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p. 473. Science fiction and technologylocked

  • David Seed


Science fiction is popularly associated with the evolution of technology. A recurrent theme has been humanity's relationship with its own constructions and inventions. Whilst at times this has been celebrated, it is also a source of threat and the idea of human displacement is examined in ‘Science fiction and technology’. The place of the city, the creation of robots and cyborgs, and the response to the development of computers are all illustrated in writers and film makers over the past century. This is one of the most fertile areas for modern science fiction.

Partly for historical reasons to do with its self-promotion in the early 20th century, science fiction is popularly associated with the evolution of technology, by which is usually meant tools or implements. However, the American cultural historian Lewis Mumford's notion of ‘technics’ is more helpful because it is broader and includes information transfer. One of the most recurrent themes in science fiction is its examination of humanity's relation to its own material constructions, sometimes to celebrate progress, sometimes in a more negative spirit of what Isaac Asimov has repeatedly described as technophobia, through fictions articulating fears of human displacement. As we shall see later in this chapter, the city becomes a key embodiment of futuristic technology and, as the German sociologist Walter Benjamin showed, a labyrinthine, fragmented space, which encouraged characteristically urban processes of cognition on its inhabitants.

Technology is a central indicator of change in science fiction. Indeed, in his history of SF, Roger Luckhurst defines the fiction as a ‘literature of technologically saturated societies’, and he proceeds to trace out this tradition from the late 19th century up to the present. The pioneering efforts by the Luxembourg-born SF writer and editor Hugo Gernsback to make technology central to this fiction were partly systematizing the myriad references to technological innovations which filled science fiction at the turn of p. 48the century: references to the telegraph and visual means of information transfer, the first applications of electricity, flying machines, new military weapons, and anti-gravity devices. The latter began to appear in narratives of space flight, usually in a perfunctory form, but at least the writers realized the need to provide a token explanation of how travel through space was possible.

Gernsback, Campbell, and ‘hard’ science fiction

The very phrase ‘science fiction’ suggests a combination of non-fiction and fiction such as we find in the writings of Hugo Gernsback. His most famous novel Ralph 124C 41+ (‘one to foresee for one’), serialized in 1911, published as a book in 1925, articulates his conviction that the new fiction should contain instruction in science as well as entertainment. Ralph himself is introduced through his laboratory, the place of invention, and the world of 2660 emerges as one characterized by its new technological wonders: devices like the ‘telephot’ (a form of television), ultra-short radio waves, and the ‘hypnobioscope’, a device for transmitting information directly to the brain, later satirized in Brave New World. As Gary Westfahl has shown, Gernsback lacked skill in combining science and fiction, as a result sometimes showing these elements serially and describing Ralph in double terms as the inventive scientist and the melodramatic hero who could protect the heroine from the unscrupulous villain. Nevertheless, Gernsback pioneered the presentation of the modern technologized environment. As Ralph and the heroine skate down Broadway one evening on their ‘tele-motor-coasters’, New York seems to be the ultimate city of light, the ultimate electrified city, for the novel celebrates electricity throughout, as had the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It is no coincidence that in 1908 Gernsback founded the magazine Modern Electrics, the first of its kind.

His use of neologisms also set a trend which was to be developed in later SF. Two of the most famous are ‘robot’, coined by the Czech p. 49writer Karel Capek in 1920, or ‘cyberspace’ from the American writer William Gibson in 1982, the latter used to describe the virtual space of cumulative computer networks. In these cases, the terms have taken on a broader currency beyond literature, but the use of neologisms has been explained by the critic Marc Angenot. Marc Angenot has shown that such neologisms cue in a conjectural reading of SF texts where we construct a context for such terms and thereby also the virtual world of such narratives.

Gernsback placed technical innovation in the foreground of his novel because he closely identified technology with the general progress of humanity. This meant that in his SF magazines he favoured those stories which celebrated science. In an editorial for 1931, ‘Wonders of the Machine Age’, he stated his avowed policy of not accepting stories which attributed the evils of the time to technology and which foresaw great concentrations of wealth where an oligarchy would use their industrial might to enslave humanity. He vowed to reject ‘propaganda of this sort which tends to inflame an unreasoning public against scientific progress, against useful machines, and against inventions in general’. By playing down the industrial organization needed to produce and distribute the inventions he describes, Gernsback here set his face against an increasing current of suspicion towards technology which was gathering head in the 1930s. Later in the century, in 1978, another SF writer heavily committed to the cause of science education, Isaac Asimov, surveyed the treatment of technology in science fiction, identifying two strands of development – one optimistic (with which he identified) and one expressing the fear that machines may get out of control. The ‘Myth of the Machine’, as he called it, was a double-edged concept reflected in the frequent suspicions of the applications of technology in much subsequent science fiction.

