When Edward Bellamy published his utopian novel Looking Backward in 1888, he would never have referred to it as science fiction. How could he? Although by the 1860s Jules Verne had begun to produce the speculative adventure novels—Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and many others—that have long been regarded as among the earliest science fiction, there was no label to apply to what Bellamy was doing. Verne called his books Voyages Extraordinaires, which is certainly part of science fiction’s visionary appeal. Like H.G. Wells, whose novels The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898) are also considered proto–science fiction, or even Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley (her 1826 novel, The Last Man, takes place in a future world decimated by plague), Bellamy was staking out a territory that had yet to be determined. Projections about technology and the future came face-to-face with contemporary anxieties to create a genre that has since grown so pervasive that many readers take its narratives for granted as the stuff of cliché.
Science fiction, however, has always offered more than is expected. Set in 2000, Looking Backward imagines an America that has done away with war, poverty, and taxes, as seen by a time traveler named Julian West. Like a latter-day Rip Van Winkle, West falls asleep in 1887 and awakens 113 years later to a world transformed. He meets a guide who reveals the advances of this society, in which people retire at 45 and businesses have been nationalized. In its time, Looking Backward was a sensation; it sold 400,000 copies in the first decade after its publication and led to the creation of hundreds of so-called Nationalist Clubs in the United States. What this suggests is that the response to the book—and its relevance—had less to do with the world it imagined than with the one in which it appeared.
Like so many speculative writers, Bellamy invoked the future as a way of reflecting on issues that concerned him, personal and otherwise. A consumptive who once spent a year in Hawaii on a rest cure, he gave up a career in journalism because of its physical demands. Equally important, he was writing in a time and place, late-19th-century America, that had been hit with economic and political disruptions, from the depression of the 1870s to the Haymarket Riot of 1886. For Bellamy, the novel was less a set of prognostications than an extrapolation of the present. Indeed, for all its utopian tendencies, Bellamy’s fiction did not save him; he died of tuberculosis at the age of 48, a decade after Looking Backward appeared.
The novel takes place in Boston, but its influence transcends a single time or place. For one thing, Bellamy’s description of the future’s architecture (“I was in a vast hall full of light,” he writes, “received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above”) inspired Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building, with its atrium and great glass ceiling, which suffuses the interior spaces with natural light. The construction of that building, in 1893, might also be seen as a gesture of science fiction, an attempt to think again about the present and to imagine how we might live in a different way. This is what science fiction is always doing, framing possibilities, positive and negative, conjecturing about what may happen by recasting or reframing where we are. Growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s, I moved through a city that was degraded: dirty, crumbling, overcrowded, illuminated by glaring rape lights. It makes sense that I was drawn to the gritty science fiction of the era, the work of writers who were also reckoning with a version of that experience, what it meant to live in this particular time and place.
This, of course, is the necessary mechanism of all fiction, its “buzz of implication,” to borrow E.M. Forster’s phrase. How could science fiction be any different? It is the fiction as much as the science, after all, that gives the genre its weight. In novels such as Thomas M. Disch’s 334, which takes place in the 2020s and revolves around the residents of a public housing project on New York’s Lower East Side, and Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, narrated by a precognitive who is losing his second sight, I encountered an urban landscape, a set of circumstances, that I recognized.
Both were published in 1972 and offer arcs of quiet desperation framed by cultural decay. Call it science fiction as projective social realism, although what else does the genre, at its most incisive, provide? “They talk about the end of the world,” Disch writes, “the bombs and all, or if not the bombs then about the oceans dying, and the fish, but have you ever looked at the ocean? I used to worry, I did, but now I say to myself—so what. So what if the world ends?… The end of the world. Let me tell you about the end of the world. It happened fifty years ago. Maybe a hundred. And since then it’s been lovely. I mean it. Nobody tries to bother you. You can relax. You know what? I like the end of the world.”
