Sci-Fi Author J.G. Ballard Predicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Say you were a fan of Steven Spielberg’s mov­ing com­ing-of-age dra­ma Empire of the Sun, set in a Japan­ese intern­ment camp dur­ing World War II and star­ring a young Chris­t­ian Bale. Say you read the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el on which that film is based, writ­ten by one J.G. Bal­lard. Say you enjoyed it so much, you decid­ed to read more of the author’s work, like, say, 1973’s Crash, a nov­el about peo­ple who devel­op a sex­u­al fetish around wounds sus­tained in staged auto­mo­bile acci­dents. Or you pick up its pre­de­ces­sor, The Atroc­i­ty Exhi­bi­tion, a book William S. Bur­roughs described as stir­ring “sex­u­al depths untouched by the hard­est-core illus­trat­ed porn.” Or per­haps you stum­ble upon Con­crete Island, a warped take on Defoe that strands a wealthy archi­tect and his Jaguar on a high­way inter­sec­tion.

You may expe­ri­ence some dis­so­nance. Who was this Bal­lard? A real­ist chron­i­cler of 20th cen­tu­ry hor­rors; per­verse explor­er of—in Bur­roughs’ words—“the non­sex­u­al roots of sex­u­al­i­ty”; sci-fi satirist of the bleak post-indus­tri­al waste­lands of moder­ni­ty? He was all of these, and more. Bal­lard was a bril­liant futur­ist and his dystopi­an nov­els and short sto­ries antic­i­pat­ed the 80s cyber­punk of William Gib­son, explor­ing with a twist­ed sense of humor what Jean Lyotard famous­ly dubbed in 1979 The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion: a state of ide­o­log­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, per­son­al, and social dis­in­te­gra­tion under the reign of a tech­no­crat­ic, hyper­cap­i­tal­ist, “com­put­er­ized soci­ety.” Bal­lard had his own term for it: “media land­scape,” and his dark visions of the future often cor­re­spond to the vir­tu­al world we inhab­it today.

In addi­tion to his fic­tion­al cre­ations, Bal­lard made sev­er­al dis­turbing­ly accu­rate pre­dic­tions in inter­views he gave over the decades (col­lect­ed in a book titled Extreme Metaphors). In 1987, with the film adap­ta­tion of Empire of the Sun just on the hori­zon and “his most extreme work Crash re-released in the USA to warmer reac­tion,” he gave an inter­view to I‑D mag­a­zine in which he pre­dict­ed the inter­net as “invis­i­ble streams of data puls­ing down lines to pro­duce an invis­i­ble loom of world com­merce and infor­ma­tion.” This may not seem espe­cial­ly pre­scient (see, for exam­ple, E.M. Forster’s 1909 “The Machine Stops” for a chill­ing futur­is­tic sce­nario much fur­ther ahead of its time). But Bal­lard went on to describe in detail the rise of the Youtube celebri­ty:

Every home will be trans­formed into its own TV stu­dio. We’ll all be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly actor, direc­tor and screen­writer in our own soap opera. Peo­ple will start screen­ing them­selves. They will become their own TV pro­grammes.

The themes of celebri­ty obses­sion and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly con­struct­ed real­i­ties res­onate in almost all of Ballard’s work and thought, and ten years ear­li­er, in an essay for Vogue, he described in detail the spread of social media and its total­iz­ing effects on our lives. In the tech­no­log­i­cal future, he wrote, “each of us will be both star and sup­port­ing play­er.”

Every one of our actions dur­ing the day, across the entire spec­trum of domes­tic life, will be instant­ly record­ed on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rush­es, select­ed by a com­put­er trained to pick out only our best pro­files, our wit­ti­est dia­logue, our most affect­ing expres­sions filmed through the kind­est fil­ters, and then stitch these togeth­er into a height­ened re-enact­ment of the day. Regard­less of our place in the fam­i­ly peck­ing order, each of us with­in the pri­va­cy of our own rooms will be the star in a con­tin­u­al­ly unfold­ing domes­tic saga, with par­ents, hus­bands, wives and chil­dren demot­ed to an appro­pri­ate sup­port­ing role.

