Transcript: The evolution of our views of “the future” in fiction, w/guest Leonard Pierce

Kevin Fullam: On today’s edition of Under Surveillance, we’re going to be talking about the future, and more specifically, how the future has been depicted through film and literature throughout the years, not only how people envisioned the future would look, but also how people’s views of the future have been shaped by the political and cultural climates of each era.

We’ll also travel through the years and talk about a number of sci-fi films and their views of the future – how different films have illustrated the fears of each particular cultural era. And we’re also going to discuss the various inventions and concepts that people foresaw in fiction throughout the years. Returning as my guest today is freelance writer and pop culture critic Leonard Pierce. Nice to have you aboard again, Leonard.

Leonard Pierce:  Good to be back, as always.

Kevin Fullam: What I want to do, before we start discussing various themes in futuristic movies, is go back and look at a couple of classic films of the genre.  And one of the landmark works is the 1927 film Metropolis.

Leonard Pierce:  Well, Metropolis was an early silent film directed by Fritz Lang, who later went on to make a number of classic films, including M, which was Peter Lorre’s film debut.  It was an interesting film at the time.  It’s been re-released a number of times, once in a colorized version with music by Vangelis, I believe.

Then later, there was a re-release of it with a live orchestra conducted by Philip Glass, much as the old silent Dracula was re-released with a live orchestra conducted by Phillip Glass as well.  But it’s a really important movie, because it was one of the first very successful science fiction films.

It had very striking visuals.  It dealt with a lot of themes that later became very central to science fiction films and pop cultural imaginations of the future in general, including struggles between a sort of silent, angry underclass and a ruling elite of very high-tech sort of high-technology paradise.  And because of its very striking visuals, it influenced a lot of the films that were to come, especially in the thirties and the forties.

Kevin Fullam:  You talked about the disparity between social classes.  It’s something you see in a lot of other movies, especially ones that feature some kind of totalitarian society, where you have the ruling power and then the peons underneath.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  Especially in science fiction, in terms of its imagination of the future developed, you saw a lot more of that in European films than you did in American ones.  Because class is a much more open thing in European society than in American society.  If you look at later science fiction when you go into the sixties, seventies, and eighties you’ll see that it becomes a much more invisible topic in a lot of science fiction films than it was then.

But back then, it was very, very much a lively issue, both in mainstream politics and society and fiction.  Speaking of that divide between European and American speculative fiction, the word “robot” was of course invented by a Czechoslovakian writer named Karel Capek right around the turn of the century in a play that he wrote called Rossum’s Universal Robots.

And so you actually see them appearing a lot earlier in European fiction than you do in American fiction.  Because the idea was originated in Europe.  And the belief is that Lang had read that play and was pretty influenced by it when he designed the robots in Metropolis.

Kevin Fullam: From that, going forward, did you really see much science fiction in terms of films until the fifties, until the sixties, until the post World War II era?

Leonard Pierce:  The fifties were definitely — in America at least — the time that science fiction really exploded in film.  In literature, of course, you had a lot of science fiction. The so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction in pulp magazines and things like that was going on very strong in the thirties.

But it was mostly confined to things like serials — you know, the Flash Gordon films and things like that, that were more considered light children’s entertainment.  It had not yet cracked the mainstream by that point.  So you had a lot of science fiction, but it was mostly in literature.

In fact in literature in the United States, science fiction has a very interesting history going all the way back.  A lot of fairly prominent writers, including — this is very little known, but Jack London, who wrote Call of the Wild, was also well known as a science fiction writer, and wrote a number of really, really dark dystopian novels as early as the 1900s.

And like a lot of speculative fiction back then, both American and European, it had to do not only with class, but with race.  There were a lot of racial themes and elements to early American science fiction writing.  When the forties and fifties came around, right after World War II, that dramatically changed.  And the focus began to center on technology and invention.

Kevin Fullam:  And I mean a big impact on this, I’m sure, was the atomic bomb and the rise of advanced weaponry.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.

Kevin Fullam:  And the fact that we actually used these weapons against Japan. And then I guess in the fifties, you had all the B-movie monster flicks.

Leonard Pierce:  Well, the atomic bomb, just as it changed the entire political and international landscape, it also changed the literary landscape.  You had a lot of people writing about very grim things, that the end of the world was actually something that we could realize as human beings.

So you began to see things — you know the war had yielded a huge amount of technological advances.  That’s the case in any war.  That changed science fiction, in the sense that you started to see a shift from social themes to technological ones.  And you did start to see these ideas that atomic bombs would release monsters.

You know the late fifties is when the Japanese came up with the idea of Godzilla, who’s this horrible monster unleashed by atomic testing.  There’s a culture who quite specifically had a lot to fear from the atomic bomb.

Kevin Fullam:  So here you have this huge emphasis on technology and what the advances of technology would mean in terms of the future. As far as nuclear conflict — Armageddon — you saw all these books and movies depicting some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.

Kevin Fullam:  One of the main ones, in terms of literature that I can think of, is Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, which tried to realistically depict how people would actually — what they’d have to go through to survive a nuclear confrontation.

