There are three orders of simulacra:
(1) natural, naturalistic simulacra: based on image, imitation, and counterfeiting. They are harmonious, optimistic, and aim at the reconstitution, or the ideal institution, of a nature in God's image.
(2) productive, productionist simulacra: based on energy and force, materialized by the machine and the entire system of production. Their aim is Promethean: world-wide application, continuous expansion, liberation of indeterminate energy (desire is part of the utopias belonging to this order of simulacra).
(3) simulation simulacra: based on information, the model, cybernetic play. Their aim is maximum operationality, hyperreality, total control.
To the first order corresponds the imaginary of the utopia. To the second, SF in the strict sense. To the third...is there yet an imaginary domain which corresponds to this order? The probable answer is that the
"good old" SF imagination is dead, and that something else is beginning to emerge (and not only in fiction, but also in theory). Both traditional SF and theory are destined to the same fate: flux an imprecision are putting an end to them as specific genres.
There is no real and no imaginary except at a certain distance. What happens when this distance, even the one separating the real from the imaginary, begins to disappear and to be absorbed by the model alone? Currently, from one order of simulacra to the next, we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance, of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection.
It is at a maximum in utopias, where a transcendent world, a radically different universe, is portrayed (its most individualized form remains the Romantic dream, wherein transcendence is represented in all its depth, even unto its subconscious structure; but, in all cases, the separation from the real world is maximal—it is the utopian island in contrast to the continent of the real).
It is diminished considerably in SF: SF only being, most often, an extravagant projection of, but qualitatively not different from, the real world of production. Extrapolations of mechanics or energy, velocities or powers approaching infinity—SF's fundamental patterns and scenarios are those of mechanics, of metallurgy, and so forth. Projective hypostasis of the robot. (In the limited universe of the pre-Industrial era, utopias counterposed an ideal alternative world. In the potentially limitless universe of the production era, SF adds by multiplying the world's own possibilities.)
It is totally reduced in the implosive era of models. Models no longer constitute an imaginary domain with reference to the real; they are, themselves, an apprehension of the real, and thus leave no room for any fictional extrapolation—they are immanent, and therefore leave no room for any kind of transcendentalism. The stage is now set for simulation, in the cybernetic sense of the word—that is to say, for all kinds of manipulation of these models (hypothetical scenarios, the creation of simulated situations, etc.), but now nothing distinguishes this management-manipulation from the real itself: there is no more fiction.
Reality was able to surpass fiction, the surest sign that the imaginary has possibly been outpaced. But the real could never surpass the model, for the real is only a pretext of the model.
The imaginary was a pretext of the real in a world dominated by the reality principle. Today, it is the real which has become the pretext of the model in a world governed by the principle of simulation. And, paradoxically, it is the real which has become our true utopia—but a utopia that is no longer a possibility, a utopia we can do no more than dream about, like a lost object.
Perhaps the SF of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality will only be able to attempt to "artificially" resurrect the "historical" worlds of the past, trying to reconstruct in vitro and down to its tiniest details the various episodes of bygone days: events, persons, defunct ideologies—all now empty of meaning and of their original essence, but hypnotic with retrospective truth. Like the Civil War in Philip K. Dick's The Simulacra; like a gigantic hologram in three dimensions, where fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past.
We can no longer imagine other universes; and the gift of transcendence has been taken from us as well.
Classic SF was one of expanding universes: it found its calling in narratives of space exploration, coupled with more terrestrial forms of exploration and colonization indigenous to the 19th and 20th centuries. There is no cause-effect relationship to be seen here. Not simply because, today, terrestrial space has been virtually completely encoded, mapped, inventoried, saturated; has in some sense been shrunk by globalization; has become a collective marketplace not only for products but also for values, signs, and models, thereby leaving no room any more for the imaginary. It is not exactly because of all this that the exploratory universe (technical, mental, cosmic) of SF has also stopped functioning. But the two phenomena are closely linked, and they are two aspects of the same general evolutionary process: a period of implosion, after centuries of explosion and expansion. When a system reaches its limits, its own saturation point, a reversal begins to takes place. And something happens also to the imagination.
Until now, we have always had large reserves of the imaginary, because the coefficient of reality is proportional to the imaginary, which provides the former with its specific gravity. This is also true of geographical and space exploration: when there is no more virgin ground left to the imagination, when the map covers all the territory, something like the reality principle disappears. The conquest of space constitutes, in this sense, an irreversible threshold which effects the loss of terrestrial coordinates and referentiality. Reality, as an internally coherent and limited universe, begins to hemorrhage when its limits are stretched to infinity. The conquest of space, following the conquest of the planet, promotes either the de-realizing of human space, or the reversion of it into a simulated hyperreality. Witness, for example, this two-room apartment with kitchen and bath launched into orbit with the last Moon capsule (raised to the power of space, one might say); the perceived ordinariness of a terrestrial habitat then assumes the values of the cosmic and its hypostasis in Space, the satellization of the real in the transcendence of Space—it is the end of metaphysics, the end of fantasy, the end of SF. The era of hyperreality has begun.
