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Bad Trips In Cyberspace:
Virtual Reality As Dystopian Drug In Science Fiction


David Sivier

The dangers of drugs and the replacement of reality by technological fantasy have been a theme in science fiction for nearly a century, ever since the publication of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in 1932. In this classic of dystopian literature, human society and procreation have been thoroughly reformed following the Fordian Revolution of 600 years previously. The book is most famous for its prediction of artificial reproduction replacing natural human gestation, with babies grown in laboratory hatcheries rather than their mothers' wombs. This is merely one aspect of the book's overall theme. In this highly technological society, art and culture have disappeared, replaced by sheer, naked hedonism.

With natural reproduction replaced by technology and the family obsolete, the old taboos regulating sex have also vanished, replaced with orgies. For relaxation, people take drugs, such as Soma, or go to the 'Feelies', movies in which even the feel of the surroundings through which the characters move have been faithfully recreated. Scientific progress and religion have also been abolished for the dangers they represent. For all its technological sophistication, this is a sterile, stagnant society. The book follows the attempts of John, a 'savage' from the Navajo reservation with a love of Shakespeare, to enter and assimilate into this technological barbarism.

In many ways, the book reflects the fears of artists and literary intellectuals beginning with the Industrial Revolution that scientific and technological development would prove inimical to human artistic and moral development. It's a theme that can be seen in Wordsworth's criticism of science, which "murders to dissect." Twenty years or so ago, in 1995, the biological and atheist polemicist, Richard Dawkins, felt compelled to rebut this accusation with his Unweaving The Rainbow: The Poetry Of Science.

Other, later works of SF focussed on the particular threat of what is now termed Virtual Reality to destroy human society, through the creation of hyper-real fantasies, which have replaced reality. One of the most recent treatments of this theme is the film, The Congress, released in 2013. Directed by Ari Folman, who previously made Waltz With Bashir, the film stars Robin Wright as a version of herself as a failing actress. Exasperated by her failures and bizarre career decisions, her agent (played by Harvey Keitel), and the studio head, persuade her to sign a deal permitting them to scan her body and recreate her as a virtual movie star. Her VR version will then be animated to star in a series of movies. Wright receives millions as payment for the right to use her virtual double, but is bound by a clause forbidding her to appear herself in any movies whatsoever.

Twenty years later Wright attends a Congress of scientists, technologists and industrialists, who have succeeded in creating an entire shared virtual environment out in the deserts of the southern US through drugs taken by those attending it. Taking the drug after stopping at the checkpoint on the borders of this environment, Wright enters a brightly-coloured wonderland in which whales and fantastic animals gambol and leap through the sands, now transformed into something resembling an ocean. This phantasmagoria continues after Wright reaches the hotel, as the company's management are putting drugs in the hotel water supply.

At the Congress, the head of the company announces the launch of a new drug that allows anyone to enter VR as an avatar taken from their favourite hero, himself transforming into images of Zeus and Christ. When the time comes for Wright to make her presentation, she changes it to attack the cinema industry and companies that have appropriated and exploited actors' images with little thought or concern given to the actors' rights to work and their own identities. She is dragged off stage by a naturally furious management, and the building comes under attack by a radical terrorist group, determined to destroy the new virtual technology and the companies behind it. Wright is one of the casualties. The drugs in her system have reacted so that she is trapped in the virtual, hallucinatory world. Rescued and evacuated by the army, she is taken to a hospital. Unable to cure her with their present medicine, her doctors take the decision to freeze her in suspended animation, to await the medical advances that will allow her to be cured.

She awakes 20 years later in a world in which the vast majority of people are on this drug, to walk through another virtual world of hallucinatory beauty. The people are all beautiful and splendid, many having taken on the guises of the great figures from religion and mythology. Numerous Jesus Christs mix with ancient Egyptian gods, and more recent heroes like the Man With No Name from Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. Their surroundings are also fantastically beautiful. Skyscraper buildings extend upwards, while vast, multicoloured flowers and vines sprout and blossom among them.

Wandering through this new world, she meets one of the animators of her virtual self, who confesses that he has been in love with her, and followed her real self throughout the 20 years of her virtual career in order to learn "what an older woman can do." The two make love. The world seems almost the perfect. There is no war. Wright, however, is shown, but cannot reach her estranged daughter, who was one of those responsible for the attack. Her lover and animator tells her that the woman is one of the very few, who have not joined the masses of people in the virtual world. She is not to be pitied, as she is one of the very few bringing children into the world.

