Bruce Sterling, Dean Ing, E.M. Forster, Elizabeth Hand, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Harlan Ellison, Ian Watson, Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Margaret Atwood, Michael Marshall Smith, R.A. Lafferty, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, Thomas Jefferson, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Woody Allen
Here is another of my Cognitive Mapping columns, this one first appeared in Vector 205 (May-June 1999).
To attribute these two great developments to the Central Committee is to take a very narrow view of civilisation. The Central Committee announced the developments, it is true, but they were no more the cause of them than were the kings of the imperialistic period the cause of war. Rather did they yield to some invincible pressure, which came no one knew whither, and which, when gratified, was succeeded by some new pressure equally invincible. To such a state of affairs it is convenient to give the name of progress. No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had overreached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.
‘The Machine Stops’ (1928)
And then the slidewalks all stopped and everyone was dumped thisawayandthataway in a jackstraw tumble, and still laughing and popping little jelly-bean eggs of childish colour into their mouths. It was a holiday, and a jollity, an absolute insanity, a giggle. But …
The shift was delayed seven minutes.
They did not get home for seven minutes.
The master schedule was thrown off by seven minutes.
Quotas were delayed by inoperative slidewaiks for seven minutes.
He had tapped the first domino in the line, and one after another, the others had fallen.
The System had been seven minutes’ worth of disrupted. It was a tiny matter, hardly worthy of note. But in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance.
‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ (1965)
It was Thomas Jefferson, America’s polymath third president, who laid out the grid pattern that became the city plan of Pittsburgh and New York and countless other American cities. It was neat and ordered and regular – a ‘Mondrian arrangement’ as Harlan Ellison terms it in ‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ – and it became the pattern not just for the present but also for the future of America. Shopping malls that grew to the five-mile square blocks of Michael Marshall Smith’s Spares (1996), domed arcologies that grew into domed cities such as Bruce Sterling’s future Chattanooga in ‘Bicycle Repairman’ (1996), tower blocks that grew ever higher as in Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971), even the world cities that have been a regular part of science fiction at least since Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (1942-44) – all are laid out on some refinement of the regular grid. Levels arose, criss-crossed by walkways and roadways and flight paths, everything was ordered and precise – as we saw as long ago as H.G. Wells’s ‘A Story of the Days to Come’ (1897) where the future underclass literally work under the city’s elevated street level, clearly doomed to become the subterranean Morlocks of the even more distant future in The Time Machine (1895). In the 1950s, when the American present promised a world of glitter and glass and chrome, the future seemed to be already here and all that sf might offer would be a few minor tweaks to what was already going on in the world outside.
In a way, they were right. That wonderfully optimistic vision of growth and wealth and plenty, of glass and steel and plastic, has largely come about. The future that William Gibson satirised in ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981) is actually visible in shopping malls and airports, at Canary Wharf and in the streets of New York. But things are never as pristine as they are painted by our imagination. As is the way of these things, having achieved something of that future we’re no longer sure that we want it.
The trouble is that when our environment becomes a giant chessboard, we might become as dehumanised as the pawns in John Brunner’s The Squares of the City (1965) or Ian Watson’s Kingmagic, Queenmagic (1986). To Jefferson and others of the Enlightenment, such conformity, such lack of individuality, would have been no bad thing. Human progress was a continual upward march, a striving to turn the greater good for the greatest number into the greater good for all. There was a goal which would encompass all of humanity, and if such a goal could be achieved then all would be happily the same and what could be wrong with that?
We are no longer so certain. Even at the beginning of the century, E.M. Forster equated conformity with the destruction of humanity. His future people live isolated lives in a gigantic underground beehive, everyone alone in their cell, fed with all they could desire by way of food and music and conversation, but rarely venturing outside, rarely making any human contact with another person. The less they question this existence, the more they surrender to the dictatorship of the Machine.
Since then, we have seen such uniformity imposed by the state, and we have seen the consequences of this totalitarianism. The breaking of Winston Smith’s will to conform with the wishes of Big Brother was looked on with dread by George Orwell in 1984 (1949) just as the breaking of a woman’s will to conform with the wishes of men was regarded with dread by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). As Woody Allen showed in Zelig (1983), anyone whose personality is reduced to chameleon-like conformity is no longer a person.
There has been a host of books, plays and films since World War II that convey essentially the same message as these three: that individuality is to be prized as our primary defence against the dictator, whatever form that dictator might take. The predominant post-war intellectual position recognises that the vital people are – to employ the striking image from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 story – ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, those who eschew conformity, no matter how utopian it might appear.
Early futuristic fiction might laud the necessity of keeping the machinery of the well-regulated city in order, as Robert Heinlein did in ‘The Roads Must Roll’ (1940). And the world city might be seen as symbolising the power and prosperity of the future. But increasingly those who write about such locations (as opposed to those who simply use them as a background for their story) have found it difficult to sustain such a view. The world city in R.A. Lafferty’s elegant satire, ‘The World as Will and Wallpaper’ (1973), is a trap, a closed world incapable of any advance or development, just a pattern endlessly repeated as in wallpaper. Here the ordered and regulated city is a metaphor for the lack of free will under totalitarianism. Harlan Ellison makes the same point in his story, producing a hero diametrically opposed to any Robert Heinlein might have celebrated since the Harlequin achieves his victory by ensuring that the roads do not roll, at least for a few preciously anarchic moments. In the end, like Winston Smith before him, the Harlequin is caught and turned, but may have achieved the greater victory by subverting the Ticktockman himself.
Nature, with its untrammelled sense of wildness and disorder, is something that essentially urban science fiction has tended to shy away from. But a too ordered city has become equally as fearsome. So when the urban clearances of the 1960s replaced the disordered slums with the order of high rise blocks, this enforced conformity created a social and psychological disorder such as that explored by J.G. Ballard in High Rise (1975). And the higher the block, the more regulated life inside needs to be, so the greater the breakdown, which Robert Silverberg reflected in his chill, bleak account of The World Inside.
The trouble is that such conformity does not arise, as the Jeffersonians might have anticipated, from equality. The rigidity of planning, rather, reflects a rigidity of social structure. Whether it is Silverberg’s high rise blocks or the multi-layered cities found in such various novels as Elizabeth Hand’s Aestival Tide (1992) or Spares by Michael Marshall Smith, the levels delineate class as much as height. The penthouse layers, as ever, are the abode of the rich and powerful, but the lower one descends the more one enters a disordered underworld of the poor and the powerless. Even on space stations, from ‘Down and Out on Ellfive Prime’ by Dean Ing (1979) to Babylon 5 (1993-), where conformity has at least some practical justification, there is an underclass, a realm of the underprivileged, a place for the individual to exist within the walls of the world. The future, it would appear, is no longer as clean and smart and perfect as we once used to think.