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.
As you’ve likely heard by now, there’s been big news in the particle physics world this past week. CERN managed to discover a Higgs boson particle. Why is this a big deal? Well, my physics knowledge is fairly basic, but from what I gather, the Higgs boson is the particle that gives things mass. In essence, it is the thing that makes physical matter possible. This, as you can imagine, is a HUGELY important little particle. Without it, the world as we know it would not exist. Hence, it’s been called ‘the God Particle’.
In the Higgs boson, science fiction authors across the world suddenly have new and interesting ways to envision the future. Already, folks have been discussing the applications of the Higgs, and this is just the beginning. The Higgs boson gives hard sci-fi authors ways to explain FTL travel, antigravity, teleportation, and a bunch of other things without having to resort to the discovery of ‘handwavium’ on some distant world or the use of wishy-washy science babble to explain wild concepts. This is a really cool time to be writing hard scifi.
(Note to self: start writing more hard sci fi)
It’s always interesting to see what science fiction sees as the technology of our future. It is almost always colored by what they thought, at the time, was the Next Big Thing. In Asimov’s Foundation series, for instance, he present nuclear power as the gateway to things like hyperspace travel, personal energy shields, advanced industrial cutting equipment, and host of other things. Heck, they even irradiated their dishes to clean them. Today, such advances seem either irresponsible or ridiculous, mostly since we know a good deal more about nuclear power than we did and know that it wouldn’t be terribly useful in many of those applications, and mostly because the average person doesn’t want to die from radiation exposure.
Earlier than that, HG Wells used balloons to explain time travel in The Time Machine, theorizing that travel through time wasn’t substantially different than any other kind of travel–we simply lacked the technology to move forth dimensionally at will, just as man kind lacked the capacity to move in the third dimension at will until the advent of the balloon. Likewise, in War of the Worlds, the Martians arrive here in ballistic capsules that are fired from Mars to Earth from, presumably, very large cannons. This would demonstrate the Victorian era’s skepticism towards rocketry as a useful science. Oh, how wrong they were.
But, of course, this sneering down our nose needs to be accompanied with a fair amount of humility. We’re also probably wrong, you see. Predicting the future is never a good gamble, and what we think will be the Next Big Thing today might very well be a complete bust. Likewise, that gadget we’ve left by the wayside or decided to ignore (e.g. nuclear fission) might, in fact, be the very thing we find solves a myriad of problems in years to come. There is simply no way to tell, since science isn’t the kind of field that obeys deadlines or gives up its secrets easily. This is, ultimately, why I think all avenues of scientific research should be pursued. Someday, when we least expect it, the silliest thing we can imagine will wind up being the most important thing in the world.
I mean, c’mon, if I told you in 1982 that, in thirty years, they’d find a little particle that makes everything around you ‘actual’ and it was only found by creating a giant racetrack for subatomic particles at a cost of billions of dollars, you’d be skeptical. Then you’d probably watch something on Betamax, just for irony’s sake.