Plan for the Day
- Eat your veggies!
- Retro Sci Fi
- 30 second Test 1 preview
Retro Sci Fi: What they thought of today and beyond
Each of the short stories for today is about the Past’s view of the Future: The authors project their time period into a future setting to comment on their own time period and (sometimes) to make a case for a possible outcome if society continues down a particular path. I would place all these texts in the social science fiction category. As you read, there are some far-fetched ideas about what humans will do in the future. Also, like R. A. Lafferty, Harlan Ellison has a rather absurd vision of the future. Absurd situations, settings, characters, and events are part of the Sci Fi genre, and you’ll read about many more absurd situations in our (almost) last reading of the semester: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
Before we get into Ellison’s and Wells’s short stories, let’s consider E. M. Forster’s dystopian vision in “The Machine Stops” (1909). Who else published a future-oriented piece that year?
E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909)
This story centers around two characters–Vashti and her son, Kuno. They live in hive-like structures underground and on opposite sides of the Earth from each other. As we’ve read in other texts, in this future, humans don’t need to struggle because everything is provided for them by The Machine. What isn’t too clear is whether or not the Machine is an AI or if the Central Committee programs the Machine to carry out its functions–making sure the citizens are comfortable…a little too comfortable. Nearly all interaction is mediated by technology:
- A Skype-like technology
- Tubes for communicating
- Music playing
- Listening to lectures…all in the privacy of your honeycomb!
This story presents the opposite of a utopia (where technology leads us to paradise): What’s called a dystopia (technology leads us to…not paradise). Throughout the short story, Forster comments on the ways in which technologies are contrary to human needs. This brings up a concern that exists today where people think there needs to be humanistic values inherent in technological development. Simply put, a humanistic approach calls for technologies to fit in (seamlessly, perhaps) with human behaviors, practices, and values. Humanists (those advocating this approach) claim that technology is too often created contrary to humans values and, therefore, requires users to adapt to the technology. A somewhat related field to humanistic goals for technology is HCI: human computer interaction studies.
Although many interpretations are possible with this short story, consider the following as a way to think critically about the text’s meanings:
- The Machine is simply a Matrix-like or Borg Collective system for ordering human lives, and many technologies, such as infrastructure technologies (stoplights, medians, automatic doors, etc.), control humans and keep things running smoothly.
- The Machine is a metaphor for the ways we’re programmed in a culture and forced to adapt to social norms by nearly constant messages from agents of social control, such as the media, government, education, social praise/stigma, etc.
For the next few minutes, I’d like you to consider the two interpretations above. What are the ways we’re controlled by the technologies around us? Take notes because you may return to this on a Friday class.
- Additional Key Parts of “The Machine Stops” (1909) (Time permitting)
Those of you who’ve read Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) might remember a peculiar phrase the characters used: “my Ford!”. This is a reference to Henry Ford (one of the major inventors of the automobile and, more importantly, the assembly line) that parallels the expression, “My god!” or “My word!” On p. 61 (and elsewhere), we read Vashti say something is “perfectly mechanical.” What could be a parallel expression for us? Perhaps there’s another opposite phrase you’ve used.
Of course, Science Fiction doesn’t have to predict the future to be valuable, but Forster is certainly ahead of his time when he uses the (assumed) progress of technology to be a factor in humans being unfit for strenuous activities. Take a look at this link from the Harvard School of Public Health (scroll down to “Advancing Technology, Declining Physical Activity”).
Harlan Ellison “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965)
Avant-garde science fiction: experimenting new ways, ideas, texts, etc. that advance science fiction. What’s new? F. T. Marinetti was an avant-garde artist, and he wanted no connection to the past (quite a difficult aesthetic goal). Ellison (and Lafferty from last week) isn’t as extreme, but he experimented with absurdity. Then again, how absurd is his vision?
As the Anthology editors mention, Ellison was satirizing the cultural conformity he witnessed–a common complaint of the 1950s and early 1960s before the counterculture, student, and anti-war movements attempted to revolt against the establishment. He quotes the famous American author Henry David Thoreau, who is best known for bringing the idea of “civil disobedience” to America consciousness (circa 1849). Ellison provides a long quotation from “Civil Disobedience,” so here’s the first line:
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc.” (Part 1, para. 5)
Man…machines…could Henry David Thoreau be a science fiction writer? No, but the idea of humans becoming machines is a common science fiction theme. Why? Notice what the blurb before the story mentions:
- Ellison had a broad artistic commitment “to the enduring values of individual autonomy and unfettered self-expression” (p. 367)
- Overall, the short story appears to comment on the way technology is a double-edged sword: everyone has a job and the economy prospers, but people are reduced to machine-like behavior always needing to be at maximum efficiency.
