Richard Godwin’s 2015 novella Paranoia and the Destiny Programme is a dystopian look at the modern age of surveillance. “I see no butterfly wings in the Rorschach test, but a mountain of bones.” So says Dale Helix, the central character of the book, who is convinced he is being abducted by a shadowy group of rulers called The Assembly. He claims they have programmed him to kill. Set in a dystopian city, it is an exploration of totalitarianism, paranoia and social engineering in a society where it is impossible to gauge the truth. The aim of the programme is to study the link between serial killers and dictators in order to clone the ideal dictator. And the Assembly are engineering a new gender. Is Dale insane or is his paranoia a key to a hidden truth? Critics have compared it to 1984. Reviewers have called the novella “a cold, absolutely original journey into a near future that you may recognize,” and a “terrifying artistic vision […]. Our dehumanised, demented times, lying in wait, just under the surface.”
Godwin was recently the plenary speaker at a university in Hungary, where he was asked about the book.
Q: How would you define the genre of Paranoia and the Destiny Programme?
A: A stream of narrative black satire and hybrid sci-fi. Think of The Soft Machine by William S Burroughs, think of Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian.
If you consider the body of literature like Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho that is where this is situated. With sci-fi thrown in. I like to play with genres. I also write within them.
Q: Why is there no alternative consciousness against which we could check Dale’s?
A: [There is more than one consciousness.] The two consciousnesses are Dale’s [which is a split consciousness] and the state’s, there is no other consciousness in the novel as the citizens of municipality 1 are brain dead suckers for a utopia. What is the consciousness of a man imprisoned in the USSR and tortured for his political views? State obliteration of identity. I am looking at the erasure of the human but the totalitarian.
Q: Besides being a dark dystopia, Paranoia and the Destiny Programme is about regendering, the state want to impose a new gender in Dale, the narrator. Are you suggesting that the sexual and political are both pornographic?
A: Are you talking about the novel or society at large? Not all sex is pornographic. Some politics is pornographic. What do we mean by porn? There is no seduction in porn. Usher in the fever of Eros. I wanted to explore totalitarianism in the age of surveillance. The sexual and gender content have more to do with the internet as a surveillance beast and its basic pornography, its objectification of the mind, and its uses to intimidate and imprison. I wanted to offer disgust and some level of offence both inside the novella and outside it. I was in interested in drawing the reader into the interpretative process which is why I left it amorphous. Henry Miller famously said, when sued by the illiterate courts for obscenity, that we ought to offend. This may be one of those novels.
Q: Don’t you think that totalitarian regimes are also paranoid, so Dale and the Assembly mirror each other? And that “paranoia” and the “Destiny Programme” are one and the same?
A: Totalitarian regimes are paranoid, that hideously avuncular Joseph Stalin was a case in point. As was the tedious dictator Hitler. Nazi Germany was a nation in psychosis, like a serial killer’s back garden run but the state. Neither understood or appreciated Art. Transpose the acts of many killers to a wider canvas and that is what you get, extreme totalitarianism. As James Lee Burke wrote, ‘The Nazis may have led the Jews into the gas ovens but it was the bureaucrats who fired them up.’ I wanted to look at the eminence grise who operate our sick times. That is represented by The Assembly in the novel, a group of shadowy rulers who are abducting Dale. Paranoia is not the destiny programme. And this leads me to my main point: the reason the novel it is called Paranoia and the Destiny Programme is because both are operating in tandem. Dale is paranoid, he has been made paranoid by the state machine. Think Kafka here and In The Penal Settlement. Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and the anti-psychiatry movement with RD Laing are also relevant. Institutionalisation may cause schizophrenia. In Ancient Greek paranoia meant “beside your mind.” That is what I am representing here, Dale is beside his mind, resisting state control at all levels. These are the roads I was exploring. With the Nasa and the UK/USA agreement we are all objects of a massive surveillance programme. There are 1,200 CIA operatives in Menwith Hill in Britain inside an enclosure with an American bank and baseball diamond, guarded, so that they can spy on UK citizens. We have our guys out there and we trade information with Maryland, because it is illegal for us to spy on our citizens, how many false positives are going to get triggered? I believe if we do not wake up and see what is around us we are done. We are back to William Burroughs and The Naked Lunch: that moment when you see exactly what is on the end of your fork.
Q: What, then, is the link between total surveillance by a totalitarian, impersonal power and the extreme objectification of bodies in acts of extreme violence, like those of serial killers?
A: I think they are connected. When I wrote the narrative I was thinking about the link between serials killers and dictators. Is a killer a failed politician, or a dictator a socialised manipulator of social norms, but deep down a killer acting vicariously? The Assembly is abducting Dale, and he is paranoid. Both treat humans as objects. Both violate. A country like North Korea does not allow identity to exist, there is no music except the hideous jingles that praise their fatuous deluded autocrat, no internet except that provided to for them to hack the USA. It is a joke but a ridiculous version of what totalitarianism is when taken to its reductio ad absurdum. It is the ultimate piece of political narcissism and lie. There is no art in North Korea. There are no songs there. It is a totalitarian prison. There is only the identity of the dictator and he has none. He is as flat and empty as a piece of glass. He is the ultimate piece of porn, a man reduced to a non-being by a political vacuum. His drug is total power. His fear is liberty. And intelligence. And exploration. And literature. And art because it explores the human condition and offers alternative versions of a reality that the political programme wants to manufacture. Totalitarianism corrupts. It kills.