Though Bal­lard thought in terms of film and television—and though we our­selves play the role of the select­ing com­put­er in his scenario—this descrip­tion almost per­fect­ly cap­tures the behav­ior of the aver­age user of Face­book, Insta­gram, etc. (See Bal­lard in the inter­view clip above dis­cuss fur­ther “the pos­si­bil­i­ties of gen­uine­ly inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al real­i­ty” and his the­o­ry of the 50s as the “blue­print” of mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal cul­ture and the “sub­ur­ban­iza­tion” of real­i­ty.) In addi­tion to the Vogue essay, Bal­lard wrote a 1977 short sto­ry called “The Inten­sive Care Unit,” in which—writes the site Bal­lar­dian—“ordi­nances are in place to pre­vent peo­ple from meet­ing in per­son. All inter­ac­tion is medi­at­ed through per­son­al cam­eras and TV screens.”

So what did Bal­lard, who died in 2009, think of the post-inter­net world he lived to see and expe­ri­ence? He dis­cussed the sub­ject in 2003 in an inter­view with rad­i­cal pub­lish­er V. Vale (who re-issued The Atroc­i­ty Exhi­bi­tion). “Now every­body can doc­u­ment them­selves in a way that was incon­ceiv­able 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Bal­lard notes, “I think this reflects a tremen­dous hunger among peo­ple for ‘reality’—for ordi­nary real­i­ty. It’s very dif­fi­cult to find the ‘real,’ because the envi­ron­ment is total­ly man­u­fac­tured.” Like Jean Bau­drillard, anoth­er pre­scient the­o­rist of post­moder­ni­ty, Bal­lard saw this loss of the “real” com­ing many decades ago. As he told I‑D in 1987, “in the media land­scape it’s almost impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate fact from fic­tion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1953, a Tele­phone-Com­pa­ny Exec­u­tive Pre­dicts the Rise of Mod­ern Smart­phones and Video Calls

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

The Very First Film of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Star­ring Bal­lard Him­self (1971)

Hear Five JG Bal­lard Sto­ries Pre­sent­ed as Radio Dra­mas

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Philip K. Dick Theorizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Computer-Programmed Reality”

In 1963, Philip K. Dick won the cov­et­ed Hugo Award for his nov­el The Man in the High Cas­tle, beat­ing out such sci-fi lumi­nar­ies as Mar­i­on Zim­mer Bradley and Arthur C. Clarke. Of the nov­el, The Guardian writes, “Noth­ing in the book is as it seems. Most char­ac­ters are not what they say they are, most objects are fake.” The plot—an alter­nate his­to­ry in which the Axis Pow­ers have won World War II—turns on a pop­u­lar but con­tra­band nov­el called The Grasshop­per Lies Heavy. Writ­ten by the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter, the book describes the world of an Allied vic­to­ry, and—in the vein of his worlds-with­in-worlds thematic—Dick’s nov­el sug­gests that this book-with­in-a-book may in fact describe the “real” world of the nov­el, or one glimpsed through the novel’s real­i­ty as at least high­ly pos­si­ble.

The Man in the High Cas­tle may be Dick’s most straight­for­ward­ly com­pelling illus­tra­tion of the expe­ri­ence of alter­nate real­i­ties, but it is only one among very many. In an inter­view Dick gave while at the high pro­file Metz sci­ence fic­tion con­fer­ence in France in 1977, he said that like David Hume’s descrip­tion of the “intu­itive type of per­son,” he lived “in terms of pos­si­bil­i­ties rather than in terms of actu­al­i­ties.” Dick also tells a para­ble of an ancient, com­pli­cat­ed, and tem­pera­men­tal auto­mat­ed record play­er called the “Capard,” which revert­ed to vary­ing states of destruc­tive chaos. “This Capard,” Dick says, “epit­o­mized an inscrutable ultra-sophis­ti­cat­ed uni­verse which was in the habit of doing unex­pect­ed things.”

