surveillance in fiction
page highlights fiction about surveillance, from ETA Hoffmann
and Herman Melville to Nineteen Eighty-Four and
It covers -
coverage is eclectic and not all-inclusive; many of the
academic studies noted below include detailed bibliographies.
It is complemented by the discussion
of literature regarding identity and identity crime.
As Gilbert & Sullivan lamented in HMS Pinafore
(1878) "things are seldom what they seem: skim milk
masquerades as cream". There's an extensive critical
literature about questions of identity, dissimulation
and observation in Western poetry and prose.
For anxiety about status and false
identity see much of the work of the underappreciated
ETA Hoffmann and heirs such as Dumas (The Count of
Monte Christo) or Hawthorne, notably in The Scarlet
Letter, who explore the tension between 'is' and 'seem'
in public identity.
The hero in Robert Musil's superb The Man Without Qualities
suffers from having too little identity in the last years
of the Hapsburgs, a society in which all social relations
seem to take on the shrillness and uncertainty of the
internet. Ralph Ellison's 1952 Invisible Man (dispatched
in a tart review
by Irving Howe) agonises that lack of identity subjects
the author - and the reader - to manipulation by more
HG Wells' cruder 1897 novella The Invisible Man
features arson, disappearing cats, murder, dreams of domination
and an angry mob after immersion in the fin-de-siecle
anonymiser brings out the worst in the anti-hero.
There are highlights in The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous
and Pseudonymous Publication from the Sixteenth to the
Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave 2003) edited
by Robert Griffin.
For omnipresent surveillance the benchmark is probably
George Orwell's Nineteen
Eighty-Four (1949), although Animal Farm presents
a more convincing picture of social relations - online
or off. Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life (London:
Secker & Warburg 1980) considers Eric Blair's assumption
of someone else's name and - with less success - personality.
Two important but less influential works are Mikhail Bulgakov's
The Master & Margarita and Evgeni Zamyatin's We.
There's a fashionable introduction in CTRL [SPACE]:
Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother
(Cambridge: MIT Press 2002) edited by Thomas Levin &
Peter Weibel and in Oscar Gandy's The Panoptic Sort:
A Political Economy of Personal Information (Boulder:
Westview 1992), discussed in the Privacy
guide on this site.
For SF see Brian Aldiss's brisk and refreshingly iconoclastic
Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction
(London: Gollancz 1986) and Scott Bukatman's Terminal
Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction
(Durham: Duke Uni Press 1993). David Brin's Earth
(New York: Bantam 1990) is a "no-privacy" dystopia of
pervasive surveillance (and abuse) sometime next century.
Melly's Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia
in Postwar America (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 2000),
in this profile, brings together David Riesman's The
Lonely Crowd (1950), William Whyte's The Organization
Man (1956), Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders
(1951), Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964)
and Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970)
in an exploration of "agency panic" - anxiety over the
way bureaucracies, data processing and communication systems
have reduced "human autonomy and uniqueness".
For angst among the liberal intelligentsia about manipulation
see Frances Stonor Saunders' ungenerous Who Paid The
Piper: The CIA & The Cultural Cold War (London:
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