Book #72: Hollow World (2014)

hollow_world_audioauthor: Michael J. Sullivan
language: English
length: 747 minutes (12 hours 27 minutes)
finished listening on: 15 August 2014

I feel like the words are a bit overdone by now, but this is yet another Humble Bundle acquisition. In the story, which I think owes a debt to H.G. Wells, the main character, having been given only a short time left to live, invents a time machine and jumps forward to the distant future, to find a world that has completely changed.

The key distinguishing feature of this world is that everyone lives in an underground world, the surface having been ravaged by the results of modern climate change in what’s now the distant past. This gives rise to the name Hollow World, although it doesn’t take a genius to tell that the title is a pun, or one with multiple ways to read it.

As if this batch of the Humble Bundle deliberately searched out books with similar themes, this one shares some of the sci-fi ideas of Cory Doctorow’s novel about the futuristic Disneyworld, in particular the post-scarcity idea that in the future there will come a time when energy and production is essentially unlimited and humanity will conquer death. I think that’s the part I find particularly unbelievable about his world, but it’s not the only part.

Another particularly strange part is that humans are now genetically engineered identicals, which makes me think of a universe inhabited solely by many Tatiana Maslanys. But the strangest idea that the author had come with is that this negates humanity’s need for sex and intimacy, and that the new humans are like Ken dolls, without any outward secondary sexual characteristics. It’s also mentioned that by getting rid of the Y chromosome, they got rid of aggression in humanity, which to me suggests a fundamentally flawed conflation of genetic or physical sex and gender. But, harking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness”, this creates a world of agender humans, and an inevitable identity clash when the formerly homophobic main character falls in love with one of the new humans.

In many ways, this new world is quite explicitly painted as a utopia, whereas without anything that defines the modern human experience, I’d be more inclined to describe it as a dystopia. It’s a shame that the main conflict of the book, which takes a little too long to emerge, is between supporters of the hollow world and vehemently religious fundamentalist characters who are trying to enforce hideously outdated gender roles and hierarchical beatings, which is even more obviously flawed when the new world doesn’t really have the concept of gender, if that makes sense. It felt like a false dichotomy, like there has to really be a middle ground between these two extreme views, although the book at least goes some way to acknowledging this.

I also think that the author tried to cram too many themes into the book, as in addition to the above, for instance, a mental illness theme also crops up – depression seems to be rife on this new world, where many people are left without purpose, and one character is a hybrid between a police detective and a therapist. Or there’s the anti-climate-change stance, which is very obvious when talking about the intervening history of the world.

I’m still having trouble deciding what the author meant by all of this. Is this a warning, or a wish? Is it a case of being careful what you wish for (after all, many of the advances of the new society are desirable, just not when they come together as one)? As a vehicle for exploring gender and mental illness, it works quite well, but in my opinion it needs more focus on fewer of these issues.

That said, I think I enjoyed the book overall, despite its flaws. It’s definitely one of the better ones I’ve gotten from the Humble Bundle, however much that sounds like damning with faint praise.

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