The fiction following in the tradition of Gernsback and John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 onwards, became known from the 1950s as ‘hard’ science fiction, p. 50as distinct from ‘soft’ SF, which deals with social issues. Campbell's trenchant editorial policy promoted the incorporation of technology into the fiction of his discoveries, figures like Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt, and Isaac Asimov, whose collective writing around the period of the Second World War is sometimes referred to as the golden age of science fiction. Campbell's powerful influence, however, should not be seen as prescriptive or restrictive, more of a steady pressure on his authors to produce professional narratives, a pressure particularly evident in US science fiction from the 1950s onwards, from the decade which saw the development of cybernetics pioneered by Norbert Wiener. A key concept in this emerging discipline was the analogy with, not opposition between, humans and machines.

In the introduction to his 1994 anthology of hard science fiction, David G. Hartwell spells out some of the characteristics of these novels. For him, they combine a concern with scientific truth with a conservatism of method and a general suspicion of the literary. Nevertheless, they have their own tensions, especially between the distance of the narratives from the real world and their simultaneous appeal to real-world scientific principles. Although he doesn't spell it out as such, he implies a certain optimism of vision in these works, which embody the ‘fantasies of empowerment of the scientific and technological culture of the modern era’. Key practitioners of science fiction tied closely to scientific concepts are the Australian Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter in Britain, and in the USA Vernor Vinge and Rudy Rucker, both academic mathematicians.

The novel which is often presented as the supreme example of hard SF is Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (1954), which describes the exploration of an obloid planet named Mesklin. The novel presents an impressive example of world-building in which every aspect of the new planet is rendered as scientifically self-consistent. The narrative describes a series of essentially practical problems, such as that of navigation, with their equally p. 51practical solutions. When he turns his attention to the planet-dwellers, Clement is more cautious. Despite some physical differences, the Mesklinites come across as proxy humans with their own point of view, not least because they converse with the Earthlings in faultless English.

In contrast, a novel which would question the nature of empowerment is Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), a military Bildungsroman in which the author transposes his experiences in Vietnam on to outer space. The novel powerfully dramatizes the ambivalence of the narrator Mandella towards the interstellar war against the ‘Taurans’, creatures hardly ever seen, of puzzling appearance, sometimes even mistaken for animals. Mandella receives training in sophisticated weaponry which includes post-hypnotic suggestion before battle. As a result of this conditioning, he develops a nightmare sense of himself dehumanized into a fighting machine. Haldeman evokes danger, but more from the extraterrestrial situation and the unreliability of the soldiers' equipment than from the supposed enemy. The novel makes ironic use of the conventions of star wars to evoke the timelessness of a war without obvious goals, the self-contradictions of the military training, and to present the whole enterprise as a form of latter-day colonialism.

One of the leading current practitioners of hard SF is Jerry Pournelle, who has written a number of military narratives and who could be seen as the heir to Robert Heinlein's patriotism, with the difference that Pournelle has been closely involved with the US military establishment over the years. In contrast with Haldeman, he has represented the colonization of space as a logical continuation of the American frontier, and in his 1970 political study The Strategy of Technology (written with Stefan T. Possony) argues that since at least 1945 the USA has been engaged in a technological war against the Soviet Union. This political imperative informs Pournelle's treatment of fictional themes relating to space, and in 1981 he became chair of the Citizens' p. 52Advisory Council on National Space Policy, whose membership included Robert Heinlein and Gregory Benford. This Council helped formulate President Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars.

Even here, however, it would be a gross simplification to suggest that Pournelle celebrates technological progress. One of his most powerful novels, co-written with Larry Niven, Oath of Fealty (1982), examines the working of an ‘arcology’, a term coined by the architect Paolo Soleri by combining ‘architecture’ with ‘ecology’. Although a neologism, the term suggests the massive residential complexes we find in Wells and other authors. In Oath of Fealty, following a race riot on the edge of near-future Los Angeles, a huge self-supporting community has been built named Todos Santos (‘All Saints’) which houses a quarter of a million residents. The complex has been built with private capital and appears to be self-sufficient, with its own security system, but the deaths of two youngsters who infiltrate an accessway demonstrate that Todos Santos actually depends on the nearby city, and here one of the strengths of the novel comes out. It not only depicts an arcology but characters argue over its social value; one unflattering analogy is with a termite hill. Similarly, the novel contains many references to science fiction as embodying the pool of ideas which produced the complex. The shopping mall contains moving walkways, whose prototype is acknowledged in the text to belong to Heinlein. In short, Oath of Fealty simultaneously presents a technological innovation and debates it throughout.