Leonard Pierce:  Sure.  You also had something that’s become quite — sort of high school recommended reading, one of the classics of modern literature, Lord of the Flies. And it’s so subtly integrated into the narrative that a lot of people forget it: the children who land on this island are fleeing a nuclear war.

It’s very subtly mentioned in the narrative.  But the implication is that London has been hit by a nuclear attack during the war, and all the children of England are being evacuated.  Because the fear is that the whole island is going to be wiped out by a nuclear holocaust.  So that was a theme that was appearing in mainstream literature as well.

Kevin Fullam:  We get a number of films that either dealt with it explicitly or — like, say, Planet of the Apes.  The film isn’t about nuclear conflict or surviving the aftermath of a nuclear war.  But it basically is a foreboding tale talking about the dangers of nuclear conflict, and what this means, in terms of society and the future.

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  Which is much more explicit in the novel.  In Pierre Boulle’s novel it’s made much more explicit than in the film.

And in one of them, it ends with this gaggle of mutants, who have been living under the surface, setting off a doomsday bomb, which of course — the implication is that it’s a nuclear bomb.  You know it’s hard to assign that to any kind of social meaning.  It’s more like at that point in the series, they were just running out of ideas. But you know that whole series is definitely suffused with the whole nuclear paranoia.

Kevin Fullam:  Well the interesting thing is that Charlton Heston, star of that movie, star of Planet of the Apes, is also featured in The Omega Man, another post-apocalyptic movie.

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.

Kevin Fullam:  And also, later on, Soylent Green, which doesn’t really deal with any kind of post-nuclear environment, but deals with environmental catastrophe and the breakdown of society.

Leonard Pierce: Right.  In the 1970’s, you saw a really huge growth in dystopian films.  All the science fiction of the seventies, right up until Star Wars — which sort of brought back this old thirties style pulp feel to science fiction — were dystopian in nature.

And towards the tail end of the seventies, when the environmental movement was getting started, you saw a lot of science fiction films that were influenced by an environmental theme, Soylent Green of course being one of them.

Kevin Fullam:  Why do you think the dystopian movies exploded in the seventies?

Leonard Pierce:  Well, it was a time of economic depression in the United States.  Peoples’ minds often turned to dystopian scenarios in that sort of way.  Also, it was just following the sort of social — you know the hippie explosion of the sixties.

And a lot of the socially active hippies of the sixties were very distrustful of technology and of government and of the institutions that previously had been trusted by Americans, by everyday Americans.  And so they could easily envision a future when those were the instruments of our destruction, rather than our salvation.

You know that’s another interesting thing, is that a lot of the science fiction of the fifties is not really totalitarian in nature, but very authoritarian.  You know the Lensman series, a lot of Robert Heinlein’s work.  They are very authoritarian.

They have sort of quasi-governmental organizations who run things.  And they’re trusted to make the right decisions and to steer society in the right way, even Star Trek, to an extent.  You know Star Fleet is an outgrowth of a sort of universal government, where everything is fine.

Kevin Fullam:  It’s more of a utopian future though. And made in the late sixties, not too much before a big explosion in dystopian movies.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.

Kevin Fullam:  Is that out of just the sixties’ optimism, do you think?

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah, I think it is.  And I think it was made right at the time when the hippies were getting their strongest, and antiauthoritarianism was really gaining momentum.  Things were being written at that time that would be made into films in the seventies, where that trust of authority, and that belief that everything was gonna be fine if we left it to the people in charge, left it to the experts, was beginning to vanish.

And so I think that’s why you see so much dystopian science fiction in the seventies.  Also, the Cold War heated up around that time.  The 1970s and early 1980s were a very distrustful time between the U.S. and the Soviets.  So you had a lot of fear of nuclear war, that had somewhat quelled in the 1960s, because everybody was too busy thinking about Vietnam.

Kevin Fullam:  And you really don’t see the post-apocalyptic movies today.  You don’t see the Mad Max movies…

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  The last one I can recall was Waterworld, which was a big disaster.  Everyone disliked it.

Kevin Fullam: One of the other things I want to talk about is how people viewed the future, in terms of how they dressed, what types of technology would they use.

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  That’s another interesting transition.  Back in the thirties and forties, the perception of the future, in terms of everyday life, was radically different.  It was cities floating in the sky and completely alien looking life forms.  And people dressed in a completely fantastic way.

And then as you moved into the sixties and seventies, it became a tad more wish fulfilling and proletarian, just sort of a fancified version of the cutting edge of the time.  And now you see a lot of science fiction films set in earth’s future, where people are essentially dressed exactly the same.

There are changes in technology.  But you mostly see people wearing suits — everywhere from like The Fifth Element to Gattaca, where in The Fifth Element, they actually got Gaultier, the fashion designer, to design the suits and women’s clothing of the future — sort of this admission that fashion is not gonna change that much.  Buildings are not gonna change that much.  What’s essentially going to change are really essential technologies.

Kevin Fullam: You see that’s the interesting thing.  If you look at a lot of the movies that were made in the late seventies, early eighties, they depict earth around the year 2000 as being radically different.  I mean things changing radically in a 20-year time span.  You look at a movie like Escape from New York, which was made in ’81, that depicted America as being so crime ridden that they have to actually cordon off New York City and just dump criminals in there.

