The best sci-fi themed surveillance tales

Ten essential reads for the "somebody's watching us" generation

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A scanner darkly cover

Last week we published the winner of our surveillance short story contest alongside the release of Glenn Greenwald’s book about working with Edward Snowden to reveal the United States’ widespread abuses of power that you already know (somewhat) about. Although the revelations – like WikiLeaks and others that came before them – were definitely shocking, there was also a way in which they weren’t, really: with an understanding of the Internet’s infinite potential, it’s not that hard to see how its power could be harnessed for evil. Plus, we’ve been reading stories about things like this happening to the Earth since we were kids – some of the smartest writing is marketed as ‘sci-fi’.

MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB BY STANISLAW LEM 

The renowned Polish sci-fi writer Lem is not known for being easy – there’s not going to be any neat resolution or obvious allegorical takeaway from this story within a story. Literally a set of (very paranoid) journals found in a bathtub, Memoirs paints a picture of a hyper-bureaucratic underground dystopia the likes of which Kafka would cringe at. What’s striking about the horrors of this world is the reflexivity – its self-destruction is really an implosion, sparked by Cold War-type fear implanted as a precaution. 

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Memoirs found in a bathtub book cover

THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER BY JOHN BRUNNER

A vision of 21st-century America caught in a web of metadata is not one that’s hard to imagine now, and proto-cyberpunk Brunner’s imagining of the present from the past is only a few allegorical steps away from today – identities under constant threat, the preservation of nationalism manifest through ingrained intellectual oligarchy. There’s hope, in the form of a lone (possibly) young dissident and prescient satire, but what’s uncomfortable about Brunner’s future-predicting novels is that we know character development and frequent puns can only go so far. 

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Shockwave rider book cover

THE MUSEUM OF UNCONDITIONAL  SURRENDER BY DUBRAVKA UQRESIC 

Although the novel isn’t sci-fi per se, the fragmentary structure and reflections on life as a refugee from former Yugoslavia in The Museum of Unconditional Surrender suggest the sense of instability and uncertainty that political regimes can enact on their people, as well as how remnants of identity – whether physical or digital – can help or hurt. 

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The museum of unconditional surrender cover

A SCANNER DARKLY BY PHILIP K. DICK

Along with J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick is one of the foremost cult sci-fi writers of the 20th century, and his much-lauded, semi-autobiographical masterpiece about drug culture in the then-future (spoiler alert: dystopic!) of California examines themes of paranoia and psychology through a reality that is increasingly distorted. Well, possibly – that’s the thing about distorted reality – you never know if it really is. 

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A scanner darkly cover

NEUROMANCER BY WILLIAM GIBSON 

A collector of genre adjectives, Gibson’s cyberpunk/post-modern/sci-fi/dystopia tour de debut novel is a critical work about surveillance in which a washed-up antihero is tasked (by whom, we don’t know) to save the world (basically) from certain artificial-intelligent doom. It’s got the complexity of Pynchonian high jinks and the stakes of a world not that dissimilar from our own. 

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Neuromancer cover

THE CIRCLE BY DAVE EGGERS 

Last year’s thinly veiled critique of a certain ubiquitous Internet-related service and social media corporation whose motto is ‘PRIVACY IS THEFT’ raised the pulses of many-a casual gmail user as well as raised questions about the individual vs. the collective, the preservation of rights vs. the dissemination of information, and what’s going to result from the rush to develop without reflecting on the consequences. 

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The circle cover

UNDER THE JAGUAR SUN BY ITALO CALVINO

Calvino’s unfinished slim volume of short stories was intended to encompass the five senses, but he died before he could get to sight and touch. Still, his second-person contemplation on hearing – ‘A King Listens’ – quickly veers into a meditation on the effects power of the mind: the king’s palace turns into a giant ear, and his fanatical fear of his citizens’ rebellion quickly renders him paralysed by paranoiac listening and waiting. 

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Under the jaguar sun cover

WHOLE WIDE WORLD BY PAUL MCAULEY 

Post-‘Infowar’ London is all Internet censorship and surveillance cameras, and crimes in the street become inextricable from crimes online. McAuley uses what at first seems a classic crime-novel plot to blur the boundaries between the computer and reality – now, though, it wouldn’t seem that strange to encounter a figure who only communicates by email.

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The whole wide world cover

BLACK CODE: INSIDE THE BATTLE FOR CYBERSPACE BY ROLAND DEIBERT

The extent of the surveillance state – which we’re only just realizing we don’t truly grasp – has made science fiction seem more and more non-, so it doesn’t really feel like cheating to include a nonfiction exploration of the battle for control being waged online. Deibert’s language, too, often reads like (horror) fiction, and his suggestion that a kind of World War III could (soon) be fought online seems just as sci-fi as Philip K. Dick. 

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DECODED BY MAI JIA 

The renowned Chinese novelist’s first book to be translated into English came out in March, and it’s another one of those reflections on, ahem, blurred lines: here, the focus is on genius vs. insanity, and it asks an important question: is it really paranoia if you’re actually being watched?

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