The city

The city is the supreme embodiment of technological construction, and for this reason science fiction has been a heavily urban literary mode. Even Richard Jefferies' After London (1885), which is a post-urban narrative describing the restoration of Nature after London has sunk into a fetid bog, could be read as a protest against 19th-century developments of the city. The different p. 53

8. Aerial rotating house from Albert Robida's Le Vingtième Siècle (1890)

p. 54renderings of the city in science fiction use it as a laboratory for technological change. Albert Robida's Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1890), for example, describes the transformation of Paris in the near future. It is a comic vision of commercialism run rampant. One illustration shows the Arc de Triomphe after it has been bought by speculators, where a massive iron platform dwarfs the arch and supports the new International Hotel, built in a hybrid style to be as imposing as possible. The visual imbalance comments comically on the new priorities of the 20th century, reflected also in the proliferation of advertising signs and the preoccupation with rapid transport. There is even an electric tramway in the Louvre to speed visitors past the exhibits without fatigue. The ‘aerial rotating house’ shows the elevated position of new inventions above the conventional city. Robida's is a city of metal, of ubiquitous ironwork.

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927, reissued 2002) supplied the prototype image of the city in science fiction film. It was strictly speaking two images: Metropolis above ground, the level for the managing elite and their families, and the Workers' City underground. The opening title sequence gives complete priority to setting, to the stepped complex of the master, modelled partly on Brueghel's Tower of Babel and partly on Lang's impressions of Manhattan, which dissolves into shots of huge machines in operation.

It is these machines which define Metropolis as an urban-industrial complex with a monstrous life of its own. In her original 1927 novel, Thea von Harbou describes the uniform dress and movement of the workers in this ‘New Tower of Babel’, an effect repeated in the film through the structural hierarchy of Metropolis, which places the workers even under the machines. Metropolis set a pattern of imagery for subsequent science fiction portrayals of the city, a pattern that relates closely to urban planning of the 1920s, such as the architect Hugh Ferriss's The p. 55

9. Still from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) which applies modernist, geometrical shapes to city planning.

At the end of A Modern Utopia (1905), H. G. Wells describes the shock of his protagonist returning to London from the wholesome spaces and cleanliness of his Swiss-type utopia. Suddenly his p. 56surroundings are packed with jostling, often misshapen townsfolk. He suffers from a kind of sensory overload through sight, hearing, and smell. It is exactly this sort of disorder which Wells tries to avoid in his futuristic cities, not always for the better. In When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), Graham finds himself totally estranged from London some two centuries into the future. He is told that ‘today is the day of wealth’ and the physical expression of this wealth is the city's ‘Titanic buildings’. Although the city where he finds himself is still London, it is so radically transformed that it has become unrecognizable, and Wells increases this effect of urban estrangement by including only a minimum of place names. In the film Things To Come (1936), made by Alexander Korda with Wells's collaboration, the transition from imminent present into the 21st century is made through changes to Everytown, Wells's representative city, through war to reconstruction. The opening of the film makes it clear that Everytown initially is based on London, as the 1930 film of an urban future, Just Imagine, uses New York. In the latter, the city of 1980 has become a spectacular metropolis of huge high-rise buildings and air and road traffic at different levels. Similarly, Things To Come shows a streamlined underground city whose architectural lines, as Wells intended, are ‘bold and colossal’. The overwhelming impression of size is achieved by dwarfing the human figures at the bottom of frames, which has the effect of making them seem anonymous functionaries, there to reveal the new sublime architecture of the industrial city. Indeed, the first signs of life in the city are industrial activities.

The city in Wells and in Metropolis is an emblem of industrial order. In the same way, The City of Endless Night (1920), by the American nutritionist Milo Hastings, describes a world of the future where Germany rules thanks to its invention of a death ray. The control centre of this regime is a new underground Berlin, a massive urban-industrial complex housing millions which represents the culmination for the American narrator of the application of science to society. Its enormous mess halls and p. 57factories present him with an ‘atmosphere of perfect order, perfect system, perfect discipline’, whose excessive order makes the city inhuman.

