In the past few years we have been flooded with books set in a not too distant future in which everything that we know is going wrong has gone wrong. We are calling these works ‘Dystopian’ because their real name, ‘Science Fiction’ scares the shit out of us (out of you).
SF has a history stretching back centuries, to ETA Hoffman for example, as writers attempted to imagine what the future might be like, how it might be changed, and often, to explore familiar problems in a less familiar setting. But SF was not really SF until after WWII, when it became a platform for pulp fiction adventure, re-fighting the War in spaceships, America to the rescue, taking the Cold War into space, the weapons however futuristic, still just variations on rifles and pistols.
However, right alongside pulp SF came a new generation of young writers, thoughtful, experimental, dealing initially with imagining the aftermath of the nuclear apocalypse, and then in the 60s and 70s with drugs, feminism, politics, the coming collapse of the environment, every human problem you can imagine transposed to a strange setting the better to be examined.
A ‘typical’ SF writer dashed out stories for the pulp magazines on a rickety typewriter production line; mixed with his (they were mostly guys) readers at conventions around the US; formed a community based on conventions and fanzines. The ‘new’ writers were sometimes inside this eco-system and sometimes not, but we took them up anyway.
I’m thinking of JG Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, William Burroughs, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut, John Sladek, Robert Sheckley. I’m not a scholar of SF or of this period, but these are the ones I read, and when I get the chance, still read. Later, beginning in the 1980s, there was The Women’s Press, Sheri S Tepper, William Gibson carrying innovative SF forward as the mainstream collapsed into dragons and magic.
Inside this apartment, all alone and aching of anomie, was a semi-young housewife, Melisande Durr, who had just stepped out of the voluptarium, the largest room in the home, with its king-size commode and its sadly ironic bronze lingam and yoni on the wall.
Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005) was an American writer. “His numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical” (Wiki). Initially a writer of short stories, his first novel, Immortality Inc. (1958) was published as a serial in the SF magazine Galaxy.
So there she was, standing in her OK apartment, all beautiful outside and unborn inside, a lovely potential who had never been potentiated, a genuine US untouchable … when the doorbell rang… Someone must have the wrong apartment. Nevertheless, she walked over, set the Door-Gard Entrance Obliterator to demolish any rapist or burglar or wise guy..
I’m not sure I ever saw The Jetsons (which failed in US prime time in 1962/63 and was then moved to Saturday mornings where the same one season ran for 20 years) but the idea of 1950s perfection, consumerism, middle class suburbia, perfectly groomed stay at home housewives, extended indefinitely with ever more futuristic consumer products was a staple of American SF, sometimes, as here, examined critically, but often not.
At the door is a deliveryman, a crate, around her height, 5 ft 9″, addressed to her. The crate opens, blossoms out, turns to ash, revealing a machine, a cylinder of metal painted orange and red, ‘four rubber clad wheels, various attachments – longitudinal extensors, prehensile extractors’, “a goddamned vacuum cleaner!”. But she fires it up anyway, it makes its spiel, offers to begin work, removes a stain from her blouse, notes that she is tense, begins to touch her …
“That tickles,” Melisande told [it].
“Only at first. I must also mention this situs as characteristically troublesome. And this one.” A third (and possibly a fourth and fith) extensor moved to the indicated areas.
“Well… That really is nice.”
And so the story proceeds, predictably maybe, it was first published in Playboy. The touching escalates ..
“For example, can you feel anything when I do this?
“Feel anything? I’ll say I feel something -“
“And when I do this? And this?”
They escalate to “cancellation” and then the talking begins. It ends more strangely than you can imagine. Melisande is a women who values control over everything.
Did I say this was a short story collection? A man learns to get hairy-chested with French waiters and US Fuller Brush salesmen, until his fiancee gets upset. The old problem of how do you know when you’re dreaming – a man wakes up terrified from dreams of a world where night follows day, where buildings don’t change shape as you watch them, where skies are blue and grass is green and doesn’t shoot up as you watch. Another man may also be dreaming, he seems to be involved in a game whose rules he cannot recall but at which he appears to be an expert, but like all the other men in all the other stories he goes home to his wife in the suburbs and when she asks how his work went “He said all right, by which they both understood that it hadn’t gone well, not this time, not today.”
A man breeds hybrid animals to wipe out that scourge on the face of the earth, man. And at last, spaceships: a robot perimeter guard interprets its instructions in such a way as to keep the astronauts OUT of the camp. An emissary for the devil grants a man three wishes, on the proviso that the man’s worst enemy will get double. He didn’t even know he had a worst enemy and now he’s going to make him rich and happy. Or is he?
After the War which Ended All Wars all literature was lost, save in the memories of one class of men, the Mnemones, and they were banned. A man from Aldeberan takes in all the sights and experiences of earth, including a wife. She insists he needs therapy.
A lot of the stories are about perception so of course there’s one about LSD. But let’s finish with Plague Circuit. A salesman from the future comes back to Times Square 1968 with a cure for the plague. He gets no takers. What plague? There will be one, the Census Board will see to that. 1960s people had already failed to take advantage of the Hydrogen Bomb, “But humans never see the necessity of thinning themselves out, they never learn. That’s why our plagues are necessary.”
Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this?, first pub. Gollancz, 1971 (Wiki). Also published by Pan as The Same to You Doubled. My copy, Science Fiction Book Club, 1973. 191 pp.