Jack Cross's new novel, Level 28, is set in the year 3010. It's a remarkable book—the digital age equivalent of Orwell's 1984—but with far greater scientific, psychological and philosophical insight. Unlike most books in the dystopian genre, it ends on a note of great hope. Despite the desecration of the planet—something with us now—it suggests an optimistic outcome in an area almost never grasped or suspected. We interviewed the author at his home in Sydney.
Buzzword: Many people today despair of the death of spaceship earth. Clearly, the planet is in trouble—possibly dying. And in Level 28 you fast-forward us to the penultimate stage of that death. Several levels of eugenically streamed human slaves service a semi-immortal elite of just eighty people—all living deep underground to avoid the nuclear winter and radiation caused by successive wars.
Cross: Yes, it’s the analogy of the ant. Or, more accurately, of blind termites. A community adapted to service the queen. In this case, the queen is represented by eighty elders who, through medical advances, now live over 300 years. But the humanoids serving them are restricted to 30 years or less. The original title of the book was Twelve-score Years and Ten.
Buzzword: And these surviving humans and their slaves are helped by intelligent and semi-intelligent robots. As I read it, there are only a thousand 'organics' left, while the 'inorganics' number in the thousands. And the reason for this is that humans have worked out that they're essentially destructive. So the fewer of them, the better.
Cross: Yes. As one elder puts it, 'We can't be cured. Only culled.' After centuries of conflict which have desecrated the planet, they've finally understood that no adaptation can curb their atrocities—that diminishing themselves is the only way to limit the damage. There is nothing speculative in this book. It's simply a logical progression to the point where not only civilization but humanity ends.
Buzzword: And that end is brought about by the continuation of the war. In this case, by the advanced non-organics in the Russian bunker raiding the Free Alliance bunker for human technicians.
Cross: Yes. In the Russian camp, all humans have died out. Only their robots are left. And the robots realise that they need organic input or they'll inevitably degrade.
Buzzword: This is one of the most telling aspects of the book. Can we go into it a little?
Cross: The logic is simple. Humans are profoundly imperfect but have one advantage—limited entropy. Negative entropy it's sometimes called. By taking in food and air, we stall our dissolution for a time. But even self-replicating AI units cannot do this. They're machines and must eventually fail. Again, humans have created AI. But human intelligence is flawed. Therefore, the code running the robots is flawed. Therefore, the software of even self-replicating AI units will inevitably become corrupted. And they cannot fix this by themselves. They rely on the fickle fallible human for the patch. Without this, even their perfect logic is useless.
Buzzword: Then there's yet another factor in the mix. The Neuros. Could we explore that?
Cross: Some of the more fanatical elders have transitioned to what used to be called Cyborgs—a CNS or central nervous system supported by a mechanical body. So they're effectively brains only. Their sensory and emotional functions are gone. But, because they're no longer affected by lust or emotion, they consider themselves superior and insist that all the elders transition. This provokes a backlash because most of the elders are too sensible to allow themselves to be diminished by two thirds.
Buzzword: Which brings us closer to the theme of the book—the difference between knowledge and being.
Cross: Yes. The entire, methodically conceived scenario is just a proscenium to dramatize this aspect.
Buzzword: Which is introduced by the astonishing character of Erva, from the Culture Control Department. She doesn't appear till later in the book. But, to my mind, completely transforms it. She's tiny, self-deprecating, the Curator of Historical Archives. Yet she's formidable, autonomous—terrifying in her objectivity.
Cross: Yes, nothing disturbs her because she has transcended her ego to the extent that she remains objective despite outward events. And, as such, she has nothing to protect.
Buzzword: She introduces an entirely new aspect which goes beyond hope.
Cross: Conventional hope is always problematical because it's predicated on time and events. It's mostly a projection of the past combined with daydreams. In other words, it's an emotionalized thought. And thought, of course is in time.
Buzzword: Can you explain that more?
Cross: The present moment is faster than thought. To exist now, we need to be entirely here. The discursive thoughts, the brain's rigmarole must stop. Which induces an entirely new function of the mind—attention. This, in turn, can wake up the sensation of the body and can even attract a third aspect—which we could tentatively call objective feeling. The correct use of the mind is attention. Not thought. Just seeing what is. It's a profoundly complex and simple discipline that I can't 'learn' because progression, accumulation is in time. It requires an inner stop. All must cease, go into abeyance. NOW.
Buzzword: So hope is dead?
Cross: Conventional hope shuts us off. But objective hope is still possible. Because at that level of greater intensity, paradox becomes the template of truth. When my little precious 'me'—is abandoned, ceases to be—then real hope appears. Hope that's indomitable. Profound.