In the inter­view, Dick roams over so many of his per­son­al the­o­ries about what these “unex­pect­ed things” sig­ni­fy that it’s dif­fi­cult to keep track. How­ev­er, at that same con­fer­ence, he deliv­ered a talk titled “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Oth­ers” (in edit­ed form above), that set­tles on one par­tic­u­lar theory—that the uni­verse is a high­ly-advanced com­put­er sim­u­la­tion. (The talk has cir­cu­lat­ed on the inter­net as “Did Philip K. Dick dis­close the real Matrix in 1977?”).

The sub­ject of this speech is a top­ic which has been dis­cov­ered recent­ly, and which may not exist all. I may be talk­ing about some­thing that does not exist. There­fore I’m free to say every­thing and noth­ing. I in my sto­ries and nov­els some­times write about coun­ter­feit worlds. Semi-real worlds as well as deranged pri­vate worlds, inhab­it­ed often by just one per­son…. At no time did I have a the­o­ret­i­cal or con­scious expla­na­tion for my pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with these plu­ri­form pseu­do-worlds, but now I think I under­stand. What I was sens­ing was the man­i­fold of par­tial­ly actu­al­ized real­i­ties lying tan­gent to what evi­dent­ly is the most actu­al­ized one—the one that the major­i­ty of us, by con­sen­sus gen­tium, agree on.

Dick goes on to describe the vision­ary, mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences he had in 1974 after den­tal surgery, which he chron­i­cled in his exten­sive jour­nal entries (pub­lished in abridged form as The Exe­ge­sis of Philip K. Dick) and in works like VALIS and The Divine Inva­sion. As a result of his visions, Dick came to believe that “some of my fic­tion­al works were in a lit­er­al sense true,” cit­ing in par­tic­u­lar The Man in the High Cas­tle and Flow My Tears, The Police­man Said, a 1974 nov­el about the U.S. as a police state—both nov­els writ­ten, he says, “based on frag­men­tary, resid­ual mem­o­ries of such a hor­rid slave state world.” He claims to remem­ber not past lives but a “dif­fer­ent, very dif­fer­ent, present life.”

Final­ly, Dick makes his Matrix point, and makes it very clear­ly: “we are liv­ing in a com­put­er-pro­grammed real­i­ty, and the only clue we have to it is when some vari­able is changed, and some alter­ation in our real­i­ty occurs.” These alter­ations feel just like déjà vu, says Dick, a sen­sa­tion that proves that “a vari­able has been changed” (by whom—note the pas­sive voice—he does not say) and “an alter­na­tive world branched off.”

Dick, who had the capac­i­ty for a very oblique kind of humor, assures his audi­ence sev­er­al times that he is dead­ly seri­ous. (The looks on many of their faces betray increduli­ty at the very least.) And yet, maybe Dick’s crazy hypoth­e­sis has been val­i­dat­ed after all, and not sim­ply by the suc­cess of the PKD-esque The Matrix and the ubiq­ui­ty of Matrix analo­gies. For sev­er­al years now, the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cists and philoso­phers have enter­tained the the­o­ry that we do in fact live in a com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed sim­u­la­tion and, what’s more, that “we may even be able to detect it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Are We Liv­ing Inside a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: An Intro­duc­tion to the Mind-Bog­gling “Sim­u­la­tion Argu­ment”

Robert Crumb Illus­trates Philip K. Dick’s Infa­mous, Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Meet­ing with God (1974)

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean Bau­drillard, Who Pre­dict­ed the Sim­u­la­tion-Like Real­i­ty in Which We Live

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Make a Comment ( 1 ) |

What Is Religion Actually For?: Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury Weigh In

In the nine­teen-six­ties, the music media encour­aged the notion that a young rock-and-roll fan had to side with either the Bea­t­les or their rivals, the Rolling Stones. On some lev­el, it must have made sense, giv­en the grow­ing aes­thet­ic divide between the music the two world-famous groups were putting out. But, at bot­tom, not only was there no rival­ry between the bands (it was an inven­tion of the music papers), there was no real need, of course, to choose one or the oth­er. In the fifties, some­thing of the same dynam­ic must have obtained between Ray Brad­bury and Isaac Asi­mov, two pop­u­lar genre writ­ers, each with his own world­view.

