reliant on the extensive surrounding forests for food (for instance, chestnut flour and mushrooms cultivated on fallen logs) as well as other natural resources. There were also factory villages near a significant renewable energy source — the hydroelectric dam at Niagara Falls. Moreover, transportation was facilitated by “flying wheels”, seemingly akin to the vertical takeoff “drone aircraft” that have become commonplace in recent years in our contemporary world.
The organizing principle of this civilisation was an unwavering commitment to the preservation of the forest’s entirety, thus ensuring a wholly sustainable society. Manning even contemplates how the ‘flying wheels’ could be sustainably powered with forest resources, foreseeing the real-world concern of how commercial aviation could be carbon neutral. His proposed solution of using wood alcohol as fuel presages current suggestions to power aircraft with biofuels.
In 1974, esteemed writer Isaac Asimov commented on this aspect of Manning’s novel in his historical account of early science fiction literature entitled Before the Golden Age:
In the 1970’s everyone is aware of […] the energy crisis. Manning was aware of it forty years ago. […] literature had the youngsters who read it concerned about the consequences of the waste of fossil fuels forty years before the self-styled normal and sensible human beings felt it necessary to become interested.Before the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov
In 1974, Asimov didn’t anticipate the remarkable foresight exhibited in the subsequent chapters of Manning’s book that depict society’s state as Winters ventures further into the future. In 2023, we recognise that these additional fantastical concepts woven by Manning bear striking parallels to our contemporary world.
A world ruled by artificial intelligence
Winters re-emerges in AD 10000 and encounters a transformed world. The meticulously maintained forest has devolved into an overgrown wilderness. Humans now reside in a grand city governed by “The Brain”, a colossal computer which has seemingly attained a form of consciousness, having become an object of human worship. Courtesy of The Brain, a technologically advanced society has been cultivated, allowing individuals to lead lives dedicated to self-indulgence. When Winters inquires about “..the more serious minded men ..scientists, planners…where are they?” he receives a response, “This is the city of The Brain! How should mere men hope to better His work? He is infallible – we are full of human weaknesses and frailties”.
This quote appears as though it could be lifted from a commentary piece of writing on the potential benefits and hazards of today’s advancements in artificial intelligence. Even the juxtaposition between the supposed infallibility of the mechanical brain and human weakness resonates with the expectation that self-driving cars will be much safer than those operated by ‘flawed’ humans. Indeed, the recent launch of programmes like ChatGPT has fueled fears about an escalating dependency on the decisions made by inscrutable artificial intelligence algorithms.
Winters, as an outsider, recognises the peril of dependence on The Brain and views its tyranny as a severe menace to humanity. He manages to persuade a handful of individuals to join him in a plan that disables The Brain, thereby liberating society. Winters gains global fame for spearheading this revolution but retreats to his subterranean chamber, intending to resurface in AD 15000.
A world seduced by virtual reality
In this new world, Winters discovers that people are predominantly concentrated in cities, with the vast majority opting to live in “dream palaces”. In a dream palace, an individual’s body becomes nearly inert, and their brain is surgically operated on, connecting nerve endings to a machine capable of providing artificial stimulation. The technology has advanced to such an extent that a person who chooses this procedure can prearrange a lifetime’s worth of scripted stimulation: “..as far as the dreamer is concerned, he seems to [be] living a complete life. Before he enters, he determines what things he wishes to experience. Some […] fight wild beasts in the wilderness; […]; others make trips in rocket ships to Mars or Venus….” One young person wished “to dream a life of ease and homely comfort with occasional adventures and dangers that are so arranged as to end happily.”
The allure of the dream life is immensely powerful, and only a minuscule fraction of society chooses authentic lives. Winters realises, however, that this course would lead to the extinction of humanity. It had already been seven months since the last birth in a city housing a million people. Once again, Winters organizes a revolution and guides a small group in an escape from the city. They establish a new village that offers hope for the future while the cities and all their dreamers inevitably wither away.
Manning’s concept of a dream world, directly tapping into the human brain and bypassing the conventional organs of sensation, would later find a parallel in the world envisioned in Hollywood’s 1999 film The Matrix. We are still far from achieving the technological capacity depicted in Manning’s dream palaces or The Matrix. However, the notion of an immersive world experience guided into our consciousness through sophisticated technology resonates with today’s “virtual reality” technology and the idea of an expansive “metaverse” for humanity to “inhabit”.
A world with a greatly extended life span via biotechnology
Winter’s final adventure, emerging from hibernation in AD25000, offers another instance of Manning’s remarkable foresight. Manning imagines a world where advances in manipulating life at the cellular level enable mankind to experience a vastly extended lifespan. This anticipated the amazing scientific advances over the last 90 years that have led us to the doorstep of life-extending therapies based on genetic engineering. The book concludes with Winters exploring the social and psychological ramifications of attaining near-immortality.
Manning’s remarkable foreshadowing of today’s concerns
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s marked the beginning of cheap mass-market (or “pulp”) magazines devoted entirely to stories about science fiction and fantasy. Hundreds of science fiction stories were published annually by US magazines alone. Of all the stories published in this period, Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke stands out for its imaginative anticipation of several spectacular real-world developments that have played out in subsequent decades. Manning’s singular vision presaged our current cultural moment remarkably and deserved commemoration on its 90th anniversary this year.
Li, J., & Huang, J. S. (2020). Dimensions of artificial intelligence anxiety based on the integrated fear acquisition theory. Technology in Society, 63, 101410. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2020.101410