Professor of Literature specialized in Science fiction
Langlet is a professor of contemporary literature at the University of Paris Est Marne-la-Vallée (UPEM). She is a specialist in non-fiction and science fiction and has published several works on both. She heads the project "PARVIS - Paroles de villes" at I-Site FUTURE (2019-2021), which examines the city of the future using an interdisciplinary approach. She’s the director of the online journal ReS Futurae, the only accredited French-speaking academic journal dedicated to science fiction.
One of the most melancholy of all the short stories in the famous Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury recounts, in a deliberately neutral tone, how automated machines in a house accomplish everyday tasks, even while their inhabitants are no longer there. Coffee is prepared at breakfast time, slices of toast jump out of toasters, and after the usual time that children leave for school, and husbands for work, small household robots emerge from the walls to vacuum and clean. In the evening, the central robot reads a poem: “A soft rain will fall”, the title of the story, which is one of the verses of Sara Teasdale’s poem.
“Mrs. McClellan, which poem would you like this evening?”
The house was silent.
The voice said at last, “Since you express no preference, I shall select a poem at random.” Quiet music rose to back the voice. “Sara Teasdale. As I recall, your favorite …
“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound (…)
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.”
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1958), Bantam Books.
The most powerful poetic effect of this story resides in the symbolic echoes between the words of the poem and the Bradburyan tale of the home’s destruction, within a devastated landscape where the only living being that remains is a lost dog. Indeed, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the inhabitants of this house have been killed in a catastrophe that destroyed everything but this house. The imaginary nuclear vision serves as a backdrop to this fiction, through the chilling stereotype of the silhouettes of living beings imprinted on the wall at the moment the explosion reduced them to ashes. Published in 1950 in Collier’smagazine, this brief, ten-page story attests to an entire traumatized culture in America after Hiroshima. It belongs to what came to be called the “golden age” of SF.
It is also, in a more subtle way, revelatory of the manner in which classic SF deals with everyday living habits. The science-fiction effect, in this case, is produced by the sophisticated home appliances and the automation of all the tasks related to ordinary activities: preparing coffee, slices of toast, vacuuming, telling the children whether they should take their rain jackets, dropping off the newspaper that the paterfamilias will read on his way to work. But how can we not be struck by the contrast between this home of the future and these routines that don’t seem to have changed a bit? Everything happens as though the writer’s imagination had placed a sort of safety perimeter around his futuristic invention. There might have been a giant step forward in technology, but customs and habits remain unchanged. The everyday sexism, in particular, is stunning here, not only in the social division of labor (Mister goes off to work, and the Missus stays at home), but also in the deep-seated visions of the “home”: domestic maintenance tasks, without any pragmatic nor time-related creativity that could make it a different space from the “new and improved dormitory” it would seem to be. The family follows a standard dad/mom/kids model, the food is just as standardized, and distance schooling does not exist any more than telecommuting does. While she’s staying at home, Mrs. McClellan could lead an association, a fab-lab, a creative collective or intervention group, have her workshop, manufacturing space, or office here, and her garden could also grow vegetables and be ecologically linked to other gardens, for example…
In Bradbury’s story, it’s an apocalyptic mood that reigns; the dissonance between the futuristic nature of the machines and the unchanging everyday lives of the deceased humans can be seen as a narrative technique that expresses all the melancholy of the end of days. In other contexts, this dissonance can produce other effects. For example, in John Brunner’s work, there is a rather fierce irony in a scene where overly concerned mothers choose the top gangs in the city for their children to join (Sur l’onde de choc). Within the context of expansive imaginings often seen in SF (megacities, impressive vessels, billions and billions of worlds), Brunner’s scene is what may be called high-quality imagination: ordinary transactions end up including players or elements that are unusual and surprising. In our example, it is the private educational market that starts to co-opt communities that organize urban violence. In another novel by Brunner, which is part of the same cycle (known as the “Black cycle” because its stories take place in a severely degraded near future), materials that are usually free must be paid for; in this example, it is the air, with orders that resonate ironically, since the 2020 health crisis:
THIS BEACH NOT SAFE FOR SWIMMING
NOT Drinking Water
UNFIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Now Wash Your Hands
(Penalty for noncompliance $50)
Use product once only—maximum 1 hour
John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up (1972), in The John Brunner Collection Volume One, Open Road.
