From this limited perspective, Fritz Lang's remarkable 1927 film, Metropolis, resembles visionary works such as E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1908) and Karel Capuk's R.U.R. (1920), each drawing in no small part from earlier SF writings, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) or the lesser known Copellia by Arthur Saint-Leon (among others). The machinic imagination of mankind, in a sense, has always been a part of SF's consciousness, right from the earliest "true" SF novel, Frankenstein, to the most important (stylistically and philosophically) productions of the era traditionally know as the "Pulp Era" -- a more accurate label would be "The Formative Era."*
here) and E.M. Forster's technological consciousness. Lang's film does not shy away from the profound terror that the marriage of religion (broadly speaking), politics, and industrialization (might have) produce(d) -- bodies worn down, bit by bit, until there are no bodies left to move the machine (thus, the machine "stops"); class systems split between laborious dystopias (the under "world") and glorious utopias (the great city of Metropolis itself);** the religious iconography of the broken utopian dream (all hail the machine) and the socialist revolutionary (she is our savior from evil, for she brings us messages from the heart, not from the machine); and the groundbreaking imagination of Lang himself, who made Metropolis into a reminder that utopia has a cost.
No wonder, then, that these writers (Lang, Forster, and London, in particular) were never utopians, but realists who could not fathom the future without the immense, distressing struggle to shatter the machinic nature of man. Metropolis, as an example, cannot help but tear down the foundations of the Industrial Revolution's grand dreams by stripping mankind of its humanity, literally and figuratively.
That these sorts of narratives appear frequently in the two or three decades after the turn of the century (20th, rather) seems somewhat expected, if only because we have the gift of retrospection. The Industrial Revolution (the 1st and 2nd, really, since there were two distinct "moments") promised a "new" world (a frontier, if you will). Lang is just one of many who apparently didn't see the "good" in the "new." What he saw, if Metropolis is any indication, was the death of the human as an autonomous subject. It shouldn't surprise us, then, that the same arguments are being had about the digital technologies of "tomorrow." Is our increasingly digital (read "networked") culture yet another threat to human sovereignty, or will we weather this just like we did the Industrial Revolution? Let's wait and see who tries to be the next Fritz Lang...
*The first 20-30 years of the 1900s were instrumental in the creation of SF as an actual genre. Many critics include Frankenstein as SF only because it fits part of the "mold" developed by writers, editors, and publishers during the Pulp Era. In truth, it is not SF in the generic sense, but rather in the sense of a literary history.
**Ursual K. Le Guin would play with this idea in her incredible short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" many decades later. There are also elements of this theme in Logan's Run (the film, which I wrote about here) and many other great works from the Golden Age to the New Wave and on.
***I'm imagining dialogue that does not exist in Metropolis here.