Science fiction is a wonderful, seething sea of works about technology and its dark side, so I thought I’d take a sideways look at what’s out there and what means something special to me, and has influenced or stayed in my thoughts. Here, then, are a few books out of left-field. First, some fiction.
by Algis Budrys
This was published exactly sixty years ago, in 1958, and takes place during the Cold War. Some time after an accident in which an American scientist is presumed dead, he is returned by the Russians, but is now wearing a metal full-head helmet. There is uncertainty and distrust between the Russians who claim that it is him and that they have saved his life, and the Americans who suspect that the Russians have sent an imposter in perfect disguise. While technology has changed greatly, our times seem to be entering a new cycle of cold war. Who? is an interesting read once again.
Budrys is concerned with identity here, and in The Rig I’m also interested in this. His take is very different to mine, but this is a book that had a great effect on me as a teenager, and as I write these words now, I wonder how much it influenced me.
by Daniel F Galouye
Originally published as Counterfeit World in 1964, this is one of the first SF explorations of virtual reality. It might also now be seen as a form of virtual social media, in that the created world here is used for market research. While it is certainly dated, there are some startling images and worthwhile observations. The novel is particularly interesting in these days of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
I loved this book when I read it a very long time ago. I think it is hugely underrated.
The Very Slow Time Machine
by Ian Watson
This just blew my mind when I first read it. I read everything by Philip K Dick in my teens, but there were a few other short stories and novellas that amazed me, and this was one. (Others included the probably better-known Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes and It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby, so Watson is in deservedly good company). The Very Slow Time Machine is just a perfect story. Its plot makes exquisite sense, the narrative is beautifully paced, its reveal is both poignant and devastating, and it makes you keep thinking long after you’ve finished reading it. It’s a short piece, but it packs more of a punch than many novels.
And Now for Some Non-fiction Titles Showing You The Dark Side of Technology
SF can mimic non-fiction, and many of its great writers have scientific backgrounds and present their work with a rigor already inculcated in them. Arthur C Clarke is a perfect example of this, declining at one point to extend his 2001 works until space exploration had extended far enough to provide him with the research background on which he could build a story.
The non-fiction I’ve selected is about the shadowy and dark side of the internet and social media. And if we read these books we are firmly reminded that the term is social media, and not sociable media. It is often far from that.
The Cybergypsies: A True Tale of Lust, War, and Betrayal on the Electronic Frontier
by Indra Sinha
While this is nonfiction, it reads like great fiction. It’s a sprawl of short tales centered around the people trying to make and making their lives around the internet. Cybergypsies is a riveting and extraordinary book about the wildness at the fringes of the worlds behind our screens. It was published ten years ago, and a decade is a long time in cyberspace. A fabulous book.
The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
by Jamie Bartlett
Nonfiction again, and again a riveting read. This is far from the world of Cybergypsies, and a fine companion piece. It’s more recent, and it shows how the internet has edged more deeply into the shadows. Of course, some of the previously concealed capabilities of the internet have crept out of the Dark Web, with social media mined for data and points of leverage.