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All Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Future Shock (1970) by Alvin Toffler

(Note: The “today” I mentioned at the beginning of this post was on April 21st. This has sat in the drafts pile for a while.)


Today, I happened to pick up a copy of the 1970 futurist classic Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. This being Korea, there’s never a shortage of Toffler books around: the author’s tenure as an advisor to Kim Dae Jung seems to have ensured an enduring reputation here. (The library where I work even has a Korean translation of the book! I wonder how faithful the translation was, as well as how some of the, er, cheesier and more culturally-specific concepts were translated.)

The book surely has the aura of the 1970s. One passage near the beginning of Chapter 1 waxes, er, gamut-ward in its examples of the “odd personalities” that accelerated social changes are “breeding”:

… children who at twelve are no longer childlike; adults who at fifty are children of twelve. There are rich men who playact poverty, computer programers who turn on with LSD. There are anarchists who, beneath their dirty denim shirts, are outrageous conformists, and conformists whom beneath their button-down collars, are outrageous anarchists. There are married priests and atheist ministers and Jewish Zion Buddhists. We have pop… and op… and art cinéthique… There are Playboy Clubs and homosexual movie theaters… amphetamines and tranquilizers… anger, affluence, and oblivion. Much oblivion.

Just prior to this passage, Toffler refers to curious social flora–from psychedelic churches and ‘free universities’ to science cities in the Arctic and wife-swap clubs California, and this specifically struck me as quite analogous to Korea. (If I remember rightly, a wife-swapping club — or was it just a swingers’ club? — was busted recently in Busan, which is the closest thing Korea has to a California.) It makes perfect sense to me that the book was seen as relevant to Korea in the late 90s!

Outside of Korea, the  impact of the book Future Shock on our world is possibly inestimable, but its impact on the SF genre is still greater. As much as SF people love to trace their lineage back to  Frankenstein, or Lucian of Samasota, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, even, it seems to be that Toffler’s book was a deep, hard shot of heroin to the genre, eventually culminating in at least one of its major late-20th/early-21st century tropes: The Singularity.

(After all, for all that its best-selling (ostensible) nonfiction proponents, such as Ray Kurzweil and, though he calls its something else, Frank J. Tipler, like to prognosticate about The Technological Singularity, its central defining feature is its absolute incomprehensibility to human minds. The Technological Singularity is, as a literary trope, simply “future shock” raised to an exponent so high that the mathematics itself starts to break apart under the pressure.)

My old, hardback copy of Future Shock is somewhere in a box  in Canada. I bought it at a Symphony Booksale, I think, or, no, on second thought I believe I got it at the St. Thomas More college booksale. (The same place I bought my now-lost 1947 edition of the Vogue Book of Etiquette, which is about the most insane book I’ve ever read.) I only got around to reading it when I arrived in Montreal for graduate school.

The book was a revelation for me. For one thing, I’d just read Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire and was working my way through John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, and on reading Toffler I felt as if I’d stumbled upon the ur-text of post-1970 SF. Indeed, I was so struck by it that months later, I ended up using the book extensively in a paper I wrote for my Creative Writing workshop course.

My peers were mostly mainstream-fiction people, though there was a touch of genre-like stuff: a little hardboiled here, a little magical realism there, that sort of thing. But the responses to my work were often laced with what I took for discomfort with SF, puzzlement at why it would be taken seriously, and a certain degree of axiety at having to give feedback on work that simply didn’t seem to operate on the same lines as mainsteram fiction. (I was, at times, striving for beauty of prose, of course, but there was Adventure! and Science Stuff! and Overt, Unapololgetic Politics! To be fair, some classmates were cool with it from day one, and others got into the swing of things, and my own anxiety about being the only SF person in the bunch probably colored my reading of their critiques.)

Anyway, my paper focused on the use of “literary realism” in SF as a psychological trick, a kind of Trojan horse, as it were. I explained that many stories tended to begin with a situation that at once seemed to draw readers into the imaginary world immersively, while also slapping them in the face with its absolute, unarguable unreality. (This was my understanding, at the time, of Darko Suvin’s notion of Cognitive Estrangement.) I argued that not only was this experience one of the core pleasures of SF across subgenres, but also that this was one of the functional purposes of SF.

Functional because, I argued, besides being entertaining literature, and literature in the other senses we use the word, SF also can act as an vaccine — or at least as a cognitive-immunobooster — against the phenomenon of “future shock”… which was, as Toffler defined it, the reaction of human beings when they find their ability to adapt to change is too far outpaced by the rate of change going on in their world.

As I mentioned in a recent interview with Mary Robinette Kowal, SF really does appear to have an effect on how people deal with advances of science and technology. All the SF people I knew at the time that Dolly the Sheep was cloned shrugged their shoulders while so many others — including even lotsof supposedly-educated people who had spent time thinking about this stuff beforehand — seemed to be taken aback, and haunted by images of superhuman clone armies, blabbering about the “dehumanization of cloning” and so on.

SF people? Most of the ones I knew chuckled in response, saying things like, “Okay, so when can we start growing ourselves spare kidneys and hearts and limbs like in that novel by ______?” [You fill in the blank with your favorite author.] And whatever novel it was had already gone way beyond the cheeseball fantasy of The Island and the earlier film it was based upon, to imaginewhat kind of industry would come of this, what kinds of workarounds would be developed for the cheesy moral quandries of dumb-style cloning.They often pointed out that cloning wasn’t really a smart or efefctive way of developing superhuman armies, for a whole host of reasons from unhealthy homogeneity to the inefficiency of the method. (The clones would still have to grow up and learn all the skills of their original, and some would undoubtedly end up cognitively or idiosyncratically different,perhaps in ways that would jeopardize the whole project!

Anyway, that’s a passing glance at the first chunk of the book. I’ll be reading the whole thing again as part of my preparation for a paper I’ll be presenting on the topic of various forms of the The Singularity (and the possibility of a critical synthesis of them) for the “Posthumanism Today” panel at the M/MLA conference in St. Louis this November. (There’s a description of the panel in general under the heading “Science and Fiction: ‘Posthumanism Today‘” on that page.)

I may also post reflections on the the rest of the text, and the influence I see it having had on SF, over the next few months, if people show interest. Interest would be shown by commenting, but don’t feel obligated, folks. I may do it anyway.

I’ll probably only refer to Future Shock in passing in the actual paper, but it seems to me like the generative root of the notion of the SFnal, Vingean trope of the Singularity, in a sense. It is, after all, simply a type of Future Shock generated not by the pace of change, but by a fundamental change in the nature of change which itself proceeds from the accelerated change so important to Toffler.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, you can click over to this post at Odd Culture where you can see the 1972 film that was, er, “inspired” by Future Shock. I’m not saying it’s a good film, but you will probably get a kick out of it.

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