I’m in the middle of reading A Lee Martinez’s The Automatic Detective – a classic noir detective novel, except set in the 1950s sci-fi setting of Imperial City and starring, as its detective, reformed killer robot Mack Megaton, erstwhile cab driver turned private eye. It is good solid fun that I heartily recommend, particularly if you like old mid-twentieth century detective stories featuring leggy dames, gangsters, and men in pinstripe suits and hats.
Imperial City, the setting of the novel, has gotten me waxing nostalgic, though, for that time in the not-too-distant past where humanity’s perpetual rise was never in question and our destiny among the stars was seen as the next logical step for a species just lousy with potential. It was a world of rayguns and spiffy silver spaceships, of little green men and ponderous robots, and it was all a really good time.
What we were looking at in that ‘Art Deco Future’, though, was the glittering façade that barricaded over all the ugliness of our mid-20th century world. It was the glow of the postwar era, powered, ironically enough, by the power of the atom. I understand quite well that, for every Spaceman Spiff and Buck Rodgers flying through the cosmos, there was trailing behind him the shadow of white privilege, chauvinism, European Imperialism, and American Exceptionalism. The Art Deco architecture and stylings of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s were proclaiming humanity’s destiny in the future, but we had yet to fully shed the dark shadows of our past.
This is how we wound up with Phillip K Dick and, later, William Gibson. Space began to tarnish. Our gleaming space stations collected trash and gutter dwellers and criminals. Corruption and injustice infiltrated the alabaster ranks of the Galactic Council or Federation or Republic or what-have-you. Our own cynicism about the American Dream, as painted by the science fiction of the Golden Age, led to an era of science fiction that doubted itself, that denied its promises, that saw decay and ruin and evil.
Isn’t that a shame?
Today, we are accosted on all sides in science fiction with tales of our own demise – from zombies or aliens or disease or drought or natural disasters or what-have-you. We spend our time with our eyes downcast, prodding our way through the bones of our own civilization, declared dead before its time. Play Bioshock and see this parable played out without subtlety. We see the idealism of the past smashed and warped by the terrible practicality and cynicism of the present. Paradise didn’t work, and so it must, by definition, be nothing more than ruins and trash and misery.
I, at least, miss the time when we looked up to the future instead of down. When we felt we could, with the right amount of hard work and ingenuity, tackle our society’s problems. I miss the gleaming spires of those never-to-exist future cities. I want to see the golden rockets to Mars shooting up their gravity beams and into the great black unknowable. Yes, of course, there never was and never will be such a perfect futuristic world as that imagined by the Jetsons, but so what? Just because something isn’t going to be perfect, doesn’t mean it won’t be good. Come now, let us lift our eyes from the zombie-infested dust. Let us gaze upon the stars. Let us imagine, with reckless impracticality, the gleaming edifice of some new age of humanity, bright and filled with promise.
The only other choice is to ponder our own destruction.