Cities have regularly been used to embody dystopian futures. Clifford D. Simak's City (a 1952 ‘fix-up’ of stories linked by an editorial commentary), situates its present in the future when both cities and humanity itself have died out. The tales are narrated as legends by dogs who give an ironic external perspective on whether humans or cities ever existed at all. In the preamble, we are told that a city seems to be an ‘impossible structure’, unbelievably confining for a supposedly rational creature to live in. James Blish's Cities in Flight weaves one of the most unusual variations on this theme by showing cities as spaceships. A Life for the Stars (1962) describes the situation which make these urban space rovers necessary. As raw materials have become exhausted, people ‘go Okie’ (the slang name of the migrants in The Grapes of Wrath), leaving their land to hunt for work. Blish presents a latter-day Depression where the cities in space embody different social possibilities. John Brunner's The Squares of the City (1965) explores the connections between a rectangular layout, open spaces, and political control in his South American capital city Vados. Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966) is set in New York of 1999, a symptomatic representation of the world's over-population where the food supply has become critical. The 1973 movie adaptation took as its title Soylent Green, the name of a synthetic food wafer. Finally, Philip Wylie's Los Angeles: AD 2017 (1971) describes a future city where severe pollution has driven life underground. In these and similar novels, crisis brings about a fascistic administration.

One of the most complex and surreal depictions of a city is given in Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (1975), in which disaster has struck the city of Bellona (named after the Roman goddess of war). The protagonist drifts into the city, has brief sexual encounters, meets gangs and other survivors, but never develops any overall p. 58sense of the city layout. Delany manages this effect by keeping the narrative perspective close to the protagonist's perceptions. So, however many blocks he crosses, however many derelict buildings he clambers through, he never develops any sense of distance. Space and time shift constantly, as does his visual perception of the city, which is obscured by the smoke from random fires. Delany maintains an austerely consistent perspective which never allows the reader to understand more than his protagonist ‘Kid’, although the narrative intermittently shifts into the third person. The result is a surreal stream of locally vivid episodes within an urban space of uncertain extent. Delany's city is fragmented and ultimately unknowable.

As Vivian Sobchack has argued, post-war SF films tended to show negative images of the city, presenting scenarios either of destruction or of emptying. One sign of this emphasis is the evocation of the city as a control network. So the British television film Max Headroom describes the promotion of subliminal programming and Brazil (both 1985) shows an Orwellian regime of bureaucratic regulation. Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) combines three genres: the American private eye story, the spy thriller, and science fiction. The agent Lemmy Caution has come from ‘Nueva York’ on a mission to capture or kill Professor Von Braun, not the rocket technician we would expect but the designer of a set of computers which include Alpha 60 at the centre of the city in the film, a sort of futuristic Paris. Described as the ‘capital city of a distant galaxy’, it is the computer itself which interrogates Lemmy once he is arrested.

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) still presents one of the most complex and textured visual renderings of the city of the future. Moving the location from Philip K. Dick's original San Francisco to Los Angeles was strategic because LA has always represented in the American imagination the ultimate city of change. Although the film was set 40 years into the future, the décor also contained countless details of the USA 40 years earlier, that is, of the p. 59period of Raymond Chandler and film noir. Scott's habit of ‘pictorial referencing’ resulted in a unique blend of futuristic and period detail. One moment we see flying cars; the next a series of bicycles run past. The result is that, unusually, we see a future city with a history. Although he didn't live to see the final film, Dick did visit the studios and saw a television report of one shooting session, being impressed by the concrete detail of the method, and declaring: ‘It's a world that people actually live in.’ The film embodies power in the huge pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation and in the opening sequences uses the central image of an enlarged eye, suggesting at once surveillance, the activities of the blade runner himself as a latter-day private eye, and the only organ which can supposedly distinguish human from replicant.

Robots and cyborgs

The term ‘robot’ entered the language in 1920 from the Czech writer Karel Capek's play R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots, in which the word carried suggestions of heavy labour, even of slavery. As the application of the term developed, it came to mean a self-contained, maybe remote-controlled ‘artificial device that mimics the actions and, possibly, the appearance of a human being’. Prior to 1920, the existence of robot-like constructions stretches back to antiquity, devices known as automata or androids (literally, ‘man-like’). They begin to appear in 19th-century literature with the dancing automaton in E. T. A. Hoffmann's story ‘The Sandman’, in Edgar Allen Poe's fascinated comments on Johann Maelzel's chess-playing device, and in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), in which the household of the future includes domestic automata. The first detailed account of such a construction occurs in Edward S. Ellis's The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1865), in which the machine is ten feet tall and constructed entirely of iron, and a boiler is housed in its body. By modern standards, it is a crude enough figure, even wearing the ‘stove-pipe hat’ of the Victorian gentleman. Ellis's machine was steam-driven and combined p. 60

10. Illustration to Edward S. Ellis's The Steam Man of the Prairies (1865)

elements of locomotion (motive power), humanity (shape), and horse (it was directed by reins).

