Psychological Science Fiction and Our Fascination with Inner Space

There’s no denying that the world of today resembles the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past. From smartphones to driverless cars, social media to online shopping, holographic recreations of dead musicians to robotic concierges, retinal scanners and facial-recognition systems to talking computers and drones, advanced technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives. In fact, so ubiquitous has it become, that it has left hitherto unseen mental disorders and psychological problems in its wake.

This leaves contemporary science fiction in a strange place. Why bother imagining new kinds of advanced technologies, and examining their potential repercussions? After all, it’s more likely than not that technology’s next step in its seemingly endless progression might make these imaginings seem passé. A problem like this, while provoking debate amongst the science fiction community, has also given birth to brand-new subgenres that attempt to reconcile these problems, as well as reinvigorating moribund subgenres of the past.

Old-fashioned science fiction of the space opera kind has experienced a revival, its escapist nature acting as a means of temporarily forgetting about these contemporary issues. Climate change fiction has returned to examine one of today’s most vexing problems, one that technology still seems a long time away from solving. Steampunk is growing in popularity and reaching wider audiences, transporting the reader to a bygone time where our relationship can be re-examined. And post-apocalyptic fiction is likewise growing in popularity, as well as becoming increasingly brutal and nihilistic, arguably as a reaction to the pessimistic atmosphere permeating the modern world.

One particular subgenre, however, seems perfectly positioned to address the questions posed by our technologically-driven world: psychological science fiction. An adaptable and fluid subgenre that can easily nestle within others—post-apocalyptic, climate change, cyberpunk and literary science fiction, for example—it typically deviates from the standard science fiction concern of examining the ways in which advanced technology impacts the world around us, and examining the follow-on effects of these impacts on our day-to-day lives. Instead, it is more concerned with the way that said technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up—our ‘inner space.’

A term apocryphally attributed to J G Ballard, psychological science fiction is nonetheless most closely associated with his work, which occupied two very different conceptual positions and yet shared a focus on the ways that technology-defined spaces can influence characters’ psyches, personalities and emotional states. On one hand, works such as The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), The Crystal World (1966), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981) take place in undeniably science fictional settings, made possible by circumstances such as climate change, apocalyptic warfare or through a ‘leaking’ of time. On the other hand, works such as Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), Crash (1973), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006) are nominally realist, taking place in worlds resembling the way ours was at each book’s time of writing—their science fiction elements emerge from Ballard’s focus on the ways that the increasingly-built spaces his characters inhabit owe their existence to the technologically-driven nature of twentieth and twenty-first century life.

These narrative and structural devices didn’t just occur because Ballard had a particular penchant for this kind of storytelling. Indeed, Ballard actually saw science fiction as more a philosophy for twentieth and twenty-first century life. His writings and quotes on this subject are legion, but for the purposes of this work just two will suffice. From an essay written in 1971, entitled Fictions Of Every Kind, he claims that ‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.’ And from the introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974), he claims that ‘No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.’

To put it more simply, Ballard saw science fiction as a way of describing our present and our position within it. As well, he saw it as a guide to help navigate and understand a world of exponential technological development and advancement, which changed not only the fabric of our environments and communities, but also the ways we conceive of our place within them, and the ways that we connect and communicate with each other and the wider world. However, while the term psychological science fiction undoubtedly applies to Ballard’s work and the philosophical framework behind it, Ballard himself was without question a singular writer. Steeped in psychological, psychoanalytic and psychiatric terminology, his writing style was instantly identifiable as being his alone, so much so that the term ‘Ballardian’ emerged in certain literary circles, and other writers who mimicked his style, focus and thrust were often justifiably called out for doing so. This doesn’t mean, though, that psychological science fiction begins and ends with his oeuvre. Instead, until the twenty-first century, the few other writers operating in this field used different stylistic techniques and chose different focuses for examining the ways that technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up.

But, with the world now resembling the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past, more and more writers have begun to embrace these kinds of examinations, in new and interesting ways. As well, many of them have shied away from technologically-based scenarios as the starting points for their examinations, and instead turned to what might best be described as ‘impossible’ science fiction scenarios, such as the appearance of aliens, the almost-total disappearance of humankind and the multiverse/parallel worlds theory, perhaps as ways of accommodating the aforementioned belief that technology is advancing and evolving faster than we had ever thought possible, and so now more ‘impossible’ scenarios might not quite seem so ridiculous or unbelievable.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) is an extreme example of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’ In Vandermeer’s case, however, the advanced technology within is really a moot point—his focus is on what might happen to someone’s psyche in the face of a thoroughly inexplicable and unknowable force, rather on the technology behind this force.

