Sunday, December 27, 2020

Surrogate Living

Zoë Sharp


Back in 2009, a movie came out starring Bruce WillisRadha Mitchell, and Rosamund Pike, called ‘Surrogates’. The basic idea was that everyone had stopped going out in person, preferring to remain in the safety of their homes and experiencing life outside by being hooked into a robotic surrogate—a younger, more attractive version of themselves.

Pure sci-fi, of course.


This year, though—as going outside and mixing with other people seems increasingly risky, and with the virus mutating rapidly—is this the direction in which humans are heading?


In some ways, I can appreciate the attraction. Sitting in your all-encompassing pod, you can see, hear and feel everything that your surrogate feels, without the risk or pain. Plus, of course, everyone you meet is invariably beautiful, healthy, etc.

At the other end of the scale is a story by EM Forster called ‘The Machine Stops’. In this, a civilisation in the far future lives entirely away from the surface of the planet, with their every need tended to by the Machine. They message each other and speak via video conferencing. The only occupation appears to be the communication of what passes for ‘knowledge’.


Does this sound familiar? Does it sound like Facebook, Twitter, Zoom and Skype, all rolled into one?

BBC Out of the Unknown drama of The Machine Stops

‘The Machine Stops’ was first published in 1909, pre-dating any such means of communication in quite a remarkable way. It was published in various anthologies and collections, was voted one of the favourite short stories published up to 1965. The following year, the BBC dramatised the story, under the same title, as part of its Out Of The Unknown series. It was also included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume II, in 1973, edited by Ben Bova.

In the novella (it was approximately 12,500 words) Forster tells that those who do not agree with the overall control of the Machine are considered ‘unmechanical’ and are threatened with expulsion to the surface—‘Homelessness’.


In many ways, this is the premise of Hugh Howey’s very successful Silo series, where humanity has been forced underground into massive silos, with the threat of being sent outside into the toxic atmosphere for any transgression.


I’ve been thinking about this type of science-fiction quite a bit during this past year, as fears have grown of what lies outside our homes and our borders, and misinformation and conspiracy theories have spread more rapidly than any virus.


Human nature rails against anything that is enforced. It’s lovely to work from home in your pyjamas, it seems, but not if that’s all you’re allowed to do. When we are given time to sit in solitude, to catch up on all those books we feel we should have read, or hear all those pieces of music we feel we ought to have listened to, all we really want to do is chat with our absent friends and mix with strangers.


We are, as ever, a contrary and discontented species. My hope for 2021 is that we learn to appreciate what we have, and work constructively to make it better.


Here’s wishing you Health, Luck, and Happiness for the New Year.

This week’s Word of the Week is pandemic, which is one of the words of the year for 2020, not surprisingly. It comes from the Greek pan meaning all, and demos meaning people. Then the English addition of ‘ic’ onto the end. First came into use in the mid-17th Century. As opposed to an epidemic, which comes from epi meaning upon. The difference between the two words is that an epidemic is an infectious disease that has spread through a community, region or population, whereas a pandemic has spread across countries or continents.


  1. Thoughtful as always, Zoe. Unfortunately (and fortunately) we have many examples of life imitating science fiction...

    1. Thanks, Michael. It's when life starts imitating post-apocolyptic fiction that I'm REALLY going to worry...

  2. And health, luck, and happiness to you too.

    1. Thanks, Stan. Here's hoping that Luck is on our side to bring us all together again soon, which will take care of Happiness without, we trust, compromising our Health!

  3. So... idiocy is a unidemic, politicians are an epidemic, and Trump is a pandemic. Did I get that right?

    I wish you joy, that you may be uplifted and soar through the heavens.
    I wish you happiness, that you may be satisfied.
    I wish you curiosity and the desire to create, that you may never be satisfied.
    I wish you calm and reason, that you may be grounded.

    Most importantly, I wish that you live long, and prosper.

  4. Discontented! Thank you for that word, Zoe. I do go around feeling lucky a lot, but for many months now I have had to remind myself, sometimes hourly, of what a privileged person on am. Sometimes Even more than hourly.

    As ever, your words are an inspiration to me. Even more so this week, as will be revealed to all tomorrow morning.

    Wishing you comfort and JOY in 2021. I think, at midnight on Thursday, as I watch the ball drop in an empty Times Square, I will write 2020 on a piece of paper and burn it.

    1. I think most people will want to stay up until midnight on Dec 31st this year, Annamaria. Not to see 2021 in, but just to make absolutely sure that 2020 leaves...

  5. We who are about to cry salute you.

    I'm always impressed by your take on things, Zoë, and nine months in isolation has only made me treasure you even more. Just keep on being you, and all will be right with the world (as in positive, not politics). Guaranteed.

    1. Ah, I thought if it was one thing we learned this year, Jeff, it was to stay far away from people who were positive, lol.

      Looking forward to seeing you and Barbara in the New Year. My good wishes to you both.