The true, dark nature of this hallucinated reality is revealed to Wright over a meal in a plush restaurant. The animator gives Wright the antidote to the VR drugs. He has only been able to obtain enough for one person, and so cannot enter the real world himself. He gives it to her, as he himself has been afraid to take it for fear of what he may find 'out there', the grim reality the drug is hiding. He also asks her not to look back at him, as he is afraid of what she'll see when she views him as he really is. She gets up, leaves, and stops to take the antidote.

And instantly the scene is transformed. Instead of the marvellous utopia, she finds herself standing with a line of tramps in a food queue in a burned out building, guarded by soldiers. A homeless woman calls to her for help from the walls of the ruin. Looking for friends and contacts in this decaying society, Wright decides to go to the nearest hospital or government centre to ask for their help in locating her son. She finds a medical centre, one of whose doctors is a friend, who treated her previously. He reveals that they've lost track of her son. Of those who knew her, he was the one, who waited the longest for her return from VR. The long years waiting were too much even for him, and a few years previously he, too, took the drug and vanished into the VR world from which she has escaped. There is absolutely no hope, either for Wright or the civilisation, which the virtual drug has destroyed. The doctor says that the only thing he can do is give her the drug for her to go back into it. She takes the ampoule, and the film ends with her returning to this brightly-coloured anti-world, in which she is finally reunited with her son.

It's a powerful, moving, and intelligent film, which realistically portrays a society dying through an addiction to a drug-fuelled shared fantasy-reality. The film mixes live action and animation, the last to depict the world of the VR drug. Among the other themes tackled here is the obsolescence of the actor through virtual technology, and the appropriation of celebrities' images by the entertainment industry. The virtual recreation of humans for the entertainment industry was also the central theme of the Max Headroom show, which ran from 1985 to 1988. Headroom was the wildly extrovert virtual recreation of a journalist investigating the bizarre deaths of television viewers. These were brought on by the victims' exposure to 'blipverts', massively accelerated adverts developed to cram the maximum of advertising into the space between TV programmes, which caused viewers to explode. Like much of the SF written in the 1980s, particularly cyberpunk, Headroom's origins, shown in the pilot movie '20 Minutes into the Future', was set in a decaying future urban wasteland, filmed around London's docklands.

In the 1990s' Headroom's fiction seemed close to becoming reality with the development of computer animation. The Final Fantasy film, based on the video game of the same name, was praised by critics for its highly realistic computer animation which included renderings of humans in every detail, including hair. This was then followed in Japan by the development of a virtual rock-star, a young female singer and dancer who did not exist in reality but was purely the product of computer animation.

Headroom himself was played by an entirely real actor, Matt Frewer, under layers of prosthetic make up. Only the background behind him was actually computer generated. On Britain's Channel 4, Max was a video jockey introducing and providing the links for a programme of pop videos. He was also a chat show host, interviewing Boy George and Rutger Hauer. He himself also appeared on Terry Wogan's chat show, and released a pop track, Paranoimia, with the synth band, the Art Of Noise. Headroom was essentially a parody of television and radio hosts. He was loud, conceited, considered himself an expert on style, and a passionate enthusiast for golf.

He was in particular a fan of the Spanish golfer, Severiano Ballesteros. He would interrupt the pop videos on his programme to show footage of Ballesteros playing a shot, with the announcement, "And now the master, S-S-Sev-Severiano Bayyyyyyosteros!" He even once cut off a pop video to show a film of golf balls being made, the type of filler that used to appear on British television in the 1960s and 1970s to fill the space between programmes, declaring "Do I know what the public want, or what?" What Channel 4 did with latex and make-up, BBC 1 did in the next decade with real computer animation. For a brief period one of the hosts of the National Lottery in the 1990s was also computer generated. This was female hostess with a soft Northern accent, and who wasn't as hilariously irritating as Headroom.

While Headroom and his female counterpart were intended primarily to entertain, there had been more sombre forecasts of the detrimental effects of computers and information technology in the early 1980s. I seem to remember that there was circa 1980 or so a series on the BBC with Robert Powell, shown rather late at night, which explored the possibility of a future in which humans had been replaced by machines in nearly all aspects of industry, including entertainment. Human actors in film and television would be replaced by computer animations. Fortunately, this hasn't occurred, and Headroom and his female counterpart remain in part warnings and jokes about the potential of this technology.

