I admire the pulpy heyday of clear-voiced, under-edited science fiction writers like Roger Zelazny, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. I feel their generation of science fiction writers will be looked back on as the first to establish science fiction’s literary caliber, possibly more so than Asimov. In their stories, science fiction starts to exhibit interesting parameters, encompassing very visual and philosophical themes. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the protagonist is a hunter of rogue cyborgs who is struggling with the implication that he may be a cyborg himself. Why isn’t assassinating an “artificial” intelligence also murder? In Zelanzy’s Lord of Light, Mahasamatman’s tangible, physical world can literally change with a thought. In Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, room-sized video game consoles are intellectualism’s death knell.
Science fiction negotiates the cultural aftershocks of mechanizing our society. By “mechanizing our society,” I refer specifically to the advent of the technological trinity – steam engine, electricity, and photography (and all of their implied technologies – trains, cars, planes, telephone, film, Internet, etc.). Science fiction entails placing characters into dilemmas based on their technological circumstances, or an alternate reality of what things might be like if science develops in a certain way. Science fiction asks: How can these characters use their technology to resolve the conflicts caused by the use of technology? Almost invariably, as the characters wrestle with the effects of the technology, they also confront philosophical problems in resolving their predicaments.
Ray Bradbury’s economical prose is an oracle of this mechanization of narrative. In Fahrenheit 451, the books, the robot dogs, the homes with X-Box walls, and surveillance wiring all act directly on Guy Montag, and he reacts to them, to lead us to the fruition of his character. The technological objects are not merely part of the setting, they are acting on him as characters. And even at the conclusion, when Guy Montag flees the city, escaping down the river at night towards the woods, the narrative is moved forward by the smell of plants and sound of startled deer. When he finally meets human characters again at the end, they are not only people anymore, each one is also a book. Each person is a bard reborn, dedicated to the verbatim memorization of one entire book, a living human library started over to salvage something from the havoc wreaked on intellectualism by fascism.
In an earlier piece, I wrote that science fiction is defined by the prevalence of fictional technologies, empowered by science, as a significant part of the fiction’s subject matter. In science fiction, the technology itself takes on the qualities of a character, blurring the lines between people and their arts. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids are the fictional technology. The technological environment is an essential element, acting directly on the characters, helping articulate their interior psychological conflicts. Furthermore, consider the dystopian wit of the mood organ in the opening chapters of the novel. Deckard and his wife argue about using a machine to stop their arguments.
Philip K. Dick’s …Electric Sheep? always takes me back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a classic tale of created striving to overthrow creator. The lightning powered machinery that made Frankenstein’s monster is not a leveraging plot point, it’s a formality. Shelley isn’t asking the question, “Is Frankenstein’s creation alive and intelligent?” He is. The point is moot. The question rather is “Does he deserve to live?” It’s Blade Runner. Like Roy Batty, Frankenstein’s creature is the fictional technology.
The characters of science fiction are not merely enacting a drama between characters and other characters, but between characters and the fictional technology itself. The technology is a character. In Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, a race of survivors from a planet of subtle high technology have colonized another inhabited planet and set themselves up as immortal gods. They’ve established technological reincarnation, using science to ghost themselves out of an aging or destroyed body and into a fresh strong one. Like the classic gods they emulate, they have powers and domains, based on their machines. Some are specialists at reincarnating, some at controlling the elements, some at flying in a fiery chariot. The uneducated agrarian indigenes of the planet worship them in awe, paying tribute with donation and sacrifice. As war brews among the pantheon, a savior, Mahasamatman, is pulled from the sky by computer, as if along the Bifrost, into the material world, into a new body, to tip the balance and reveal the flaws of his fellow self-made immortals.
“The technological trinity – steam, electricity, and photography.”
The first photograph was taken in 1826. Think of photography as a demarcation point in literature, the first tilling of the fallow science fiction soil. Photography is the most exact mechanical reproduction of imagery ever achieved. Photography captured light, that most elusive building block of reality, in a precisely sealed box. Photography made it possible to aggregate unprecedented numbers of high fidelity images, while steam engines and electricity allowed us to move those images – and eventually every thing else – all over the world at incredible speeds. Images of things beyond the horizon became commonplace. Modern writers begin emerging with the age of steam, electricity, and photography. It is no surprise writers with an otherworldly, technological bent, like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Johann von Goethe, and H.P. Lovecraft arose within a few decades of the popularization of this trinity of technologies. They are just a few of the nascent science fiction minds that paved the way for our modern masters.
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!