I just watched the movie of The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt and based on the novel by Dave Eggers. I only just started reading the book, so it’s possible that I will amend this later on when I finish, but let this serve as a review of the film as it stands, in addition to being an essay on the mechanics of the Science Fiction tradition. Be informed that there are some general SPOILERS ahead for this recent release.
To quickly define what is meant by Science Fiction and more specifically the type of Science Fiction that I will be talking about in this essay, I am going to be focusing on the concept of a Novum. The Novum in SF is the “new thing” that makes the world of the story different from the world that we live in. Some Sci-Fi, most notably Space Operas like Star Trek and Star Wars, live in multi-Novum universes where it is hard to pinpoint what specifically is under scrutiny because the focus is more on the story and the characters, but the “traditional” SF genre is tailored to a specific point.
One of the aspects of the SF genre that makes it almost unique in literature is the way that non-literary forces can render (aspects of) a particular work irrelevant over time. In other, more “realistic” genres, even when a work no longer speaks to the mass audience, it can nevertheless still be said to be an accurate snapshot of the times that it depicts.
Science Fiction, on the other hand, is, in its most traditional and recognizable incarnation, an estimate of what the future will hold. Even works of SF that take place in the present usually depict a scientific discovery that will have a definite impact on the future. For this reason, most Science Fiction has a shelf-life—even if that shelf-life happens to be tens of thousands of years, as in the case of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, for example—after which its accuracy becomes suspect and its relevance can be called into question.
We see this in the history of the Star Trek TV show. In the 1990’s, as revealed in the first-season episode “Space Seed”, which would spawn the notorious Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there were Eugenics Wars that resulted in the creation of super-humans who terrorized the planet. The show itself backed off on this in the later series when it became apparent that not only were no such wars going to take place, but the technology necessary to create the circumstances for that particular kind of war did not exist yet and even now does not yet appear to be in a sufficiently advanced stage for such a war to be a possibility.
In other cases, the science upon which a certain Novum is based could in time develop past the point where the Novum is useful or accurate. My favorite example of this is in the novel Red Star by Aleksandr Bogdanov. The story takes place on Mars (the “red star” in our sky) and its inhabitants, who tell the main character from Earth that the reason Mars appears red to us from here is because the plants on their planet have evolved a red color in response to photosynthesis, meaning that they are red, in a way, for the same reasons that ours are green. This is excusable since, at the time it was published, we had not yet invented the spectroscopy necessary to know anything substantial about Mars, let alone landed a rover on it.
This is not, however, the main Novum present in Red Star. The plot centers around the Communist society on the red planet trying to decide whether to go to war with the totalitarians on ours. It was published in 1908, before Communism had ever really been tested, which no doubt has something to do with the utopian nature of the narrative. By 1921, four years after the Russian Revolution, Yevgeny Zamyatin had written We, which would become perhaps the most influential novel in the Dystopian sub-genre of SF, having since inspired both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the increasingly relevant 1984 by George Orwell.
Of these, it is 1984 that has endured because that is the one that has maintained the most relevance, at least in our Western society (I can’t really speak for modern-day Russia). That is probably because a large part of the sociological Novum centers on the erosion of private life in the interest of government-run security. This issue has gotten a lot of traction in the last few years as the debate has developed between net neutrality and the dissemination of disinformation in the Information Age.
But the one thing Orwell didn’t account for was the Internet and, by extension, the phenomenon we have come to know as “social media”, through which, little by little, the population has voluntarily ceded much of its privacy not to any governmental body directly, but by means of services provided by privately owned and operated companies.
That’s where The Circle comes in. Even though it does not sport any significant technological advances that would qualify as Nova, it pushes everything we have right now to the furthest extreme and for that reason, I would argue that it qualifies as SF, if “only” in the “softer” sociological category. And as such, its relevance to modern life eclipses 1984 in the way that 1984 eclipsed We and We eclipsed Red Star.
The story centers on Mae Holland, a young woman who joins the tech company known as The Circle as a low-level customer service worker, but after an incident off-site, she is offered an opportunity to achieve fame by having every waking moment (except when she’s in the bathroom) recorded and broadcast to an army of ten million fans.
In this way, it is almost like The Truman Show in that Mae is the only one in her position of unparalleled fame, but it is not as existential as Truman because she is complicit in it, even receiving and responding to blast after blast of tweet-sized messages for half the film.
The scariest scene in it for me personally, though, was early on in the film, when she has been working there for a week and is asked why she hasn’t even set up her social media account with them. In the culture of this company, everyone is expected to know everything about everyone else, to have their information at their fingertips, intimate details of their lives, to facilitate relationship-building. It is stressed to her that the weekend events are “not mandatory” but that nevertheless her absence will be noticed. When she reveals that she had been kayaking alone, one of her interrogators remarks that he likes kayaking and she should have told him because he would have loved to come with her. And any attempt she might have made to stress that she enjoys time spent alone is cut off at the knees when the other interrogator implies that continued antisocial behavior could be indicative of mental-health issues.
This is nightmare for me. It is, in fact, exactly why I can’t stand the idea of going back into customer service, let alone a “welcoming” corporate environment like this. People should not be forced to be social with other people. A great many people become uncomfortable in large crowds or among strangers and even people who do love to kayak sometimes enjoy doing so on their own terms. But the film suggests (and its case is compelling) that we are rapidly moving towards a world in which isolation is automatically considered suspect.
The gist of the plot, though, is even more terrifying on a societal level, as it follows Mae not only embracing her status as a person whose every move is scrutinized second by second by millions (if not billions) of people, but at times even gleefully pushing an agenda that would, to put it bluntly, create the perfect preconditions for Orwell’s Dystopia.
I did feel there were some flaws in the film, which is why I intend to revisit this post after reading the book. Everything that the film did, it did wonderfully, there were just some pieces I felt were missing, corners cut, arguments that weren’t made to my satisfaction (a problem I have been having more and more with films) but regardless of any technical or even storytelling flaws, I think this is an important story that everyone in our Digital World needs to be exposed to. It is a conversation that needs to be had.