Brad­bury and Asi­mov had much in com­mon: both were (prob­a­bly) born in 1920, both attend­ed the very first World Sci­ence Fic­tion Con­ven­tion in 1939, both began pub­lish­ing in pulp mag­a­zines in the for­ties, and both had an aver­sion to air­planes. That Brad­bury spent most of his life in Cal­i­for­nia and Asi­mov in New York made for a poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing cul­tur­al con­trast, though it nev­er seems to have been played up. Still, it may explain some­thing of the basic dif­fer­ence between the two writ­ers as it comes through in the video above, a com­pi­la­tion of talk-show clips in which Brad­bury and Asi­mov respond to ques­tions about their reli­gious beliefs, or lack there­of.

Asi­mov may have writ­ten a guide to the Bible, but he was hard­ly a lit­er­al­ist, call­ing the first chap­ters of Gen­e­sis “the sixth-cen­tu­ry BC ver­sion of how the world might have start­ed. We’ve improved on that since. I don’t believe that those are God’s words. Those are the words of men, try­ing to make the most sense that they could out of the infor­ma­tion they had at the time.” In a lat­er clip, Brad­bury, for his part, con­fess­es to a belief in not just Gen­e­sis, but also Dar­win and even Jean-Bap­tiste Lamar­ck, who the­o­rized that char­ac­ter­is­tics acquired in an organ­is­m’s life­time could be passed down to the next gen­er­a­tion. “Noth­ing is proven,” he declares, “so there’s room for a reli­gious del­i­catessen.”

One sens­es that Asi­mov would­n’t have agreed, and indeed, would have been per­fect­ly sat­is­fied with a reg­u­lar del­i­catessen. Though both he and Brad­bury became famous as sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers around the same time — to say noth­ing of their copi­ous writ­ing in oth­er gen­res — they pos­sessed high­ly dis­tinct imag­i­na­tions. That works like Fahren­heit 451 and the Foun­da­tion tril­o­gy attract­ed such dif­fer­ent read­er­ships is explic­a­ble in part through Brad­bury’s insis­tence that “there’s room to believe it all” and Asi­mov’s dis­missal of what he saw as every “get-rich quick scheme of the mind” ped­dled by “con men of the spir­it”: each point of view as thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can, in its way, as the Bea­t­les and the Stones were thor­ough­ly Eng­lish.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Wit­ty, Eru­dite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Carl Sagan Answers the Ulti­mate Ques­tion: Is There a God? (1994)

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How the Year 2440 Was Imagined in a 1771 French Sci-Fi Novel

Many Amer­i­cans might think of Rip Van Win­kle as the first man to nod off and wake up in the dis­tant future. But as often seems to have been the case in the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, the French got there first. Almost 50 years before Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing’s short sto­ry, Louis-Sébastien Merci­er’s utopi­an nov­el L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) sent its sleep­ing pro­tag­o­nist six and a half cen­turies for­ward in time. Read today, as it is in the new Kings and Things video above, the book appears in rough­ly equal parts uncan­ni­ly prophet­ic and hope­less­ly root­ed in its time — set­ting the prece­dent, you could say, for much of the yet-to-be-invent­ed genre of sci­ence fic­tion.

Pub­lished in Eng­lish as Mem­oirs of the Year Two Thou­sand Five Hun­dred (of which both Thomas Jef­fer­son and George Wash­ing­ton owned copies), Mercier’s nov­el envi­sions “a world where some tech­no­log­i­cal progress has been made, but the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion nev­er hap­pened. It’s a world where an agrar­i­an soci­ety has invent­ed some­thing resem­bling holo­gram tech­nol­o­gy, where Penn­syl­va­nia is ruled by an Aztec emper­or, and drink­ing cof­fee is a crim­i­nal offense.” Its set­ting, Paris, “has been com­plete­ly reor­ga­nized. The chaot­ic medieval fab­ric has made way for grand and beau­ti­ful streets built in straight lines, sim­i­lar to what actu­al­ly hap­pened in Hauss­man­n’s ren­o­va­tion a bit under a cen­tu­ry after the book was pub­lished.”