The depiction of a world devastated because all but a small minority of its people have chosen to give up on life and spend their time in VR is also based partly on the fears of the detrimental effects of computer games and VR through their addictive nature. Almost from their emergence as a form of mass entertainment in the 1980s, there was concern about people, particularly the young, becoming addicted to computer games. There have been reports from the far east, China, Japan, and Korea, of young people, obsessively playing them until they have taken over their lives completely, sometimes to the point where they have dropped dead.

The virtual game, Second Life, allows the players to enter a second, virtual life, over the Net. And there was a news report a few years ago that young people in Japan were giving up on dating and sex. While the ultimate reasons for that are sociological and largely outside the effect of technology, one expression of this was that a high percentage of young Japanese men in their twenties and thirties were more inclined to pursue a relationship with a virtual 'girlfriend' than a real, human woman.

The Congress is based on the novel, The Futurological Congress, by the Polish SF author, Stanislaw Lem. This was first published in Poland in 1971, and in English translation in Britain in 1975. As with many movies, the book is very different from the film. In Lem's novel, the hero is male, Ijon Tichy, a cosmonaut. The Congress he attends is an academic congress of futurologists in Costa Rica, not the USA. The attendees are caught in a terrorist attack, as in the film, and Tichy, like Wright, suffers from the incurable effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

Like Wright in The Congress, he is frozen, to awaken in a reality, which purports to be technological utopia, but where hallucinatory drugs and psycho-chemicals mask the grim reality. Like the world of The Congress, it's a society in terminal decline; a decaying urban wasteland, whose destitute inhabitants wear rags, and live in burned out buildings under the conviction they are luxuriously apparelled and housed in vast, opulent palaces. It is a world, which has only decades to live before it is finally extinguished, or at least, the future New York into which Tichy has awakened.

In Lem's book, the Futurologists aren't the only group holding a convention at the same hotel. There are two other congresses at the same time, one for the veterans of student protests, and another for the publishers of liberated literature, in other words, pornography. The attack on the building is part of a general revolution at the time, and is not directed against VR. The hallucinations in which Tichy is trapped are the products of the chemical weapons the Costa Rican government uses to pacify the rebels and demonstrators.

In the hallucinated, virtual society Tichy enters when he is finally cured, Tichy does have a romantic relationship, like Wright with her animator. He is given the drug, which reveals the true, horrifying nature of the real world, not by his girlfriend, but by Dr Trottelreiner, a Swiss futurologist, who has also managed to survive into this future. Unlike the animator in the film, Trottelreiner is not afraid to let Tichy see him as a really is. He only becomes aware that something is wrong with him personally through Tichy's horrified reaction. Instead of the smartly dressed man whom Tichy knows, Trottelreiner is revealed to be a cyborg, badly patched up from horrific injuries. His artificial legs are battered and covered in grime, with stones lodged in various parts. His heart is visible through a scratched plate of clear plastic, and grubby bandages hang down from his devastated face. His jacket is a mass of mildewed rags.

The drugs and the VR they have created are not the cause of civilisation's imminent demise. This is massive overpopulation. There are now over 29 billion humans on the Earth. All forms of wildlife, including domestic animals like cattle, are extinct. This has in turn created runaway global cooling. The world has entered another Ice Age, and the glaciers are only a few short decades away from destroying what was left of New York.

The drugs are intended to soothe the population, to prevent them from realising the true, desperate state of the world, in the same way that a doctor may keep the truth from a severely ill patient. The VR drugs are medication to ease humanity's passing. Tichy's response to the news is different in the book as well. Rather than accept the inevitable, and re-enter the virtual world, Tichy grabs the Soothsayer, one of the few technocrats in charge of this society, who sees the world as it truly is, and jumps out the window with him, determined to take him with him when he kills himself.

The tone of the book and the film is also very different. Folman's film is sombre and depressing, though there are lighter moments when Wright sees clips from the films her double has made. Here she is an action heroine, and some of the scenes are homages of classic movies. In one, she takes the place of Slim Pickens' character in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, whooping and cheering as she rides a nuclear bomb on its fatal journey downwards.

Lem's book, on the other hand, is hilariously funny. While Folman's film can be read as sober warning, Lem's is far more black farce, full of comic invention and satire. For example, the psycho-chemical weapons the Costa Rican government uses are so strong and the bombing so thorough, that even the rats in the cellar where the Futurologists have gathered for safety have begun to hallucinate. Convinced that they're human, they take to walking around on their hind feet in pairs. At one point, Tichy wakes up from his hallucinations to find them playing bridge.