The surprise is matched here by a sort of shock: making someone pay for air, which we perceive as the ultimate common good, means so strongly infringing on the structure of our customs that the science-fiction effect reaches a remarkable peak. Literary theory designated this using the term cognitive estrangement. Air you must pay for, in the 1972 novel, triggers a major estrangement, because it touches on our most unconscious uses, those we do not even think about, like breathing. In a more recent series, The Expanse, the same fictional device doesn’t take on nearly the same meaning: air is clearly to be paid for, because the story takes place in space, on moons, planets and asteroids that don’t have an atmosphere. Powerful multinationals even trade this precious good and host the real leaders of this imaginary world of the future. Leading the world, or worlds, of this universe, consists of selling, taxing, producing, and organizing the consumption of breathable air. But strangely enough, the estrangement is not as powerful as it is in Brunner’s world. Air is bought, sold, and negotiated, and the wealth generated from the air creates and destroys empires, yes, but at social levels that are far above that of the common people. The latter, on an everyday basis, breathe like you or I do. The only difference between them and us is that they can be affected by a major catastrophe that suffocates them all: the scriptwriters take care to pepper their story with a few alerts or panics of this kind (where we see the characters run around all over the place, protecting their loved ones, crazy and wide-eyed like in any panic-type scenario).
Paid air is an excellent example to show us that in science fiction, everyday habits are rarely affected by the invention of imaginary worlds. Imagine everything that it would be marvelous to envision with such a wide range of possibilities! A helmet and portable bottle industry, of course; a certain aesthetic, as well, and soon, a whole fashion industry around it. Best practices and a lifestyle, also: how to wear your bottle in polite company, at school, to the theater. How do you excuse yourself if you hit someone else’s bottle? Is it customary to make as little noise as possible, or, on the contrary, to proudly show off one’s good, clean air purchased at a premium? There would, indeed, be different qualities available at different price points. This would indeed be likely (unless the government regulated prices). There would also inevitably be all kinds of trading, both legal and illegal: a black market for air, air elitists, corrupt air merchants, saboteurs, cleaners, patrol officers…in sum, a whole sociology of traders, producers, and consumers, an economy of exchange and use. How could we keep on breathing as usual if we had to pay for air? Would penniless youth, in the full bloom of health, try to save money on their meager earnings by holding their breath? Would lovers share their air? Maybe we would modify our movements to reduce our need for oxygen. Would the rules of sport be changed? Spaces would have to be completely redesigned to include slots for our equipment. Perhaps we would learn to recycle air using plants and materials; maybe this would totally transform our homes, neighborhoods, and work schedules. And yet, while paid air has long been a part of our imaginary worlds, especially those beyond Earth, few fictions have truly considered it by drawing out all the possible consequences in terms of everyday habits. A dome over homes or cities, a diving suit around human’s, or even their pets’, bodies, like Tintin’s little dog on the Moon, and that’s it. The symbolism is quite clear: there is no better way to point out that science fiction is afflicted here with a sort of safety barrier. Inventing future scenarios, yes, but within limits that are reached quite swiftly. Underneath the dome, under the helmet’s visor, or behind the doorway of the automated home, everyday life goes on unchangingly.
Except maybe when the machines break down. Or when we cannot pay for them anymore. Philip K. Dick became famous for this type of situation: this most cinematically adapted of SF authors inspires some of his readers with his ability to envision worlds that are both futuristic and carefully crafted, with an “atmosphere of imperfection, of triumphal failure, this way of seeing the world as something that makes no sense” (Rodrigo Fresán). Here, for example, is Joe Chip, who can no longer open his door because he is in too much debt:
he therefore vigorously strode to the apt door, turned the knob, and pulled on the release bolt.
The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again, he tried the knob. Again, it remained locked tight. “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said.
