Lately, do you feel like you’re living in a Science Fiction story? It sure feels to me like we are, and not one of the cool ones either, where there’s a base on the Moon or people are learning to talk with dolphins. This one’s more like where people have to live in isolation because of contagious diseases… or the rise of paranoid cultures that make people fanatically afraid of one another.
This isolation-themed list combines books, cinema, and television in the science fiction realm, that give us all something to relate to… or just that deja vu feeling.
“The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, 1909
Forster wrote a science fiction story almost twenty years before the first science fiction magazine debuted – decades before the term “science fiction” was even coined. “The Machine Stops” is a short story about people living in isolated hexagonal rooms, communicating via videophone, and being entertained and educated by television. Mind you, this came at a time when motion pictures were a novelty only a few years old, and television was a theoretical possibility.
The only time people come into physical contact is for the hasty conception of children – even childbirth is handled by The Machine, a single integrated system which provides for people’s every need.
In this novel, police detective Lije Baley goes from Earth to the planet Solaria, where a tiny human population live solitary lives, each the sole occupant of a luxurious estate staffed by hundreds of robots. Baley must figure out who committed a bludgeon murder on a world where every robot has been programmed to never harm a human and every human is terrified of getting close enough to another person to feel their breath.
The “Naked Sun” in the title refers to the Sun of Earth. Baley has never seen the Sun because he lives in a hive-city on an Earth packed with an impossibly dense population of eight billion.
“Ascension” by Damion Black, Philip Levens, and Adrian A. Cruz, 2014
As a secret part of President Kennedy’s space exploration program, the Ascension, a gigantic spaceship, was launched on a century-long voyage to Proxima Centauri in this TV miniseries.
Generations would be born, live, and die on the trip. As the show reveals, the Ascension is actually a Potemkin starship sitting on Earth. An elaborate behavioral experiment to study the effects of generations in isolation, the project also profits off the scientific and engineering advances made by a community of highly intelligent people who aren’t distracted by things like vacations, mortgages, and extended families.
Viewers get to see the unique culture which the inhabitants of the Ascension develop – the psychological crises produced by growing up in such a small, totally enclosed world, with no possibility of ever living anywhere else, as well as the various mechanisms which people develop to cope at different stages of their lives with their world.
We also get to see a different kind of insular world: the community of people whose job it is to monitor the Ascension, who have to know so much about people who will never know anything about them – having to carry such horrifying secrets which they can never share with the world, or even with their families. This includes the government’s wavering decision that the experiment must end with the entire ship’s complement being gassed to death.
You can watch Ascensionon iTunes, Vudu, or Amazon Prime.
“The Terranauts”by T.C. Boyle, 2016
Based on the real-life Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s – which was arguably as much a work of science fiction as it was a scientific experiment – “The Terranauts” is a novel depicting how physical isolation wears on the minds of eight people sealed inside an artificial environment, even when they have a beautiful garden to live in and easy communication with the outside world through telephone, cable TV, and the Internet.
“THX 1138” directed by George Lucas, 1971
Driven underground by an unspecified disaster – nuclear war? pollution? Yellowstone? – people live regimented lives of strict social distance, using alphanumeric codes instead of names.
Wearing drab uniforms, their emotions and hormones are regulated with medications. They have no close personal relationships, they don’t have sex – children are born in artificial wombs and raised from infancy by the same robots which serve as their society’s brutally efficient police force.
THX 1138’s roommate, LUH 3417, has begun to experiment with “criminal drug evasion,” and she decides to secretly meddle with THX’s drugs as well.
“To See the Invisible Man” by Robert Silverberg, 1963
In this novel, a man is sentenced to a year of “social invisibility” for his sins in this short story, therefore he is marked with the stamp “INVISIBLE” on his forehead. He must walk through the streets of the city seeing other people talking, shaking hands, kissing, going out to dinner, pushing children on swings, having a pickup game of basketball – knowing he is not allowed to do any of these things, and that anyone who so much as acknowledges his existence will receive the same terrible sentence.
Real World, 2020
The good news is that like all of these stories, the nightmare we’re living through right now will have an ending. We don’t know how many pages there are left in this story, but we know it can’t go on forever. Once it ends, our actions will decide what kind of science fiction story we live in next.