Ashes, Ashes: What dystopian fiction teaches us about technology

by Laura Chevrot, Assistant Editor

“An imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized and fearful lives”. 

The above sentence refers to the meaning of the word dystopia, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Dystopian fiction allows us to think about what the world could become in the future – often, it explores how contemporary socio-political contexts could create havoc and torment.

When thinking about climate change, biodiversity loss or unsustainable practices, dystopian fiction provides insight on what a “no change” scenario could look like. What happens if we do not act now to slow or reverse current trends?

Ashes, Ashes (its original name being Ravage) is a dystopian novel written in 1943 by French science fiction author René Barjavel. That means the book was written 78 years ago, before the end of the Second World War and 44 years before the Brundtland Report defined “sustainable development” for the first time. However, its contents couldn’t be more relevant for today’s society.

NB: The analysis below is entirely based on my understanding of Barjavel’s novel and how it could relate to sustainability. It is by no means an authoritative interpretation of the book, nor does it expose the exact intentions of the author when writing the story. 

The role of technology in society:

Ashes, Ashes tells the story of a society much more modern and technologically advanced than Barjavel’s, or even ours. A society with flying cars and buses, magnetic bodysuits, robots that do household chores and massive freezer rooms designed to preserve the dead. Barjavel depicts the dependency of inhabitants on automation, on electricity. The story revolves around a power cut which occurs globally, wreaking havoc and panic among citizens and leaders alike. In a society dependent on technology, citizens find themselves unable to function, leading to the downfall of an entire civilisation.

The novel leads us to question the role of technology and automation in society, which is a key theme in sustainability debates today. Climate change is caused, in part, by our use of technology, cars, air conditioning and planes, to name a few. In the same way as technology brings the society in Barjavel’s novel to a fall, we might ask ourselves whether technology is destroying our current society. Has technology created an inherently unsustainable society, and if so, can we expect current trends to stabilise within a technologically dependent society? Or can technology ‘save’ us, through innovative inventions which could help stabilise temperatures, for example? One example of new technology used by citizens in the novel is biotechnology, which allows the artificial creation of cubes of meat in massive factories. It is well known now that meat consumption is harmful to the environment, should biotechnology be explored as a solution? Or is it just another “quick fix” which could have repercussions on our health, on emissions and which is also ethically questionable?

The urban-rural divide:

When describing the setting, Barjavel contrasts the “backwards” ways of a few rural farmers who have remained faithful to traditional methods with the luxuries of city life. The farmers are strong, they have manual skills and can function independently from machinery. The citizens, on the other hand, are revealed to be completely useless when a power cut occurs across the globe. They are not used to walking up and down stairs or across the city, they can’t think creatively or practically, and they find themselves unable to do the simplest of activities because they are used to robots doing everything for them.

The epitome of this contrast is found in the characters of François Deschamps and Jérome Seita, both of whom hope to win over the heart of the wonderful singer Blanche Rouget at the beginning of the book.  François is Blanche’s childhood friend. He grew up with her on farmland and is devoted to taking care of his parents’ farm. In contrast, Jérome is a famous manager who lives in the city and has taken Blanche under his wing. Whilst François is defined by his proximity to nature, Jérome is defined by his reliance on technology. At the beginning of the novel, Blanche decides to marry Jérome Seita, not because she loves him, but because of how important he is to her career. By doing so, Blanche embodies the way in which society chose technology over nature. The two antithetic characters of Jérome and François create a visual image of the rural-urban divide depicted in the book. It becomes apparent that Barjavel criticises society’s reliance on automation, symbolised by the character of Jérome Seita, who can’t take care of Blanche once the power cuts off because he can’t do anything without the help of automation. François, on the other hand, leads a group of friends including Blanche to safety when fires break out in the city. This is because he is strong and is used to doing many things on his own, without the help of machinery. He becomes the hero of the story and of the whole country, and his hatred of machinery and automation becomes evident and explicit at the end of the book (no spoilers here!).

This contrast evokes the importance of small-scale farming in the sustainability agenda. One might even add that it relates to wider debates around the preservation of traditional activities and indigenous knowledge, as opposed to cultural, agricultural, and medicinal homogenisation. With the character of François Deschamps, Barjavel lays a claim for the preservation not only of smallholder farming, but of traditional knowledge and craft. He also touches on the importance of staying connected to nature in avoiding the downfall of humanity. In doing so, he therefore adheres to some of the central claims of the sustainability debate today.  

Technology as a result of human nature:

Finally, the end of the novel explicitly raises the question of whether technology should be seen as a form of societal progress or self-destruction. It describes a post-apocalyptic utopia where all technology has been suppressed and manual labour is once again valued. Interestingly, Barjavel also explores other themes such as the benefits of polygamy in these last chapters. In this new setting, one young man decides to construct a car, which the founder of the village immediately tries to destroy. This leads us to wonder whether technological progress is just an inevitable consequence of human nature. In this sense, technological innovation is seen as a product of the self-destructive nature of humanity. Ambitions and curiosity inevitably lead to downfall. Not only does this feed into debates surrounding technology’s place in the sustainability agenda, but it also questions our very ability to form a sustainable society. Barjavel’s utopian village is peaceful and sustainable, yet the younger generations who didn’t experience the destruction brought by technology are still tempted to create machines. This human fascination with technology seems to be inevitable. If technology is seen as a barrier to sustainability, this inevitability suggests that human nature makes it impossible for us to create a sustainable society.

Ashes, Ashes, highlights the importance of including art in the sustainability debate. Barjavel is only one of many authors and artists who were ahead of their time in denouncing society’s disregard for the planet. After centuries of being ignored, let us make their voices heard as we strive towards more sustainable ways of life.

Header mage by Barbara A Lane via Pixabay

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