Cover Image: The Topanga Microwave Relay Tower, part of AT&T’s Long Lines program, via this reddit post.
In our popular imagination Science Fiction is grandiose and scales vast changes. Those could be social, technological, temporal, or even distances, but the point is that we generally think of Science Fiction as spanning some giant visible change. For the most part, that expresses itself in our imagination as grand vistas over futuristic cities, or planets, or whatever. That’s not what I’m talking about today. Today, I’ll be looking at something that I just made up as a classification to neatly lump together a few Science Fiction things I recently enjoyed.
So, the thing that they had in common is that they were all very visually low key. While they all address vast changes in some way, visually, it hardly even feels like the future. Now, aesthetics in Sci Fi are a nightmare mess of classifications, and I was originally going to term this “Lo-Fi Sci-Fi” but that refers to a different thing that these don’t neatly slot into. So I’m calling these Low Key Sci Fi. The basic idea is that they are visually low key and restrained, with few futuristic props, if any. This isn’t supposed to be a formal classification, but it makes an easy way to introduce these works because they all have this lack of significant visible change as part of their visual identities. This is key, because Sci-Fi aesthetically conveys a lot through aesthetic, from the 60s modernism of Star Trek, conveying a kind of utopian, egalitarian future, to the disjointed look of cyberpunk that reflects the increasingly contradictory nature of late capitalism.
So what is said when there isn’t an aesthetic? When the future doesn’t visually exist? What does it imply?
I’ll start first with Crimes Of The Future. Crimes of the Future, as usual for David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, is a lot. There’s a plethora of readings to dig into, but I’ll focus on one that I feel is carried hard by the aesthetic.
So for background this movie is set in the distant future where several key changes have taken place; Humans don’t feel pain anymore, they no longer get infections, and there is now a common phenomenon where humans just grow new organs. This has caused quite a few obvious social changes; For one, our main character, Saul Tensor, has that condition where he grows extra organs, and he is a performance artist who performs by conducting public surgeries where his organs are removed and then shown to the audience. We also see stuff like romance involving surgeries and carving eachother up with knives, all kinds of prosthetic surgeries, et cetera. There are broader changes, too – the government has set up an agency to survey peoples organs, to monitor the path of future evolution (and, quite possibly, to eliminate threats to The State). It’s a weird setting. But what stands out to me is the kind of contrast that it sets between these expansive changes and the visibility of it all – people still look like people, and there is essentially no new technology – if anything, technology has taken a step back, with CRT monitors, paper records, and other anonchrisms that are behind the times compared to now. Computers don’t even show up. It creates this feeling of stagnation, where despite the passing centuries, everything is the same.
This is solidified by the filming location – it was filmed, likely for tax reasons primarily, in Athens, Greece, but that works – Athens is this beautiful old city that has been subject to a profound stagnation, tied with the economic stagnation of Greece and more broadly the Mediterranean countries since the 2008 financial crisis. And most importantly, without giving away any spoilers, there’s basically no children in the movie. Even the sound design reinforces this feeling of stagnation- flies are randomly buzzing in the background, as if the entire world has become a fetid puddle, slick with algae. And this feeling of stagnation is what helps drive a key part of the conflict within the movie, which is how the main character, among others, is struggling to accept and grow with these changes to their internal organs, and what it means in such a society. That contrast, that contradiction, between this decaying world and the fecundity of the change within people is heightened by this lowkey aesthetic, where the science fiction of it all is essentially invisible. This is what I mean when I say that the aesthetic of a science fiction project is part of its narrative.
Another recent example is the Apple TV original Severance. Severance follows a set of office workers who have been subjected to a surgical procedure known as “severance”, where their memories are split in such a way that one cannot remember what one does at work, and their work selves have no memories of the outside world. It’s a show with a lot to say, from the role of history in our own development to the nature of American work and the politics of the American workplace. It’s fascinating!
But what I’m here to talk about is the aesthetic.
See, it has that exact same Lo-Fi Sci-Fi feel. There isn’t any high technology, except the nearly invisible severance procedure itself. The technology is all old – they use manual film cameras (in this case, a Leica), old computers (including trackballs!!), and old monitors. The architecture and much of the interior design is molded on older, mid century modern type looks. I’m a big fan of the result, especially because a lot of it is in contrast with our own modern world. Lumon, the company that conducts the severance procedure, has this midcentury design that permeates everything, especially the company headquarters, along with all of this purposeful retro tech. It becomes a kind of dream world, where the severed workers live in with 0 connection to the outside, more modern, world, as represented by the town outside – which is a completely conventional small American town (We don’t know where, exactly, it’s set, but it looks like Pennsylvania, Upstate NY, or eastern New Jersey to me) that precisely resembles basically any normal town today.
This dreamy modernism also feels somewhat stagnant – there are basically no new hires within the show outside of the first episode, the offices are all isolated and not at all bustling, it’s all endless busywork. I don’t think that Severance is saying the same thing as Crimes Of The Future, but I do think that it’s using some similar energy to comment on more specific things about the nature of power in our society, especially how isolating and alienating work can be. Employment is this fantasy world, where politics, economy, et cetera simply doesn’t matter, and power is only subjected from above, with the ultimate expression of its power being the imposition of personal changes such as the severance procedure.
But you know what it really reminded me of?
Time to get to the 3rd part of Prescience, where I compare it to old sci fi. There’s this great old Frederik Pohl story, The Tunnel Under The World, that you should probably read since I am going to spoil the whole thing now. Go ahead, it’s short.
Essentially the plot is that this entire small 1950s-ish town is kept as an experiment. They all, it turns out, have died, and have been recreated as robotic copies of themselves to be used in tests for advertising. It’s a great little story, and it really resembles this part of Severance where it’s quite clear that they are being experimented on in some way while doing their work. But, to bring it all together, most importantly it has this exact same feeling of stagnation. I mean, it’s obvious, every day is looping over and over so they can run the same experiment. It is, as you could say, dreamlike.
Perhaps even, without history.
See, the reason why this aesthetic, and this feeling of stagnation, is so compelling is because it reflects the times we live in today. While there is unprecedented change in technology – machine learning algorithms, computing clouds, smartphones, virtual reality – it hasn’t really led to a huge change in how the world looks. See below: Both of these are photos of a place across the street from one of my local bars: One is from 1948, one is a photo from a few years ago.
Notice that they’re the same building?
While technology has changed quickly, a lot of this is more remote, digital, virtual. Meanwhile, everything around us stays the same. It’s a weird feeling, especially if you’re Generation Z like me and you are the first generation to not really experience rapid shifts in technology that are immediately noticeable. And I think that’s why I find these science fiction worlds so compelling. Because they reflect this same feeling of stagnation that I tend to feel about technology. That this might be the peak. Ride’s over. After all, there’s only so much computing power that you can fit inside a computer before you start hitting the limits of physics.
Or maybe I’m being a bummer again.
Anyway, here’s the music for this issue:
I love this song, this kind of chipmunk soul/amen break sound is so rad, I’ve noticed it being more of a thing as of late and if it becomes a trend I’m down. Kanye West should have moved into making jungle music in 2006.
Next Month: An extra spooky cyberpunk issue of Prescience 👻👻👻