Leonard Pierce:  Uh-huh.  And the old TV series Space 1999, which was made in the late sixties or early seventies, I think. So it was imagining a time only 20, 30 years in the future, and yet totally different from today, where you had alien life forms capable of changing shape and all sorts of things.

Kevin Fullam:  Do you think that if you had people from that era who actually went and saw the future —  I mean obviously they’d be shocked, in terms of what hadn’t transpired.  But as far as inventions, as far as technology — the rise in computing power, just the Internet — is that something that was foreseen in any particular film from the sixties and seventies?

Leonard Pierce:  I’m not really sure.  There’s actually an interesting history in science fiction literature of people sort of predicting what later would become everyday technologies. There are a lot of science fiction novels in which people are portrayed as accessing a global information network, a computer network that is able to deliver the information instantly.

But that doesn’t translate particularly well to film.  It’s not a very action packed thing, like showing someone on a rocket pack or seeing an alien.  So a lot of the technology that you see in literature is more precisely imagined, because it’s more interesting to read about than to look at.  So I can’t really think of any films.

Of course, in lots of science fiction films people used incredibly sophisticated computers.  But one of the running jokes of the portrayal of computers in films is that they always have huge screens with giant letters on them.  Because miniaturization, which is actually the trend that has taken place, where computers have become much smaller and much simpler and much easier to use, again, it doesn’t translate visually.

It’s much more interesting to have a huge screen with huge letters on it, that beeps and whistles and does visually interesting things, than to have a tiny computer that delivers the information right to your head or something like that.

Kevin Fullam:  That’s a great segue into what I want to talk about next, which is the rise of artificial intelligence, and how artificial intelligence has been viewed over the past few decades.  And I’m going to talk about a film called Colossus: The Forbin Project, which I think we are two of the perhaps 12 people —


Leonard Pierce: The only people in the world that have seen it.

Kevin Fullam:  Yeah, who have seen this movie, a 1970 movie based on a book, the author of which escapes me right now.  But it basically depicted the story of this mammoth computer network named Colossus that the government created to basically run their entire defense network grid. In terms of size, you’re talking about just the size of computers, it took up an entire mountain range, right?

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  It was a warehouse full of things.  And you know one of the things that seems very quaint to us today is giving it the capacity of speech was shown in the film as being a huge technological leap.  Like they actually gave the computer the power to talk.

And now of course anybody with a $600 PC can make it talk very easily.  But yeah.  The plot essentially involved Colossus, which was the American computer, communicating with the Russian computer, the two of them joining forces and sort of taking control of both countries’ nuclear arsenals and using it to blackmail the governments into obeying their commands.

And this grew out of a perception, which is a very common one in science fiction even today, that machines will someday develop the capacity for intelligence, that will of course be accompanied by the capacity for free will.  And so they’ll begin to do things that we don’t want them to do.

Kevin Fullam:  And that was a big part of the background of the Terminator movies, the fact that you had this Skynet computer that began to see all humans as a threat, and boom, started a nuclear war, and then set a whole series of events into motion.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  And actually, both in the world of science fiction and in the world of philosophy, where artificial intelligence is equally a hot topic because it deals with what we mean when we say intelligence and what we mean when we talk about free will and things like that, there’s a big debate about this very subject.  And one thing that I particularly interesting is the idea that the whole conception of artificial intelligence is somewhat of a flawed one.

Because the worst thing you can do for a machine is give it the capacity for free will or the capacity to think like a human.  You want a computer to not think like a human.  You want it to be able to process information very quickly, without the problems of making ethical decisions or coming up with ideas or forming its own opinion on things.

If you wanted to make a computer very inefficient and worthless, you would teach it to think like a person.  You know the whole reason that we have computers is because they aren’t troubled by anything but calculation.  And so they’re able to process information much more easily than we are.  And so the whole idea of making a computer that apes human thought process is sort of, on the face of it, kind of silly.

Kevin Fullam: But isn’t that a common theme though?  You mentioned how it’s actually very inefficient to have computers thinking like humans.  But it seems that through a number of movies, computers are — or in terms of artificial intelligence, problems arise when they actually do think or make decisions simply based on logic, and they don’t wind up incorporating ethics and morals into decisions.

Say the movie Alien — the perfect example of how you have an android that has a mission objective, and it’s going to pursue that objective no matter what else comes into play, no matter what the dangers to human life are.

Leonard Pierce:  True.

Kevin Fullam:  And in terms of cyborgs, in terms of the “Terminators,” you have basically man losing control of technology, I guess.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.

Kevin Fullam:  Or man assigning different jobs and objectives to technology it’s created, and then not being able to envision what can become of that down the line.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  As is often the case in almost all literature, the conflict arises because mankind projects itself onto the image of its technology.  People begin to wonder if a machine, which is often defined as lacking some particular thing that humans have, although what that quality is, is always a matter of debate — you know that’s the whole debate behind artificial intelligence: what exactly can a machine not do that we can?

But the idea that if a machine begins behaving like a human, that is, making decisions that involve human lives, wouldn’t that be terrible?  And so essentially what is being feared is: what if the machine starts to act like we act?  And it’s always that the machine develops some human quality.