Merci­er could­n’t have known about that ambi­tious work of urban renew­al avant la let­tre any more than he could have known about the rev­o­lu­tion that was to come in just eigh­teen years. Yet he wrote with cer­tain­ty that “the Bastille has been torn down, although not by a rev­o­lu­tion, but by a king.” Mercier’s twen­ty-fifth-cen­tu­ry France remains a monar­chy, but it has become a benev­o­lent, enlight­ened one whose cit­i­zens rejoice at the chance to pay tax beyond the amount they owe. More real­is­ti­cal­ly, if less ambi­tious­ly, the book’s unstuck-in-time hero also mar­vels at the fact that traf­fic trav­el­ing in one direc­tion uses one side of the street, and traf­fic trav­el­ing in the oth­er direc­tion uses the oth­er, hav­ing come from a time when roads were more of a free-for-all.

L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais offers the rare exam­ple of a far-future utopia with­out high tech­nol­o­gy. “If any­thing, France is more agrar­i­an than in the past,” with no inter­est even in devel­op­ing the abil­i­ty to grow cher­ries in the win­ter­time. Many of the inven­tions that would have struck Mercier’s con­tem­po­rary read­ers as fan­tas­ti­cal, such as an elab­o­rate device for repli­cat­ing the human voice, seem mun­dane today. Nev­er­the­less, it all reflects the spir­it of progress that was sweep­ing Europe in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Merci­er was reformer enough to have his coun­try aban­don slav­ery and colo­nial­ism, but French enough to feel cer­tain that la mis­sion civil­isatrice would con­tin­ue apace, to the point of imag­in­ing that the French lan­guage would be wide­ly spo­ken in Chi­na. These days, a sci-fi nov­el­ist would sure­ly put it the oth­er way around.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Old­est Voic­es That We Can Still Hear: Hear Audio Record­ings of Ghost­ly Voic­es from the 1800s

Jules Verne Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts What the 20th Cen­tu­ry Will Look Like in His Lost Nov­el, Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (1863)

In 1896, a French Car­toon­ist Pre­dict­ed Our Social­ly-Dis­tanced Zoom Hol­i­day Gath­er­ings

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned What Life Would Look Like in the Year 2000

1902 French Trad­ing Cards Imag­ine “Women of the Future”

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Frank Herbert Explains the Origins of Dune (1969)

Dune: Part Two has been play­ing in the­aters for less than a week, but that’s more than enough time for its view­ers to joke about the apt­ness of its title. For while it comes, of course, as the sec­ond half of Denis Vil­leneu­ve’s adap­ta­tion of Frank Her­bert’s influ­en­tial sci-fi nov­el, it also con­tains a great many heaps of sand. Such visu­als hon­or not just the sto­ry’s set­ting, but also the form of Her­bert’s inspi­ra­tion to write Dune and its sequels in the first place. The idea for the whole saga came about, he says in the 1969 inter­view above, because he’d want­ed to write an arti­cle “about the con­trol of sand dunes.”

“I’m always fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea of some­thing that is either seen in minia­ture and that can be expand­ed to the macro­cosm or which, but for the dif­fer­ence in time, in the flow rate, and the entropy rate, is sim­i­lar to oth­er fea­tures which we wouldn’t think were sim­i­lar,” he goes on to explain. When viewed the right way, sand dunes turn out to behave “like waves in a large body of water; they just are slow­er. And the peo­ple treat­ing them as flu­id learn to con­trol them.” After enough research on this sub­ject, “I had some­thing enor­mous­ly inter­est­ing going for me about the ecol­o­gy of deserts, and it was — for a sci­ence fic­tion writer, any­way — it was an easy step from that to think: What if I had an entire plan­et that was a desert?”

That may have turned out to be one of the defin­ing ideas of Dune, but there are plen­ty of oth­ers in there with it. “We all know that many reli­gions began in a desert atmos­phere,” Her­bert says, “so I decid­ed to put the two togeth­er because I don’t think that any one sto­ry should have any one thread. I build on a lay­er tech­nique, and of course putting in reli­gion and reli­gious ideas you can play one against the oth­er.” And “of course, in study­ing sand dunes, you imme­di­ate­ly get into not just the Ara­bi­an mys­tique but the Nava­jo mys­tique and the mys­tique of the Kala­hari prim­i­tives and all.” From his tech­ni­cal curios­i­ty about sand, the sto­ry’s host of eco­log­i­cal, reli­gious, lin­guis­tic, polit­i­cal, and indeed civ­i­liza­tion­al themes emerged.