Once robots begin to appear in 20th-century writing, a number of central issues become apparent. Sidney Fowler Wright's 1929 story ‘Automata’ evokes a grim future when the automata have superseded humans in a ‘triumph’ of evolution. In Metropolis, the inventor Rotwang constructs a replicant of the character Maria. And in R.U.R., the robots take over the world economy. Displacement and replication become two of the main fears in robot narratives, fears of humans losing their centrality. Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the original novel on which Blade Runner was based, makes the second of these fears into its central subject. Organic androids have been designed to work in the Martian colonies but have fled that chattel slavery to come to a ruined Earth following World War p. 61Terminus. In his pursuit of these for the San Francisco Police Department, Rick Deckard constantly questions the nature of identity. The novel shows from the very first page a world already mechanized in many respects, and even the state religion, Mercerism, is named after an industrial method for treating fabrics. How then to distinguish replicants from human originals? Deckard has no answer to this and even demonstrates a reluctance to believe that all replicants are non-human. Similarly, in the third act of R.U. R. two robots begin to demonstrate human feelings, and so perhaps we should add a third fear to robots: that they might make it ultimately impossible to identify humans.

The writer who has promoted a consistently positive vision of robots is Isaac Asimov, who began publishing his robot stories in the 1940s and who, in a bid to combat technophobia – what he called the ‘Frankenstein complex’ – formulated his famous Three Laws of Robotics:


A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.


A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.


A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov's simple strategy of describing robots rationally and ‘as machines rather than metaphors’ transformed their representation in science fiction. Apart from his commitment to technological representation, Asimov also extends the trope of robots as workers. ‘The Bicentennial Man’ (1976) is a particularly interesting example for its implicit treatment of race. In common with many of Asimov's later robot stories, the opening humanizes the subject as Andrew Martin, delaying the reader's recognition that he is a robot. Only the ‘smooth blankness’ of his face gives us a hint. Throughout this story, there is a running analogy between the robot and an African American; thus the ending, when Andrew p. 62strives for recognition as a man, is loaded with racial as well as humanistic significance, especially given the circumstances of the story's publication during the national Bicentennial year.

Although the dividing line between the two is not hard and fast, the cyborg is different from a robot in being a hybrid creation. Coined in 1960 in relation to survival in outer space, a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, crudely a combination of human and machine. Martin Caidin's 1972 novel Cyborg describes how a pilot, grotesquely injured in a crash, has his body reconstructed by the secret government Office of Strategic Operations on condition that he works for them. The narrative extrapolates one of the most common applications of cybernetic organisms, namely in the field of medicine, and applies it to contemporary power structures. Similarly and more famously, in the 1987 film RoboCop a Detroit policeman is reconstructed by Omni Consumer Products, who have taken over the control of the city police force, and released on to the streets as a RoboCop, the ultimate irresistible law-enforcement officer imaged as a kind of armoured cowboy.

11. Still from Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987)

p. 63Here, however, the experiment goes wrong. Although it doesn't produce a cyborg, Frankenstein sets the narrative paradigm. The RoboCop's original memory has not been erased, and the second half of the film follows his attempts to get revenge on his ‘killers’.

The best-known film treatment of the cyborg is the Terminator series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the launch film, the action is set in the present (1984) with two irruptions from the future of 2029: the Terminator and his antagonist. The Terminator is an armoured killing machine on the inside covered by a layer of living human tissue. He is, in other words, a cybernetic assassin, who for Donna Haraway, because of his capacity to repair himself, represents the ‘self-sufficient, self-generated Tool in all of its infinite but self-identical variations’. It also breaks a mould for action movies in showing the Terminator's defeat at the hands of his intended female victim.

Donna Haraway has produced the major theorization of the cyborg in her 1985 essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in which she deploys the concept as a polemical tool for breaking down spuriously sharp distinctions like that between human and machine. Drawing on feminist SF by Joanna Russ and others, she gives the cyborg a cultural centrality as representing the hybrid nature of our contemporary existence and argues that Rachel, the replicant in Blade Runner simultaneously desired and feared by Rick Deckard, is the ‘image of a cyborg culture's fear, love, and confusion’.

Haraway's use of the cyborg to examine social and sexual issues was followed in Marge Piercy's 1991 novel He, She and It (Body of Glass outside the USA), set in a Jewish enclave within the America of 2059. An illegal cyborg named Yod (the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet) has been created to protect the settlement just as, according to legend, the Golem was created out of clay in the 16th century to protect the Jewish community of Prague. Piercy p. 64alternates chapters recapitulating the Golem story with those tracing the evolving relationship between Yod and the protagonist Shira. The alienness of the cyborg is radically reduced by ‘his’ capacity to engage in reflection, register pleasure, and even identify his own tradition as a ‘monster’. Yod's allusion to Frankenstein implies that his creation is a kind of birthing. In fact, he comes across less as a hybrid creature, since his mechanism is largely unseen, than an ideally rational being who does not possess taboos.