In The Forbin Project, it was: what if the machines sort of develop a political sensibility, and begin to make our political decisions for us?  In the Terminator movies, it’s more: what if the machines decide that we are not necessary?  You get a bit of that in the Matrix films as well.  What if they decide that they can do better without us?

And in a way, this is all just sort of a projection of: what if they start behaving the way that we behave?  What if they start making the value judgments that we make?  And so it’s once again returning to that theme of man as perceiving himself as the most dangerous thing, as the things that mankind makes begin to behave like mankind.

Kevin Fullam:  I recently saw a documentary called Game Over: Kasparov Vs. the Machine.  And basically it was a documentary about Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov and his chess battles with IBM’s Deep Blue computer.  I don’t know if you’re familiar?

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.

Kevin Fullam: Kasparov defeated the computer handily in ’97, but in the rematch, Deep Blue won. And since then, there have been no additional rematches, and IBM has dismantled the whole Deep Blue computer and program, a fact about which Kasparov has been very, very upset.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  This is actually a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time discussing with friends of mine who are interested in cognitive philosophy and things like that.  Because the whole essence of it is, again: what do we mean by intelligence?  And when we’re talking about artificial intelligence, what attributes are we considering that will qualify a machine as being intelligent?

And it’s sort of been a pop culture bugaboo for many years, for many decades even, that some essential taboo will have been breached when a computer is capable of beating a human at chess.  And that’s fascinating to me.  Because it’s completely meaningless.  Designing a computer that can beat a human at chess doesn’t mean anything.

Kevin Fullam:  Chess is a linear game.  That’s the problem.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  Exactly.  And it’s not hard to design a machine that can beat a human at chess, depending on the human.  And we could design a machine that could beat every human at chess every time.  But it wouldn’t mean anything, because it’s just a game.

Chess has this perception as the thinking person’s game.  And people pride themselves on being able to be good chess players, because they believe it embodies a certain quality of intelligence.  And that returns to that debate about: what does intelligence mean?  And certainly it doesn’t mean anything at all if a computer can beat a person at chess.

And yet, it’s sort of still got that stigma, that when Kasparov was beaten, it was a big news story, not because people are interested in chess, or because people were interested in this machine, but because that sort of pop cultural taboo exists — that the day that a machine beats a man at chess, something terrible in our society will have happened.

And I don’t know that it necessarily means anything at all.  But it certainly generated a lot of publicity that a person beating another person at chess would never have garnered.

Kevin Fullam:  Chess is a linear game.  And you only have a set number of possibilities.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  And that’s what computers do; they calculate possibilities given a certain data set extremely fast.  So it’s not a surprise at all that a machine could beat a human at chess.

Kevin Fullam:  But you couldn’t design a computer to be a great Monopoly champion.  How can you program a computer to wheel and deal and make trades?

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  And you couldn’t design a computer to be a great Charades champion either.  You know?

Kevin Fullam:  Sure.

Leonard Pierce:  Anything that involves human qualities of personality or social interaction is, at the moment, beyond us.  But again, is that the quality that makes a machine intelligent?  It’s definitely up for debate.  You know the famous test, which has appeared both in science and philosophy, and in science fiction, is the Turing test, designed by the computer scientist Alan Turing, who devised this test for artificial intelligence.

And his theory was that if you could have a human interact with a computer via some medium of communication — like say letters appearing on a screen — and the human would be incapable of telling that the entity he was communicating with was a machine, that would mean the machine was intelligent.  And that test now, of course, it’s completely fallen by the wayside.

Because you can design tons of programs that will sort of have a conversation with a human.  And it will be difficult — maybe not impossible, but it will be difficult for the person to tell that he’s not communicating with another person, just because computers have now been programmed with particular conversational algorithms that allow them to pick up on — you know they have speech patterns programmed into them.

So the Turing test, which was once considered a very important thing, is now considered not so important.  Because we’ve discovered a paradigm in which it’s easy to make a computer sound like it’s talking.

Kevin Fullam:  You just brought to mind all sorts of bad memories involving text-based computer games of the eighties — the Zork games, the Sierra Quest games.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  And the ELIZA program, which is the computer psychotherapist.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.  It’s an old program from the eighties, where you would tell it something, and it would say, “Well, why do you feel that way?” or “Tell me more about that.”

And its patterns sort of aped that of a psychotherapist, where you would say, “I’m feeling depressed.””Well, tell me why you’re feeling depressed.  Tell me more about your mother.” Or whatever.  And all it would be doing would be taking the noun out of what you just said and plugging it into a: “Tell me more about ‘blank.'”

But it worked so well, that it really seemed conversational when you were typing into it.  And it was an offshoot of the same sort of programming that was used in those text-based games.

Kevin Fullam:  One of the next themes that I want to get to is the vision of totalitarian societies ruling the future.  You have that in movies like, say, The Running Man — which I’d much rather go to the short story by Stephen King.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with that? Much different than the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that came out in the late eighties.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.

Kevin Fullam: But The Running Man is interesting to me because not only do you have this totalitarian society, you have television networks controlling the world and controlling the government.  You also have what I think is one of the first examples of people having the idea that reality television is going to be a huge part of the entertainment of the future.

