Science Fiction’s Preoccupation With Privacy

Two ambitious new novels build techno-futures in which surveillance offers disturbing new threats.

A portion of the cover of 'Dark Constellations,' by Pola Oloixarac
Soho Press

In a 1975 essay titled “American SF and the Other,” the great science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin took her genre to task. Science fiction, she began, centers on “the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin, or the number of its legs and heads.” In American science fiction, she noted, human aliens—women, people of color, the poor—mostly got sidelined or subjugated by space aliens, who, in turn, mostly got murdered or had their planets colonized. Enough, Le Guin wrote. Time to make the genre truly face the future. In order to do that, writers needed to take an anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-colonial approach to their work. They had to consider “such deeply radical, futuristic concepts as Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

Two recent literary science-fiction novels, Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, add the increasingly radical concept of privacy to Le Guin’s list. Oloixarac is Argentine and Serpell is Zambian, and both set their novel in their country of origin, creating post-colonial futures in which surveillance poses disturbing new threats. Their stylistic approaches are disparate—Dark Constellations is a slim allegory written with a chat forum’s acrid wit, while The Old Drift is a sprawling epic that unfolds with the wild detail of a Hieronymus Bosch painting—but the novels share a provocative core idea: that colonialism was a massive invasion of privacy, and that technology is on track to rival it.

Oloixarac is more oblique about this idea than Serpell. Her novel’s main arc follows a hacker named Cassio as he joins Stromatoliton, a DNA-surveillance company working with the fictional LatAm Genetic Data Unification Project—a program with brutal roots in the Cold War–era repression of dissidents—to let governments track citizens’ every movement. While the company’s sinister agenda is fairly clear, Oloixarac doesn’t provide a singular villain: Cassio’s intentions toward Stromatoliton become destructive thanks to his hunger for power.

Oloixarac parallels the Stromatoliton story line with that of an 18th-century explorer who experiments on human bodies. Niklas Bruun collects samples of a hallucinogenic plant from the Amazon, then grows them inside women’s wombs. In Europe, he becomes a celebrity, thanks to his conquest of jungles and women. As soon as Bruun returns from his first trip, his stories become fodder for the tabloid press, which uses his botanical sketches as “candid proof that the cream of scientific aristocracy was embroiled in a strange coital affair.” He becomes a representation of the hypermasculine colonial impulses to penetrate, to collect, and to dominate.

This makes Bruun a double for the young Cassio, whose aggressions against Stromatoliton are meant not to protest a loss of privacy, but to demonstrate his potency. Oloixarac links this desire to Cassio’s relentlessly sexualizing attitudes toward women. To Cassio, women are an “incomprehensibly sadistic” alien race, deserving of scorn and abuse. In her 1975 essay, LeGuin asked, “Isn’t the ‘subjection of women’ in [science fiction] merely a symptom of a whole which is authoritarian, power-worshiping, and intensely parochial?” Oloixarac’s response, as conveyed through her blunt-force portrayal of Cassio’s misogyny, is a resounding Yes.

Cassio’s lust for power undermines any hopeful currents that Dark Constellations could have had. Oloixarac portrays humans as a grabby, greedy species struggling to control as much of others as possible. This is as true of Bruun and Stromatoliton as it is of Cassio, scheming in his bedroom, “mocking corporate armies, spitting on the sense of security felt by those who believed themselves to hold power—subjecting them, in sum, to a new reality principle wherein beings like Cassio reigned.” Rather than writing Cassio as a concerned hacktivist, Oloixarac makes him a curdled little dictator whose ultimate interest is dominance.

The only character in Dark Constellations not interested in controlling others is Piera, a disaffected Stromatoliton biologist whose alienation from her male co-workers and from the overreach of her company leads her to cut herself off—from people, and from broader systems. She privately refers to her employer as “the animal of the state unleashed,” but remains at Stromatoliton, satisfying her voyeuristic curiosity even as the future of Argentine privacy is in question. With Piera, Oloixarac seems to underscore the impossibility of stepping away from power in a world in which science overrides ethics. Piera may consider herself an observer rather than a participant, but she remains complicit in the global expansion of surveillance.

Judging from her novel, Namwali Serpell might disagree with Oloixarac’s pessimistic outlook. The Old Drift is a massive, complicated work with a straightforward Hegelian opposition at its heart: Colonialism and anti-colonialism collide, and the resulting clash transforms Serpell’s fictional Zambia. The novel opens at the turn of the 20th century, as a British colonist named Percy Clark observes the construction of a bridge near Victoria Falls in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. At the end, a multiracial trio of Zambian revolutionaries destroys the nearby Lake Kariba dam. The function of colonialism, the novel suggests, is to contain power; the function of anti-colonialism is to unleash it.

The Old Drift begins with Clark and his British comrades living “as brave pioneers” by Victoria Falls. Serpell moves through Zambian independence and hopeful 1970s socialism into a near future in which an authoritarian government has allowed a fictive Sino-American consortium near-unlimited access to the country. The consortium buys Zambia’s power sources, including the Lake Kariba dam, then starts medical testing on unsuspecting Zambians.

The three protagonists of The Old Drift’s final section are all complicit, to varying degrees. Naila works for a government office that installs free, compulsory, Wi-Fi–bearing beads in Zambians’ hands. The government uses the beads to monitor citizens and, at one point, to test an experimental HIV vaccine on them without their consent—a vaccine that Naila’s boyfriend, Joseph, helped research, delivered via drones that their friend Jacob invented.

The consortium stole Joseph’s research, but Jacob sold his willingly—more or less. For Jacob, who grew up in a settlement and learned to read as a teenager, the ability to build drones is financially freeing, proof that “technology is no longer the preserve of the rich.” Naila, though, understands that the consortium is using her friends’ inventions to exploit Zambians. The consortium does not know whether its vaccine works; its nonconsensual beta testing could lead to a new wave of infections. The fundamental disrespect for Zambian lives mirrors the disrespect at the heart of British colonialism.

Naila convinces Jacob and Joseph that the consortium’s power in Zambia amounts to a 21st-century version of the scramble for Africa, the European colonial powers’ rush to claim African land. But the consortium isn’t just procuring Zambian water and land; it’s also violating bodily privacy with its experiments. As in Dark Constellations, state power and personal autonomy are in conflict. But in The Old Drift, Naila, Jacob, and Joseph band together to resist.

In her essay, Le Guin asked science-fiction writers to stop “daydreaming about a return to the Age of Queen Victoria, and [start] thinking about the future. I would like to see … a little human idealism.” Serpell opens her novel at the end of Victoria’s reign and closes it with an explosion of idealism—and water from Victoria Falls. Naila is a heroine Le Guin would have likely loved to see: She’s young, female, Zambian of Indian descent, and militant in the face of global oppression. Jacob and Joseph may be the inventors, but Naila’s the one with a vision for the future of formerly colonized nations.

In this way, The Old Drift enters territory that Dark Constellations leaves untouched. Both writers’ works highlight how easily surveillance can masquerade as progress, and expose the subtle ways colonialism persists in contemporary political life. To do this, Serpell emphasizes global financial disparities, while Oloixarac focuses on the intellectual through line from colonization to technological domination. In Dark Constellations, though, that domination is impossible to fight. In The Old Drift, it’s not only possible, but also a necessary moral choice. Perhaps this makes Oloixarac, with her spot-on depiction of tech-industry misogyny, a more realistic writer, but there’s far more of Le Guin’s idealism to be found in Serpell’s future, which, by the novel’s end, looks newly and radically free.