By William Bowles
February 23rd, 2012
The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner’s remarkably prescient ‘science fiction’ novel, first published in 1972 concerns the destruction of the entire environment in the US and the rise of a ‘corporately sponsored government’ leading to the eventual total breakdown of US society.
“No one except possibly the late John Brunner… has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it.”1
Or now. The ability of ‘science fiction’ to extrapolate the future and it would seem often quite accurately, but one ignored by the priests of ‘high culture’ who consistently dismissed it as ‘genre’ writing, confined to a convenient niche where bug-eyed monsters live and bought where guys in dirty raincoats prowled. ‘Science fiction’ belonged in paperbacks with lurid covers of big-busted-babes molested by alien monsters but it wasn’t art let alone almost alone in being able to deal with the present as no other prose dared to.
[R]ioting and civil unrest sweep the United States, due to a combination of poor health, poor sanitation, lack of food, lack of services, ineffectiveness of services (medical, policing), disillusionment with government/companies, oppressive government, civil unrest, high incidence of birth defects (pollution-induced), and other factors; all services (military, government, private, infrastructure) break down.A housewife in Ireland smells smoke, and says to a visiting doctor: “We ought to call the fire brigade, is it a hayrick?” to which the doctor replies, “The brigade would have a long way to go. It’s from America. The wind is blowing [from] that way.”1
Worse still it used language that broke all the High Culture’s ‘rules’. It went where mainstream writers never ventured, into describing a world that was manufacturing ‘reality’ at a fast rate of knots. Thus science fiction was actually reality fiction. It even changed its name in the UK to ‘Speculative’ fiction.
Continuing the style used in Stand on Zanzibar, there is a multi-strand narrative and many characters in the book never meet each other; some characters only appear in one or two vignettes. Similarly, instead of chapters, the book is broken up into sections which range from thirty words in length to several pages.1
Written even earlier, in 1968, Stand on Zanzibar could also have been written today, it,
…plunges us into the novel’s dysfunctional, overcrowded, media-saturated world via a random channel flip across the story spectrum with SCANALYZER, providing an “INdepth INdependent INmediate INterface” between the reader and “the happening world.”2
It’s a world where corporations, with their mercenary armies, buy entire countries, in this case, a small African one, where it will restore ‘peace’ in exchange for exclusive rights to the country’s rich natural resources. Ring any bells?
‘Ruling culture’ is capitalist culture, the kind that is taught in universities. It controls the written and visual world, all of it, from the Red Tops to Hamlet. The academia even have a ‘private’ language with which to communicate, thus denying ‘outsiders’ entré into their world.
The Youth/Pop revolution put an end to all that stuff, at least on the surface. But underneath an insidious process was at work. In a consumer economy such as we unfortunately live in, an understanding of what working class culture is when treated as a commodity is essential. Thus began the corporate takeover of working class culture, or what we call ‘commercialization’.
The eventual adsorbtion of working class culture into the ruling culture started in the post-war period with ‘youth culture’. Pre-war the culture of the working class was shunned by the ‘intellectuals’. Institutions such as the Music Hall, which had been with us since the 19th century, was considered too ‘lower class’ to be considered art. Opera was ‘high class’. And working class writers were rare animals indeed. A trip to university soon knocked that crap out your system.
It proves nothing else if not the fact that it’s us who create and the capitalists who appropriate. Thus whose culture is it?
It has been ‘science fiction’ writers like Brunner, JG Ballard, William Gibson, Frederick Pohl and the very well known Philip ‘Blade Runner’ Dick as well as a host of other writers who have had their fingers on the pulse of capitalism in a way that virtually no other contemporary writers had, until that is, ‘high culture’ novelists adopted the technique. Perhaps it was because their private language could no longer comprehend let alone describe the world their masters has created? I’d go further and say that ‘science fiction’ has completely transformed contemporary fiction.
One notable exception was George Orwell’s 1984, widely interpreted in the West as a critique of the Soviet Union, thus acceptable as a ‘mainstream’ novel. Yet today it describes our current situation in the West down to a tee (and beyond), not the Soviet Union of yore whose ‘thought control’ was amateurish and transparent when compared to today’s mainstream media, which probably explains why it was so ineffectual. ‘We pretend to work, you pretend to pay us’ was a typical Russian joke in the late Soviet era. Two realities coexisting, one ignoring it and the other pretending the other didn’t exist.
And not surprisingly two writers from the Soviet era, the amazing Strugatsky brothers in their book Snail on the Slope published in 1980, dealt with the dilemma of a statist Soviet society ‘ruled’ by a Directorate, even if it did take place on a faraway planet. (One reviewer has alleged that the movie Avatar is based largely on Snail on the Slope but a much poorer interpretation of almost exactly the same story.)3
Back in a previous age (or at least that is how it seems), two Soviet-era writers, the Strugatsky brothers (Boris and Arkady) wrote a superb novel called Snail on the Slope that concerned (though a somewhat disguised), future Soviet Union that had colonised an alien planet somewhere. The planet was covered in one big forest that was essentially a single organism. The Authorities were determined to ‘conquer’ the Forest even if it meant chopping the entire thing down. The problem was that the Forest fought back, reducing the colonisers to living in heavily defended enclaves with the Forest closing in all sides no matter what kinds of technology they brought to bear on a recalcitrant Nature. The Authorities realised that either they abandoned the planet or destroyed the entire Forest and of course, the idea of being defeated by Nature was simply not in their vocabulary. Ring any bells?4
Snails and sheep seem to be apposite descriptions of our current state in the West. We creep along herded by a state/media intent on describing our situation pretty much as the ‘Authority’ does in Snail. ‘Us’ against ‘them’, the unstoppable tide of the Great Unwashed about which see plenty but know nothing.
There are two protagonists in Snail; one wants to escape from the Forest and the other wants to enter it. Both are denied their wish.
Snail on the Slope is an allegorical tale, I suppose about the futility of trying to construct an imagined ‘perfect’ future in the here and now. And when you think about, the world we live is an imagined future in the here and now, a world where the future caught up with us and shoved us back into that awful past of Robber Barons, ‘Drone Diplomacy’ and Endless War. And we seem to be content to look down while they herd us into oblivion.
If and when we do look up, we are likely to see Drones circling overhead like vultures waiting to pounce but by then it might be just too late to do anything about it.
The issue is really quite simple: Whose reality do you want to live in? The Empire’s or your own? It’s pretty obvious to me that for the most part, we citizens of Empire have made our choices and sided with the Empire, preferring it seems a life of endless debt and ipads over sharing the planet and resources equitably and sustainably with the majority of its inhabitants.
Because finally, before the Empire truly visits Armageddon on us all, we have to take sides, either for or against life. For or against the Forest.
- William Gibson [↩] [↩] [↩]
- Stand on Zanzibar, from a review by Charlene Brusso [↩]
- See also Disquiet the Strugatsky brothers later reworking of Snail on the Slope (itself a reworking of a story that originates in the 1960s), and ‘James Cameron has Stolen Avatar, Boris Strugatsky Claims‘, IC Russia 3 January 2010 and it wouldn’t surprise me at all. We’ve stolen everything else.It was also the Strugatsky brothers short story, ‘Roadside Picnic‘ that the great Soviet era film director Andrei Tarkovsky (and one of my favourites) turned into yet another prescient evocation of things to come, Stalker (or perhaps is already here). [↩]
- ‘The snail on the (slippery) slope‘, William Bowles, 29 December 2005. [↩]
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