Buzzword: You've lost me.
Cross: It's like saying, when time vanishes there is only 'isness'. Being. When my little 'I' ceases to be, I at last have the freedom to become.
Buzzword: Well Erva obviously understands that. Because, at the end of the book, despite the imminent death of everyone, she is unconcerned. Can you explain?
Cross: There are two aspects. The outer one first. The planet, suns, galaxies, universe are a vast living system—alive. To use a more conventional image, Great Nature provides for everything, creation and dissolution. Nature also conducts experiments. Humanity is the latest. We aren't perfect, like all other animals but a transitional form that has been given limited free choice so that we have the potential to evolve. But if that evolution happens on too small a scale, or is not even attempted, the experiment will be discarded. In other words, everything is in balance and foreseen. So, objectively, there is nothing to concern ourselves about.
Buzzword: Has humanity failed?
Cross: Probably. Do we see a growth of ethics, perspective, insight? No. Just increasing violence, slavery, exploitation and greed. For a long time we've turned in circles. Now, everything is going down the scale.
Buzzword: So where is the hope?
Cross: There's also the inner aspect. Civilizations may crumble and humanity disappear, but the individual, if he lives now, in the moment, lives in a kind of solid time. A kind of greater reality that, in turn, calls forth great hope. In that place, we are indestructible. But the only way to get there is to throw everything down at the door. Or the door won't open. Once we are psychologically 'nothing'—we join the cosmos. We are free.
Buzzword: You've lost me again. But I can definitely feel the hope in the last chapter of the book. While I don't want to pre-empt the story, may I interpolate here, the final lines?
Buzzword: Mark1, the young protagonist has just begun to learn a little of this new wisdom. But not enough to insulate himself from his coming death. Yet Erva treats his plight with humour—apparently from the greater hope you talk about.
They sat unspeaking for some time, bathed in energy. Finally, she said, 'Enough.'
As they walked back into the hall he asked her, 'What about the others here?'
'What about them?'
'Why did you save them?'
'But we'll all be dead soon.'
It was answer he'd got from the Preceptor, but said in a way that brought understanding. Nothing mattered to this woman. She did what was needed, that was all. Everything fed her. Nothing disturbed her. She played with life—deftly, impartially—secure in a more inclusive place.
He felt on the fringe of learning how to live but knew, in a handful of hour-slots, he'd be dead.
And realized he'd wasted his life.
She looked through him and smiled. 'That's exactly what you need to feel. Well done.'
Then she committed the terminal, irrevocable sin.
Her delightful trill came loudly, clearly, echoed through the high vault. 'At least now,' she called to everyone, 'we can laugh.'
The beaten units looked up. Some smiled.
She laughed again.
It was infectious. Others joined in.
From relief? From the enormity of it all? Because they at last had the freedom to do it?
She poked him in the ribs. Then he was laughing, too.
The combined laugh grew.
'We're not beaten yet,' someone called.
'We are,' she called back. 'And we're not.'
'We'll go down fighting,' another cried.
'Not with a whimper or bang. But a laugh.'
Soon the great space was filled with energy. But not the energy of despair. The laugh became a roar that rolled like a wave around the hall.
It seems to indicate that nothing matters.
Cross: Nothing and everything does if I'm here now. If I can somehow find the door to Being, everything takes its place—goes back into perspective. I truly live then. When I am nothing in the right way, then nothing can touch me. He who has nothing has nothing to fear. Because he has nothing to lose. He's lost everything to gain everything. He's nowhere and everywhere in the same moment. He is. And is not. The paradox again. The mind can never understand it because the taste of Being requires pure attention—mindless awareness. The correct use of the mind is simple awareness. 'Awake, for ye know not the time nor the hour.'
Buzzword: So somewhere, there's great hope?
Cross: Of course. As Marcel Duchamp put it, 'There is no solution. Because there is no problem.'
Buzzword: So the prevailing universal angst about the desecration of the planet is pointless?
Cross: Not entirely. We need to cultivate our own gardens. But with a measure of objectivity. Never to get caught. The zealot is completely identified. He's become a process and the blind process is the problem. Belief in progress is a myth. Nothing can be achieved on that level. Creation begins with stopping everything. In other words, with passive awareness. Perhaps the greatest thing we can do is cease all our 'doing' and just be. To remain apart. As Lau Tzu said, 'The way to do is to be.' The primary step before expansion is withdrawal. Otherwise it all goes wrong.
Buzzword: A great deal to think about there.
You can find more on Level 28 here on Buzzword.