HOLOGRAMS IN LITERATURE

By Trevor Hogg

November 17, 2020

How Holography Informs Science Fiction Visions of Politics, Economics and Celebrity

En Iniya Iyanthira by Sujatha Rangarajan, late 1980s. Image: Kizhakku
En Iniya Iyanthira by Sujatha Rangarajan, late 1980s. Image: Kizhakku



How often are holograms a literary subject? A Wikipedia search reveals the answer: rarely. One of the few novels listed is Ultraviolet (2014), a cyberpunk young adult thriller penned by Joseph Robert Lewis, who has a theory about this. “If you were to do a word search in science fiction novels across the last 30 years, you would find thousands of holograms, but rarely would they be a key element of the story or plot or concept,” he says. “They’re just part of the background that establishes this is a science fiction story or world.” Tamil author Sujatha Rangarajan was prescient about the evolution of the technology in his late-1980s novel, En Iniya Iyanthira. The story takes place in 2021 India and revolves around the quest for a missing husband that leads to the discovery that the dictator Jeeva is a holographic image. Fiction became fact in 2014 when, during his campaign to be elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi had his holographic avatar appear “live” at hundreds of rallies across the country.

Jules Verne
Jules Verne



The earliest example of a floating image used as a plot device is by Jules Verne, the author responsible for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, though the setting involves a mysterious Gothic castle and romantic rivals rather than some futuristic vessel exploring the unknown. Verne’s The Castle of the Carpathians, published in 1892, has a deceased Italian prima donna, La Stilla, mysteriously resurrected. The apparition is later discovered to be an optical illusion created by a theatrical technique known as Pepper’s ghost.

“By means of glasses inclined at a certain angle calculated by Orfanik, when a light was thrown on the portrait placed in front of a glass, La Stilla appeared by reflection as real as if she were alive, and in all the splendor of her beauty.”

In the Foundation trilogy, authored by Isaac Asimov during the 1940s, mathematics professor Hari Seldon invents what he calls “my little algebra of humanity,” known as psychohistory, and predicts the collapse of the Galactic Empire. Seldon establishes two organizations, the First and Second Foundation, to implement a plan to speed up the reconstruction of humanity and records a series of holographic messages.  “As the Empire is dying, it sends out a fleet of ships to crush the First Foundation,” explains Fordham University Professor Paul Levinson, a science fiction writer who corresponded with Asimov about his seminal novels. “Seldon has left instructions as to what they’re supposed to do, and the First Foundation is saved. But a mutation arises called the Mule, a human being with the power to control people’s minds, which psychohistory didn’t predict. The Mule conquers the First Foundation, as the instructions from Hari Seldon are about something that is not even happening.”  

J.G. Ballard envisioned an alternative world in his 1981 novel, Hello America, in which North America has been decimated by an ecological disaster and the leader of a group of survivors from a previous expedition to the continent happens to share the same name as infamous serial killer Charles Manson. Manson fills the sky with massive holograms of Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, Superman, and the Starship Enterprise. “Manson’s holographic empire [whose headquarters are located in a replica of the Pentagon War Room in the sports pavilion of a Caesar’s Palace hotel] can be related to Ballard’s more general concern with the proliferation of mass media icons and the politics of postmodern simulation,” Belgian musician and writer Michel Delville, author of the 1998 monograph J.G. Ballard, tells HoloWire. “In an article first published in a 1966 issue of New Worlds, Ballard claims that ‘the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘false.’ … Hello America can be considered as an extension of [Ballard’s earlier novel] The Atrocity Exhibition [1970], which features mentally deranged narrators obsessed with the death of celebrities. The influence of Warhol’s serigraphic celebrities, and of Pop Art in general, is also not to be underestimated.”

Image: Jonathan Cape
Image: Jonathan Cape



Levinson, who wrote The Pixel Eye (2003), is fascinated by how the perception of media can be manipulated through human senses such as sight. “The way holography is introduced in The Pixel Eye is NYPD forensic detective Dr. Phil D'Amato sees someone walking around who he is sure was killed. That turns out to be this group and the U.S. government using holograms of both living and dead people to enhance their espionage,” he says. Levinson kept the method of projection in mind while writing. “If it’s a hologram, that means that there is already some sort of sensor in the system that can pick up what the hologram is seeing. The fictional part is the vividness and life-like quality of the hologram. Before you can kill a person and replace them with a hologram, extensive photography needs to be taken from every angle. But, like everything else, it’s not completely a science; there is an art involved. Some people are better at creating these holograms than others. The Pixel Eye is about collecting information in such a manner that even detectives and counterespionage people wouldn’t know that it was happening.”

Image: Paul Levinson
Image: Paul Levinson

In Lewis’s dystopian Ultraviolet, the global economy has been decimated by the proliferation of 3D printing, a loss that can possibly be offset by the creation of a new technology involving solid light holograms. “I started with photons, which are enormously energetic, have almost no mass, and move at the speed of light,” Lewis says. “How do you solidify that? One of the things I learned about was Bose-Einstein condensate, where you drop a particle in a highly energetic state, like a gas, to absolute zero where it has no energy. I thought, ‘What if you could freeze a photon?’” In order to make this happen, the brilliant teenage heroine needs a rare metal known as Rubidium: “Carmen produces a black webbed fabric that she turns into gloves, a jacket and boots that can project and freeze photons into a physical object.” As for the look of the holograms, Lewis theorized that if the de-energized photon stopped being fluorescent, it would be solid black. “I also had this idea that maybe on the edges, where the field is breaking down or reacting with the ambiance of the atmosphere, it might become visible. So there is an ultraviolet glow on the edges of the objects, which is how the book got its title and Carmen gets her superhero moniker.”

What does the future hold for holography beyond the written page? “Most of our concepts right now are like Star Trek, where you have to go into a room that projects [holograms], so all of this infrastructure is required,” Lewis observes. “For individual use and the immediate future, what we’ll see is something closer to augmented reality, where you’re visually carrying the image with you.” He stresses that cause-and-effect issues always need to be considered. “It would be helpful for those developing and releasing [holographic technology] to be thinking about how it can be used, misused and abused to avoid causing more suffering and pain than is necessary when we make progress as a society.”

Image: Robert Lewis
Image: Robert Lewis



The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has emphasized the importance of face-to-face communication. “Unlike only audio, you can get much more when you see the person—the physical gestures and nonverbal communication,” notes Levinson. “One of the things about media evolution that I explored in my doctoral dissertation is that we develop media that are increasingly natural but are also propelled by what we feel we most need. The reason I believe that holography has not developed in the last 70 years as fast as it might have is that people felt that they didn’t need the third dimension too much until now.” The discussion about holography in literature has become a source of inspiration. “I do have a new Phil D'Amato novel,” Levinson muses. “You’re getting me so excited about this that maybe I’ll put some holograms in that as well!”