Leonard Pierce:  And the novella, the Stephen King novella, was written quite a while before the movie came out.  So it was somewhat prescient in that regard.  Because at that time, there really was no reality television. It was still the era of game shows, which of course  The Running Man is a game show as well.  But it has that element of everyday life that later became a huge aspect of reality television.

Kevin Fullam:  Well you have criminals being pursued by police officers, and that’s being shown on live TV, much like the show Cops. Or the whole O.J. chase. And that’s something you also had back in Fahrenheit 451.  I think you had the same thing.

Leonard Pierce:  Sure.  Which was long before that.  It was in the 1950s, I think, that was written.  Well you know it’s a truism that with almost all science fiction, as well as both in literature and film, it’s a reflection of what we fear at that time as a society.  So in science fiction throughout history, going as far back as when it started to appear in a mass format in the mid-1800s, whatever society’s main fears are at the time are reflected in the science fiction of the time.

So around the turn of the century, when there was a lot of racial tension in the United States, as I said, there were a lot of racial themes in science fiction.  In the 1930s and 1940s, science fiction often had sort of — you had Ming the Merciless, who was sort of an Oriental despot put on another planet, and a very totalitarian society he ruled over.  You had a lot of things that reflected a sort of political totalitarianism taking over the planet or taking over the world.

And then in the sixties and seventies, when there was a lot of Cold War fever and environmental terror, again you had environmental themes, the themes of environmental catastrophes, of nuclear war, or a future ruled by sort of Soviet/Communist dictatorships.

And then in the 1980s and 1990s, you started to get into the theme of corporations taking over the world, or the world becoming sort of in the thrall of frivolous entertainment while the world crumbles around them, you know, the old bread and circuses thing, that people would be distracted by cheap entertainments, while everything about them was crumbling to dust.

Kevin Fullam:  Well that’s sort of what I think of in the seventies — the Rollerball movie, the original Rollerball film in the mid-seventies. Basically, you didn’t have a government.  You had corporations ruling the country.

Leonard Pierce: Right.

Kevin Fullam: And Rollerball was the circus maximus game.

Leonard Pierce:  Moving on a little beyond that even, you have increasingly the theme today of terrorism, that the world of the future will feature sort of mini-states torn apart by terrorism and an increasingly fractured political environment, where the big states of today are wracked and turned into sort of little balkanized states by terrorism and insurgency.

You have the cyberpunk movement, which is a sort of recent thing.  It started in the eighties.  But it really gained strength in the ’90s and early 2000s, where for the first time, technology was not portrayed as an improver.  It was portrayed as simply something that would allow an elite to continue living a good lifestyle, but for the lower classes, for the urban poor and the desperate, would simply become a means of quick wealth or a facilitator of crime.

Kevin Fullam:  Give us some examples of some cyberpunk films.

Leonard Pierce:  There haven’t been a ton of cyberpunk movies.  It’s been more of a literature movement.  William Gibson.  NeuromancerJohnny Mnemonic, which was made into a film.

Kevin Fullam:  A very poor one.

Leonard Pierce: Yeah.  The Matrix is sort of a cyberpunk film.  It’s influenced by cyberpunk.  Definitely.  One of the most cyberpunkish films I can think of, even though it was written and filmed long before cyberpunk became very big, was Blade RunnerBlade Runner features a lot of elements common to the cyberpunk genre.

It’s got this really well-realized sort of urban dystopia.  You know nothing much has changed politically.  Big corporations sort of hold sway.  People are lured by popular entertainments.  We see the strip clubs.  We see the movies.  We see advertisements on every building.  We see these ads beckoning people to come and live in the off-world colonies if they can afford it.

The police are still basically in charge of the cities.  But the cities are huge.  They’re really polyglot.  Everybody speaks this sort of amalgam language of Vietnamese and Spanish and English and Russian, which are portrayed as being the languages of the underclass that have sort of amalgamated into one.

There are no glistening bodysuits, like you see in a lot of science fiction.  The weather is bad all the time.  Everybody wears cruddy thrift store-looking clothing.  The technology looks sophisticated, but it’s sort of rundown looking and broken down.

You see robot parts being bought in this sort of futuristic Chinatown, where they’re kept in these filthy aquarium looking cases, and sold by these really shifty looking characters, rather than in a gleaming paradise.

Kevin Fullam:  Kind of like the Jawas of the Star Wars environment.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  And it’s definitely this sort of realization that technology can get very sophisticated, and yet it may not answer the basic social problems of overpopulation, poverty, immigration, and things like that.  And that’s a very definite alteration in the cyberpunk movement, rather than this sort of idealistic, utopian science fiction world of the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

One of the interesting aspects of the Star Trek series, in particular, is that while they talked about political issues, there was never any question of there being political conflicts within the Federation.  There was very little reference to the economy.  Whenever we saw Earth, it was a utopia.

And it was never really made clear how this was achieved.  It just was.  Everybody had enough money, and all the major social problems had been solved.  All the conflict arose when people would clash with alien civilizations who were more or less marauders.  In cyberpunk especially, the conflict is turned inward, and it’s made a social and economic one, rather than an external one.