Con­duct­ed in Her­bert’s Fair­fax, Cal­i­for­nia home in 1969 by lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor and sci­ence-fic­tion enthu­si­ast Willis E. McNel­ly (who would lat­er com­pile The Dune Ency­clo­pe­dia), the inter­view goes down a num­ber of intel­lec­tu­al byways that will be fas­ci­nat­ing to curi­ous fans. In its eighty min­utes, Her­bert reflects on every­thing from cor­po­ra­tions to hip­pies, the tarot to Zen, and Lawrence of Ara­bia to John F. Kennedy. The late pres­i­den­t’s then-just-begin­ning sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion in Amer­i­ca gets him talk­ing about one of Dune’s threads in par­tic­u­lar, about the “way a mes­si­ah is cre­at­ed in our soci­ety.” The ele­va­tion of a mes­si­ah is an act of myth-mak­ing, after all, and “man must rec­og­nize the myth he is liv­ing in.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Dune Ency­clo­pe­dia: The Con­tro­ver­sial, Defin­i­tive Guide to the World of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi Mas­ter­piece (1984)

The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky, Pink Floyd, Sal­vador Dalí, Moe­bius, Orson Welles & Mick Jag­ger Nev­er Made

The Dune Fran­chise Tries Again — Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #110

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Read Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World: The First Sci-Fi Novel Written By a Woman (1666)

For a vari­ety of rea­sons, sci­ence fic­tion has long been regard­ed as a most­ly male-ori­ent­ed realm of lit­er­a­ture. This is evi­denced, in part, by the eager­ness to cel­e­brate par­tic­u­lar works of sci-fi writ­ten by women, like Ursu­la K. LeGuin’s Earth­sea saga, Octavia But­ler’s Para­ble nov­els, Joan­na Russ’ The Female Man, or Mar­garet Attwood’s The Hand­maid­’s Tale (uneasi­ly though it fits with­in the bound­aries of the genre). But those who pre­fer the ear­ly stuff can go all the way back to the mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, where they’ll find Mar­garet Cavendish’s The Blaz­ing World, read­able and down­load­able in all its strange glo­ry free online.

The Blaz­ing World was first pub­lished in 1666 and is often con­sid­ered a fore­run­ner to both sci­ence fic­tion and the utopi­an nov­el gen­res,” writes book blog­ger Eric Karl Ander­son. “It’s a total­ly bonkers sto­ry of a woman who is stolen away to the North Pole only to find her­self in a strange bejew­eled king­dom of which she becomes the supreme Empress. Here she con­sults with many dif­fer­ent animal/insect peo­ple about philo­soph­i­cal, reli­gious and sci­en­tif­ic ideas. The sec­ond half of the book pulls off a meta-fic­tion­al trick where Cavendish (as the Duchess of New­cas­tle) enters the sto­ry her­self to become the Empress’ scribe and close com­pan­ion.”

In the video just below, Youtu­ber Great Books Prof frames this as not just a work of pro­to-sci­ence fic­tion, but also a pio­neer­ing use of the “mul­ti­verse” con­cept that has under­gird­ed any num­ber of twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry block­busters.

The Blaz­ing World con­tin­ues to inspire: actor-direc­tor Carl­son Young put out a loose cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion just a few years ago. Cavendish her­self described the book as a “her­maph­ro­dit­ic text,” pos­si­bly in ref­er­ence to its engage­ment with top­ics then addressed almost exclu­sive­ly by men. But it also occu­pied two cat­e­gories at once in that she orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished it as a fic­tion­al sec­tion of her book Obser­va­tions upon Exper­i­men­tal Phi­los­o­phy, one of six philo­soph­i­cal vol­umes she wrote. In fact, her work qual­i­fied her as not just philoso­pher and nov­el­ist, but also sci­en­tist, poet, play­wright, and even biog­ra­ph­er. That last she accom­plished by writ­ing The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puis­sant Prince William Cavendish, who hap­pened to be her hus­band. Let her life be a les­son to those young girls who simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dream of becom­ing a princess and a writer whose books are read for cen­turies: some­times, you can have it all.

