June 7, 2009

Forget About Flash Gordon


Not long ago, CNN ran a big story that posed the question, “Why did our science fiction future fizzle?”

            At first I was a little irked. After all, I’d just published a novel in which that very question comes up more than once. Plus I was in the midst of collaborating on something else in which that question plays a central role. But you sure as hell didn’t see CNN pounding on my door, did you? Not that I would’ve answered if they did, but it’s the principle of the thing.

            Then with teeth gritted, I read the story. Turns out it was mostly a plug for a book written by some other guy who’s equally obsessed with the question.

            According to the movies, cartoons, magazines and books that filled my early youth, by the year 2000, space travel was supposed to be as commonplace for the general public as a subway ride. We were supposed to have vacation colonies on the moon and hydrogen-powered flying cars. The first manned mission would be on its way to Jupiter in search of mankind’s true destiny, and war against anything but invading aliens would be a thing of the past.

            Obviously, we took a detour along the way and never found our way back to the main road.

            But that’s okay. To be honest I never really cared much about any of those things. I was always much more anxious to see the futures I was promised as I got a little older—the ones in which we all had ape slaves, where the island of Manhattan was turned into a maximum security federal prison, where an evil computer had taken over the world, and where pollution and overpopulation had drastically reduced the food supply, forcing us to resort to cannibalism. All of those things, likewise, were supposed to be here before 2000. They struck me as much more realistic goals, given our fundamental nature.

            While the use of apes as slave labor isn’t widespread yet, the apes are already revolting; Manhattan does indeed boast a number of prison-like qualities; our daily lives are controlled by computers; and who really knows what the hell we’re eating anymore?

            In other words, we aren’t there yet, but we’re close enough that I can still hold out hope that I’ll see the second set of futures realized in my lifetime.

            The fellow being interviewed by CNN seemed mostly concerned with two gadgets he’d been promised: jet packs and flying cars. Both things do in fact exist, he pointed out, and they’ve existed for quite awhile. The reason they aren’t in wide use is fairly simple, he said. Jet packs use a lot of fuel very quickly and can’t really travel that far. Flying cars, meanwhile, would cause traffic jams in the airspace above major cities.

            The real reason they weren’t in wide use, however, is that with both devices, incidents of drunk driving and road rage would lead to much worse accidents. We don’t have these futuristic gizmos because people are stupid, self-absorbed assholes. In other words, human behavior is the reason we didn’t get the future we’d been promised.

            While there may be some truth to that answer—it’s pretty much the same reason I felt more confident expecting the worst—when the question is something banal like “What kind of fancy toys will we have?” I think this guy is approaching it from the wrong direction.

            Before you start wondering about specific gadgets like jet packs, there’s still that question of what went wrong. My own dystopian dreams aside, why aren’t we living in the sleek and glorious hydrogen-powered utopia we were promised back in the forties and fifties?

            The answer, simple-minded as it may be is still better than blaming everything on stupid angry drunks (we get blamed for everything). It sure ain’t because we don’t have the technology. No, the answer is that there are just too many corporations out there with too much money invested in keeping us earthbound and distracted and miserable. It’s cheaper and easier for the auto industry to keep us on the road and using lots of gas. The communications industry needs to keep us isolated in order to justify the use of expensive gizmos to contact someone who lives right next door. The advertising industry keeps turning novelties into necessities without which life would be impossible. And that “necessary” technology (and everything else) must be made so cheaply and shoddily that it needs to be replaced every six months with a newer, fancier, more complicated version that will break even sooner, thus keeping us distracted and preventing us from ever actually doing anything worthwhile with it. In short, it boils down to money, like everything else.

            If you stop and look at the future we’re living in (because we are without question living in the future), what do we have? Well, space travel is open to members of the public, so long as they have a billion dollars to drop on a seat. Manhattan may not be a maximum security prison in the usual sense, but if you aren’t rich, you sure aren’t welcome there. Given that a lot of young Trekkies went on to become R&D people for electronics firms, most of the futuristic gizmos we do have at our disposal are based on Star Trek props—communicators, tricorders, and even primitive phasers (which of course are called “tasers”). The futuristic form of transportation is the SUV (forget about those hybrids and other eco-friendly cars—we’ll be back to SUVs within five years). The rest of it amounts to the Internet, videogames, and various forms of surveillance technology. Apart from the toys and games, we’re essentially living in 1974.

            You might say that the Future with which we have been presented isn’t what it is because people are stupid, self-absorbed assholes—it’s one in which everyone has become a stupid, self-absorbed asshole.

            Of course being a bit of a Luddite myself, worrying about what sorts of high-whiz gadgets we have isn’t exactly a pressing issue. Yet with those same Luddite proclivities, I can still hold on to a rational hope that we might still see that all-out ape rebellion and some widespread cannibalism to ease the inevitable world-wide food shortages. No gadgets needed for those!


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