The bombs used to quell the rioters are the LTN, or 'Love Thy Neighbour' bomb, which is intended to inspire those affected with feelings of peace, virtue, and brotherhood with all humanity. The results are hilarious. Inspired with love of their fellow men and women, the bombs' victims start holding religious masses of various types in the park. The police get down on their knees in front of the protesters, begging their forgiveness. In repentance for their duplicity, the police informers stand holding up placards imploring people to spit on them. The publishers of liberated literature come out dressed in sackcloth demanding to be flogged for depraving society. Their secretaries, who have previously been extremely scantily and provocatively dressed, now adopt modest attire. Some go as far as shaving their heads or wearing veils for their part in luring men into carnal temptation. The effects of the psycho-chemicals are just as devastating when they hit the town's politicians and military. One of the generals, troubled by his conscience for his role in so much death and killing, blows his brains out.

Lem has said that the two major influences on his writing were the South American magic realist writer, Borges, and Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, the book deals with the questions of the true nature of reality, and its concealment or falsification through drugs or technology. In contrast to the serious tone of Dick's works, and Folman's film, the treatment of the hallucinations is far more like that of Terry Gilliam's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, but without the bitter misanthropy, or Cronenberg's The Naked Lunch. In both films and in Lem's book the hallucinations can be hilariously amusing as well as threatening and troubling. Some of the comedy remains, even when the mirage of superabundant luxury is stripped away.

Tichy notices that everyone in this future world pants, though when he looks at them more carefully, they appear to be in very good health. The reason is because the expensive, high performance cars they drive are similarly illusory. When Tichy finally sees the true, decrepit reality, he sees that the cars really don't exist. Instead people run up and down the street with their arms outstretched, clutching imaginary steering wheels, and their backs are also held at a peculiar angle as they relax into the imaginary car seats.

Following Borges, Lem aimed in his SF to create a literature discussing and examining possible strange scientific and philosophical concepts. This can be seen most clearly in his two collections of short stories, Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum, and the novella One Human Minute. These are reviews of and blurbs for non-existent books. Like Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams, Lem uses SF to examine and play with philosophical issues, as well as satirise contemporary society. Sheckley and Adams, for example, both spoofed vast, inefficient corporate bureaucracies.

In Sheckley's Dimension Of Miracles, this is a galactic entertainment company that wrongly sends a prize to the hero, brings him to the centre of the galaxy to receive it, but makes no provision for sending him back to Earth. In Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, the hopelessly inefficient company is the Sirian Cybernetics Corporation, and its vast complaints division, which now occupies the major landmasses of three planets. And, just as Adams explored the possibility of aberrant machines in Hitchhiker with Marvin, the paranoid android, and intelligent tea machines and lifts suffering from existential crises, Lem examines the possibility of robot and computer criminality. This includes machines in charge of terraforming Mars and Saturn. These computers, given free will, choose the easiest route to fulfilling their allotted tasks. Thus, the computer in charge of fertilising Mars starts running a white slavery operation, while the machine orbiting Saturn does absolutely nothing, but simply sends in false invoices and requisitions for equipment.

Adams' comic treatment of philosophy and its issues is shown most clearly in the vast computer, Deep Thought, built to find the answer to 'Life, The Universe, and Everything', as well as the spurious argument in which man uses the existence of the Babel fish to prove that God doesn't exist. Man then goes on to show that black equals white, and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing. In Lem's book there is the imaginary discipline of Linguistic Futurology, which "investigates the future through the transformational possibilities of the language."

The Futurologists of this fictional science use the possibility of creating neologisms from existing words to predict the emergence of future intellectual and scientific concepts. One of these is macrotrashm, from 'trash' and 'macrocosm'. This is the theory that the present universe has been created from the rubbish of previous space-faring civilisations. Eventually, there was so much rubbish littering space that it got in the way of astronomers. So they built vast furnaces to burn it all. These furnaces are the stars of the present universe.

In tone and treatment of the virtual society created by drugs, The Congress is closer to the short story, Good Night, Sophie, by the Italian SF writer, Lino Aldani, which was adapted for French television's Theatre de l'estrange in 1966. Originally appearing in Italian as Buonanotte, Sophia, this has been published in English in the collection, View From Another Shore: European Science Fiction, edited by Franz Rottensteiner (Liverpool University Press, 1999). This is also set in a future, whose inhabitants have retreated from reality into the virtual entertainment of the oneirofilms. These are films, which recreate the entire experience of the fantasy like the 'Feelies' in Brave New World.