Relat­ed con­tent:

100 Great Sci-Fi Sto­ries by Women Writ­ers (Read 20 for Free Online)

The First Work of Sci­ence Fic­tion: Read Lucian’s 2nd-Cen­tu­ry Space Trav­el­ogue A True Sto­ry

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Sci­ence Fic­tion, The Dream (1609)

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Every Pos­si­ble Kind of Sci­ence Fic­tion Sto­ry: An Exhaus­tive List Cre­at­ed by Pio­neer­ing 1920s Sci­Fi Writer Clare Winger Har­ris (1931)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Novelist Michael Chabon Digitally Re-Creates the Science Fiction & Fantasy Section of His Favorite 1970s Bookstore

Michael Chabon was born in 1963, which placed him well to be influ­enced by the unpre­dictable, indis­crim­i­nate, and often lurid cul­tur­al cross-cur­rents of the nine­teen-sev­en­ties. He seemed to have received much of that influ­ence at Page One, the local book­store in his home­town of Colum­bia, Mary­land — and it was to Page One that his imag­i­na­tion drift­ed dur­ing the long days of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic spent in his per­son­al library. “As I sat around com­muning with my tat­tered old friends,” he writes, “I dis­cov­ered that I retained a sharp rec­ol­lec­tion — title, author, cov­er design — of what felt like every sin­gle book that had ever appeared on those tall shelves along the left wall of Page One, toward the back, between 1972 and 1980.”

That was the store’s “Sci­ence Fic­tion & Fan­ta­sy” sec­tion, which in that peri­od was well-stocked with titles by such stars of those gen­res as Ray Brad­bury, Ursu­la K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Bal­lard, C. J. Cher­ryh, Michael Moor­cock, and Philip K. Dick.

Or at least it did if Chabon’s dig­i­tal re-cre­ation “The Shelves of Time” is any­thing to go by. Down­load­able here in “small” (96 MB), “large” (283 MB) and “very large” (950 MB) for­mats, the lav­ish image func­tions as what Chabon calls a “time tele­scope,” offer­ing “a look back at the visu­als that embod­ied and accom­pa­nied my ear­ly aspi­ra­tions as a writer, and at the mass-mar­ket splen­dor of paper­back sf and fan­ta­sy in those days.”

“I’m the same age as Chabon, and I was also a book­store rat, star­ing at these exact same cov­ers and ago­niz­ing over which one I’d lay down my $1.25 for,” writes Ruben Bolling at Boing Boing. “Just look at those beau­ti­ful John Carter of Mars cov­ers. I col­lect­ed and cher­ished these, and the Tarzan series.” Bolling also high­lights the adap­ta­tions Chabon includes on these re-imag­ined shelves: there’s “the James Blish Star Trek series, just as I remem­ber it,” and also the nov­el­iza­tion of Star Wars, which he read before the open­ing of the film itself.  “So instead of expe­ri­enc­ing the movie as it should have been — as campy movie fun — I expe­ri­enced it as an adap­ta­tion of a lit­er­ary work.”

Despite being a cou­ple of decades younger, I, too, remem­ber these cov­ers vivid­ly. My own sci-fi-and-fan­ta­sy peri­od occurred in the late nineties, by which time these very same mass-mar­ket paper­backs from the sev­en­ties were turn­ing up in quan­ti­ty at used book­stores. For me, few images from these gen­res of that era could trig­ger read­ing mem­o­ries as rich as those Bal­lan­tine cov­ers of The Sheep Look Up, The Shock­wave Rid­er, and Stand on Zanz­ibar by John Brun­ner, a British spe­cial­ist in social and envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe. Like many read­ers, I put this sort of thing aside after a few years, but Chabon has proven infi­nite­ly more ded­i­cat­ed: half a cen­tu­ry after his days haunt­ing Page One, his mis­sion to “drag the decay­ing corpse of genre fic­tion out of the shal­low grave where writ­ers of seri­ous lit­er­a­ture aban­doned it,” as crit­ic Ruth Franklin once described it, con­tin­ues apace.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Art of Sci-Fi Book Cov­ers: From the Fan­tas­ti­cal 1920s to the Psy­che­del­ic 1960s & Beyond

