Science Fiction has always been concerned with humanity’s relationship with technology, positing futures extrapolated from this relationship and the culture surrounding it. From experiments with electricity to hot air balloons and rockets (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon); all the way through to the dominance of the internet and mobile communication systems (David Brin’s Earth and M.T. Anderson’s Feed); science fiction has always tried to imagine how contemporary technologies might evolve, and the impact they might have. While many of these imagined worlds are situated in far-off futures distantly removed from our present, some actually take place sooner rather than later, and some are even set in a ‘version’ of our present.
However, our early 21st Century present is a strange place, and our relationship with technology is complicated and intertwined. Gone are the days when technology was something that helped us live our lives without actually being ‘part’ of them, unlike such essentials as water, food, shelter and clothing. Nowadays, technology is so integrated with our lives that many can’t imagine how the world would function without it, or how they themselves might live, as if contemporary technology has become an extension of and conduit for their ‘real’ selves. We live in a world where ‘smartphone zombie’ is a common term; where the leaders of powerful nations conduct diplomacy via tweet; where mental illnesses such as internet addiction and social media withdrawal exist; and where a phone isn’t just a phone but instead an interface with the world.
These dramatic changes to our relationship with technology, and contemporary technology’s attendant impact on our society, pose interesting questions for science fiction. If these changes are so vast and diffuse, and the technology underlying them is evolving so rapidly, how can a convincing extrapolation be made? What kind of world can be imagined when the real world changes as soon it is defined, thanks to the accelerated pace of life? What kind of future can we imagine when our present seems to already be futuristic? After all, we carry devices which are almost unbelievably more sophisticated than those which put a man on the moon; and we share our world with driverless cars, computer created pop-stars, a planned Mars mission made feasible thanks to reality TV, and skyscrapers that are almost cities unto themselves, rising to heights undreamt of only a few decades ago.
Some writers have tackled these questions in rather interesting ways, enough to group them together in a sub-genre: Near-Future Satire. Instead of imagining a far-off future, these writers envision futures recognisable as close extensions of our own present, or in ‘versions’ of our present. Consequently, the technology of their futures tends to resemble the technology of our times—more extensive and pervasive social media; advanced wearable technology; improvements in cybernetics, bionics and robotics. What really distinguishes these writers and justifies a sub-genre of their own is that they also create extrapolations from our contemporary technology’s attendant impacts on our own society—online anonymity and trolling, a certain blasé attitude to our high-tech world, social isolation and withdrawal, the dumbing-down of society and the rise of discourtesy—and do so in ways that veer towards the satirical and comic, a technique that allows us to see these cultural impacts in brand new ways.
Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a fantastic example: not only does she make a prima-facie unbelievable conceit both moving and convincing, but she also positions this conceit as a part of her extrapolations, and manages to pull it off. Set in an alternate post-GFC America, it concerns disgruntled couple Stan and Charmaine, made homeless by the country’s subprime mortgage crisis and are now living in their car. By chance, they stumble upon the Positron Project—a brand new community situated in the town of Consilience, which promises every resident a clean home and a job. The only catch is that on alternating months, these residents must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system, while those who were imprisoned (their ‘alternates’) occupy their homes and take on their jobs. What follows is an outrageous tale of double lives and anonymity, surveillance systems and celebrity, sex robots and behavioural modification.
While Atwood’s extrapolations from the technology of our times are self-evident—increased surveillance systems, sex robots, retinal and fingerprint scans, voice analysers—we need look beyond them to their attendant impact on the society she has created. As an example, take the Positron Project itself. At face value, spending a month in prison in order to enjoy a month of shelter and occupation might seem like a ludicrous proposition, but is it really any different from those underpinning the wretched genre of reality TV? A genre seeped in technology, reality TV has dramatically raised the bar in terms of what is private and public, and when such private aspects of our lives as love and marriage become broadcast to the world and ‘sold out’ to attain celebrity and money, then surely selling out such a personal aspect as freedom isn’t so ridiculous? In fact, it seems to make more sense—Stan and Charmaine don’t sign up to the Positron Project for the fame or the cash, but for security and shelter. It is undoubtedly a grotesque choice, and Atwood makes hay with the absurdity of such a set-up, but it is made convincing because right now, all over the world, people have chosen to take part in equally absurd situations, for far less sound reasons. This dichotomy between the Positron Project’s ridiculousness and convincingness allows us to see reality TV’s raison d’etre for what it really is: the market-driven exploitation of those desperate enough to sacrifice private aspects of their lives for celebrity and money.
