Future Media Short Story Review: Lino Aldani’s “Good Night, Sophie” (1963, trans. 1973)

In the history of my website, I’ve reviewed and adored countless fictions that tackled future formations of the media landscape. Spurned in part by the explosion of television ownership in the 50s, pop art’s obsession with filmic iconography, and popular studies on advertising, science fiction compulsively explored futuristic formulations of media performance and manipulation, exploitation and paranoia (SF Encyclopedia). I’ve decided to put together a review series of short fiction that will continue my exploration of the theme.

It is devilishly difficult to organize all that I’ve reviewed so far but here are a few of the highlights that suggest different routes I might traverse. As I do not plan on rereading stories I’ve covered in the past, feel free to track down some of the gems below.

Christopher Priest’s “The Head and the Hand” (1972), John Brunner’s “Nobody Axed You” (1965), Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril” (1958), D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) (1973), and Robert Silverberg’s “The Pain Peddlers” (1963) explore the intersection of media and the spectacle of suffering. Pain recorded. Deaths televised. Media as death blow.

Kate Wilhelm’s “Baby, You Were Great” (1967), Carol Emshwiller’s “This Thing Called Love” (1955), and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) scrutinize the emotional bifurcation between the audience and their love of the starlet or influencer as presented and constructed. And the ways in which the audience controls the construction…. and by extension the performer.

Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s “Well of the Deep Wish” (1961), Keith Roberts’ “Sub-Lim” (1965), and Kit Reed’s “At Central” (1967) speculate on the methods media can be used as social control. Of course, in the both the Biggle and Reed, the real world outside has utterly transformed since the audience has slipped into new worlds.

And, of course, I have to include Barry N. Malzberg’s extensive oeuvre–such as Revelations (1972) and Screen (1968). His work often demonstrates the pernicious addiction and desperation audiences and participants project into the media landscape hoping for truth and real experience. The media landscape is yet another mechanized artifice pandering to our obsession with dark spectacle.

I hope you enjoy this series. Feel free to join in (I include a link to the first story below)!

And we have a doozy to start with!

Up Next: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” in the August 7th 1951 issue of The Reporter. You can read it in the February 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas here.

4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)

Lino Aldani’s short story “Good Night, Sophie” first appeared under the pseudonym N. L. Janda in Futuro, no. 1 (March/April 1963). Futuro, edited by Aldani along with Giulio Raiola and Massimo Lo Jacono, was the first entirely Italian science fiction magazine (it contained some translations of Polish SF) (contents). I read it in Franz Rottensteiner’s anthology of European science fiction in translation View from Another Shore (1973). You can read it online here.

According to SF Encyclopedia, Lino Aldani (1926-2009), one of the best-known writers in Italian SF, shifted his focus from “less obviously adventure-oriented short stories” to more critical reflections on contemporary society” including how it was “shaped by the media landscape” in the early 60s. Today’s story is the perfect example.

Explicitly inspired by the James Olds and Peter Milner’s 1954 discovery of the brain’s reward center (nucleus accumbens), “Good Night, Sophie” proves a nightmarish dissection of the media’s ability–in this case immersive and erotic Orwellian feelies–to script human experience.

A Present Starved for Pleasure

“Good Night, Sophie” revolves around the notion that the contemporary world is “starved for pleasure, luxury and power” (169). Aldani speculates that audiences want more than the visual medium can covey. Even if a purely visual experience might provide “real and proper artifice for titillating the erotic and adventurous taste of the public” (168) and influence fans to imitate the lives and looks of actors and actresses, the future discovery three-dimensional movies (Oneirofilms) with “odors and emotions” directly synced into the brain will permit “the realization of all all our desires even the most secret ones” (167).

For a few pennies a day, we will acquiesce to our fantasies and learn to prefer the reality of dreams to the reality of the physical world. The hallucinated people only yearn for a “room, an Amplex and a helmet” and endless erotic adventures with their idols of choice (171).

Dream Visions of Pulp and Play

The story follows Sophie Barlow, a pornographic star à la Sophia Loren of the dystopic future, who makes love to Adam, “a mannequin packed with electronic devices” who becomes the viewer when the Oneirofilm flicks on, for a living (170). Her films set in every exotic local sell millions. Her body is desired and possessed by millions. She belongs to the “producing class” that kept power over the “blind army of consumers” coiled up “in the silken filaments of their own dreams” (173). She’s the “child of a dream” spawned by some anonymous man who donated his seed while possessed by an actress (173). But something writhes inside her despite the power and adoration–the feeling that the world is but artifice, an unhappy simulacrum, a catatonic swirl of isolation and darkness. Is there truth in the rantings of the Anti-Dream league who attempt to seduce those who pass by to the reality of the flesh vs. the realty of the dream?

Final Thoughts

A feverish hallucination with a profoundly effective twist ending, “Good Night, Sophie” (1963) generates distinct unease within a well-realized future world. I can’t help but speculate that Aldani himself saw his story as a turning point in his own fiction. The Oneirofilm narratives are straight from the pulps: tropical “primitive” adventures with temples and beach sex romps and space opera like “Outer Space Belongs to Us: Commander of spaceship […] falls in love with the lady doctor on board (the spectator) , the rocket changes course to discharge the crew on one of Jupiter’s moons, and the Commander heads off with his love. Trans-galactic crossing” (175). Aldani takes these narratives and crafts a future where such simplistic narratives possess us. He argues that the moment base desires can be piped directly into our cortexes we will abandon “the intellectual film” (168). Aldani argues that such narratives will be able to mold and manipulate both the viewer and the creator by making fantasy real for “nothing is better than dreaming. And only in dreams can you deceive yourself to the contrary” (186).