The construction of robots and cyborgs in the human image suggests that technology frequently operates in science fiction to dissect or disassemble the body for purposes of reconstruction and modification. Critics like J. P. Telotte argue that this is the technological theme in SF, dating back of course to Frankenstein, which Brian Aldiss and others have taken as the proto-text of science fiction. The ambivalence of this text towards experimentation is suggested in the way Frankenstein violates taboos of respect to construct a person out of dead parts and in the fact that the ‘monster’ (or ‘daemon’ as he is called) has no name and therefore cannot be perceived in separation from Frankenstein. The switches of perspective between creator and created only reinforce this effect. In early SF narratives of biological engineering, this duality between experimenter and subject recurs, ultimately with fatal results for the former: Jekyll and Hyde, Wells's Dr Moreau and his Beast People, the surgeons and Harry Benson in Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man (1972). In the last of these, implanted electrodes are controlled by a nearby computer, implying that Benson can only receive therapy by sacrificing his autonomy. As implants increased in sophistication, so did the imagination of how the self could be modified. One of the most paranoid possibilities is shown in the 1990 film Total Recall (based on a story by Philip K. Dick), in which implanted memories have become commodified as a kind of virtual tourism. However, when Douglas Quaid visits the Rekall company for ‘treatment’, it is discovered that he has already had his memory erased. From that point on, his identity splinters into p. 65two when he receives a video image from Hauser, his other self, and when he enters Mars disguised as a woman. Right to the very end, he proves unable to find any definite verification of his self.


The very term ‘computer’ carries a double meaning which is reflected in its presentations in science fiction. The word could denote a person who makes calculations or a machine doing similar operations, and the question that has recurred throughout post-war SF on computers is: do they facilitate or entrap? Do they help or displace human activity? The prevalence of fictional views seems to come out on the second of these possibilities. Kurt Vonnegut's first novel Player Piano (1952) describes the use by the US government of EPICAC XIV, a giant computer which predicts how many commodities will be needed by the citizens. Prediction, however, has become prescription, and the computer determines the most efficient way for work to be performed, regardless of how many people lose employment as a result. For Vonnegut, the computer reflects and reinforces a mechanization of behaviour, speech, and even thought.

Philip K. Dick's 1960 novel Vulcan's Hammer raises the more paranoid possibility of surveillance by his own super-computer named Vulcan. This is housed beneath Geneva, at the heart of the world government, and generates mobile electronic units which circulate, gathering information about their subjects. Ira Levin's This Perfect Day (1970) elaborates on these themes in a more explicitly dystopian way. Once again, we have a world state, this time presided over by the computer UniComp, which assigns names to children and dispatches ‘advisers’ who are called in whenever an individual displays unorthodox behaviour. Behind the computer there lies a hidden elite of programmers, who are dedicated, like the bureaucrats in Nineteen Eighty-Four, to maintaining the status quo indefinitely.

p. 66Computers have been related to the military since Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952), which explores the perverse roots of aggression during the Cold War. The military establishments of East and West have both become computerized, with the result that both sides now possess ‘cyberneticized militaries’. Once again, displacement occurs and the two computers mirror each other's activities in sending personnel to different confrontation points around the world. A similar mirroring operates in Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959), in which the narrator is an operative in a mechanized underground defence bunker and nuclear war is triggered by the automatic instruction for him to push the button. Wolfe's is a very early treatment of essentially the same scenario described in Mack Reynolds's Computer War (1967), where the world is divided into two states, Alphaland and Betastan. Only Alphaland possesses a computer, which predicts the economic superiority of that regime over its rival and the inevitability of world rule. However, the second country's behaviour repeatedly contradicts these predictions, which remain unfulfilled. The symbolic presence of computers in the political oppositions of the Cold War is also demonstrated in Giles Goat-Boy (1966) by John Barth, not known primarily as a writer of SF. Here, the West is shown as an enormous university campus presided over by a computer called WESCAC, which has gradually taken over all areas of decision-making and which demonstrates that the new political currency is information. WESCAC is paralleled in the other campus (i.e. in the East) by EASCAC, and in a confrontation which reads like an allegory of East and West Berlin, it is suggested hypothetically that the boundaries drawn by the computers are completely arbitrary.