However, the Positron Project isn’t Atwood’s only extrapolation from the technology of our times and its attendant social impacts: Possibilbots, customised sex robots built by the residents of Consilience. The Possibilbots are an obvious extension of current advances in robotics, and in-and-of-themselves would merely be a typical science fiction device. However, to better show Atwood’s funhouse mirror reflection of our own world, the Possibilbots’ appearances are symbols embodying certain contemporary social impacts engendered by technology—the most popular models for men are exact duplicates of Marilyn Monroe, while for women they are duplicates of Elvis Presley. Many interpretations can be read because of these likenesses, despite their grotesque ridiculousness: a commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture, or on the artificiality of affluent Western consumerism, or on the nostalgic longing borne of a constantly changing and uncertain present, and so on. But no matter which interpretation you settle upon, there is no doubting that each of these problems is exacerbated by modern technology—social media and the internet are perhaps the chief facilitator of celebrity culture, while affluent Western consumerism and a constantly changing and uncertain present are perhaps best symbolised by high-tech gadgetry that has been superseded before it’s on the shelves, a reading seemingly encouraged by Atwood due to the way she has given these massed cultural problems figurative high-tech embodiments.
In Haterz, James Goss’ satirical and subversive extrapolations from contemporary technology’s impact on our society are quite different—gone is Atwood’s grotesquery and bald-faced ridiculousness; instead, the humour that Goss employs might best be described as ‘dark’ and ‘morally ambiguous.’ Haterz tells the story of Dave, a ‘charity mugger’ and digital native. As the book opens, Dave accidentally kills his best friend’s Facebook-addicted girlfriend and is covertly witnessed doing so, and is consequently encouraged to go further and furnished with an ‘operating budget’ by said witness. From there, Dave takes it upon himself to ‘make the internet a better place’ by killing off all manner of Instagram stars, comment trolls, Twitter lurkers, keyboard warriors and Facebook stalkers.
Haterz is an obvious wish-fulfilment fantasy for anyone with good manners who has ever spent time on the internet. We’ve all seen it: the venom, the threats, the vitriol, the hate, all hidden by a veil of anonymity. But there is so much more to Haterz than just darkly comic and morally ambiguous wish fulfilment and schadenfreude. This is because Dave himself comes to resemble an uber-form of those people whose dark sides are given license by the anonymity of the internet, despite the fact that they’re the kind of people he originally set out to kill or discredit. And while his reasons for wanting to ‘make the internet a better place’ are initially altruistic—his first victims include cyber-bullies who have hounded people to suicide, narcissistic pop-stars who have casually ruined the lives of young teens, and corrupt business-people who have driven ordinary folk to the wall—the further Dave progresses along his darkly-humorous path, the more he seems to be just another troll desperate to crush anyone whose opinion or lifestyle deviates from his own.
In the end, ensconced behind a computer and distanced by a screen, Dave is merely another anonymous figure letting their schemes play out at a remove, a typical keyboard warrior blasé to the consequences of their actions. While he initially gets his hands dirty, so to speak, the further along his path he treads, the more automated his schemes become and the more remote he grows from them, until they typically occur without his direct involvement. Likewise, over the course of the book, the schadenfreude that he feels as he takes down his targets moves from an after-effect of his schemes to his primary motivation, whereby he begins to choose his targets purely to see them suffer, rather than to increase the degree of civility existing on the internet. This is the supreme comic irony of Haterz, and Goss’ finest achievement—what begins as a darkly comic and morally ambiguous tale of wish fulfilment turns out, in the end, to be a warning about the internet’s seductive charms, and how even those with the best intentions can fall prey to it and barely notice.
However, Atwood and Goss aren’t the only writers of Near-Future Satire—the concerns addressed by this sub-genre are so contemporary and thought provoking that many other writers have also addressed them. Eric Garcia’s The Repossession Mambo imagines a future in which the artificial-organ market rather than real estate is targeted for sub-prime lending, with devastating results for those who default on their payments; Alena Greadon’s The Word Exchange posits a future where the contemporary dumbing-down of our society has evolved to such a degree that words themselves are now marketable commodities, while a ‘word flu’ spread by an evolved version of a smartphone is rendering its users unable to speak coherently; MT Anderson’s Feed speculates on what would happen if content-on-demand and social media were fed into our brains rather than accessed via a smartphone, and how this could reinforce the life-in-a-bubble tendencies of the modern world; Max Barry’s Machine Man offers us an engineer so blasé about technology and his relationship with it that he effectively upgrades his entire body; and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story exaggerates the image-is-everything, everything-is-rated, ‘internetisation’ of contemporary life to make a case for old-fashioned humanistic values in the face of economic collapse and climate change.
In much the same way as The Heart Goes Last and Haterz, the works of Garcia, Greadon and others envision futures recognisable as close extensions of our own present, featuring technology that resembles the technology of our times. This allows them to create satirical and comically over-the-top scenarios based on contemporary technology’s impacts on our society—online anonymity and trolling, a certain blasé attitude to our high-tech world, social isolation and withdrawal, the dumbing-down of society and the rise of discourtesy—thereby allowing us to see these impacts in brand new ways, and to envisage new alternatives and responses.
(Originally published in Aurealis #104, September 2017)