I highly recommend Aldani’s vision for fans of media in SF and Kate Wilhelm’s similarly disturbing tale of simulated existence vicariously experienced by adoring audiences “Baby, You Were Great” (1967). That said, some readers will find fault with the quantity of information conveyed daunting. Aldani wanted to create a living and breathing future world rather than a streamlined adventure and thus spends substantial time expounding on the impact of Olds and Milner’s discovery and its filmic deployment. As a result, a few sections feel like selections from an article on the topic.

Unfortunately, “Good Night, Sophie” remains Aldani’s only 60s vision translated into English (bibliography). This must be rectified.

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29 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Lino Aldani’s “Good Night, Sophie” (1963, trans. 1973)

  1. There’s a short story similar to this, except it’s in the development stages and a spurned woman comes down and destroys the only prototype because she knows her husband/fiance/whatever is “testing” it with a professional whore.
    I do wish I could remember what book that story was in. I’d be interested to see the date on it in comparison to this.

  2. The story strikes me as half way between a fiction and an essay. For instance, the infodumps that make up a large part of the middle are not simply world building filler but are absolutely crucial to a sense of the future world that Aldani is not just presenting, but subtly criticising as well. Indeed, like much that is great about critical SF, he locates the embryo of this future in his world: the films, TV and other multiplying distractions of the 1960s–what his contemporary Guy Debord is calling “the spectacle”.
    Your comment about the “Oneirofilm narratives [being] straight from the pulps” reminds me of another story I can’t seem to get out of my head at the moment: Robert Silverberg’s “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” (1973)–a story, moreover, that Barry Malzberg alerted me to in one of his essays in “The Engines of the Night”. Silverberg’s story is not so much about the media landscape as it is about the suffocating strictures of SF. But there is a resonance: the cookie cutter plots of the pulps and SF more generally that Silverberg takes aim are precisely the “simplistic narratives [that] possess us” in Aldani’s future. SF as raw material for conformist dreams–hold on, we live in this future!

    • I agree re-the information dumbs as fragments of essays. Also, if I remember correctly, some of them occur within the “oneirofilm” that Sophie receives to help her get over her “crisis.” They lend authority to the dream and the information contained within them is necessary for Sophie to be “rewritten.”

      Those sections where the character of Sophie within the film notice that the plot is similar to one of her own films — but it’s her character thinking those thoughts — brilliant.

      Thanks for reminding me that I really do need to sit down with Malzberg’s Engines of the Night if only to find more stories to read for various series. I am always intrigued by Silverberg and will track that one down.

  3. Fascinating, great review! I guess Philip K. Dick also hints about the human obsession with the inner world (the artificially created medium (or hallucinogenic)) in all of his books. Reading your review also reminded me of Roy Bradbury’s short story Veldt where new advanced media technology introduced to the household (that does make you forget it is not reality what you are seeing) may have deadly consequences.

  4. I don’t know if your project will extend into the late 70s/mid 80s, but some possibilities:

    Howard Waldrop’s “French Scenes” about the possibilities of CGI-ing actors, and the protagonist obsessively spiraling into absorption by the history of cinema.

    Robert Sheckley’s “The Life of Anybody”, about what we’d recognise now as reality TV.

    Thomas M. Disch’s “Concepts” now resembles our world of snapchat, vlogging and other social media.

    A lot of cyberpunk probably intersects with your interests but it’s probably too late for you.

    • Thank you for your suggestions! Greatly appreciated! And yes, I probably won’t be heading too much into the Cyberpunk movement but the late 70s are absolutely within my area of interest.

      I’d love to read a worthwhile Waldrop story so I’ll keep that one in mind. Always open to Sheckley and Disch.

      Tempted by the Lino Aldani tale?

  5. Just thought of another two:

    “The Advent on Channel Twelve” by Cyril Kornbluth, in which the attention of millions of tv viewers accidentally conjures a new god out of a tv mascot.

    While not actual sf, Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibility” is probably worth reading, for comparative reasons. The narrator finds himself watching his parents courting on the cinema screen eliciting all manner of personal trauma. It used to be a well-known story, and presages much that is attempted in the New Wave, both formally and in its emotional register of psychological disassembly. I would bet big money that Malzberg knows it by heart.

    • That Kornbluth sounds great. He was a staple of my earliest years of reviewing but I haven’t returned to him in a long while.

      Seems like the Schwartz has many similarities to Malzberg’s Screen (1968) — about a man, struggling with his own psychological misery and deep sadness, who can project himself into various movies in a seedy theater.

      Side note: WordPress occasionally flags comments for approval. This is a small enough operation that I look through everything flagged etc. so your comment will be manually processed if that happens. That’s why it might not appear immediately. No worries!

  6. Great review. I’m going down your list of novels/short stories by authors and had been meaning to get to this one a while back. It’s quite prescient that an author in the early 60s perfectly imagined the state of relationships in the 2020s and how they’re affected by emerging virtual technologies (i.e. VR headsets and the rise of online sex work sites like Onlyfans).

    I’m not one to preach morality or politics, but I’m seeing the effect it has on younger generations of men who seem to prefer the digital thing to the real thing. They’re paying for online sex acts the same way people in this short story pay to experience an imagined fantasy. Whether a consumerist high or wish fulfillment, it’s a terrifying preview of what a lonely future awaits civilization. Some days it feels like a lot of these SF writers are time travelers.

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