Utopia Revisited 2050: We Journey into a Brighter Future by Bhaskar Sompalli and Prem Menon
Reviewed by Mary Ann Koruth
Set in the not-too-distant future, Utopia Revisited 2050 tells the story of an Indian expatriate’s return to Trichy, his hometown, a city in India’s deepest south. Sid Manekshaw, a Silicon Valley professional, returns home in the unlikely circumstance of personal loss. Sid, whose life so far consisted only of successes—he owns a private jet and is the proud founder of a startup—is devastated as crisis after crisis hits him. He loses his wife and parents to accidents within the span of a year. Utopia Revisited challenges Sid to reexamine the value and worth of his life in the year 2050, in the face of changes that promise to make his world a far more livable and empowering place. These changes are presented to the reader as an array of solutions implemented to rid contemporary society of the ills and prejudices that plague it, ranging from gun violence and school shootings to racial profiling. The solutions are imaginative and satisfying to contemplate—it would take away from the story to discuss them in detail here. Among the most progressive is an unprecedented approach to designing guns. Guns in 2050 are built to have a ‘consciousness’. These ‘smart’ weapons intervene at the crucial moment before the trigger is pulled, to affect the shooter into examining the prejudices that drive her actions. With support for the second amendment showing no signs of weakening, what better solution than to redesign weapons to trick their owners into reconsidering decisions to wield them? In this way, Utopia Revisited 2050 is an attempt by its authors—both tech professionals based in California—to suggest that all is not lost in present day America. Thinly veiled references to Donald Trump sketch a picture of why things should have got as bad as they did, until three decades or so into the future, when technology begins to be harnessed to bring peace and civility.
Sid is presented with a subtle choice—can changes such as these, and changes implemented on a grassroots, local scale, truly transform his experience of grief? Does a commitment to creating a better and more humane world enable healing even when one loses one’s nearest and dearest? If the living must go on, as he recalls his deceased wife telling him, then how can this living be made more bearable?
The premise of the solutions described in the book is that society can rid itself of the mindsets and biases that result in discrimination and violence—by enabling technology, big data and innovative approaches to design everything from education to weapons. Sompalli and Menon’s utopian society relies on technology to bring out the best in people. No doubt, compassion and humanistic action is difficult or hard to achieve on a purely human level, with purely human effort. The result, inevitably, is conflict—from police brutality to teenagers acting out in extreme ways. Enter technology—microchips that dismantle prejudice, continuous tracking of the effectiveness of these solutions, large scale analyses of social change—to achieve a very practical deliverance from human limitations. “World peace was no longer a toast at the dinner table, but a well-tracked problem that could be optimized,” says a character in the book.
This debut novella holds the creators of today’s tech miracles—with a reflexive nod to the book’s authors—to the highest standards. It is a work of optimism and sympathy. It dreams of a more perfect world. The story of Sid’s suffering—is narrated simply and unsentimentally. What endeared me was its confidence in the possibility of a world that takes our reliance on technology to a level that is above and beyond what we know today, towards a world truly transformed. Yet its emotional core is wanting. Sid strikes a deep friendship with a woman, an ‘amma,’ who is revered as a spiritual guide among locals. Their conversations sound sometimes like exchanges of information—so much so that sometimes Sid and Amma become vehicles for the authors to communicate their vision for a better world. This is not for lack of effort on the part of Sompalli and Menon, who nonchalantly admit in their notes that they are ‘tech guys’ making a writing debut. Though the word ‘amma’ set off alarm bells in me, the character herself turned out to be the opposite of what I imagined based on the god-women who might have inspired her. No spoilers here, except that she turned out to be an unusually refreshing candidate for an ‘amma’. A Ted talk gives the reader a view of an entirely reimagined world in 2050. Yet the use of a Ted talk—a monologue—as a story telling device is so much less effective than an actual recreation of circumstances. Was a novella too limiting in scope for a work that takes on so much? Or was the choice of telling the story in a novella simply more manageable?
Through it all, Sid discovers aspects to his parents lives that compel him to reevaluate them as individuals. Like himself in the wake of their death, his parents too, sought out ways to bring meaning to their own lives. They looked outward and away from their own pain and into the pain of others, as a way of dealing with it—a gallant goal for anyone looking to mend things.
Reviews Editor Mary Ann Koruth’s writing and reviews have appeared in The Indiana Review,The Rain Taxi Review of Books and The Hindu. She has written for TheAtlantic.com while interning as web editor, and has covered art and culture for other publications. Her love for the English language came from growing up in a family where fidelity to literature and grammar bore a moral dimension. She is currently a candidate in the Rutgers-Newark MFA in creative writing.