For over thirty years, an uninhabited and abandoned section of the United States coastline has been sealed off by an intangible border, and is referred to as Area X. No one knows what’s really inside the border, or how it came to be—physics and biology seem strangely askew, but not in a quantifiable way. The Southern Reach is a secretive government agency charged with investigating Area X, but after innumerable expeditions, which all ended in madness, murder, terminal illness or suicide, they are no closer to understanding it.

While this scenario might seem like a hoary science fiction chestnut, Vandermeer’s focus isn’t on Area X’s detail, logic and reason for being, allowing him instead to use what could be considered a cliché as a framework for a deep dive into the ways that Area X makes his characters think and feel. Chiefly structured around two points of view—Ghost Bird, a biologist sent on the Southern Reach’s latest expedition; and Control, who has just replaced the head of the Southern Reach—Vandermeer shows us the psychological effect of Area X from both an outsider’s perspective, and an insider’s. The biologist, at first trapped within Area X, struggles to make sense of something so concretely real and yet impossible; when freed, she remains forever marked by it. Control, sifting through the previous director’s increasingly-bizarre notes while hunkered in the Southern Reach’s headquarters, struggles from a distance with the very concept of Area X, and the futility of even trying to comprehend it.

We follow them on the inner journey that Area X maps for them, and feel the emotions that they feel. In the end, as they realise that perhaps the best way to understand Area X is to stop trying and simply accept it, we realise a trick that Vandermeer has pulled—Area X can be read as a metaphor for the great technologically-driven changes happening around us, which seem both prosaic and extraordinary, visible and opaque, influential and unknowable, real and unreal.

Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club (2011) is another extreme example. In the far future, travel between the multiverse has become a reality, overseen by an agency based on our version of Earth. Within this agency is situated a department tasked with rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of post-apocalyptic calamities on ‘other’ Earths, calamities that have rendered them the sole survivors of their respective Earths.

While such a concept allows Hardy to gleefully play with all manner of Last Man on Earth and post-apocalyptic tropes—worlds overrun by zombies, devastated by plague or nuclear weapons, rendered uninhabitable by wars between humans and cyborgs, pillaged by aliens and left in ruins —his glee is only skin deep. While not bereft of action, his real focus is on the psychological make-up and ‘inner space’ of these survivors. Hesitant to accept their newfound reality, and deeply scarred by the events they have lived through, the bulk of the book concerns the characters’ interactions with their fellow survivors and their shared lives in a rehabilitation centre. Scenes focus on group therapy sessions, conflicts with fellow survivors, their frequent inability to connect with others or move on from their trauma, and their difficulties adjusting to their changed circumstances.

Upon reflection, we soon see that The Last Man on Earth Club is really an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially as it pertains to those unable or unwilling to adjust to the radical changes happening to their worlds and lives. None of us can relate to surviving an attack by aliens or hordes of zombies, but we can all relate to the difficulties involved in moving on from a traumatic event that seems to shift our world’s axis, and from which there can often seem no return.

Vandermeer and Hardy aren’t the only contemporary writers of psychological science fiction—the concerns addressed by this subgenre are so thought-provoking and relevant to the world of today that many other writers have also engaged with them, often nesting their examinations within other subgenres. Thomas Glavinic infuses Night Work (2008) with a Ballardian chill, charting the slow but inevitable disintegration of a man’s psychology and personality after an inexplicable event has left him alone on Earth—a more accomplished tale of the perils of disconnection and isolation is yet to be found. In Machine Man (2009), Max Barry uses the trope of cyborgs to look at the technology-fostered internal dislocation experienced by some people, and offers us an engineer so disconnected from ‘reality’ and so blasé about technology and his relationship with it, that he effectively upgrades his entire body. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) reverses the perspective of a typical first-contact story, so that we see people through the eyes of an alien rather than the other way around, allowing a thoroughly moving look at our common humanity that also raises the prospect of hope in the face of the impossible. In Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), Steven Amsterdam presents a world wracked by environmental disasters caused by climate change, and yet rather than focus on the doom and gloom typical of post-apocalyptic fiction of this kind, he uses the scenario to look at how such a future might inspire our psyches rather than warp them, allowing us to pull together rather than tear apart. And in the world of visual science fiction, films such as Moon (2009), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Anon (2018), and television shows such as Black Mirror (2011-2017) and Humans (2015-2018), use science fiction tropes as varied as clones, alien invasion and personal robots as springboards for their own examinations of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’

No matter which medium you prefer, you can bet that someone is using it to create new types of psychological science fiction. After all, it is perhaps the most fitting subgenre of science fiction when it comes to understanding our modern world, allowing us to see anew the rapid rate of technological change surrounding us, as well as our own place within it and our relationship to it.

(Originally published in Aurealis #114, September 2018)

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