The artificial nature of the oneirofilms and their producers' craft means that these are far more pleasurable than reality. As a result, society has declined massively. Instead of proper, decent clothes, people wear overalls. They eat Spartan meals of beans, and live in equally austere homes and dwellings. It is also a massively atomised society, with little or no authentic relationships between men and women. Like the news reports of the lack of dating amongst younger Japanese, this is a world in which real men and women don't have sex.

Conception is instead through artificial insemination from semen collected from sperm banks. The reason for this decline is that reality is simply never as satisfying as the fantasies created by the oneirofilms. These are not shared, however. The viewer experiences them privately through a special helmet. There are separate fantasies produced for men and women, and these are not interchangeable. Any man attempting to experience an oneirofilm for women will instead get a severe headache.

The story's heroine, Sophie Barlow, is an oneirofilm star, who tells her director, Bradley, about the doubts she is having about the entire oneirofilm business. Bradley gives her a birthday present, and tells her that she has to go to Los Angeles, where she is due to make a film with the Norfolk company. On the way there, her jet crashes in the Grand Canyon. She and her pilot, Mirko Glikorich, are forced to seek shelter in a cave, where they make love. This is revealed at the end to be just another oneirofilm, the birthday present Bradley has given to Barlow. It was intended to get her past her crisis, her mistaken belief that she should be loved and desired for herself, rather than as an oneirofilm fantasy. She emerges with her faith in the rectitude of the present society and its absolute dependence on oneirofilms renewed, determined to get on with her career.

The Congress and Good Night, Sophie, are both about actresses in a world where films have become an entire VR. Sophie Barlow differs from 'Robin Wright', in that the oneirofilms feature real, human actors, although the experiences are mediated through a manikin equipped with sensors that takes the role of the film's spectator. Both 'Wright' and Barlow are trapped, or have an adventure in this virtual world, and both stories end with the heroine finally giving up and submitting to the hallucinated reality and the decaying world it has created. 'Wright' does so reluctantly, simply as a way of finding her son, and because there is no other option open to her. Barlow does so with more enthusiasm. Oneirofilms are her job, and she feels little attraction for the rebels and protesters against them. Both are dystopias, but in Good Night, Sophie, the heroine believes that the society created by the oneirofilms is good and right.

The idea of a world in which immersive, virtual entertainment has led to social decline and decay is also explored in the John D. MacDonald story, Spectator Sport. The central figure in this tale is Dr Rufus Madden, a scientist, who succeeds in inventing time travel. Madden travels 400 years into the future, only to find that it is more or less the same, but in a state of decay or neglect. Many of the familiar buildings have collapsed, and when he sits on a bench that existed in his day, it too collapses into rust.

The reason for this decay is that the people of this future society have also retreated from reality into virtual fantasies, provided by the company World Senseways. The producers and executives responsible for these immersive films, now termed 'videos', are also convinced of the rectitude of their industry and the society it has created. The videos have provided a peaceful outfit for humanity's socially disruptive and aggressive impulses. In a speech to Cramer, deputy chief of Senseways' LD division, Handriss, the regional director, gives due credit to Aldous Huxley and the 'Feelies' of Brave New World as prefiguring the new society in fiction.

'Imagine what it must have been like in those days, Al. They had the secrets but they didn't begin to use them until - let me see - four years later.' Aldous Huxley had already given them their clue with his literary invention of the Feelies. But they ignored them.

All their energies went into wars and rumours of wars and random scientific advancement and sociological disruptions. Of course, with video on the march at that time, they were beginning to get a little preview. Millions of people were beginning to sit in front of the video screens, content even with that crude excuse for entertainment.

'Now,' Handriss continued, 'all the efforts of a world society are channelled into World Senseways. There is no waste of effort changing a perfectly acceptable status quo.'

LD stands for 'Lobe Division', the department of the company that lobotomises viewers, who have been driven mad by the videos, believing that they are real and they themselves are the heroes. LD's employees have mistaken Madden for one such victim, and lobotomised him. In order to compensate their mistake, and the terrible injustice they have done a once brilliant scientist, Handriss decides that Madden should be given the permanent set up of the Senseways technology for free. He is thus taken to a cubicle, where he is operated upon and hooked up to the machines, which will immerse him in virtual fantasies for the rest of his life. The first is a western.