Kevin Fullam:  Do you see, especially in terms of Blade Runner, life imitating art somewhat, in the current sense?  Do you think that’s one of the more realistic depictions of the road that we’re heading down as a society?

Leonard Pierce: I actually see it more as art predicting life, rather than life imitating art. Certainly when you watch Blade Runner today, especially when you watch the segments of it where they portray the Los Angeles of the future, it bears a lot more resemblance to the Los Angeles of today, as opposed to other films that sort of seek to portray the urban environments of the future.  Philip K. Dick, when he wrote it, he lived in Los Angeles.

And he was a smart guy.  He could see the way it was going.  He saw immigration becoming a huge problem.  He saw language shifting and proliferating, you know multiple languages being spoken.  He saw the growth of a big underclass.  He lived in the sixties and seventies, when technology really was going forward by leaps and bounds.  But he saw that it wasn’t having a huge effect on the everyday life of people.

He was always very distrustful of authority and the police.  So he portrayed a future in which the police looked out for their own interest and the interests of the wealthy corporations.  And there’s a great line where the police captain in the film is trying to get Harrison Ford’s character to come back and work for them, after he’s retired.  And he says, “Well, if you ain’t cop, then you’re little people.” And you can easily see that coming from the mouth of a police chief today.

So it’s not anything that seems unrealistic.  The police are not portrayed as these sort of super-heroic Buck Rogers types.  They’re corruptible.  They’re in the interest of authority.  And so I think it’s not really so much that he was predictive of specific technological trends.  I think he just was very in tune with social trends, and sort of incorporated them within his narrative.

One thing that’s not touched on much in the film, but is very heavily played up in the novel is there’s an ecological aspect to it too.  There have been a number of ecological catastrophes, which is one of the reasons people leave Earth to go to the off-world colonies.  And a lot of animals are extinct.

In the novel, having a real animal is considered a sign of huge wealth.  They touch on this in the film, where he goes to the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters, and there’s an owl flitting around, and he asks if it’s real.  And then of course it’s not real.  It’s a machine.  Because almost all the owls are extinct.

But in the novel, it’s considered a big status symbol amongst the middle class and upper middle class to have a really well done artificial animal, one that looks real.  And so that’s his way of sort of addressing the ecological themes, is that all the animals are gone, and you gain status by being able to recreate one as closely as possible.

Kevin Fullam:  One of the other things I wanted to talk about — eugenic research.  There’s a movie called Gattaca, a pretty successful movie that came out in the late nineties with Ethan Hawke.  And it talked about one possible offshoot of the rise of eugenic research, in that people would be viewed based on their genes, and evaluated based on their genes, as opposed to what they’re actually doing.

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  Well one thing about the development of new technologies is that it always provides fodder for science fiction.  Because it shows us what is possible.

And as we’ve learned more about genetic research, we have learned more about what is possible to find out, in terms of what our bodies can do and what is contained within our genetic code.  So the more we learn about that, the more movies we’re gonna see, the more stories we’re gonna see about genetic technology.  Just like you see a lot of sort of disaster/action films today that play on biological warfare, or new diseases like —

Kevin Fullam:  Outbreak.

Leonard Pierce:  Outbreak and The Hot Zone. After The Hot Zone came out, you saw a lot of science fiction and action novels and films that dealt with a biological outbreak somewhere.  So the more we learn about any particular technology, the more we’re going to see that reflected.

Because the job of science fiction writers is to take something that already exists, usually, and to take it to its extreme. Just like with computers, they say, “Oh we’ve designed computers that can do this.  What if they start thinking like us and take over our weapon systems or interact with our everyday lives?”

And again, now that we know about our genetic code, what if we develop a society in which everyone is judged before they’re even born, based on their genetic makeup?

Kevin Fullam:  Well, it’s kind of like Brave New World in a sense.  Right?

Leonard Pierce:  Or going a little past that, but even a while into the future, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story called Harrison Bergeron, in which people are —

Kevin Fullam:  A little bit different twist on that.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  It’s definitely a different twist on that.  It sort of goes in the opposite direction, that people are leveled.  They are made to go to a sort of median ideal.  People who are exceptional are blinded or crippled or handicapped in some way, so that no one is better than anyone else. Whereas Gattaca sort of goes in the other direction, that people who are not genetically exceptional become an underclass.  They become less acceptable.  Whereas the people with better genes are elevated to higher stations.

Kevin Fullam:  You talked a little bit before about technology, in terms of “improving” people.  The Six Million Dollar Man, the famous seventies TV series with Lee Majors.

Leonard Pierce: Sure.

Kevin Fullam:  And it’s funny that — I mean it came out around the time that robotics was really becoming a huge industry.  And we were like: well what could happen if we combine technology with a person?  And how can we make a person better?

Leonard Pierce:  Right. And of course, that’s also a big theme in cyberpunk, the idea of cybernetics.  In cyberpunk, tons of cybernetic implants are placed in almost everyone.  You know?  Characters always have artificial eyes, artificial limbs.  They have filtration systems in their lungs, so they can breathe the bad air, and things like that.

Kevin Fullam:  And we have people with artificial organs today.

