Why settle for tacos when Tuesday can be Soylent Green Day? Far more nutritious than Soylent Red or Yellow, the green stuff is made with a secret ingredient that makes it a real delicacy. Of course the line “Soylent Green is people” is now an insta-spoiler meme and trope. But when Charlton Heston first uttered that anguished warning, it might as well have been a supermarket can-can sale promotion. Store shops in the 1973 science fiction classic Soylent Green were so mobbed on Tuesdays that riots started every week in this dystopian vision of 2022.
The historical montage which opens Soylent Green, based on real photographs from the 20th century, shows how industry and population colluded to form a dystopian future where too many people struggle for too little food, gag at the air, and wear masks on a daily basis. The face covering in the montage actually increases exponentially as the 20th century tumbles past into our own modern nightmares. Sludge and filth cover the perimeter of human existence in Soylent Green, and plague and famine eat humanity out from the inside.
Military planning is a complicated endeavour, calling upon experts in logistics and infrastructure to predict resource availability and technological advancements. Long-range military planning, deciding what to invest in now to prepare armed forces for the world in thirty years’ time, is even more difficult.
One of the most interesting tools for thinking about future defence technology isn’t big data forecasting and the use of synthetic training environments, but narrative and imagination. And we get this from science fiction.
That might sound fanciful, but many militaries are already engaging with the genre. The US military and the French army use science fiction writers to generate future threat scenarios. The Australian Defence College advocates for the reading of science fiction and, in Germany, Project Cassandra uses novels to predict the world’s next conflict. The Sigma Forum, a science fiction think tank, has been offering forecasting services to US officials for years.
But while science fiction provides military planners with a tantalising glimpse of future weaponry, from exoskeletons to mind-machine interfaces, the genre is always about more than flashy new gadgets. It’s about anticipating the unforeseen ways in which these technologies could affect humans and society – and this extra context is often overlooked by the officials deciding which technologies to invest in for future conflicts.
Respected German author Ernst Jünger predicted the ubiquitousness of face masks to enforce conformity and uniformity in a dystopian future society in a novel called The Worker that was published nearly 90 years ago.
With face masks now becoming a mandatory part of the “new normal,” the enforcement measures to make people wear them, by both agents of the state and members of the general public, are becoming more dehumanizing and draconian.
This is precisely the scenario envisaged by enigmatic German author Ernst Jünger in his 1932 classic.
As Thomas Crew details in his article The Dystopian Age of the Mask, the “eradication of all individuality” is a running theme of all dystopian literature.
This is expressed by George Orwell in 1984 when he describes the masses as, “a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans…three hundred million people all with the same face.”