Nothing speaks to the power of a weapon like it inspiring a work of speculative fiction, and Ben H. Winters’ Golden State is the dystopian take on the new tool of war du jour: lies.
A bit too much like Minority Report meets Fahrenheit 451, Winters’ world rests upon one tenement and is protected by a special class of law enforcement beholden to it: lying is a capital offense. In the Golden State, formerly known as California, truth is religion, zealotry, comfort. Citizens exchange facts with one another—it is 1 p.m.; the Moon is in orbit around the Earth—as a form of catechism, handshake and source of strength. All facts of the day are recorded in the citizen’s Day Book; all records of an individual’s life are filed and await enshrinement in the permanent record of the state; all motions are captured by cameras. And upholding this order is the Speculative Service.
Speculators birddog lies and liars. They are capable of a quasi-supernatural ability to detect lies, which destabilize the very world around them, the membrane of reality roiling like a pillowcase of wasps. They are also, crucially, the only people in the Golden State with license to lie themselves in the form of speculation, which they engage in to solve crimes of honesty.
All of this sounds desirable, giving our current condition in the United States.
All of that is a lie.
Golden State reveals the classic take on the dystopian: that speaking in absolutes leads to absolute corruption. The truth is important, yes; the novel even takes pains to exclude such little white lies as flattery from the criminal system. But a world absent of misinformation is also a world without personal freedom, a world twisted even more easily to a particular liar’s will. Were a Speculator to merely take themselves off record, their machinations would be practically undetectable. Save a Speculator’s special ability, the average citizen would be beholden to the truth—or what they have been told is the truth—leaving such human specialties as cunning and chicanery atrophied. Notably killed is the imagination itself.
To tamper with the Record is to change reality, because in the Golden State, the Record is the reality. Truth is the one glorious, shining pillar which this saved civilization is built upon, and any crack will run through all they know.
Lies surround us; they are spiders, seldom seen but always near, mostly innocuous. When they are wielded with malice, as they have been recently, the dread power of the lie—of a concentrated chorus of them, a deluge directed at your enemy’s very foundation—is now obvious. A house built upon sand will not stand. But a house built upon the rock will not survive a shift.
We’ve seen this in our own world; from Veles and Moscow and across the globe, lies were leaked and the truth was shaken, sometimes lost. It’s impossible to quantify with certainty the damage done, but that we are even here talking about it—that Golden State was inspired by it—is proof enough that it did, indeed, hurt. This is the apocalypse wrought by the Second War of Ideas.
Golden State’s warning is a sobering one: facts do not equal truth.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.