Philip K. Dick, Ubik, Kindle edition
The apartment and its sophisticated home automation are the setting for a gratingly ironic scene where everyday tasks are transformed (here, using credit in a supremely ordinary situation). The invention is more profound than it appears because it lays bare the principles of consumer society and a certain income-based capitalism, rather than one based on the production of goods. Contrary to Bradbury’s house, which worked on its own to serve absent humans, this one is at the service of a reporting company that invoices each activity of human individuals (far too human individuals), with their erratic behaviors and faulty management. Joe Chip is no longer solvent; he has an extremely low rating from the company, so he must pay everything in his home in cash. In And a soft rain will fall, we could thus interpret that nothing had changed in human habits, which explained the melancholy of a post-apocalyptic vision. In Ubik, everyday habits that remain recognizable (preparing coffee, opening a door) reveal an imaginary universe precisely because they no longer function.
It is on these dysfunctions in habits and uses that Dickian SF is built. One of his stories, which became famous after being adapted for film, was entitled Minority Report; we can recall that it’s this “minority report”, whose data appears unreliable, that is precisely the centerpiece of the action. But who also remembers Deckard, the android killer from the novel that became Blade Runner on film? In Do Androids dream of electric sheep?, the literary version of the story, animals have disappeared from Earth, with only a few exceptions, due to a nuclear catastrophe. The film’s script left out this part of the intrigue; it does not tell us how much this character wants to touch a real animal. But in the novel, he accepts the mission precisely because of the fee, which is so high that he will be able to buy himself a real sheep. Mass extinction is referred to in a vague manner, without dwelling on scientific likelihoods; what matters are the habits created by this situation. As part of these customs, the inhabitants of a building in San Francisco raise animals on their rooftop and spy on each other to know who has a real animal and who has a copy. There is no way you can ask directly:
Of course, some of their animals undoubtedly consisted of electronic circuitry fakes, too; he had of course never nosed into the matter, any more than they, his neighbors, had pried into the real workings of his sheep. Nothing could be more impolite. To say, “Is your sheep genuine?” would be a worse breach of manners than to inquire whether a citizen’s teeth, hair, or internal organs would test out authentic.
Dick, Philip K, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Kindle edition
This short excerpt, which did not appear in the film, allows fans to savor the irony of one of the most renowned and frequently watched scenes in the film: the one where the Blade Runner first encounters the beautiful android Rachel within the pyramid of the Tyrell Company and asks her if the owl flying from one wall to another amid the backdrop of the setting sun is artificial. Moreover, in this cinematic adaptation, which creatively distorts Dick’s novel, the irony stems from the good or bad manners in this imaginary world where only artificial beings continue to exist. The entire story of Deckard and Rachel also rests on this: they are artificial beings trying to live the best they know how, and in that world, one simply cannot ask them if they’re real or not. Like Joe Chip in Ubik, Deckard would like to be normal and have a real animal; Rachel would like to be normal and have real memories. Yet, the artifices upon which this imaginary society attempts to stay afloat reveal glimpses of their flaws, and thus also lay bare their customs, through certain dysfunctions. Such is the case for the electric sheep, which often break down:
You have to keep your eye on it exactly as you did when it was really alive. Because they break down and then everyone in the building knows. I’ve had it at the repair shop six times, mostly little malfunctions, but if anyone saw them – for instance one time the voice tape broke or anyhow got fouled and it wouldn’t stop baaing – they’d recognize it as a mechanical breakdown.
Dick, Philip K., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, op cit
It is possible that Dick’s SF was so successful on film precisely because it managed to reveal what happens to everyday habits and customs in future worlds, whereas other novels tended to emphasize battles, extraordinary machines, and space travel. The fact that he succeeded at this by presenting small things that don’t work, and ordinary people, makes his writing more like that of Ursula K. Le Guin, who ended up defending this approach as well.
So, when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse’s skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand. I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible. Who ever said writing a novel was easy?
If science fiction is the mythology of modern technology, then its myth is tragic.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, Kindle edition, 1989.