Like The Congress, and Good Night, Sophie, this is a society in which VR has led to stagnation, decline, and material, cultural, and scientific impoverishment. And like those works, it ends with its hero immersed once again in the virtual fantasy world. Like Tichy and 'Wright', Madden is a visitor from the past, who has travelled into this decaying future, though through time travel rather than cryogenic preservation.

All of these works - Brave New World, Good Night, Sophie, The Futurological Congress, The Congress, and Spectator Sport, reflect fears about the possible socially destructive impact of entertainment technology. The 'Feelies' of Brave New World are a reaction to the increasing sophistication of film, and particularly the development of the talkies. These had appeared only a few years previously. At the time many people saw them as merely a gimmick, a fad that would pass in time. Their increasing sophistication therefore logically gave rise to the uneasy feeling that all aspects of human sensory experience would eventually be reproduced.

The 'Feelies' on their own, however, are not responsible for the social stagnation and cultural superficiality of the world of Huxley's novel. Rather, the book is a response by Huxley to the mass, industrial society he experienced when he visited America. It is a projection of everything he feared and despised about a culture that reduced everything to industrial production a la Henry Ford.

Good Night, Sophie shares this unease about the possibility of film to become an all-absorbing social pastime, though its date and the private nature of the films viewed - through special helmets - suggest that it may have been partly a response to the rise of television, in which films and other programmes can be viewed in the privacy of one's own home, rather than collectively in cinemas. The special helmets interestingly prefigure the VR helmets developed in the 1990s.

Spectator Sport appears to reflect the same fears, but this time centred on the emergence of video, which was just becoming a mass industry in the 1970s with the rise of Betamax and then VHS videotape machines. The Congress reflects a variety of fears and issues surrounding the film industry, VR, computer animation, and the manipulation of celebrities and their image by huge entertainment corporations.

In Lem's book, The Futurological Congress, the fears and pessimism centre around overpopulation, climate change and environmental decline, and developments in psychopharmacology and the emergence of the drug culture. Radical hippies, following Timothy Leary and a series of other drug gurus, had argued that society could be improved, and humanity be liberated and become more creative through the ingestion of psychoactive, 'mind expanding' drugs, particularly, but not exclusively, LSD.

One of the drug's enthusiasts and advocates was ironically, Aldous Huxley, despite what he had written about the perils of drug use decades earlier in Brave New World. It was also the time when advances in neurology and the chemistry of the brain resulted in the development of mood-altering, medical drugs to control psychological disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and so on. Lem's book projects these psycho-chemical innovations to their ultimate reductio ad absurdam.

In the 21st century of the Futurological Congress, people take drugs to create or enhance any mood or emotion, from benign good will, religious experience - specially formulated to fit the particular religion of the customer - sympathy, or rage and anger. At the same time drugs have allowed the creation of hallucinated visions, Lem predicted that other psycho-chemicals would be developed to block perception. These are the mascons, the drugs that prevent the world's citizens from realising their true poverty, overcrowding, and the impending death of their planet.

The same fears of the socially destructive effects of drugs are also one of the major themes of the Strugatski brothers' The Final Circle Of Paradise, first published in Russia in 1965, and translated into English in 1976. It was published in Britain by Dobson Books in 1979. The hero of this novel is Ivan Zhilin, an interplanetary engineer, who has been called back from the stars to investigate rumours of subversive groups and the appearance of a powerful new illegal drug. This offers an experience of pleasure so intense, that the authorities are afraid that it will result in the complete decay of society as people turn to it as the only source of joy.

Other developments in this future society is a new form of mass entertainment, somewhat like a modern rock concert, in which crowds are transported into flights of ecstasy from watching different coloured shapes light up. Like Brave New World, this is also a deeply philistine society. Animal pleasures have replaced those of the mind. Vans go around neighbourhoods, collecting books the citizens want burnt. Among the characters Zhilin encounters is a restaurant critic, who declares his job is to 'thoughtfully eat'. And finally there is an artificial recreation of Hades, complete with a robot Cerberus.

The Strugatskis' book is partly a response to the emergence of the affluent society. Partial de-Stalinisation and Khrushchev's reforms had resulted in the citizens of the USSR enjoying greater prosperity than ever before, and the emergence of a consumer culture. For a time, western politicians and industrialists were afraid that the Communist bloc would outstrip the west as the more prosperous and advanced society. The Strugatskis' book reflects the fears that with everything cheap and readily available, spiritual concerns would be neglected in favour of sensual gratification.

