Peter Wilson's drama script collection

The Great Chaos


Extract from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2500 edition

Reconstructing accurately or reliably the history of events leading to the Great Chaos of the early 21st century is made almost impossible by the nature of the Chaos itself. Following the abandonment of physical records in the first decade of the century, their replacement by supposedly secure electronic forms, and the subsequent total loss of these replacements, the only extant accounts from that period are personal reminiscences, concentrated on the particular interests of their authors and even there - perhaps especially there - subject to the usual vagaries of human memory. What follows is in the main a generally accepted interpretation, pieced together from the best available evidence, but inevitably to some extent speculative while some points remain in dispute.

Beyond question, however, the crucial fact was the degree of reliance on cybernetics that had become general in every field of commerce and technology around the close of the second millennium, after a brief period of anxiety at the end of the twentieth century was followed by a burst of computerisation when a supposed major problem proved to be at most a trivial inconvenience. There is no agreement on whether the consequent disaster was coincidental or the result of a more than usually malevolent design.

That is unimportant for the present purpose. Whether intentionally or not, the sudden and effective destruction of all electronic data files a few years later by the hyperadaptive Megasoft family of viruses completed the obliteration of recent history, since even those sources not themselves corrupted could no longer be read in the absence of functional software. All possible means of reconstructing the software were themselves tainted, and no option remained but to destroy recorded media and abandon computational tools of whatever kind where any threat of a "live" virus remained. To ensure disinfection, the United Nations decreed (with extraordinarily unanimous agreement from member states) that all hardware from which electronic records might be extracted should itself be physically destroyed.

The unanimity remains remarkable even given that the politicians responsible were subsequently found to have had little or no idea of its implications, as appeared from their claims for exemption during the following months. These were more or less quickly dismissed and merely delayed rather than thwarted the programme of eradication. Inevitably some less highly-placed enthusiasts also argued that their equipment had been effectively isolated for the duration of the pandemic and so could not be infected. However, their pleas were overruled on the grounds that since all virus-checking software had itself been corrupted, there was no means of verifying the claim, and the risk was too great to tolerate if computer technology were ever again to become reliable or even possible. Possessing any kind of electronically programmable device therefore became a serious crime, sought out by detectors of the utmost sensitivity. Even so, some stand-alone machines must surely have survived in obscure locations or by remaining silent during this period; fortunately any viruses lurking within them do not seem to have subsequently reappeared.

Because the necessarily unsophisticated detectors could not distinguish reliably between the raster signals from different kinds of visual display unit, television was also suspended. For a public largely addicted to its output, worthless though much of it was widely agreed to be, this was probably the most hurtful deprivation of the time (then known as the "Brontitor" period, apparently an allusion to some once-popular epic now lost with other literature of that era). Sound radio survived, although any recordings not demonstrably made before the start of the pandemic came under the general ban, and all current material therefore had to be broadcast live. For this reason, and because if anything it stimulated public demand for visual as well as aural stimulation, the performing arts enjoyed a sustained revival shared with many other pursuits that had long been in decline.

The effect on public entertainment, however, was trivial compared with that in industry, commerce and politics. In industry particularly, it was exacerbated by changes in climate.

A series of disastrous floods had finally brought home the dangers of global warming, even though seismic disturbances possibly triggered by the raised sea level had briefly opened the Graben fault and released part of the excess into the Dead Sea basin. Indeed, some historians claim that the eventual recognition of danger was largely due to the drowning of historic sites such as Jericho and Capernaum. Be that as it may, a complete reversal of public opinion led to the virtual outlawing of fossil hydrocarbons as fuel for any but essential purposes and a great surge in electrical generation by nuclear means, chiefly utilising an efficient and reliable French design of fission reactor.

Unfortunately in view of later events, this relied crucially on computer control and so became unusable in the Brontitor period. For a time the resulting loss of industrial power caused great hardship, with many tasks requiring simple brute force having to be done by a workforce long accustomed to mechanical assistance and in poor condition for manual exertion. The position was relieved after a few years by a hasty and massive replication of relatively primitive pre-computer reactors still functioning in Britain.

Meanwhile agriculture was badly hit. Few people actually starved, at least few more than usual, since the loss of industrial employment in operations demanding heavy power consumption released a great deal of manpower for farming, if not particularly adept at it. Nevertheless scarcity was the rule rather than the exception. Great changes also occurred in educational systems, with many so-called universities reverting to their previous function of training in useful crafts suited to a largely manual economy. After the end of the Brontitor period they mostly continued in the same vein, owing to the satisfaction that many people found in the pleasure of craftsmanship.

