Adrian Graham

Future Shock book cover

Future Shock

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) linked psychological stress – created by rapid change, over-choice, over-stimulation, information-overload, and social fragmentation – to reduced cognitive processing skills, breakdown, and identity crisis. Toffler theorised that the shift from an ‘industrial society’ to a ‘super-industrial’ society would produce ‘future shock’. (Today ‘future shock’ would be called something like post traumatic stress.)

Toffler was a futurist with an eye on the lucrative corporate sector, so the book was (in part at least) an advert for his corporate consultancy work. Later on, in The Third Wave (1980), Toffler dropped the ‘super-industrial’ society for the ‘Information Age’. Instead of a ‘super-industrialised’ society, the west actually ended up with a ‘post-industrial’ society, areas of economic decline, ‘rust belts’, and the ‘left behind’, and yet the stress of rapid change is still with us.

Hollywood picked up on ‘future shock’, and America’s anxiety about the future, in films like Soylent Green (1973), and THX 1138 (1971). J G Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) captures elements of ‘future shock’, which is exacerbated by the psychogeography of Modernist architecture. The Judge Dredd stories are another example of ‘future shock’ in science fiction. In Judge Dredd the whole of society has gone crazy. An authoritarian government maintains control through the use of a militarised police force.

When science fiction predicts the future

There’s a dynamic between the cultural zeitgeist, fashionable notions about the future, and science fiction writers’ wrapping up big ideas into a dramatic stories. Because dysfunction offers more potential for drama, science fiction tends to focus on dystopian themes. Predictions about the future are based on:

  1. Projected forecasts based on existing data (often based on exponential growth or decline graphs)
  2. Conjecture based on prevailing beliefs / assumptions
  3. Surprise ‘wildcard’ elements

The contemporary world and the problems of there here-and-now provide a convenient starting point for imagining the future. This technique ensures that any future world feels relevant to a contemporary audience. Back in the 1970s New York’s dysfunction (social polarisation, poverty, violent crime, electricity blackouts, strikes, and corruption), in combination with fears of ‘over-population’, environmental pollution, and resource scarcity, provided a model for 70s science fiction in films like Soylent Green. (The 70s disaster epic covered similar territory, but set the catastrophe in the present. The post-apocalyptic story turned it into an extinction level threat.

Orwell used Stalinism as the basis for 1984. Contemporary writers often use notions of American decline (for example, American War) and the collapse of democracy (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). But, American decline has been followed by American reinvention – predictions about the future are inherently risky.

Philip K Dick knew how to add wildcard predictions into his stories, which gave his world building a sense of the unexpected. Literary fiction writers have it easier, in some ways. They can allude to things without necessarily describing the specifics (the day-to-day realities of a future UK in John Lanchester’s The Wall). Genre fiction readers expect more detailed world building, and consequentially have to take bigger risks.

The four phases of science fiction

Back in June, I mentioned the implications of real technology ‘catching up’ with classic science fiction tropes, like space travel, and AI. I classified science fiction into modern and postmodern phases.

Since then, I’ve added two more phases, to make:

  1. Mythic, theological, and thought experiment worlds (angel worlds, beast worlds, heaven or hell worlds, utopias, etc, for example The Blazing-World 1666).
  2. Gothic and Romantic worlds (technology as a dangerous, mysterious, almost magical force, for example, Frankenstein, 1818).
  3. Modernist worlds (the ‘wonders’ of technology, a rational force that promotes human development and the greatness of mankind, the ‘classic’ / ‘Golden Era’ of science fiction).
  4. Postmodern worlds (technology brings new possibilities and dangers, humanity exists within its own flaws and limitations, for example, Dune, 1965).

Thoughts on the unwritten contract between the writer and reader

  1. The writer will deliver a known type of story to the reader.
  2. The known story type will deliver expected emotions and dilemmas.
  3. The writer should avoid belittling the audience, tricking, or shortchanging them in an underhand way.
  4. The writer should create a world that operates according to clear set of rules, and a logical system of cause and effect.
  5. The story should progress at a natural pace (one that’s appropriate to the story being told).
  6. Characters should evolve in a realistic way, without jarring changes.
  7. Characters should speak ‘in character’ (without the writer using them to moralise or lecture the reader).
  8. Characters should earn their place in the story.
  9. If a character possesses remarkable wisdom or skills, those abilities should be earned (or have a valid explanation).
  10. The writer should ensure that the reader enjoys being in the story (even if they break the previous nine rules).


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