Did Science Fiction Predict Social Media?
Science fiction is notoriously on the crest of the technology wave. Enthusiasts would even argue that it leads the wave. Social media seemed to be a bit of surprise technology but sci-fi did indeed predict that too. And as social media has become irreversibly prominent in our lives, science fiction moves on to explore its implications and future possibilities.
Broad ideas like the general internet and Artificial Intelligence are all over contemporary novels. Social Media isn’t quite as easy to find. The exception would be teen novels that use the settings today’s teens are most deeply entrenched in. Most of our speculative novels speculate on the future, less the present; we don’t see a lot of specific platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, or reddit. Using terms like these, that are companies rather than ideas, can date a book quickly. And nobody wants that. Instead, authors strive to predict what will happen next, after the things that have already been invented.
The topics we’ve been seeing more of are matters so big they have the potential to straight-up eclipse inventions like social media: AI, virtual reality, various Big Brother concepts, mega-scale geo-engineering, biomechanics, and so on. These technologies have massive scope and imply global impact. Social media did change the world, but in a sharp stab aimed at our personal lives rather than foundational change.
Below is a list of tech-focused novels that explore futuristic concepts and the way they influence us. Beginning with a few classics that predicted it all, the books are in chronological order.
Logan's Run by William F. Nolan (1967)
Logan’s Run is set in a dystopian future where everyone is killed at age 21 to keep the planet from being overrun. Those who try and run from their death are hunted down by the Sandmen. Logan, a Sandman, becomes a runner himself when he comes of age.
When Logan’s Run was made into a movie in 1976, it features a dating service some people related to Tinder. The scene in the movie is quite unsettling as a blunt reenactment (pre-enactment, rather) of our swipe-and-choose convenience. Perhaps unintended by its then-creators, it makes a point of how easy it is to objectify an image and profile.
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
A multiple-award winning novel, Stand on Zanzibar is also focused on overpopulation. Through numerous narratives, the book follows two men who share an apartment, one (House) is a prominent figure in a profits-first corporation and the other (Hogan) is an undercover student, there to spy on him.
Within a complex plot, Brunner explores the intersection of social apathy, major technological advances, mass media, an international politics. With a focus on social analysis, Stand on Zanzibar is so flawlessly accurate and beautifully written that it will be a classic for the ages.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr. (1974)
Known as the most feminist writer in science fiction, James Tiptree Jr. was a actually a woman. Alice Bradley Sheldon used a pseudonym for most of her career. She used her writing to explore the differences in fiction that were male or female directed.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In, winner of a Hugo Award, is set in a world where corporations use celebrities and product placement to sell their vision. A disabled and reluctant woman is chosen to be the next virtual celebrity by having electrodes connected from her brain to a near-perfect artificial body. In this brain-twister of a love story, readers are challenged to consider the connection between social status and external beauty.
The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua (2007)
Ironically published by Angry Robot, The Red Men is about Nelson, a has-been journalist who now works for the corporation that makes police androids. Said corporation also makes avatars as stand-ins for real people that are designed by A.I. In comes Redtown, Nelson’s creation, a place where peoples’ secrets are cataloged and accessible. Authoritarian business with catastrophic goals comes up against real people… and one regular guy stands between them.
This book is surrealism meets philosophy laden with tough questions and a dialogue between those who fight and those who remain silent. The Red Men was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award.
Kill Process by Willaim Hertling (2016)
This story is about a programmer named Angie who works for the world’s largest social networking company. She exploits her clearance to target domestic abusers and takes them down. But when she realizes her company’s newest product, built on the fear of its users, is the same as any other abuser, she resolves to meet it head on.
A working developer, Hertling talks a lot about A.I. and has a mind for tech start-ups, which comes through in his books.
Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016)
A Locus Award finalist that landed on numerous “Best of 2016” lists, Infomocracy is the first novel by Malka Older, whose got some hefty credentials. An aid worker named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, Malka Older has more than a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development and has attended both Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
When a powerful search engine monopoly switched its sights from nation-state wars to micro-democracies, an election on the horizon becomes the end game. Infomocracy has been called “a fast-paced, post-cyberpunk political thriller… [that] puts The West Wing in a particle accelerator with Snow Crash.”
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (2018)
This novel directly addresses YouTube. Hank Green and his brother, John Green (yes, that John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars), got their start on YouTube vlogging about science. Their online fame vaulted a writing career for both of them. So perhaps it is because YouTube had such an impact on Hank Green’s life that he felt comfortable enough to address it by name in his book. We should also consider that these companies, though they may be dated someday, have had enough of an influence on society that they will forever be in the history books.
In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing a young woman named April stumbles across giant alien-samurai-robots. She does what any modern person does: she films them and puts them online. When April wakes up in the morning, however, her video has gone viral and her life has changed overnight. The ensuing story is an adventure but also deals heavily in the ways social media can ensnare and twist our daily lives.
The best science fiction makes readers think about the state of the world and the state of our beliefs. And as the world grows more complicated, so do the ideas and ethics we contemplate. That’s what speculative fiction has always been good for: stretching out ideas, spotting the holes, and watching which areas keep stretching.
The reason social media is used at all in books isn’t so much its scope of change, but the way it irrevocably changed life for each of us on a personal level. As we move forward, these big ideas cease being big ideas and will also find their way to being deeply rooted into each of our lives. Which means, science fiction will move on from them, because they will be known, they will be passé; and our speculative books will look further on to the next big change that will sweep our society.
So keep your eyes open, readers.
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