LIVING AT THE END OF THE WORLD
It’s stunning to read Disch’s line about liking the end of the world at this moment, in a time that feels similarly fraught, and realize we are living in a version of the future he sought to represent. The same is true of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!, which imagines 35 million people living in New York City by the end of 1999. Each of these books is a kind of anti–Looking Backward, projecting less utopia than its antipode. And yet, it was ever thus. Twenty years past the time frame of Looking Backward, in the decade of 334, we are faced not with fewer problems or solutions, but rather with divergent ones. Disch’s riff on the end of the world resonates not because the world isn’t ending (the world is always ending in one form or another) but because it is ending in a different way. We occupy the present ourselves. What this means is that Disch—like Bellamy or Harrison—wasn’t trying to foretell the future; he was speculating, as does any writer, about who we are and how we live. “He was thirty-eight years old,” Philip K. Dick writes in his Hugo Award–winning 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, “and he could remember the prewar days, the other times. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the World’s Fair; the former better world.”
The Man in the High Castle remains among the touchstones of the genre, although it takes place not in the future but in an alternate present, in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. (The book is the source of the television series of the same name.) America is divided into German and Japanese protectorates, with the Rockies as a buffer. But even that is more conditional, more elusive, than we might expect.
Late in the novel, Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese official in San Francisco, finds himself in Portsmouth Square, where he falls into a reverie; when he returns, he is no longer in his history but in ours. “What is that?” he asks, gesturing at the rising shape of the Embarcadero Freeway, which is not under construction in his world. The sequence is brief, only a few pages before Tagomi’s city snaps back into place. What it underscores, however, is a divide that animates Dick’s writing, the blurry border between artifice and authenticity. Which world is genuine? That of the novel or the one in which we read?
The answer, Dick insists, is both, or neither, or, more accurately, it depends. For Tagomi, the slip is a reminder that the relationship between reality and illusion is always shifting back and forth. Yes, the San Francisco of the novel is a fiction, but it is also infiltrated by the city as it actually exists. This movement is highlighted by the fact that, outside the novel, in the San Francisco of today, the Embarcadero Freeway has been gone for 30 years now. It is not predictions we are after, then, but possibilities.
Dick was hardly the first novelist to traffic in alternate histories; The Man in the High Castle, he claimed, was influenced by Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy wins the Civil War. Nor was he the last; Harry Turtledove, for one, has made a career of such books (among them, an entire series in which the South was victorious), and non-genre writers such as Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) and Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) have dipped into the territory as well.
What Dick brought, however, was a healthy countercultural edge, honed by his experiences coming of age in Berkeley, where he lived until decamping for Orange County in 1972. In The Man in the High Castle, this emerges in the novel’s use of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, the ancient Chinese text popularized in the West by psychedelic explorers and artists including Terence McKenna and John Cage. Not only do the novel’s characters turn to the oracle (as Dick calls it) throughout the novel, but so did the author in the composition of the work. The strategy interjects a breath of randomness, of serendipity, into the marrow of the narrative. Tagomi’s slip, for instance…through this lens, it becomes more than a plot point; it’s an indicator, a signpost, a reminder of the unknowability of everything.
The perspective is in line with Disch or even Silverberg, their ironic irreverence. So, too, J.G. Ballard, a key figure in the British new wave science fiction of the early 1960s, whose 1970 collection, The Atrocity Exhibition, was pulped before publication by its would-be American publisher, Doubleday, because of a story called “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” which includes sexual fantasies about the then–governor of California, as well as “a unique ontology of violence and disaster.” If such content seems relatively tame now, well, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? If science fiction isn’t predictive, it is still imaginative; it is written in the present to the future, a way of envisioning how and where we want to live.
For Ballard, this had to do with the erotics of violence, the seething rage beneath the surface of suburban calm. “In a totally sane society,” he once wrote, “madness is the only freedom.” The statement explains a lot. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” was the subject of a 1968 obscenity trial in Britain; when Ballard was asked by his attorney why the story was not obscene, he replied, “Of course it was obscene, and intended to be so.” Needless to say, he did not appear as a witness in his own defense.
And yet, the ultimate expression of Ballard’s countercultural sensibility may be another story from The Atrocity Exhibition, “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” inspired by Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race,” a masterpiece of turn-of-the-century French symbolism. Like Jarry, Ballard pushes the boundaries not only of genre but also of accepted narrative. “Without doubt Oswald badly misfired,” he writes, just a few years after the murder of the president. “But one question still remains unanswered: who loaded the starting gun?”