They begin the book with a quotation from the aviator and author Antoine de St Exupery, "There is but one problem - the only one in the world - to restore to men a spiritual content, spiritual concerns..." The book ends with Zhilin and his friends forming a humanist circle as their attempt to fight back against this society's intellectual and spiritual decay.

The mass light show looks like an extrapolation from the various lighting tricks and trippy visuals that were beginning to come into pop and rock concerts, particularly with the bizarre lightshows used at the UFO club in London to accompany Pink Floyd. As for the drugs threat, while LSD was being promoted as the drug of the future by wealthy intellectuals in the west, drug use and related substance abuse, such as alcoholism, tend to be the curse of the poor and marginalised. They're used to escape reality by people at the very bottom of the social pyramid, who can see no way out of their miserable predicament. Sometimes they're used by the wealthy in highly paid jobs to escape the crushing pressure of their work.

Twenty years ago, when Trainspotting came out, the Financial Times ran an article in its Saturday arts section exposing the number of young, financial executives, who were, contrary to the image of power and self-contentment, hooked on heroin through desperation due to the immense pressures they were under at work. In the Strugatskis' book, the drug threat is part of the general affluenza - sickness due to material wealth - afflicting this affluent but spiritually impoverished society.

These works are sobering warnings about the seductive dangers of hyper-reality, of entertainment technology going out of control, becoming too powerful, and taking over from reality itself, or being covertly used to mask a horrifically decadent and dysfunctional society. While there are always people who do things to excess, and become totally absorbed and trapped within the virtual worlds of films, videos, and games that have so far been created; mercifully these are a small minority, at least in the west.

A more sanguine view of the type of people, who would willingly spend their whole life in VR was presented in the episode, Back To Reality of the long-running British SF comedy series, Red Dwarf. In this episode, Lister, Kryten, Rimmer, and the Cat, explore a water planet that has been terraformed. Something has gone seriously wrong with the process, and every living thing is dead. Entering a space vessel, they find that its crew, and even the fish they have collected as biological specimens, have committed suicide.

The exploratory vessel, its crew, and the planet's animal life have all been victims of the Despair Squid, a vast squid, which kills its prey by poisoning them with its ink. This contains a psychoactive chemical that creates massive despair in its victims, so that they kill themselves from sheer depression. The crew of the Red Dwarf are just fleeing the area in Starbug, when they are attacked in their turn.

And awake back on Earth to find themselves coming out of a totally immersive video game, which they have been playing for three years. Reviewing their performance with one of the game's technicians, Rimmer and Co find that they have been spectacularly bad at it. Rimmer has failed to realise that he is a spy on a secret mission to destroy Red Dwarf to allow Lister, the game's hero, to realise his destiny by jump-starting the second Big Bang. They haven't even managed to find the planet of naked women, on which some players spend years.

Leaving the game's premises, Lister peers through a viewer in the wall to see how their successors are faring in the game. These new players are doing much better, and the muscular hunk taking Lister's role has already won Lister's long term romantic crush, Kochansky. Lister and the others still haven't been able to recover the memories of their true lives, and ask the fatal question, "Who are the kinds of sad acts, who would spend three years in a computer game?"

Looking through the identity documents in their clothes, Kryten finds that he is a half-human cyborg, Jake Bullitt. Rimmer discovers that he is Lister's half-brother, the Cat that he is really Dwayne Dibbley, a person with a complete absence of personal style and tombstone teeth, while Lister himself discovers that he is a general involved in the regime's conversion programme. Encountering a brutal secret policeman, Lister asks him what this is. He is told, "You convert live voters into dead ones." It's a fascist society, meting out death even for the most trivial of offences.

Unable to cope with his job any more, Lister, the Voter Colonel, has taken refuge playing the Red Dwarf game in cyberspace, in order to 'renew' himself. The secret policeman has been chasing a young girl, who has stolen an apple from him. He raises his gun to shoot, but is shot instead by Kryten/ Bullitt. "My heavens! I killed a human!" he cries softly. The four go on the run, pursued by the police. Finally taking refuge in a seedy alley, they decide to commit suicide.

Lister, a good man, cannot face living as a fascist general responsible for mass murder. The snobbish Rimmer cannot endure being half-brother to the powerful Lister, and therefore having no excuse for his own failings. Kryten/ Bullitt wishes to end his life because he has gone against everything he believes in and killed a human. And the Cat/ Dibbley just wants to end it all because he can't face life dressing like a tramp. Bullitt's gun only has one bullet, so they lean together to make sure it kills all of them. And then they hear a mysterious voice telling them to operate a nearby fire extinguisher.

