A great science fiction story shouldn’t be concerned with predicting technological advances, but with exploring the forces that give rise to technology, and its effect on individual and mass psychology. Great sci-fi can also disguise dominant power, whether that of governments or corporations, into characters or fictional groups and satirize and critique them. The following ten stories do one of those two things, and several others besides.
Just to address one thing straight away: one of your favorite science fiction stories dealing, whether directly or indirectly, with surveillance is bound to be left off this list. And 1984's a given, so it's not here.
At any rate, the following books deal in their own unique way with surveillance. Some address the surveillance head-on, while others speculate on inter-personal intelligence gathering, or consider the subject in more oblique ways. Still others distill surveillance down to its essence: as just one face of a much larger, all-encompassing system of control, that proceeds from the top of the pyramid down to its base.
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
Human beings have traveled through a generation ship, the Star of India, to a far-flung, Earth-like planet. Equipped with incredibly advanced technology, they have set themselves up as the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Anticipating William Gibson’s interest in implants and other types modifications, the humans have altered their minds and bodies. They’ve also mastered mind transfer—the ability to technologically migrate one’s mind to a new body.
But there’s a catch: the elite religious bureaucrats scan minds for individual karma, which determines soul’s new body. It is a rather terrifying, existential form of surveillance. Into this world a Buddha-like figure, Sam (an original Star of India crew member), comes to bring enlightenment and technology to the masses.
John Brunner, Shockwave Rider
John Brunner is probably the least well-known of the authors here, but he is absolutely essential and groundbreaking in so many ways. In fact, I almost don’t want to share him, but keep his work all to myself and fellow Brunner devotees. Brunner first made big waves in 1968 with his Hugo Award-winning masterpiece of speculative fiction, Stand On Zanziber, a novel that explores amongst other things future technology, terrorism, corporatism, radical religion, overpopulation, genetic engineering and, the West’s favorite pastime, nation-building.
He followed that up in 1969 with The Jagged Orbit, a trippy piece of dystopian fiction about technology and racial unrest in the western United States. Then Brunner unleashed his absolutely phenomenal The Sheep Look Up, which sprawls like Zanzibar, but maintains a tighter thematic focus on future environmental devastation and the radical response to it. With Shockwave Rider (1975), Brunner completed his dystopian, proto-cyberpunk tetralogy.
Shockwave Rider centers on one Nick Haflinger, who was part of the government program Tarnover, which trains gifted children to further the interests of the state. Haflinger, skilled in the world of data, escapes to become something of a shape-shifting, or persona-adopting, hacker on the run from the government.
In his escape, he steals a personal ID code created for individuals who want to live outside a vast network of data surveillance. And, like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, Haflinger is intent on spilling state secrets with a self-replicating computer virus, which is called a “worm” in the novel. A proto-Tor service called Hearing Aid also makes an appearance in Shockwave Rider.
Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man
Another proto-cyberpunk novelist, or, more accurately, a sentinel of New Wave SF, Alfred Bester is known for his novels The Stars, My Destination and The Demolished Man. The latter takes place in the 24th century, in a world where telepaths, or “Espers” as they are called in the novel, occupy various societal strata.
Curiously, they’re ranked according to how powerful they are. Class 3 Espers can hear thoughts that occur in real time. Class 2 Espers can penetrate or surveill inner thoughts, while Class 1s (the most powerful) can do all of the above, and also know the mindsets, motivations and urges of people before they take action. Call it a form of superhuman data mining.
Naturally, Class 1 Espers occupy the highest strata of society, from corporate CEOs to government leaders and medical professionals, etc. Bester didn’t set out to write an anti-surveillance allegory, of course, but it certainly is worth reading this bookin the wake of internet privacy violations.
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
We was the speculative template for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. The novel’s DNA is all over modern speculative fiction in one form or another. Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Russian living in exile from Soviet control, achieves a sublime poetic brilliance with We.
In its pages, Zamyatin tells the story of D-503, chief engineer of the spaceship Integral, and his life in One State. The Bureau of Guardians (One State’s secret police) keep watch on all citizens by way of clear glass apartments. Everything can be observed. Everyone in turn can be a voyeur.
While Zamyatin’s surveillance mechanism might seem primitive or even laughable in this technological, hyper-connected age, our use of mobile devices, laptops and desktops in connecting to the internet creates a panopticon that is as clear as One State’s glass homes.