Grave though these effects undoubtedly were, the greatest and most significant changes came about through the unaccustomed difficulty of travel and transportation. All but the simplest aircraft relied heavily on computers, so did marine navigation systems, so did telecommunications. Moving people, goods or even information in quantity over any substantial distance therefore became for most purposes intolerably slow; communication remained difficult and limited even when a semblance of pre-computer systems could be reconstituted.

Public awareness thus became concentrated on local issues, and the larger political entities loosened or dissolved completely into their component parts. The more sophisticated the society, the more intense was the fragmentation, so that the USA as it then existed fell apart almost immediately, although the Unfederated States of America eventually formed a number of ad hoc associations within a wider boundary of little more than geographical significance. China, India, Indonesia and Russia became the only super-powers, to the alarm of their neighbours. Fortunately they were too engrossed in confronting each other, or suppressing unrest within their own borders, to cause much trouble elsewhere.

The fate of relatively small groupings is typified by the United Autocracy of England, Scotland and Wales, which also threatened to disintegrate. (Ireland, unified under a brutal quasi-military dictatorship, had become a pariah state until much later when a popular uprising led by one Padraig McGorbichoff - probably an alias - arrested and summarily executed all known members of the Irish Republican Army, and on re-joining what had again become the United Kingdom, exiled suspects to a penal colony on St. Kilda where they were effectively marooned.)

The British Isles had long been subject to centrifugal political tendencies, intensified when London itself declared independence from the rest of England. Under a group of hard-line politicians known as the Living Stones, it sealed itself off behind a belt of land called the Green Piece devoted to the most primitive forms of agriculture, and refused to have more than essential communication or trade with anyone else. The population of necessity shrank to the few thousand who could be supported by their own unskilled efforts at farming.

The long-established Parliamentary government had been abolished some time before, on the grounds that selective sampling showed further elections to be unnecessary, and the Leader knew far better than their supposed representatives what the people wanted. Having lost London, and in an attempt to forestall the secession of Scotland from the Union, he moved the seat of government to Blair Atholl as the headquarters of the only remaining military force with any credibility, while his opponents retired to the Netherlands to form a government in exile at The Hague. However, the Blair administration over-reached itself by attempting to abolish the Monarchy as an insufferable "force of conservatism" that was exceeding its constitutional powers by interfering in politics. (The occasion for this last accusation was apparently a leaked comment that words ought always to be used with their generally recognised meaning, rather than whatever happened to suit the Leader at the moment.) At that point the Duke of Atholl led his army in a coup d’état, declaring the Monarchy to be the only legitimate source of authority until a new constitution could be implemented, and confining members of the previous government to a lunatic asylum. It was rumoured that few of them noticed the difference.

The new government was based primarily on the hereditary peerage as the only body of suitable experience beholden to no living person for its position, and therefore able to do whatever might be deemed necessary without regard to temporary unpopularity. A subsidiary chamber elected by popular vote was given the principal responsibility for purely short-term issues, and enough power to curb any blatant exercise of self-interest by the nobility, with the Monarchy itself as a long stop against abuse. Introducing this lower chamber was considered bold to the point of rashness in a world that had largely come to share the abhorrence professed by George Washington for democracy as a source of unnecessary dissension, and saw it at best as an interesting but dangerous historical aberration, at worst as an awful warning. Nevertheless it provided a useful safety valve.

The system as a whole gave practical recognition to the obvious but long-neglected facts that how a government is appointed is far less important than how it subsequently behaves, and that few people (apart from those with mercifully unfulfilled personal ambitions) are much bothered about the mechanism so long as genuine grievances receive a sympathetic and effective hearing. Its success prompted attempts, not always satisfactory, to set up similar arrangements elsewhere: they worked best where tribal traditions had retained a body of elders accustomed to responsible authority.

Otherwise, systems suited to the local circumstances evolved, sometimes through a period of violence, sometimes peacefully, depending mainly on national characteristics. The recognition that so long as they caused no intolerable difficulties, such distinctive attributes were to be cherished rather than crushed under a dull uniformity, is perhaps the outstanding political achievement of the past half-millennium.

Thus it was that the Great Chaos led through various evolutionary developments to the period of world-wide stability that we still enjoy today.

Peter D. Wilson
Seascale, February 2000
Copyright © 2001, 2016