Does Paris Syndrome Have a Place In Speculative Fiction?

paris syndrome in science fiction

Paris Syndrome is one of those things that everyone’s heard about but most people haven’t experienced. It’s a result of high expectations of a place, primarily Paris, hence the name, and the resulting disappointment when the place doesn’t live up to the hype.

It seems like a very specific condition, and it is, and in this article, I want to dissect how Paris Syndrome plays a part in science fiction, or, how it might.

What is Paris Syndrome?

For centuries, Paris has been a travel destination for people from all over the world, from all walks of life. The city has a rich history of intrigue and romance, and often, the hype around the city is far more exaggerated than what the city has to offer.

Paris Syndrome was coined by Japanese psychiatrist Hiroaki Ota when he worked at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center in France. The condition, as Ota states, is primarily seen in Japanese tourists who visit Paris. The high expectations set by magazines, media, and travel advertisements—like how people think Paris is filled with models, millionaires, and artists—are the primary cause of Paris Syndrome.

It’s worth noting that the condition comes in two forms—the people that had predetermined mental conditions that were triggered by the realization that Paris isn’t a city of glamour and romance, and those people that had no prior history of mental conditions.

Those who suffer from Paris Syndrome often display delusions, hallucinations, anxiety, and in severe cases, derealization and depersonalization. Not to mention the psychosomatic effects, like dizziness, sweating, trouble breathing, and vomiting.

The condition was deemed so serious that the Sainte-Anne Hospital and the Japanese Embassy set up a department to assist Japanese travelers suffering from Paris Syndrome.

How Does Paris Syndrome Apply To Sci Fi?

While the original use of the term Paris Syndrome was to describe Japanese travelers experiencing a place that hadn’t lived up to their expectations, it can also be used to describe the same situation in different cities, regions, countries, etc.

When I was reading about Paris Syndrome, even just the simple article I’d found, a thought crossed my mind. How severe would Paris Syndrome be in the future? For a time-traveler, maybe, or for someone so sheltered from society that they experience the extreme effects of Paris Syndrome.

Imagine a character who had been living in a rural area far removed from a cyberpunk city in the future, that all of their perceptions of the place were from advertisements, news, or second-hand accounts. Now imagine they visit the city and are so overwhelmed by its neon bulbs, drugs, crime, and all-around nastiness that they start to have hallucinations and delusions. To me, at least, it sounds reasonable.

Even traveling from a small, Pennsylvanian town to NYC for the first time, I was anxious, felt closed-in and constantly watched, and generally uncomfortable. What would that experience be like in a sci fi world?

I started looking for examples of Paris Syndrome in science fiction literature, and I uncovered some interesting things.

“Border Control”

The first story I came across was the flash piece, “Border Patrol” by Liam Hogan, published in The Arcanist.

I’m familiar with Hogan’s work from when I worked on the Triangulation anthology series, as he was a regular contributor. His work has always been interesting and thought-provoking, and this story was no different.

In this micro-fiction piece, Hogan thinks about what Paris Syndrome would be like for time travelers. And rightfully so. The future holds so many possibilities, it’s easy to create a grand illusion of what it would be like. But, it’s probably much darker and mundane that we imagine it to be.

I suppose the same would apply to the past. If you traveled back into the past, say, the 1920s, you might expect Gatsby-style parties, car-rides through growing cities, and unprecedented wealth. However, your hopes would be dashed when you landed in the trash-strewn streets of New York, where the average American is still grieving their losses of WWI and struggling to get by.

Speaking of war, let’s get to our next example:

The Forever War

After picking r/sciencefiction’s braintrust, I realized that The Forever War by Joe Haldeman has elements of Paris Syndrome, while not named as such.

 the forever war

For those of you who haven’t read The Forever War, the premise is that the world’s most elite military recruits are sent into space to wage an impossible war with the Taurans. Because of their tech and their missions in the farthest reaches of our galaxy, time passes much more quickly on Earth than it does for the recruits waging war.

When they finally return to Earth, so much time has passed on their home planet that they don’t recognize it at all. And that’s where Paris Syndrome comes in.

Instead of finding their place in the futuristic Earth, they mourn so much for the place that they knew and had dreamt about while at war that they reenlist. They’d much rather return to a galaxy at war than learn to live in a place that so drastically changed shattered their hopes and expectations.

Of course, there are elements of PTSD, but the Paris Syndrome is part of the underlying reason Mandella and Potter return to the Forever War.

Frequently There, Never Named

Even though we might not recognize it, the Paris Syndrome plays a part in many science fiction novels. It’s never noted as being the Paris Syndrome, but the same idea is there.

The Dark Eden series by Chris Beckett has elements of Paris Syndrome, and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin both have shadows of the idea.

the dispossessed

Paris Syndrome is more prevalent that we might think, and it’s certainly a condition that plays—or has the potential to play—a larger part in science fiction literature. Like in The Forever War, the future has so much potential that everyone has their expectations of what it will be like. But, when faced with the harsh reality of things, it turns out to be less ideal than one could have hoped.

I think in many ways, we might all feel Paris Syndrome sometimes, though to a less severe degree than Japanese tourists in France’s pearl. If you’ve ever had high hopes for a new book or show or movie, and then felt wildly disappointed or distraught when it doesn’t live up to your expectations—that’s small scale Paris Syndrome. Especially if there was a lot of hype around it, like positive advertisements, reviews, etc.

What do you think? Is it a stretch to believe Paris Syndrome plays a role in science fiction? Or is it a reasonable hypothesis?

Let us know in the comments below!