For her, this was the only way to make space for people who are never talked about in SF, particularly women (but not exclusively). It is important not to misunderstand “wimps and klutzes” in her essay; Le Guin uses these terms to ironically refer to characters who don’t fit the cliché of the super-soldier, superhero, spaceship commander, or brave explorer. From the point of view of this recently deceased author, SF tells too many space-war stories led by men who never do the dishes, or about marvelous machines invented by engineers whom we never see taking care of their children; the futures outlined in these stories are only relevant to a small fraction of real life, and thus, they become less interesting. Le Guin expanded on her view using a symbolic character she called Mrs. Brown, in reference to a renowned feminist text by Virginia Woolf; she made a place for her aboard the spaceship, which symbolically means making a place for her within writings about the future, and, thus, trying not to write only stories of space wars, but also stories where everyday life is presented, through its habits. In one of her most famous novels, instead of lengthily describing the houses on a planet where a truly severe winter reigns supreme, Le Guin is satisfied with noting that a character enters his friend’s house through the summer door, raising his gaze toward the winter door. No more is needed to imagine the height of the snowpack and to sketch out, both lightly and definitively, the way of life on a planet where the inhabitants know how to set up their homes to suit the seasons. This novel, The Left Hand of Night, became famous for other parts of its story, specifically the sexual habits and mores within this extraterrestrial society, which required unusual behaviors, causing a “gender disturbance” (to echo the words of Judith Butler). Indeed, individuals on the planet Gethen were supposedly asexual most of the time and revealed their orientation during periods of sexual activity called kemmas, before reverting to “non-differentiation” – after, when necessary, having given birth to a child. The king in the story does, incidentally, get pregnant. Despite this spectacular imaginary vision, Le Guin herself was not immune from criticism about this docile reproduction of predominant customs, and we can easily see that this supposed “non-differentiation” of beings on Gethen gives them an appearance that is clearly masculine. Rather than an androgynous society, the novel therefore invents a society of men who sometimes become women. Le Guin felt the need to reaffirm her point of view many times and to modify even her writing style, so that she could create the type of stories that explore everyday habits through ordinary characters, women, children, “wimps and klutzes”. She did this, for example, in the beautiful novel entitled The Valley of Eternal Return.
Inventing other customs than those portraying a type of consumption fascinated with machines, in other stories than ones led by men in scenarios disconnected from everyday life, isn’t so simple: the best of intentions can fall into formidable traps, showing only men when talking about hackers and makers, and only women when it’s about opening a fridge full of food…In these circumstances, gender distribution reveals the extent to which it deeply structures our imaginary visions and blocks the transformation of certain customs. Science fiction has not really been useful, during its “Golden Age”, in moving things forward; it could even be said with some certainty that it has been one of the most conservative literary and cinematic genres. Because it was written mostly by men, because it glorified a consumer society that was essential to the ideology of industrial productivism, but also, more profoundly, as Le Guin had indeed sensed, because it is dominated by epic technological and industrial scenarios. It is unlikely that the current post-apocalyptic trend will truly reverse this momentum; even if it apparently wipes out our technological consumer societies, worlds like in Mad Max are more reactionary than ever. The alienation of human beings within social structures that revert to neo-feudal barbarism can only equal the alienation of opaque productive systems where machines reign supreme over everyday life more fiercely than ever, since scarcity enhances its value. Here, we are dealing with the opposite of the utopias of Murray Bookchin in Beyond Scarcity, who, in the 1970s, envisioned a certain neo-technological, ecological anarchy. In other post-apocalyptic works, such as The Road by McCarthy, for example, or the Maddaddam cycle from Atwood, we encounter the aesthetics of ruin, extermination, and disaster, clearly religious language, and evangelical vocabulary, rather than tales of technological resilience, recycling, or discoveries. Some would call these works of fiction “disaster porn”.
