Future Media Short Story Review: Brian W. Aldiss’ “Panel Game” (1955)

The fourth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Aldiss spins a wild satire of a television screen that views you!

Previously: Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (May 1961). You can read it online here.

Next up: Two Fritz Leiber stories!

“The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949) first appeared in The Girl with the Hungry Eyes, and Other Stories (1949). You can read it online here.

and

“A Bad Day for Sales” (1953) first appeared in the Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (July 1953). You can read it online here.

3.75/5 (Good)

Brian W. Aldiss’ “Panel Game” first appeared in New Worlds Science Fiction, ed. John Carnell (December 1955). You can read it online here.

At 8:12 pm on September 22nd, 1955 the UK’s first TV advertisement–for Unilever’s Gibb’s S. R. [Sodium ricinoleate] toothpaste–aired on ITV (source). You can watch the commercial here with its toothpaste tube suspended in ice, a model excitedly brushing, and a hilarious graph that does not even pretend to convey data. Just a year earlier, the Television Act of 1954 allowed the formation–to great debate–of ITV, the first commercial television network in the UK.

Inspired by these two events, Brian W. Aldiss wrote his comic nightmare of a world where the television can view you and where you can unknowingly be the entertainment. Welcome the world within the houses of Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” (1951). A world possessed by the advertising jingle. A world turning in on itself.

But What Does the Television See?

Rich Sheridan flies home on his helicopter with a 3-inch telly strapped to his wrist. He walks inside his home and is greeted passionately by Neata, his wife–but he really wants to gaze at his two wall screens (and his Pornograph), the emblems of his upward movement through the consumer classes that organize society. Soon he’ll have three! And maybe even, if he works hard, four screens! What a dream that will be. The family watches Green Star programming, his color-coded consumer class. Little does he know that White Star programming has a panel game in which his family will be featured when the mysterious knock comes at his door. No one knocks as no one has friends. The screen provides all. From the “Grinbaum’s Meat Bars,” created from an entire cow carcass (65) to Happy-Dreaming Howlett’s, everyone’s favorite nighttime drug (even children) (65).

Neata yearns for her family that was with a husband that had an original thought–rather than a world mediated through the screens with their endless narratives of cleanliness and justice, this bar soap and that mock-wool (66).

But the knocks comes. And Black Jack Gabriel walks in… with a story too unusual to dismiss. And a message too radical to air.

The New Sense of the Place

Aldiss presents a dystopic look at the urban expanse of the future. As with Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” (1951), there’s a sense that the world is self-generating–at least in the beginning. Aldiss explains that “after telly’s twenty-four hour services were introduced” it was realized by the powers that be that “nine-tenths of the people needed neither windows nor friends” (67). The powers of the box are so pernicious that England changes “almost overnight” (67).

Gardens behind homes no longer contain plants. Instead, they are “covered by neo-concrete” for each family’s personal helicopter (64). Roads are no longer needed. More and more houses take up every available space as the helicopter extricates the denizens of the suburban maze. Houses no longer need extra rooms–only an area to watch the screens and a room “in which to store the Meat Bars” and other items which the screens “hypnotise” one into buying (67).

Final Thoughts

“Panel Game” (1955) is a slick satire of a fascinating moment in time–the advent of the first commercial television channel in the UK. The comic lightness of the prose emphasizes the nightmarish horror of a surveillance state whose prescribed morals and behaviors are reinforced via commercial jangles and product placement.

As with many stories of the time, Aldiss presses his knife into the 50s formulation of happiness. He presents the housewife, Neata, as the only character who sees through the emptiness of it all as she is trapped at home without friends or job surrounded by the products of the new era. She yearns for a husband who responds and interacts with her. She sees through the sad artifice of endless product placement and desires to slip into drugged sleep to momentarily flee. Black Jack Gabriel, whether or not he’s a tool of the powers that be, represents possible escape even if he’s generating programming. And her act of rebellion suggests Neata yearns for her family to stay together, to escape together.

Recommended for fans of Brian W. Aldiss and 50s science fiction about the media landscapes of the future.


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11 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Brian W. Aldiss’ “Panel Game” (1955)

    • But yeah, the story nails (in 1955 fashion) future targeted advertisements a la Facebook creepily suggesting that baby clothes or engagement rings are in your future based on a particular family’s current consumer class. In addition, it blends the popular often slapstick radio panel game shows of the day (celebrities asked questions etc.) with a reality TV twist (in this instance, families who don’t know that they are the entertainment). And that creepy Zoom article you linked!

      It’s so good! I don’t think it’s a masterpiece like so many of his stories are — but it’s a great gem of a fascinating moment in time.

  1. Does the “real life” style of tv show fall into a prophetic fulfillment of this? Those voyeuristic shows where celebrities supposedly let the world see them as they live their life.

    I’m of two minds on that. But what is worse, having the screen invade your home unknowingly, or deliberately inviting it in?

  2. What a great opener: “It was Christmas. Snow fell courtesy of Home-Count Climatic”.
    I love some of the incidental detail, like “bope music”. It reads almost like “1984” played for laughs, which is quite a thing to pull off and Aldiss seems to do it—just.

    I feel that “The Space Merchants” is an obvious reference. Interestingly, that very book is reviewed in the very same issue of New Worlds, alongside Shepherd Mead’s “The Big Ball of Wax”—a book I’ve been meaning to get around to for years, and by all accounts is right up the science-fictional-media alley you’re strolling. These ideas are patently in the air in 1955.

    I love the contrast Aldiss draws out between the pornographic quality of “servicing” desire through advertising (“Appetite stirred sluttishly in his stomach. “Oh, for a bowl of tasty, toothable Cob Corners!”), and the dull conformism conjured in the images of cleanliness (“Sobold the Soap King was facing three dirty looking criminals”). Aldiss even goes so far as to cheekily remark that “detergent” is his favourite word on the New World Profiles on the inside front cover.

    A great find.

    • Glad you enjoyed it!

      I think you’re right about his implication that consumerism is the new erotica. He no longer needs Neata, he just needs the Pornograph and the erotic dancing show sponsored by a furniture company (if I remember correctly, I don’t have the story in front of me) which sends him into a mindless state.

      It’s a smart story that would have failed spectacularly in the hands of a less gifted storyteller–even if it is far from Aldiss’ best.

      I’ve have The Big Ball of Wax on my list to track down.

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