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:
- Projected forecasts based on existing data (often based on exponential growth or decline graphs)
- Conjecture based on prevailing beliefs / assumptions
- 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:
- Mythic, theological, and thought experiment worlds (angel worlds, beast worlds, heaven or hell worlds, utopias, etc, for example The Blazing-World 1666).
- Gothic and Romantic worlds (technology as a dangerous, mysterious, almost magical force, for example, Frankenstein, 1818).
- 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).
- 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
- The writer will deliver a known type of story to the reader.
- The known story type will deliver expected emotions and dilemmas.
- The writer should avoid belittling the audience, tricking, or shortchanging them in an underhand way.
- The writer should create a world that operates according to clear set of rules, and a logical system of cause and effect.
- The story should progress at a natural pace (one that’s appropriate to the story being told).
- Characters should evolve in a realistic way, without jarring changes.
- Characters should speak ‘in character’ (without the writer using them to moralise or lecture the reader).
- Characters should earn their place in the story.
- If a character possesses remarkable wisdom or skills, those abilities should be earned (or have a valid explanation).
- The writer should ensure that the reader enjoys being in the story (even if they break the previous nine rules).
- In John Christopher’s largely forgotten novel, The Death of Grass (1956) a virus wipes out all grass varieties (including rice and wheat), sending civilisation into rapid collapse and barbarity. The novel is often compared to Day of the Triffids (1951) and Lord of the Flies (1954). The Death of Grass was adapted into the film No Blade of Grass (1970), which has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 33%. It’s a peculiar film combining disturbing scenes of sexual violence, along with cringe-worthy, hippy over-sentimentality, terrible acting, and a low budget. It’s one of those films that makes you wonder who the audience was supposed to be. It doesn’t help that the group treks across an English landscape of lush, healthy looking grass that’s supposed to have been killed by the virus. Where Day of the Triffids is a cosy catastrophe (only hinting at the horrors), and making it easy to like, The Death of Grass is a grim study of societal collapse, and the emergence of a power hierarchy based on physical violence – not exactly an uplifting message. In this sense it’s a precursor to The Road, but without the literary panache.
- Where next for the American story? Genres and story tropes come in and out of fashion as America constantly reimagines itself in the mirror of Hollywood. New genres and sub-genres emerge, they become pervasive, turn into a cliché, and then fade away. Almost every genre peaks and troughs as it gains and looses resonance: the western, the gangster flick, the social justice story (the classic Hollywood progressive story), the war story, the musical, the space opera, the horror story, the buddy movie, the cop story, and the superhero story. As American society becomes more polarised and its self-confidence slips, how will this be reflected in the stories America tells itself?
- Sage Hyden’s YouTube videos explore the craft of storytelling. In ‘Foundation: crucifying a masterwork’, Sage Hyden points out a common problem for writers – trying to fuse intelligent drama with mindless ‘schlock action’. And, while you’re there, his video ‘Isaac Asimov, Game of Thrones: how to write sociological stories’ does a great job of explaining Asimov’s Foundation series of stories (and the difference between sociological stories, about institutions and people politics within those systems, and psychological stories that focus on the emotional experience of individual characters). His video ‘What The Last Of Us actually changed’ is also worth watching.
- Jeff Goodell on climate change – The Water Will Come is about the threat posed by rising sea levels, and The Heat Will Kill You First is about rising global temperatures. The second title is a comment on the first. You can only wonder what the title of the third book will be.
- This is The Creator (trailer) – the film is out this month. I haven’t heard that much about it, but judging by the trailer it could be interesting.
- The Giver (1993) is a young adult novel by Lois Lowry. It’s sold over 10 million copies, and was adapted into the 2014 film of the same name. I enjoyed the novel’s philosophical exploration of a ‘perfect society’, but the ending was rushed. The film struggled to mesh the big ideas into a dramatic action story for young adults.
- Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) could be one of those ‘Marmite’ novels that readers either love or hate – I struggled with it. The narrator has a post-apocalyptic accent (which is based on a rural Kentish accent) and his language uses slang, and colloquial expressions. Some readers will fall in love with the language – but for me, it got in the way of the story, and it ended up becoming the main character.
- ‘Oarfish: this legendary fish that announces tsunamis’ (YouTube) is an intriguing look at the Oarfish. The deep sea environment is eerie, and the buoy in this documentary has the quality of an alien artefact in outer space but, in the depths of the ocean, we are the visiting aliens.