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  You know one of the interesting things about the application of technologies is that — as I mentioned briefly talking about computers earlier — they become used for the banal and the everyday, and they leave us wondering, probably falsely, where the really dynamic applications of those things are.  Like people who are critics of modern science fiction are always asking, “Well, where are the jet packs?  Where are the flying suits and things like that?”

And that’s such an odd question.  Because yeah, it would be great to have the jet packs and the flying suits and the video phones and things like that.  But on the other hand, we have artificial hearts, which is astonishing, you know? The idea that you can have a heart condition, and have a mechanical object placed in your body that will keep you alive for a number of extra years, it’s phenomenal to consider that.

And the Internet is just an absolutely amazing piece of technology.  But because it’s become so integrated in our everyday lives, it doesn’t seem fantastic.  So we go, “Well where’s all the stuff we were promised in fifties sci-fi?”  I would be quite happy to give up the flying car, the chance meeting with a Venutian, for the Internet or the artificial heart or the medical technology that we have today that’s just unthinkable by even the standards as late as the fifties — the eradication of polio and so many other diseases that don’t seem exciting to us, because they’ve become so part of our everyday life.

Kevin Fullam:  We’ve talked about a number of different themes involving futuristic movies, most of them relating to science fiction, and relating to our envisioning of what possible utopian or dystopian societies would look like.

One of the other things that we haven’t touched on yet is the sci-fi series V, which came out in the mid-eighties, basically an allegory of the Nazis taking control in World War II where you have this alien race coming from outer space, under the guise of being human.  And slowly and insidiously, they worm their way and take control of the planet in an effort to steal the planet’s resources, our food and water.

Do you see also the fear of aliens, the fear of immigration, the fear of a society being enveloped by, or being destroyed by, another culture?  I mean is that something that also you see in other science fiction works?

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  I mean even in Blade Runner, the central theme was that we had created these sort of androids who were so difficult to tell from humans, that they developed these unbelievably complex emotional response tests to find them out.  Because there was no other way.  And the question was: if they behaved so much like humans, what exactly makes them different from humans?  And what makes it okay to persecute them, to control them the way that we do?

And one of the fears in that was: are they able to infiltrate us so easily, to become part of us?  And you know you see that in V.  You see it in a lot of films.  So that’s been a theme.  And it, of course, reflects a lot of social trends.  Like there’s the racial angle and the immigration angle, that this is a threat that is among us, rather than outside of us — as opposed to the The War of the Worlds, where the aliens just fly down in giant spaceships and start shooting at us with laser cannons.  You know they’re actually part of our society.

And it becomes very difficult to tell who’s who and what’s what.  There’s an ideological war in science fiction, just like there is any other kind of culture.  There are people who have written from a right-wing perspective, sort of conservative perspective, and from a liberal perspective.

And you see that throughout the history of science fiction.  You see the same themes being incorporated: “fear of the stranger” vs. “trust the stranger.”  Fear developments in technology versus trust them.  Embrace multiculturalism and change in society versus reject it and go towards the old ways.  And you see that everywhere throughout the history of the medium.

Kevin Fullam:  One last thing that I want to touch on is the role of religion in sci-fi and in terms of futuristic movies and literature — something you don’t see very much.  Is that just because of the natural conflict between science and religion?

Leonard Pierce:  I don’t think necessarily.  And there are actually quite a lot of science fiction novels — specifically, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a classic science fiction novel that’s very much religious in character.  There’s also a lot of religious imagery in Dune, specifically Christian religious imagery, the orange Bible and that sort of thing.

But I think it’s more that a lot of science fiction deals with very alien cultures, or societies that are millions of years in the future, or take place in alien dimensions.  And it’s just too difficult to directly translate current religious terminology and references into those themes.  However, you do see a lot of the moral issues that are brought up by religion, in science fiction, just not made in an explicitly religious framework.

So you often see the theme of the Christ figure.  That’s throughout tons of science fiction, just as in regular literature.  Science fiction is not immune to that theme.  You also see the idea of extremely powerful and either benevolent or malevolent alien entities being thought of as gods.  Philip Jose Farmer, a very prolific science fiction writer, wrote a series called The River World series, in which people when they died were reincarnated in this multi-tiered artificial world.

It was very religious in its themes, although it tried to stay away from actually explicitly religious terminology.  So one of the conflicts early on is that one of the reincarnated characters was a Nazi.  And the other characters have a very difficult time accepting him.  He is, of course, trying to reform himself in his new life.  But they cannot stop thinking of him in terms of the crimes that he committed earlier.

And that’s placed in a very religious theme — the question of who built this world, and who is, in fact, responsible for running the afterlife is a very big one in that.  So I think that while you don’t see a lot of specifically religious terminology and references, you actually see a lot of religious themes.

Kevin Fullam:  You mentioned a book called A Canticle for Leibowitz — you could say that book in some way discredits modern religion, because it takes place in the future, long after nuclear war has consumed much of the world. And in the book, you have these monks who have developed a religion around bits and pieces of various technology, the uses of which have long been forgotten.  And they’re carrying around these blueprints like they’re the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.

