Surveillance in Science Fiction

There have been waves of interest in surveillance in fiction, and we are going through another one now, and not just in SF – I am currently writing a piece now on surveillance in post-9/11 fiction (which includes Doctorow, Stross, Macleod and other SF writers), and a discussion of this recently started on a listserv. I posted a quick message, which I will reprint here, as the first part of a catalogue of relevant novels in the genre.

Here’s my incomplete list of essentials in surveillance SF in roughly chronological order, which will be added to in future. The problem here is that SF abounds with dystopias of social control, and separating out the ones which say something interesting about surveillance is difficult…

Yevgeny Zamyatin – We which is pretty much the basis for George Lucas’s film THX-1138, so far as I can see, although it is not acknowledged. It was also read by Orwell, although for a long time he claimed not to have read it!
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World. Seems far more pertinent than Orwell in many ways, especially in terms of how control is best achieved by giving people what they want…
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course as chilling and brilliantly-written as ever…
Philip K. Dick – A Scanner Darkly (and indeed most of PKD’s fiction – he is perhaps the best writer ever on paranoia and surveillance from the pulp of Eye in the Sky to more developed works like Ubik – I have a piece out this year in the Review of International American Studies on Dick and surveillance)
Bob Shaw – Other Days, Other Eyes – a superbly poetic technology called ‘slow glass’ forms the basis of this fix-up novel (made from three short stories with a cliched plot spun around it – the original stories are better and more suggestive)
John Brunner – Not just the proto-cyberpunk, The Shockwave Rider, it’s very worth reading the other three of his amazing four dystopic novels of the early 70s Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up
David Brin – Earth. A quite frankly ludicrous pulp plot and Brin can’t write dialogue or characters, but a lot of great surveillance stuff in it that forms the background to his non-fiction, Transparent Society – his other novels have a similar interest in surveillance, if you can put up with his writing!
Paul J. McAuley – Whole Wide World – so far as I know, still the only SF novel to engage successfully with the UK’s CCTV system. It is also beautifully written and a cracking crime novel too. He is perhaps Britain’s most underrated writer… I have a partly-piece written about this, which I have never published!
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter – The Light of Other Days. Clarke’s idea written up by the much younger Baxter, this steals a short-story title from Bob Shaw and much of the plot from Isaac Asimov (see below), but then takes it a bit further. Still utter pulp though…
Charles Stross – Glasshouse. This is set on what is supposedly a ‘panoptic’ prison in space, except it turns out it isn’t as panoptic as it is supposed to be…
Cory Doctorow – Little Brother. A teen novel, but the only deliberately written fictional manual for resistance to contemporary surveillance.

Surveillance is also pretty much omnipresent in cyberpunk novels (Gibson, Sterling et al.) but it is not really foregrounded in any of them, although one could mention Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling as being a good example.

It’s also worth remembering that SF is and has been since the 1930s, a genre that is based primarily in the short-story, not the novel, and there are hundreds of interesting short stories on this theme, of hugely varying quality. Some are classics, like Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’ or Bob Shaw’s ‘The Light of Other Days’ (see above – there is an interesting sub-genre of works in which surveillance tech emerges out of efforts to see into the past) or Frederik Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World’ or Damon Knight’s ‘I See You.’

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

6 thoughts on “Surveillance in Science Fiction”

  1. Thanks for handing out a list of interesting reads. I am spiriting it away to my hard drive.

    It’s interesting what you say about SF being a short story genre. I’m not sure I can agree with that, even though the best SF I’ve read has all been in short story format. Then again, I’m a short story kind of guy. Then again, I’m a short story kind of guy who has read a few good SF novels in his time. I think. I just can’t remember them now.


  2. I just finished “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in a newly translated Japanese version. I got to see some excerpts of the original at Amazon and I realized I should have read in English rather than in Japanese, though. (I was afraid if the language is too antiquated for me, but it didn’t seem like it.) If I were to read one more off the list, I’d read “Brave New World” in English.

  3. Hi Yuki, I really recommend reading Zamyatin’s ‘We’ too. In some ways, it is the best of all of them. Of course you will have to chose either the English or Japanese translations, unless your Russian is as good as your English!

    Ben – I know what you mean, it’s the novels people generally think of these days, and certainly in the British tradition, what Brian Stableford called ‘scientific romance’, and indeed European SF writing generally, novels are generally preferred. However, the US tradition is built on the short-story and this has influenced the rest of the SF world. All those pulp magazines: Astounding, Amazing Stories, Galaxy etc. etc. and many more that are still going: Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone etc.

  4. That’s a darn good list of reading there. I haven’t read all of those books, but they certainly look interesting. I really love it when people pick up Zamyatin’s We. It seems to be happening far more often these days for some reason. Glad to see he’s moved out of obscurity!

    Good luck with the project. I look forward to it.

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