Somewhere between the glorification of technology and alienated imaginings, science fiction is not allowing for the emergence of many customs that are simultaneously real, close to daily life, and which produce a decisive cognitive estrangement. An unusual socio-familial system aptly manages this in the first chapters of a recent novel by Ada Palmer, taking place in the year 2454:
“Sir, you are wrong. (…) It’s not the numbers, not these rare psyches you’re charting that stimulate great progress. It’s groups. (…) the thing that most reliably produces many at once—the effect you’ve worked so hard to replicate—is when people abandon the nuclear family to live in a collective household, four to twenty friends, rearing children and ideas together in a haven of mutual discourse and play. We don’t need to revolutionize the kindergartens; we need to revolutionize the family.”
This heresy, this bash’, which Cullen shortened from i-basho (a Japanese word, like ‘home’ but stronger), this challenge to Brill’s great system Cullen did not dare present without extensive notes.
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota Book 1), Kindle edition
But the estrangement only lasts until it gets into serious matters (governing the world), starting in Chapter 9, and that the council of chiefs appears: eight men, one woman. Here is a patriarchal future as conservative and undesirable as possible, which, in retrospect, makes the bashes look like unimportant gimmicks. And how about some more? A 20-minute orgasm from Iain M. Banks (The use of weapons); garments that change color to suit one’s mood or for advertising purposes (from Greg Egan); machines that create synthetic foods (reduced to uniform pills or cubes), from just about everyone…but very little gastronomic, stylistic or sexual innovation that would make them plausibles, in other words, able to drive a new vision of society, of living together, of politics, and of human history…and especially, as a start, to be able to structure a tale around cognitive estrangement. Nothing could be harder: it would be a question of developing unprecedented customs that we would find incomprehensible…but without explaining them, by maintaining their mystery and allowing the futuristic story to infuse an imaginary world where they would gradually, naturally take on meaning. Because if they are explained, these unusual habits become as unsteady as though we were telling a story that took place in our own era, by ponderously explaining actions that we mechanically undertake. Could you imagine Balzac or Duras drily describing how one pours a glass of wine, or why one sits down in an armchair?
It may not be unreasonable, henceforth, to identify the finest examples of futuristic practices from authors such as Dick, who work hard to make objects and habits go awry: in the very telling of their dysfunction, we simultaneously comprehend the unusual object and the use that is tied to it, like with this coin that needs to be dropped into the door to make it open. A breakdown is ideal, in a manner of speaking, as a commentaryon a mysterious operational mode, while giving the impression that we’re only trying to get it back in working order. When characters ask themselves questions and analyze documents, these stories expand upon future enigmas without providing definitive answers, leaving open possibilities and hypotheses. Polish writer Stanislas Lem is most prized for this storytelling technique, through “solaristics”, for example, which brings together all possible interpretations of the planet Solaris that humans understand truly little about. The novel City by Clifford Simak, translated as Demain les chiensin French (Tomorrow, dogs), is another classic example of this type of storytelling. The book is presented as the annotated edition of stories that Dogs tell each other at nightfall, during which they discuss the existence of legendary beings called “Men”. It is an entire tale of the future and of habits, and events appear indirectly in the comments, without any guarantee whatsoever of truthfulness, which requires the reader to constantly question what is happening. This way, the life of Mankind in the future is outlined through the reading of the story itself, through those who read about and share in the Dogs’ assumptions. This storytelling model, featuring several futures nested within each other, which requires active participation from its readers, inspired Michel Houellebecq for his novel La Possibilité d’une île. Like The Valley by Le Guin, novels crafted like puzzles or dossiers, where you have to put the pieces together, offer another useful technique for creating productive science fiction, which feeds cognitive estrangement and makes it last.
Making objects break down is thus perhaps not essential to finally placing futuristic customs and habits at the very heart of SF. Multiple, unusual futures may be desirable, as long as their enigmatic futurism does not resolve too quickly into reproducing old patterns. The use of cultural blending sometimes plays this role: Gibson’s Japan, or, as we’ve seen, in Palmer’s work (which also makes generous use of the culture of France’s Ancien Régime), Bacigalupi’s Thailand, or Thompson’s Nigeria, for example, make customs more complex and nourish a diverse future world where new and old coexist in a multilayered form of estrangement. It is in SF like this that a truly vibrant future vision will be able to imagine exciting habits and customs.