Kevin Fullam:  And they have no idea what they mean.  But they attribute some sort of religious significance to it.  So you can kind of say, well, is this what modern religion has been based on, you know?  Just odd, crazy circumstances, events that have happened, the facts of which have been lost throughout the years.  And we’ve built up something entirely different, something completely fictional around it.

Leonard Pierce:  You can definitely make that argument.  And in a way, the work kind of resembles The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it portrays a very questioning and very curious view of religion, one that sort of investigates its origins and its nature and the way that it develops, while simultaneously, I think, being a very religious book in terms of its respect for the things that religion has accomplished, and the way that religious thought develops.

So I don’t think its goal was either to credit or discredit religion.  I think that the author was just very fascinated with religious thought in general, and chose to reflect that in the book.  And of course you see a lot of science fiction where religious conflict is fairly explicit.

Again, Dune is one of the better examples of that.  You know one thing we haven’t talked about much, but that is a big vehicle for the imagination of the future in science fiction, is, for lack of a better word, speculative or historical re-imaginings. There’s a big series of novels written recently, in which the Chinese became the dominant civilization on Earth, rather than the Europeans.

And so you have a science fiction future in which the government and culture is very influenced by Chinese culture, rather than Western.  Philip K. Dick, who wrote The Man in the High Castle, one of the best science fiction novels of all time, I think.  It’s sort of an imagination of America after the Axis has won World War II.

The Pacific Rim is controlled by the Japanese. And their culture is very influenced by Japanese culture.  People have developed the sort of elaborate social rituals of Japan.  People consult the I Ching as part of their daily lives.  Whereas the eastern part of the United States is controlled by the Nazis.  So there are death camps in New York, they say.  And the blacks in the South have been re-enslaved.

Kevin Fullam:  And Africa has been destroyed.

Leonard Pierce:  Africa’s been destroyed, right.

Kevin Fullam:  So here you have this fictional what-if society. But The Man in the High Castle refers to an author who has written a book about the U.S. and the Allied Powers actually winning the war.

Leonard Pierce:  Right.  And at the end of the book, it’s hinted that that’s actually the case, that in fact, they sort of become aware that their reality is not the real one.  And that’s a lot of Philip K. Dick’s psychological game playing.  Because he when he excerpts the book, which this writer of The Man in the High Castle has written, the way that the post-war world developed is not accurate.  He has Britain becoming the big world power after that.

It’s actually quite complex.  And that’s one of the things that makes it such an excellent book, is that  he sort of knocks you off your footing, that even in the imagined world, in his world, where the Allies win the war, it’s not like the way it was in our world after the Allies won the war.

So it’s quite sophisticated in that regard.  And it’s one of Philip K. Dick’s obsessions throughout novels: perception and reality, and the difficulty of determining the truth in any situation.  And that is a fine example of it.

Kevin Fullam:  In terms of alternate realities, though, that’s been also a big theme of science fiction.  You had the show Sliders a number of years ago.  There was also a different series where a guy had to go back in time and prevent changes to history.

Leonard Pierce:  Quantum Leap.

Kevin Fullam:  Quantum Leap, yes, with Scott Bakula.  But I don’t think they ever showed the consequences of something, like say, Lincoln surviving his assassination attempt.  Scott Bakula’s character merely had to go back and “preserve” the normal continuity. There also was a series of books called Time Lords, I think, about the same sorts of adventures.

Leonard Pierce:  Yeah.  Curiously enough, in mainstream historical writing, this has become a very big thing.  A lot of genuine historians have written books about how the civilization and culture might have been altered if very minor events to very major events had gone differently.  There’s a sort of whole subgenre — speculative history is what it’s called.

And the people who write it tend not to be science fiction writers or even fiction writers, but historians who write about what the consequences might have been, say, if Genghis Khan or his generals had lived long enough to make a push all the way into Europe, or if the Crusades had gone differently, or if the Civil War — if the European powers had put their weight behind the South, rather than the North, in the Civil War — which very nearly happened.

In historical speculation, it tends to be much more realistic.  Because it hinges on very plausible outcomes.  Or say if there had not been a really bad storm when the Spanish Armada was battling the British, which as you know, of course — the Spanish Armada was heavily favored to win.  And they lost, largely through bad weather.  And if that had not happened, which is very plausible — if there had not been a storm that day, all of history could have been altered.

Whereas science fiction tends to take more extreme scenarios.  But it’s one of the examples, again, where there’s a lot of crossover from the speculative writers of science fiction and those in mainstream society.  And it often has to do with whatever our fears are at the time.

You know you’re seeing a lot of people writing today about the Crusades and about the development of the Arab world.  Because right now, our big issue in society is terrorism.  So you have a lot of people speculating: what if we had done this?  Or what if we had done that?

What if the Europeans had pursued the Crusades and completely smashed the Ottoman Empire at the time?  Or what if the colonization of the Middle East in the earlier part of the century had gone differently?  Would we be in a very different situation today?

Kevin Fullam:  This has been another edition of Under Surveillance. My name is Kevin Fullam, and I’ve been happy to have Leonard Pierce, freelance writer and pop culture critic, join me for the last hour.  Thank you, Leonard.

Leonard Pierce:  Always good to be here.

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.
In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.
Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.