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Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.

The gradual Automation of industry and the progressive reduction of working hours has already extended the amount of leisure time which citizens of the developed nations have, and most later twentieth-century images of the future assume that everyone will have even more of it in times to come. In The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World (1976), the Futures Studies authorities Herman Kahn, William Brown and Leon Martel state that the most advanced nations will enter a "post-industrial era" within a century, and that it will then be impossible to distinguish between work and leisure – a Prediction that seems a great deal less plausible at the present stage of the twenty-first century. The majority of people, for whom work is a necessary but unpleasant burden, regard increased leisure as a highly desirable outcome; but sociologists and sf writers tend to be more sceptical. Utopian satires like Muriel Jaeger's The Question Mark (1926) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) offer horrified and disapproving visions of the people of the future giving themselves over to frivolous and intellectually vacuous pursuits, all in the worst possible taste. Had Huxley lived to see contemporary Television, Torremolinos and Euro-Disney he would undoubtedly have said "I told you so", as he did with regard to far less garish spectacles in Brave New World Revisited (coll 1958).

Genre-SF writers, who are themselves part of the entertainment industry, might be expected to look upon leisure with a kinder eye, but for the most part they have not. E M Forster's censorious question about what happens when "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review) is echoed even in such Pulp melodramas as Miles J Breuer's "Paradise and Iron" (Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly) and Laurence Manning's and Fletcher Pratt's strikingly vivid "The City of the Living Dead" (May 1930 Wonder Stories). Frederik Pohl's and C M Kornbluth's biting Satire on consumerism, The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953), kicked off a whole series of similar sarcastic fantasies, notably Shepherd Mead's The Big Ball of Wax (1954), Pohl and Kornbluth's Gladiator-at-Law (June-August 1954 Galaxy; 1955; rev 1986) and Harold Livingston's The Climacticon (1960). The most thoughtful and carefully focused of these was probably James E Gunn's The Joy Makers (1954-1955 var mags; fixup 1961), in which a cult of hedonism gradually takes over the world; it concludes with a vision more refined but every bit as striking as that in Manning's and Pratt's story, in which the vast majority of people live cocooned in life-support systems experiencing nothing but engineered dreams. Tomorrow's World (1956; vt Tomorrow and Tomorrow) by Hunt Collins (Evan Hunter) is exceptional in defending the supporters of Vicarious Experience against their puritanically inclined opponents, and is one of the few sf stories to assume that the people of the future will sensibly accept the Epicurean dictum that pleasure, despite being the only true end of human experience, ought to be taken in moderation. Other images of technologically supported total escapism are featured in Arthur C Clarke's "The Lion of Comarre" (August 1949 Thrilling Wonder), John D MacDonald's "Spectator Sport" (February 1950 Thrilling Wonder), John T Sladek's "The Happy Breed" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) and Mack Reynolds's Perchance to Dream (1977) and After Utopia (1977). The majority opinion seems to be that such escapists need to be brought back to reality whether they like it or not, and that those appointed to achieve that end need not be overly scrupulous in so doing.

The leisure pursuits traditionally associated with cultural elites inevitably get a better press in sf's images of the future than do those associated with the lower orders; comparison of the works considered in the entries on the Arts and Games and Sports will readily confirm this, but even stories about the finer arts often deal in images of enervated decadence, like those featured in J G Ballard's stories of Vermilion Sands (coll 1971). A great many sf stories propose that sadistic spectator "sports" of the kind which went on in the Roman arena are likely to make a comeback in the future, their lapse into apparent obsolescence being a temporary imposition of censorship rather than a permanent refinement of feeling. Indeed, the current popularity of sf WarGames (Game-Worlds; Virtual Reality) has led to the production of Ties in which entire Galactic Empires become writ-large arenas for carefully staged and extraordinarily bloody conflicts. Robert Sheckley's neatly satirical stories about sadistic futuristic games, including "Seventh Victim" (April 1953 Galaxy; filmed as La Decima Vittima [1965]) and "The Prize of Peril" (May 1958 F&SF), were inflated by popular demand into the film-associated melodrama The Tenth Victim (1966) and ultimately into the series of novels including Victim Prime (1987) and Hunter/Victim (1988), whose narrative dispiritedness might be seen as an ironic comment on the awful absurdity of their saleability. When they are not revisiting the past, sf images of future leisure tend to be firmly anchored in the trends of the present – as witness the recent rash of stories about the Theme Parks of the future, including the series begun by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes with Dream Park (1981) as well as Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1991). The extension of the Media Landscape to take in mass-produced dreams, as featured in many stories – including Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hyacinths (1983) and James Morrow's The Continent of Lies (1984) – is seen by most writers as a natural extrapolation of the trend towards privacy and subjection to personal whim which led from cinema to television to the VCR; and stories involving such technologies frequently echo – often calculatedly – contemporary disputes about the uses and alleged abuses of these media.

The unfortunate correlates of leisure are, of course, boredom and purposelessness. The threat of boredom is seen by very many sf stories as something so likely to spoil the experience of Immortality as to make it almost worthless – a contention which is surely breathtaking in its closed-mindedness. Many sf stories similarly argue that, because the use of Technology to supply all our basic needs would rob our lives of a sense of purpose, we would be far better off engaged in a constant struggle for existence. Hard SF has characteristically adopted and adapted the frontier mythology of US history in order to extrapolate the struggle for existence onto a galactic stage, thus ducking the question of excessive leisure altogether, although on occasion hard-sf writers are inclined to take it for granted that time liberated from more vulgar forms of work will naturally be devoted, by all those capable of such intellectual effort, to scientific inquiry. (Indeed, many hard-sf writers seem unable to devise suitably science-fictional leisure-time activities for their characters. In many books the protagonists seem to entertain themselves either by dabbling in quantum physics or by engaging in sex, with very little – such as reading thrillers or going to the movies – in between.) Aside from four-dimensional Chess or a hobby of dabbling in xenoarchaeology, sf novels which depict in some detail and without disapproval the leisure pursuits of imaginary cultures generally do so in connection with low-tech cultures whose leisure is both limited and evidently purposive; the works of Jack Vance offer many examples, although the single most elaborate exercise in this vein is Ursula K Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985). It is arguable that one of the great failures of the science-fictional imagination has been the inability to envision laudable ways in which the leisured classes of the future might make use of that leisure. Even stories which depict all-powerful immortals successfully keeping boredom at bay generally assume that their projects and methods will be essentially silly, like those of the central characters of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series opening with An Alien Heat (1972); or callously indifferent to mere mortals' suffering, as in the titular Godgame of Roger Zelazny's "The Game of Blood and Dust" (April 1975 Galaxy) or the secret quasi-Eugenic conspiracy exposed in Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi (1992). Godlike beings in sf usually behave like spoiled children – although perhaps this is not entirely surprising, given that the gods people have actually believed in have mostly behaved in much the same fashion. Perhaps, on the other hand, the concept of "leisure" is implicitly ambiguous; if so, science-fictional accounts of future leisure can do little else but unpack that ambiguity, exposing its paradoxicality for purposes of lamentation or mockery, according to taste. [BS/DP]

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