For The Science Fiction Enthusiast – Bradbury, Dick, Zelazny, & The Technological Trinity

Good day, Mr. Bradbury...That special PKD smile...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? Meet the Z...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.

The temperature at which paper burns...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.

Click to buy the print, and visit the artist's website...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.

Here's looking at you...

Here’s looking at you…

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.

Sam I Am...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. What is it?

The first photograph. What is it?

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!

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About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Book Reviews, Books, Science Fiction, Technology and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to For The Science Fiction Enthusiast – Bradbury, Dick, Zelazny, & The Technological Trinity

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Although this might just be me, I never found PKD’s prose that literary (and I’m a great defender of his work)… Yes, the premise of his novels, short stories (for example, The Preserving Machine — where animals, objects, turn into sounds…), are often literary in nature but the prose often falls short. I think the New Wave movement of the late 60s did more to make sci-fi literary — Ellison and the lot, yes, we might complain about Ellison…

    • Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Joachim! Reading your comment, I have to agree with you that Dick’s style is a little rough hewn and loosely wired. As much as I love his work, I personally feel like he just does not know how to end a novel. 🙂 At the same time, I feel like he advanced some heavyweight themes into the popular sci-fi discourse, like examining the fate of personal identity in a technological world, and his use of aritificial intelligence as a looking glass for studying the human mind.

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        The most effective writer concerning identity in a technological world is an early 70s author, Barry N. Malzberg — Beyond Apollo (1972), Revelations (1972), The Falling Astronauts (1971), etc. But yes, he builds on some PKDian themes — with a heavy dose of Freudianism — but definitely the most negative take on the space agency I’ve ever come across. Highly recommended if you like experimental sci-fi.

      • Solid! Thanks for the tip. I haven’t read Malzberg, though I’ve heard him mentioned by Dick. Some hitherto undiscovered classic sci-fi for me to check out.

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        What did PKD say about him? And where? I’d love to read his views on Malzberg….

      • Sure thing, Joachim! It’s in a radio interview PKD did with Mike Hodel on the Hour 25 talk show. Hodel asks PKD his opinion on several of his contemporaries, including Malzberg, Silverberg, L’Engle, and others. Check it out:

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Thanks — cool.

  2. Mike Lyons says:

    I like this essay, but I have a minor quibble with one detail. When you talk about Lord of Light (one of my favorite books of all time), you say, “Like the classic gods they emulate, they have powers and domains, based on their machines.”

    Both Yama and Sam (and to a lesser extent, a few of the other gods in passing) make it clear that the powers are augmented by machines, but the base power comes from the mutant psionic powers of the individual. That’s why when Agni becomes Shiva, he still uses fire mostly, because his actual psionic power is for pyrokinesis. The discussion that Sam and Yama have when Sam is captured makes this very explicit, as Yama actually uses words like ‘mutant physiology’ and ‘psionics’.

    Otherwise, love the essay.

    • Mike! Groovy comment, sir. Thank you for the thoughtful response. You’re absolutely right about Lord of Light. Aside from it being such a good book, psionic ability is part of the explanation behind the characters’ powers. I felt like Zelazny brought it up late in the novel and underdeveloped it, compared to the elaborate machinery the pantheon developed for reincarnation, crowd control, body switching, and warfare. I was remiss in not mentioning their psychic and psionic powers, especially since one the characters in my book has a weak version of such powers. Good eye, yo!

      • Mike Lyons says:

        Actually, he brings it up pretty early, he just doesn’t call it ‘psionics’ right away. But as Yama explains, the Avatar and Attribute system involved the use of their innate powers, strengthened by self-hypnosis and repeated practice. And that gets mentioned (Avatar and Attribute) very early on in the book. So I believe it was always there, in his mind.

        But yes, there was some pretty awesome tech also. Shiva’s airplane, Agni’s wand, the reincarnation machines, etc. Good stuff.

      • Touche, my man! It’s most likely that I downplayed the mental abilities of the characters because I was so focused on the technology making them devine. A clear case of my hypothesis interfering with my observations. I am delighted to cross paths with an astute Zelazny reader!

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