William S. Burroughs, The Nova Trilogy
Deriving a plot or sub-plots from William S. Burroughs' work is an exhausting process. But, at the core, a lot of Burroughs' work is science fiction, as well as deeply inspired by spy novels. With his Cut-up or Nova Trilogy—The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and The Nova Express—Burroughs reached the apogee of cut-up incomprehensibility. With Burroughs, as with Thomas Pynchon's work, its best to simply let the words and ideas wash over you.
It was with The Nova Trilogy that Burroughs (often called a founding father of both cyberpunk and cyberspace) communicated one of his great ideas: the Reality Studio. While not strictly about surveillance, the trilogy is about systems of control—multiple systems. The goal being to fight the masters behind it, who know our thoughts and program them, and retake the Reality Studio.
Grant Morrison, The Invisibles
Writer Grant Morrison might best be described as the William S. Burroughs or Robert Anton Wilson of comics. His work often deals with the occult, Discordianism, psychedelics, and trippy, technological systems of control and paranoia. The Invisibles follows a ragtag group of anarchist radicals (okay, “terrorists”) called The Invisible College as they fight the Archons of the Outer Church, humanity’s extra-terrestrial masters. The Outer Church are Earth’s global watchmen, hellbent on social engineering. They don’t need an internet to keep watch to shape the world to their liking.
Morrison doesn’t use The Invisibles to confront surveillance head-on. He doesn’t need to—the Outer Church present an even more powerful system of control than internet surveillance could ever afford national governments. The psionic aliens are watching.
Neal Stephenson, “Spew”
Written in 1994 and published in Wired, Neal Stephenson’s SPEW is pure cyberpunk. Or, rather, Stephenson’s brand of it. Written in epistolary form, the character Stark, a Profile Auditor (basicallly a market researcher), communicates with a female hacker who is able to navigate the SPEW freely. Imagine the SPEW as the internet plus all other forms of data aggregated in a megolithic stream.
The SPEW (which features a virtual reality visualization of its data stream, the Demosphere) has a built-in backdoor that allows corporate and state surveillance. Stark is a cog in this surveillance wheel.
"Profile Auditors can do this because data security on the Spew is a joke," writes Stark. "It was deliberately made a joke by the Government so that they, and we, and anyone else with a Radio Shack charge card and a trade school diploma, can snoop on anyone."
Echoes of our current wired world?
JG Ballard, Super-Cannes
The British New Wave SF author JG Ballard always had a thing for gated, isolated communities. The surreal, psychogeographical landscape, which would later be termed “Ballardian,” is there in its early form in Vermilion Sands short story collection, but also in later works like High-Rise.
This architecture of space and mind reaches its apogee with Super-Cannes. The novel is set in Eden-Olympia, a high-tech business park near the French Riveria—a place where capitalist elites can dedicate themselves to nothing but work and excellence, all under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras and a private security force.
A microcosm of our current world? Sure. Minus the mooching plebes.
Robert Sheckley, ”Watchbird”
If any story anticipated the all-seeing eye of the drone, it is Robert Sheckley’s “Watchbird.” The story begins with a meeting of seven “watchbird” manufacturers. They’ve just learned that the President of the United States has segmented the country into seven watchbird zones, with each company getting a monopoly therein. Every city and town within these zones will be equipped with watchbirds to prevent murder. Problem is, they have the capability of becoming pseudo-sentient, which causes one of the watchbird manufacturers to second guess the entire effort.
Shockley’s prescience here is shocking. The US more than little resembles the world in ”Watchbird,” with various drone manufacturers all vying to get their equipment flying along borders and in cities.
Stanislaw Lem, Memoirs Found In a Bathtub
This isn’t so much a novel about surveillance as it is satire of the paranoia that state watchmen experience. It takes place in the third Pentagon, built into a mountain. There are no masses here. No one for Big Brother to watch apart from itself, the bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Many of the officials in Lem’s novel may or may not be spies, double agents or even triple agents.
This book makes the list because it lays bare the truth of espionage and surveillance: that once this becomes the operating principle of any society, the watchmen (and everyone else) descend into a looking glass world of crippling, absurdist and ultimately false paranoia, where everyone is an enemy and nobody is safe.