From this point on, something must change: the projection, the extrapolation, this sort of pantographic exuberance which made up the charm of SF are now no longer possible. It is no longer possible to manufacture the unreal from the real, to create the imaginary from the data of reality. The process will be rather the reverse: to put in place "decentered" situations, models of simulation, and then to strive to give them the colors of the real, the banal, the lived; to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because the real has disappeared from our lives. A hallucination of the real, of the lived, of the everyday—but reconstituted, sometimes even unto its most disconcertingly unusual details, recreated like an animal park or a botanical garden, presented with transparent precision, but totally lacking substance, having been derealized and hyperrealized.
True SF, in this case, would not be fiction in expansion, with all the freedom and "naïveté" which gave it a certain charm of discovery. It would, rather, evolve implosively, in the same way as our image of the universe. It would seek to revitalize, to reactualize, to rebanalize fragments of simulation—fragments of this universal simulation which our presumed "real" world has now become for us.
But where can one find fictional works which already incorporate this condition of reversion? Clearly, the short stories of Philip K. Dick "gravitate," one might say, in this new space (although it can no longer be expressed as such because, in fact, this new universe is "anti-gravitational," or, if it still gravitates, it does so around the hole of the real, around the hole of the imaginary). Dick does not create an alternate cosmos nor a folklore or a cosmic exoticism, nor intergalactic heroic deeds; the reader is, from the outset, in a total simulation without origin, past, or future—in a kind of flux of all coordinates (mental, spatio-temporal, semiotic). It is not a question of parallel universes, or double universes, or even of possible universes: not possible nor impossible, nor real nor unreal. It is hyperreal. It is a universe of simulation, which is something altogether different. And this is so not because Dick speaks specifically of simulacra. SF has always done so, but it has always played upon the double, on artificial replication or imaginary duplication, whereas here the double has disappeared. There is no more double; one is always already in the other world, an other world which is not another, without mirrors or projection or utopias as means for reflection. The simulation is impassable, unsurpassable, checkmated, without exteriority. We can no longer move "through the mirror" to the other side, as we could during the golden age of transcendence. Perhaps an even more convincing example would be Ballard and his fictional evolution from his earliest "fantasmagorical" short stories—poetic, dream-like, alienating—to Crash, which (even more than High Rise or Concrete Island) constitutes without doubt the contemporary model for this SF which is no longer SF. Crash is our world, nothing is really "invented" therein, everything is hyperfunctional: traffic and accidents, technology and death, sex and the camera eye. Everything is like a huge simulated and synchronous machine; an acceleration of our own models, of all the models which surround us, all mixed together and hyper-operationalized in the void. What distinguishes Crash from almost all other SF, which still seem to revolve around the old (mechanical/mechanistic) duo of function vs. dysfunction,
is that it projects into the future along the same lines of force and the same finalities as those of the "normal" universe. Fiction can go beyond reality (or inversely, which is more subtle), but according to the same rules of the game. But in Crash, there is neither fiction nor reality—a kind of hyperreality has abolished both. And therein lies the defining character, if there is one, of our contemporary SF. The same may be said, for example, of Bug Jack Barron or of certain passages in Stand on Zanzibar.
In point of fact, SF of this sort is no longer an elsewhere, it is an everywhere: in the circulation of models here and now, in the very axiomatic nature of our simulated environment. What SF author, for instance, would have "imagined" (although, to be precise, this is no longer "imaginable") the "reality" of West German simulacra-factories, factories which rehire unemployed people in all the roles and all the
positions of the traditional manufacturing process, but who produce nothing, whose only activity involves chain-of-command games, competition, memos, account sheets, etc., all within a huge network? All material production is duplicated in a void (one of these simulacra-factories even went into "real" bankruptcy, laying off a second time its own unemployed workers). This, indeed, is simulation: not that these factories are fake, but that they are real—or hyperreal—and that, by being so, they send all "real" production, that of "serious" factories, into the same hyperreality. What is fascinating here is not the opposition of fake factories/real factories, but rather the indistinction between the two: the fact that all the rest of production has no more referentiality or profound finality than this "business simulacrum."
It's the hyperrealist indifference that constitutes the true "sciencefictional" quality of this episode. And one can see that there is no need to invent it: it is here before us, rising out of a world without secrets, without depth.
Doubtlessly the most difficult thing today, in the complex universe of SF, is to be able to discern what still corresponds (and this is a large part of it) to the imaginary of the second order, the productive/ projective order, and what is already arising from this indistinction of the imaginary, from this flux deriving from the third order of simulation. One can, for example, clearly discern the difference between machine robot-mechanics (characteristic of the second order) and cybernetic machines like computers which derive axiomatically from the third. But one order can easily contaminate the other, and the computer can very well function like a supermachine, a super-robot, a mechanical superpower: exhibiting the productive genius of the simulacra of the second order, not following the processes of pure simulation, and still bearing witness of the reflexes of a finalized universe (including ambivalence and revolt, like the computer in 2001 or Shalmanezer in Stand on Zanzibar). Between the operatic (the theatrical status, fantastic machinery, the "grand Opera" of technology), which corresponds to the first order, the operative (the industrial status, production and execution of power and energy), which corresponds to the second order, and the operational (the cybernetic status, uncertainty, the flux of the "meta-technological"), which corresponds to the third order, all kinds of interferences can be produced today within the SF genre. But only the last order should be of any genuine interest to us.