In a moment, they come to their real selves. They are indeed Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and the Cat, the crew of the Red Dwarf, aboard Starbug, one of the ship's two shuttles. Their previous adventure has been a shared hallucination, created by the squid to make them feel the despair required to convince them to take their own lives. Red Dwarf's shipboard computer, Holly, has been able to destroy the Squid using the big guns from the terraforming vessel. She has been trying for the last hour or so to get the crew to come out of the hallucination by flooding Starbug's cabin with anti-depressants. The fire extinguisher she persuaded the Cat to operate was another canister of these, which finally succeeded in awakening them just in the nick of time.

It is one of the show's best episodes. Red Dwarf was partly inspired by the film, Blade Runner, based on Dick's dystopian novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Like much of Dick's work, this also deals with the problem of personal authenticity. At one point Deckard begins to wonder if he too is an android, a question which is also raised in a dream sequence in the director's cut of the movie. Back To Reality similarly raises the question of the true nature of reality. Which is the fantasy - the fascist world into which Lister and company awake from playing the 'Red Dwarf' game, or is the 'game' itself reality? The viewer is left wondering until it is revealed to be definitely the latter: Red Dwarf really exists, its crew really are who they always believed they were, and Arnold Rimmer is, unfortunately, still Arnold Rimmer.

The episode is not anti-computer game or VR. Rather, it accepts them as a new form of entertainment. The show does have a message, but it's a green one about protecting the environment from a species that has gone out of control and is destroying all other life forms. This is obviously a reference to the Despair Squid, and more obliquely, to humanity and the damage the human species in doing to the environment and biosphere. Although it's set in a fascist future, the video game is not responsible for the violent and oppressive social order.

The social criticism is not directed at video game technology, but at the type of 'sad acts', who would spend their whole life in them, people who are shown to be personal failures. M. John Harrison makes the same point in his 2002 book, Light (Gollancz). One of the characters in that book is a former ace space-pilot, Chinese Ed, or Ed Chianese, a champion at using souped-up space vehicles in competitions to travel as far as possible into stars' superheated coronas. Chianese has turned his back on the sport, instead choosing to spend his life in a VR 'twink' tank, playing the character of a detective.

Harrison has said in interviews that the book is about people who have given up on life, and taken to not acting, rather than living. One of the book's other heroes, Michael Kearney, is quantum physicist, who has discovered the equations that will allow humanity to journey to the stars. This attracts the attention of the Shrander, a mechanical survivor from an extinct alien civilisation, which hopes to recruit Kearney so that humanity an achieve what its people could not: the exploration of the Kefahuchi tract, a massive spatial anomaly surrounding a naked singularity - the bare heart of a black hole, but without a hole's event horizon.

Kearney is so frightened by the Shrander and its monstrous appearance - it is most comfortable taking the form of a horse's skull with pomegranate eyes - that he has become a serial killer, murdering random strangers in order to ward it off. He has had relationships with a number of different women, but even there has not chosen to act. Rather than have sex, he simply masturbates them.

Despite the fears that cinema, television, and VR will replace genuine reality and create material and cultural decay, the opposite has occurred to a greater or lesser extent, according to the medium. Cinema has taken its place with the theatre and literature as a serious art form deserving its due respect. This is shown by the great seriousness with which film is taken by critics, particularly in France with the respected magazine, Cahiers du Cinema.

Television, on the other hand, is taken much less seriously. Despite the efforts of TV critics like Clive James to treat it as a serious medium deserving of proper critical attention in its own right, it still is viewed to a certain extent as a much lesser art form. The old joke, 'Why is television a medium? Because it's neither rare nor well done' still has some validity. Some of the fears about television date to its early days, when people sat - or were believed to sit - in silence, uncritically taking in what was occurring in front of them on the screen.

Viewing habits have changed in the meantime, so that rather than people simply watching TV in respectful silence, subsequent research has shown that it's taken much less seriously now. One study in the 1990s concluded that for many people it was simply a light in the corner of the room. As for television programmes, several of these have won critical as well as popular acclaim, such as, for example, the plays of Dennis Potter. And attitudes to computer games are similarly changing.

The TV critic and presenter, Charlie Brooker, is a champion of computer games as an art form worthy of proper respect and critical attention. At the moment he is something of an isolated case, but no doubt as time goes on and the games and their plots improve and become increasingly sophisticated, the computer game will also take its place, not as a threat to human culture and social advancement, but as a new and worthwhile addition to it.






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