COLD WAR KIDS
Such a sensibility, with its social commentary, is not specific to the 1960s; it emerged, rather, more than a decade before, driven by the political uncertainties of the Cold War. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (published in 1953 and written on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library) was inspired by the author’s concerns about McCarthyism. “I was writing about what I was beginning to notice,” he told me in 2002. “About how we were encouraging people to be dumb.”
The theme emerges in the novel’s main character, Montag, who is a fireman—here, someone who burns books, which are regarded as dangerous—until he grows curious enough to take a risk and read. “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically,” Bradbury writes, “don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.… Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
For us, living in a moment marked by bots and fake news, that passage seems uncomfortably prescient, as if Bradbury were anticipating our world. But again, and essentially, he was reflecting what he saw. His vision feels relevant, perhaps, because things don’t change that much. We live on the verge, at the mercy of our best and worst impulses, as we have always done. The future, like the present, is not fixed but fluid; it is what we make.
Jack Finney weaves a related message into his 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, another allegory of the McCarthy era, set in Mill Valley and adapted for the screen four times. Likewise, Harlan Ellison, whose 1967 story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is set in an apocalyptic future where the Cold War has gone hot and the handful of human survivors are kept in captivity by sentient machines. “The Cold War started,” he writes, “and became World War Three and just kept going. It became a big war, a very complex war, so they needed the computers to handle it.”
Here, Ellison is responding to a pair of perceived threats: nuclear annihilation and AI. The future he imagines is not utopian but bleak. The theme, the thread, is a common one, a story in which humanity outsmarts itself. Such a point becomes explicit in Damon Knight’s “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?”—a three-page story originally published in Ellison’s groundbreaking multiauthor anthology Dangerous Visions (1967)—in which God returns to Earth for the day of wrath only to discover that humanity has already destroyed itself, but not before leaving the deity a pointed message: “WE WERE HERE. WHERE WERE YOU?”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Apocalypse, however, can arrive in a variety of ways. This is what we are learning now. Who needs nuclear war or rogue machines when we have pandemics and environmental collapse? It’s enough to make one doubt the efficacy of any utopia.
At the same time, all but the direst dystopian fantasias involve at least a whisper of survival, which makes them if not optimistic necessarily then forward-looking, at least. Octavia E. Butler’s story “Speech Sounds”—for which she won her first Hugo Award, in 1984—imagines Los Angeles after a pandemic; survivors are left mostly unable to communicate. The narrative describes the efforts of a lone woman, Rye, to travel from downtown to Pasadena, a journey that would once have been an afterthought. Along the way, she meets a man who agrees to drive her, before he is killed in a random flash of violence. “She had found and lost the man so quickly,” Butler writes. “It was as though she had been snatched from comfort and security and given a sudden, inexplicable beating. Her head would not clear. She could not think.” And yet, what else can she do? The same act has left two children orphaned, and she has no choice now but to care for them. In losing one connection, one companion, she has found two more.
That’s an important moment, suggesting that the key to survival is perseverance, which is the whole idea. We cannot protect ourselves from what will happen; we can only imagine how we might respond. In science fiction, that imagining becomes both personal and collective: the story of how Rye survives but also how we all do. The art of possibility again, a genre that, even at its most apocalyptic, is also transformative, relying on disruption as aesthetic charge. In her 1985 novel, Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin describes an agrarian society in Northern California called the Kesh, living centuries from now. The seas have risen and the grid has collapsed, but the book, framed largely as a collection of myths and songs and other artifacts, becomes a celebration of adaptability.
Like the futuristic society in Looking Backward, the culture Le Guin portrays has done away with industry and greed. It does not, for the most part, wage war. But it does have technology, left over from the before time, which it has adapted to its needs. The vision is similar to that of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990), the third novel in his Three Californias trilogy, which also imagines an environmentally conscious utopia built on the detritus of the former world. The future as an extension of the present. A world in which cataclysm and climate change lead to possibility. If you don’t believe it could happen, just look out your window, where, through the intercession of the lockdown, the air in California is now as clean as it has been in years. Who could have foreseen that? But this is where we are now, in a present—as strange as any science fiction—that was once an unpredicted future, as, of course, the future always is.
David L. Ulin is Alta’s books editor.