- The punishment for wasting time becomes a capital offense!
- Technological efficiency is so important and becomes an ordering principle for society.
- This is definitely a social science fiction text.
- Here are some more details about Ellison’s text
H. G. Wells’s “The Star” (1897)
I’m sure we’re going to run out of time (need a Time Machine, I guess) to talk about H. G. Wells “The Star,” but let’s at least consider the major themes that come from the short story. Also, here’s a little bit about Wells from my copy of The Time Machine (Bantam Books reissue, 1991). The editor mentions that Wells had a lifelong pursuit for the “ideal woman” with whom he could have “a perfect relationship.” Wells died in 1946, so he saw the horrors of WWI and WWII, and “throughout the 1930s he took center stage in warning that humankind was on the brink of disaster, while zealously planning the reconstruction of society.” He warned against the pursuit of technologies that would destroy humanity and lived to see the development of the atomic bomb.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. “The Star,” published in 1897, came before the build up to WWI and nearly 50 years before the atomic bomb. So why would Wells be inspired to write such an apocalyptic story?
The Anthology’s Bio Blurb:
- p. 39: Wells was very interested in evolution–biological and social and speculated “about the future of humanity from the perspective of both biological and social evolution.”
- p. 39: “Wells addressed contemporary anxieties about the way technology and scientific theory were transforming the world and the human species, linking philosophical speculations based on science with Gothic effects.”
- p. 39: Wells’s interest in socialism most likely led him to envision future worlds cooperating in utopias.
- p. 40: The Anthology editors claim “The Star” is a “vision of humanity’s essential helplessness in the face of a catastrophe from space.”
- We have to ask, why is this such a common theme in Science Fiction?
- Making a plausible speculative argument about Wells’s story.
- Even though a multiplicity of interpretations exist for texts, don’t misread that as “anything goes.”
- Based on Wells’s background and this story’s focus on a natural disaster, we have evidence that the story indirectly communicates that people must come together to solve potential problems, especially catastrophes.
- Going further…”the new brotherhood that grew presently among men” (p. 49) suggests that Wells is aware of human nature and knows that it take catastrophes to create drastic paradigm shifts.
- When will humans take major steps towards protecting the environment? When a crisis is upon us.
- pp. 40-41: People with a training in science. “Few people without a training in science can realize the huge isolation of the solar system.
- Compare this with Isaac Asimov’s “Cult of Ignorance.”
- Wells appears to be commenting on the masses’ willful ignorance of cutting edge science, which is represented in 1897 as not knowing Neptune exists. Neptune was discovered in 1846.
- p. 42: Need to observe nature even in the face of doom.
- pp. 42-43: “Pretty women…feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel.”
- Hmmm…that’s sexist. Let’s explore that line. Culturally, what was the place of women in turn of the last century (1900) England?
- Growing Women’s Suffrage Movement
- p. 43: The homeless tramp wanting the comet nearer to bring heat. This reflects one only thinking of himself (and not the destruction of the world the comet would bring).
- p. 42: Human apathy when they don’t want to believe in impending doom. People look to faith/religion for comfort.
- p. 45: “Nine human beings out of ten were still busy at their common occupations.”
- What would you do?
- pp. 45-46: People thought “The master mathematician’s grim warnings were…self advertisement.”
- A note about science and grant money. The above is a comment on the assumption scientists just want attention but don’t have anything useful.
- p. 49: Humans will band together after a crisis and rebuild…better.
- p. 49: Martian astronomers observe the “little damage [to] the earth.”
- And there’s a comment here. In the vast universe, we are only able to recognize immediate phenomena.
Where else have we heard that all the world needs is a “clean slate”?
You won’t meet with Ms. Rogers on Friday (9/06); instead, you’ll take Test 1 on Canvas. I’ll open it at 8am, and you’ll have until 11pm to finish it. However, once you start the test, you’ll only have 60 minutes to do it.
Next week we’ll go back to the future and read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. I’ll even show you clips from the films. You don’t have to buy The Time Machine, but it’s available on Kindle for free and here.