Nov­el­ist Michael Chabon Sang in a Punk Band Dur­ing the ’80s: New­ly Released Audio Gives Proof

600+ Cov­ers of Philip K. Dick Nov­els from Around the World: Greece, Japan, Poland & Beyond

The Dune Ency­clo­pe­dia: The Con­tro­ver­sial, Defin­i­tive Guide to the World of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi Mas­ter­piece (1984)

The Amaz­ing Adven­tures of Kava­lier and Clay: Ani­ma­tion Con­cepts

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Take Virtual Tours of Every Star Trek Enterprise Bridge: A New Interactive Web Portal Created by The Roddenberry Archive

It’s a rare young Star Trek fan indeed who does­n’t fan­ta­size about sit­ting on the bridge of the star­ship Enter­prise. That has gone for every gen­er­a­tion of fan, every Star Trek series, and every Enter­prise, whose bridges you can see in the new video above from the Rod­den­ber­ry Archive. It begins, nat­u­ral­ly, with the orig­i­nal Star Trek, the show with which cre­ator Gene Rod­den­ber­ry start­ed it all — and for which art direc­tor Matt Jef­feries designed a bridge that would become a mod­el not just for all sub­se­quent Enter­pris­es, but real-life com­mand cen­ters as well. As the nar­ra­tor says, “Jef­feries’ bridge made such an impres­sion that engi­neers from NASA, the U.S. Navy, and pri­vate indus­try have stud­ied it as a mod­el for an advanced, effi­cient con­trol room.”

That nar­ra­tor hap­pens to be John de Lan­cie, whom view­ers of Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion and sub­se­quent series will know as the all-pow­er­ful extra-dimen­sion­al being Q. He’s not the only famil­iar per­former to par­tic­i­pate in this ret­ro­spec­tive project: in the video above appears a cer­tain William Shat­ner, who as James Tiberius Kirk occu­pied the cap­tain’s chair of the very first Enter­prise.

Even those who pre­fer the lat­er, more com­plex Star Treks have sure­ly won­dered what that posi­tion would feel like, and now they can get a vir­tu­al sense of it at the Rod­den­bery Archive’s web site, which is now offer­ing vir­tu­al tours of the bridge of every series’ cen­tral ship.

The site fea­tures 360-degree, 3D mod­els of the var­i­ous ver­sions of the Enter­prise, as well as a time­line of the ship’s evo­lu­tion through­out the franchise’s his­to­ry,” writes’s Sarah Kuta. “Fans of the show can also read detailed infor­ma­tion about each ver­sion of the ship’s design, its sig­nif­i­cance to the Star Trek sto­ry­line and its pro­duc­tion back­sto­ry.” All this comes online to mark the end of Star Trek: Picard, the recent series built around Patrick Stew­art’s Enter­prise cap­tain from The Next Gen­er­a­tion, whose final episode went up last month on the stream­ing ser­vice Para­mount+. For that grand finale, pro­duc­tion design­er Dave Blass “recre­at­ed the bridge of the Enter­prise D,” and “Picard’s tri­umphant return to his beloved ship brought nos­tal­gic tears to the eyes of more than a few fans,” no doubt regard­less of gen­er­a­tion. Take the vir­tu­al tours here.

via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Star Trek Con­tin­ues: The Crit­i­cal­ly-Acclaimed, Fan-Made Sequel to the Orig­i­nal TV Series

Watch Star Trek: New Voy­ages: The Orig­i­nal Fan-Made Sequel to the 1960s TV Series

How Isaac Asi­mov Went from Star Trek Crit­ic to Star Trek Fan & Advi­sor

William Shat­ner Nar­rates Space Shut­tle Doc­u­men­tary

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Star Trek: World-Build­ing Over Gen­er­a­tions — Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #42

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.