The predominant emphasis in these novels is to show how computers are used to support a corrupt power system. As they approach sentience or as they are anthropomorphized, this identification with autocracy becomes all the easier. Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) seems to fit this pattern, though developments in the novel suggest a more complex p. 67situation is evolving. Heinlein gives us a parable on colonialism where the Moon has become a convenient dumping ground for criminals and other ‘undesirables’. The authorities use a computer, HOLMES IV, to administer these colonies, and the plot begins with the computer beginning to behave anomalously. The narrator is Manuel, or ‘Man’, a computer programmer, who refers to the computer as ‘Mike’, not only a humanizing move but one which associates the computer with rational analysis through references to Mycroft, Sherlock Holmes's brother. As the novel develops, ‘Mike’ seems to come progressively alive, devising a pseudonym and facial appearance for itself, and using an increasingly sophisticated idiom of ‘speech’. Far from supporting the commercial/imperial regime, ‘Mike’ becomes a leading player in the Moon's revolution against its brutal masters.

Up to the 1970s, computers were shown to be large console banks with a definite location. In the wake of miniaturization and the proliferation of electronic systems, computers tend to recede from SF as objects and to be assimilated into complex systems for the circulation of information. As they took on increasing sophistication, computers tended to become assimilated into a totalizing electronic environment. The 1999 film The Matrix embodies this transition in its presentation of reality as an elaborate electronic simulation to blind individuals to the ‘truth’. The protagonist Thomas Anderson is described as an official computer programmer but also a secret hacker. He learns that an extended struggle is taking place between humans and machines some time in the future. In fact, much of the film's power grows out of the ways in which it destabilizes these polarities of truth/illusion, public/private, and human/machine. The repeated breaking of frames makes it impossible for the viewer to locate any unmediated reality, and in this respect we are well on the way to a contemporary presentation of the Internet as an electronic expanse with no centre and no controlling intelligence. The Matrix and its sequels also demonstrate the interpenetration of information technology and the body signalled in the double p. 68meaning of the title which indicates an electronic network and draws on its etymological meaning of ‘womb’. Thus the protagonist's body moves with the dictates of plot and intermittently becomes the site of that plot, in short becomes itself technologized.

Cyberpunk and after

Cyberpunk fiction emerged in the 1980s, partly in response to the ‘tools of global integration’, as Bruce Sterling puts it in his introduction to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986). For Sterling, it was a fiction of globalization: ‘Cyberpunk has little patience with borders’, he declares. Valuable as his emphasis is, the complex incorporation of technology was one of the hallmarks of this fiction, as can be seen in William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), in which the term ‘cyberspace’ was coined. Later applications interpret it as denoting the data in a network imaged through a three-dimensional model or more loosely as a body of information within a set of systems represented as an open environment without limit. The second of these gives us the more helpful access to Neuromancer, which combines aspects of noir crime fiction with new images of computing activity. The novel combines two plot lines: the relation between Case, the protagonist, and Molly (the ‘new romance’ in the title), and Case's search for a means to remove toxins from his system. This last term is used deliberately because what gives the novel its complexity of plot is the sheer proliferation of systems at every level, from the body through criminal networks to the matrix. The opening scene takes place in a bar where the barman has a prosthetic arm and steel teeth. This sets a keynote for the novel in that every character seems to be in some sense either a cyborg or the recipient of invasive measures like the corruption of Case's nervous system with toxins. The latter almost immobilize him and reduce him to dreaming of the matrix, remembering his days as a computer hacker. He forms a relationship with Molly, a streetwise character with surgically inset glasses and with p. 69retractable deadly blades at the ends of her fingers. These and other characters move through the Sprawl, a composite term for a conurbation, whether in Japan, the USA, or Turkey. Despite the nominal differences between these locations, Gibson's globalism emerges in his evocation of a worldwide system of corporate power which represents the working of late capitalism. Just as characters have been ‘invaded’ by prosthetics, drugs, or electronic data, so they act within a world where every aspect of the environment seems to have suffered imaging through the matrix, holograms, or genetic engineering. In that sense, Gibson evokes a totally technologized world figured through tropes like that of the lattice, whereby everything becomes flattened out as data to be processed.

This same impetus is central to Pattern Recognition (2003), a novel in which Gibson situates the action in the present – not a major change since he has repeatedly insisted that SF interprets the present, not the future. As the title suggests, the novel describes attempts by Cayce (a female revision of Case) to locate the origins of mysterious video clips posted on the Internet. The very notion of origin is problematic in a global network which can be accessed anywhere, and interpretation itself – the novel's central subject – is complicated by processes of steganography and encryption.

