A story before its time. Its time is now.
January 26, 2012 1:04 AM   Subscribe

Seeking a 1950s sf short story, probably by a notable author, that presaged a panopticon-esque surveillance society. My google-fu pride is injured that I can't find a trace of it.

The latest webcam hijinks story spurs me to finally ask the hivemind.

OK, the premise of the story is that the protagonist buys a new television set and brings it home. At home, he discovers a hidden channel that is showing, well, call it reality TV. Someone going about their lives in their apartment (it had an urban setting, probably New York). The new owner is fascinated by this (soundless?) show, and introduces at least a couple of people to it, until he discovers something awful. It turns out the television he purchased comes with a built-in camera. In fact, every television sold by this store does! Each television is at once a window into the world of at least one other purchaser, and showing that purchaser to someone else. And of course, the TVs have been an enormous hit.

Desperate, he tries to return his set to the store where he bought it, but it turns out the sales contract is also a performance contract, and ironclad. (Or something. I don't think the store vanished or anything mysterious like that, ruling out a Bradbury-type fantasy.) The final scene, possibly prompted by the news that there are now multiple brands of these two-way TVs, or headlines exposing the capability that instead of causing revolt cause a run on the devices, has the dejected hero commiserating with a male relative (uncle? why has that stayed with me?), who laments, approximately, "Welcome to the fishbowl."

I'm pretty certain that was the ending, and the phrasing there should be pretty close, but I've been searching for this a couple of years and haven't turned up anything remotely close. I've even used broad resources like TVTropes or this semi-academic survey of the topic, to no avail. Numerous "likely" sf author bibliographies have been perused.

I read sf endlessly as a kid. This almost certainly predates 1975 and the story had a 1950s, TV-being-new feel. It doesn't seem to be in Dangerous Visions, but it would have fit in a 1950s version of that anthology for sure -- it definitely evoked that feeling of dread, and was thus a bit out of step with its (as I recall) era. I do have a feeling it may even have been a short-short, although not necessarily Fredric Brown short. I don't now, and in many cases never did, own the anthologies, and have no memory of it being a single- or multiple-author book.

Any fans of classic sf out there with better memories than I?

Bonus question: Very much related, there was a story that was, I believe, in OMNI about a rural town (Iowa? Nebraska? Kansas?) that wired itself up with television cameras and became, before the term existed, a reality show. (Pretty sure it was inspired by things like An American Family, as was the later reality genre itself.) Soon the travails of every resident became national fodder, such as minor disputes between family members, or the "secret" affair. The story had at least one female main character who was very upset by the situation but again, was bound by a contract to participate. This story may have ended in tragedy, like a suicide.

Just like the other story, this seems very relevant to our current times, but seems to be lost to history if Google (or at minimum my ability to trawl it) is any indication. Again, particularly due to the OMNI part of my memory, this would have been a notable author.
posted by dhartung to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The first story must be Latest Feature, by Maggie Nadler, 1972.

I found this website by googling sci fi anthology "The tv is watching you".
posted by themanwho at 2:25 AM on January 26, 2012

Best answer: Hmmm. Actually, it may not be. I read the entire (very short) story here (it's from 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov), and although the beginning matches up, there's not an ending like you described.
posted by themanwho at 5:20 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here we have another person remembering the same story you are, right down to the uncle and that last line. He too thinks it's Asimov.

However, there's an Asimov story with a vaguely similar plot, "The Dead Past," about a machine that can see into the past. Instead of using it to learn about history, folks just spy on their old memories. These folks quote the last line also as "Welcome to the Fishbowl," although Wikipedia has it as the longer "Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone." Probably conflating the 2 stories.

That doesn't get us much closer to the actual identity of your first story (not to mention that second one, which I have no idea about). But it does confirm that your memory of the tale is probably pretty accurate.
posted by themanwho at 5:45 AM on January 26, 2012

Ha! That guy quoted in my previous post post is you! All right, that's actually no help at all. Your memory cannot be used to confirm your memory. Shucks. Back to the drawing board.
posted by themanwho at 5:51 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think your 2nd story could possibly be Norman Spinrad's "Prime Time," about Total Television Heaven, "the ultimate retirement community for Electronic Age seniors."
posted by mediareport at 6:25 AM on January 26, 2012

Response by poster: "Latest Feature" is definitely it! Thank you! And it is indeed a short short, and I almost certainly read that 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories anthology. Maggie Nadler, however, was just a blip.

It does look like the ending comes from the Asimov story, though. At one point I set myself a goal of reading 100% of Asimov's fiction (never caught up with him, though).

Your memory cannot be used to confirm your memory.

I have this odd feeling I'm spying on myself in the past....

As for "Prime Time", it doesn't seem quite right, and I doubt OMNI would have published another story with the same basic premise -- so maybe again I'm conflating two stories. It's a good thing I never became a professional sf author, I'd pull a George Harrison.
posted by dhartung at 8:42 AM on January 26, 2012

Here's what looks like a full list of Omni short stories, dhartung, if you haven't see it yet and want to scroll through.
posted by mediareport at 5:43 AM on January 27, 2012

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