Whereas Gibson hints in Pattern Recognition that the Russian Mafia might be involved in the videos, his emphasis falls mainly on hermeneutics, on the problem of interpreting data. In contrast, Pat Cadigan's fiction projects a sharper sense of the ownership and regulation of cyber-technology. Her first novel, Mindplayers (1987), shows the protagonist Allie finding herself on the wrong side of the law by stealing a ‘madcap’ (a virtual-reality, or VR, helmet), after which she is exhaustively photographed (‘everything inside and out’) by the Brain Police. This Orwellian organization gives ‘dry-cleaning’ the sinister connotations of brainwashing, but marks a development beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four in the p. 70sophistication of the enforcement technology. Now physical acts like strip-searching are internal, suggesting that minds are state property. Synners (1991) accesses Los Angeles through its media, not only film and video systems but an automated traffic-control network called GridLid. Haunting the city is the fearful expectation of disaster, the ‘big one’ which might be an earthquake but which in the novel is actually electronic. A general blackout freezes the city in a massive gridlock, which, like everything else there, becomes converted into a media spectacle. Cadigan shares the vision of Blade Runner and other works that the city is presided over by a massive, computer-driven entertainment colossus called Diversifications Inc. The image of wiring becomes a powerful articulation not only of individuals' VR experiences but also of a self-expanding network of connections. The ‘syn’ in the novel's title suggests exactly this connectedness and synthetic dimension to Angelenos' collective experience. Expansion is a commercial fact of life in Synners, whereas in Cadigan's 2000 novel Dervish Is Digital regulation has become institutionalized. Here, the protagonist is chief officer for the Artificial Reality Division of TechnoCrime, pursuing a VR investigation. Cadigan's narratives significantly revise what some feminist critics found to be a weakness in cyberpunk fiction, namely that it powerfully dramatized the technological penetration of everyday life while leaving unexamined masculinist presumptions of action and style.

Another formative figure in cyberpunk, Neal Stephenson, has explained the title of his 1992 novel Snow Crash to mean electron collapse like the loss of image on a TV screen, but it also carries connotations of a come-down after taking cocaine. Snow Crash within the novel thus straddles a metaphor in being at one and the same time a drug and a computer virus. The novel is set in a post-national future where the USA has collapsed into small self-contained enclaves called ‘burbclaves’. Hiro, the protagonist, is a computer hacker and pizza delivery boy, in other words, a deliverer of one sort of commodity or another, similar to the p. 71courier protagonist of Gibson's Virtual Light (1993). Stephenson presents Americans as in collective flight from the real America, seeking refuge in identical urban residential complexes. The only ones to keep in touch with America as it is are the street people ‘feeding off debris’. Hiro is typical of these in manoeuvring his way through the rackets and negotiating his way through the virus which, as in William Burroughs, is a catch-all term covering computing, disease, and even language. Throughout the novel, Stephenson distinguishes VR from concrete reality, using the Street in much the same way as Gibson evoked the Sprawl, namely as a virtual highway peopled by countless ‘avatars’, another term which Stephenson appropriated from Hinduism to mean computerized versions of the self. In Snow Crash, avatars gather at a virtual nightclub called the Black Sun, a name suggesting an occult, secret interior, but in fact emerging simply as a conflation of real-world meeting places.

Scott Bukatman has argued that cyberpunk and other ‘terminal identity fictions’ offer the most reliable reports on contemporary culture by embodying the feel of the electronic systems which dominate the modern world. They offer visions of the post-mechanical, which is by definition the most difficult form of technology to visualize, and yet it is their strategies of visualization which link much contemporary SF film and fiction. In the last works discussed, the major single theme is one of connection so varied that the separation of the self from technology becomes impossible. The Australian SF writer Greg Egan has made the relation between electronic technology and human identity a central issue in his novels. Permutation City (1994), for example, depicts complex virtual-reality constructions and describes a process of ‘copying’ from human brains. Shelley Jackson has drawn on Frankenstein and the Oz stories for her electronic collage novel Patchwork Girl. And Mark Amerika created a ‘virtual writing machine’ in GRAMMATRON (1997). More recently, J. C. Hutchins's SF thriller about a secret government project, 7th Son (2009), has been released as a p. 72podcast novel as well as in print form. Lastly, Geoff Ryman powerfully evokes the coming of information technology to a central Asian republic in Air (2004), whose title refers to a form of the Internet. The transformation of that culture is reflected in the gradual ‘electrification’ of the text which progressively includes more and more email messages and audio-file transcripts.

The perceived acceleration of technological change has resulted in the formulation of the concept of the Singularity primarily by the futurist Raymond Kurzweil and the SF author Vernor Vinge. Applying an evolutionary model of change, they predict a new era of superhuman or human/machine intelligence, which sounds millenarian in its optimism, spiritual in its promise of transcendence, and somewhat like a science fiction narrative in itself. This climax to technological development has already received SF treatment in Ken MacLeod's Newton's Wake (2004) and in Charles Stross's Accelerando (2005), among other novels.