by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Sep 17, 2003
This gripe began as ironic nostalgia when 21st Century reality paled in comparison to the projections of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lately that claim has devolved into a favored lament of grumpy old men in the space community, whose stubborn refusal to acknowledge society's priorities threatens any real effort to advance our presence in space.
A full-bore cranky-geezer rant was delivered recently by science fiction writer Spider (not to be confused with Kim Stanley) Robinson at the World Science Fiction Convention, and adapted as an op-ed article in the Toronto Globe and Mail
The article gives voice to those in the space community who long for a future that never was. Whether in fiction or in policy, many are selling the unwanted solutions of a failed past. They find themselves baffled by their loss of market share, but rather than identifying society's concerns and offering credible solutions, they blame us for our crass refusal to buy their old whine in new bottles.
Robinson argues that science fiction is in a critical and financial decline because "[i]ncredibly, young people no longer find the real future exciting. They no longer find science admirable. They no longer instinctively lust to go to space�. SF's central metaphor and brightest vision, lovingly polished and presented as entertainingly as we know how to make it, has been largely rejected by the world we meant to save."
He is indisputably right about our rejection of the mid-20th Century view of the future. Contemporary culture cannot be understood without a firm grasp of this key truth. But by no means does it follow that a rejection of 1950s "conquest of space" visions means a rejection of science fiction, or a closing of the door to space.
Science fiction has long been what the Western once was: adventures idealizing the values and technologies at the forefront of the newest, most interesting realms. In the Fifties, that meant space, and engineering, and the customs of the technocrat and megaproject engineer.
What typical Cold War-era sci fi produced was a linear extrapolation of technological development while assuming culture as a constant. For all its intentional silliness, the epitome of this view was the cartoon series The Jetsons, with its 1950s nuclear family living in a world of flying cars and talking robots.
That was what the world was supposed to be: mid-century middle-class America reproducing itself endlessly, just with better gadgets. The destruction of that vision, the rejection of that future, is what Robinson laments.
The future we chose, while keeping us planetbound longer than anticipated, has been much more complex. Technology branched into unexpected directions, stifling heavy engineering while innovating in communications at lightspeed. And, most profoundly, culture itself transformed just as rapidly.
Even as a visitor from 1903 would be baffled by the gadgetry of 1953, 1953's citizen would find the customs and values of 2003 much more alien than the prospect of little green men (as milked wonderfully for laughs in the movie Back To The Future).
Those unexpected changes in culture and technology shaped each other. The end of the 1960s saw a rejection of technocracy, for many valid reasons.
Industrial-age organizational methods - standardization, hierarchy, bureaucracy, mass movements - were rejected as dehumanizing and immoral. They were supplanted by better methods - networks, customization, niche marketing - made practicable by technological revolutions in communications and production.
Industrial age attitudes - seeing the environment as a storehouse of resources rather than as our home, nature as a thing to be conquered rather than protected, body-count approaches to warfare - were rejected as well.
Industrial age politics - governmental control of industry, the choice of state-glorifying megaprojects over the health and welfare of the country's citizens - also met with rejection. Nuclear testing near civilian areas ended. Construction projects that poisoned the air and water were successfully opposed.
And space projects with no real goal other than the glorification of the state came to a similar end. Thus, von Braun's state-dominated, heavy engineering dominated future never came to pass.
Would anyone be surprised that stories glorifying these rejected technologies, these rejected politics, these rejected values, declined dramatically in market share?
Yet science fiction has not withered into irrelevant yarns about a long-lost frontier the way the Western did. As technology and culture changed, science fiction transformed along with it.
When human spaceflight stopped being the newest, most interesting realm, science fiction stopped telling so many stories about it. When computer science and communications technology became the new frontier, science fiction developed a new sub-genre, cyberpunk, that took its information technology as seriously as space opera ever took thrust-to-weight ratios.
When cultural change became at least as interesting as technological change, science fiction discovered that engineering and physics weren't the only disciplines about which stories could be told: sociology, psychology and political science found a home in the literature.
Robinson couldn't be farther from the mark in condemning science fiction readers for rejecting the "real future." The "real future" of the Jetsons era died a generation ago, along with Camelot and the Baby Boomers' lost youth. Even the cyberpunk "real future" is now our present, and its great authors are showing gray in their goatees.
Yet there's no Next Big Thing, no hot trend in science fiction, no vision of the future spreading like a virus through the zeitgeist.
And what else would anyone expect? We're finding it hard enough to comprehend our present. Real change is outpacing our imaginations. We haven't really begun to live in the post- 9/11 world. Our future is changing between the morning news and the late-night roundup. Who can envision the technologies and values of twenty years out when we don't even understand what's going on right now?
But the popular imagination has in fact found stories answering its concerns. What is selling, and speaking to contemporary audiences in a way that science fiction is not, is epic fantasy. Rather than speculating on a technological future, fantasy often imagines a preindustrial past, with technology replaced by magic as the means of effecting change. People who have never read a science fiction novel avidly devour the Harry Potter books and line up for the Lord Of The Rings movies.
For Robinson, this turn to fantasy, besides being a rejection of the values of his youth, is a sign of civilization's collapse, of anti-intellectualism, of contempt for reason. While there are shadings of those views in contemporary culture, the truth lies elsewhere.
The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Buffy The Vampire Slayer touch a cultural nerve that little science fiction of late has managed to do. All three are about individual power and responsibility: in each, small, seemingly ordinary people find themselves not just with the power to change their worlds, but with accountability for their actions in doing so.
We long for that sense that we can make a difference, that we are not just mere ants in the hill, that we, rather than the impersonal forces of terrorism, globalism and recession, can shape our lives. We long for responsibility, both in ourselves and in others.
If science fiction has declined in popularity, it's not because authors are only writing tripe, as Robinson alleges. Nor is it because we in the audience are a bunch of superstitious savages. It is because no storyteller has convinced us that our pressing problems have a near-term technological solution.
Most open-minded storytellers and advocates who can read the needs of the audience and respond with fresh solutions are, in fact, talking about something other than a near-term, large-scale movement into space. Many are looking backward, yes. "Where did we go wrong?" Is a much more honest response right now than "here's my military-industrial technological panacea."
Few are preaching the old-time space religion, either in fiction or in advocacy, right now. There are some in both media still writing for the tiny niche market of believers, but we're not drawing crowds because we're not making a widely convincing case.
Some argue that a robust American space program will demonstrate our strength in the world and 'show them dang terrorists.' Show them precisely what is unclear. Robinson himself says that "inconceivable wealth and limitless energy lie right over our heads, within easy reach, and we're too dumb to get them."
Yes: legions of engineers at NASA and entrepreneurial rocket companies are simply "too dumb" to get launch costs down to the point where mining an asteroid is cheaper than mining Kentucky. Kids these days and their liberal educations, no doubt.
Space does provide answers to many social challenges. Just not to the ones at the top of the list. This is why, despite everybody's call for Presidential leadership of the faltering NASA human space program, the White House has issued only bland generalities, and is unlikely ever to do otherwise. Space simply isn't the priority of anyone today other than a tiny hardcore of true believers.
Likewise, space fiction's market share is miniscule, and the Star Trek television franchise, long a touchstone of cultural concerns, is now every bit as lost as the Shuttle program. Let's just be deeply thankful that nobody at JSC has thought to solve the problem with a little orbital T&A.
For those who believe that space is a viable solution to contemporary problems, what can we do?
The answer's very simple: prove it.
For engineers, prove it: build affordable civilian space transportation. However small a start, however humble an effort, prove the concept.
For advocates, prove it: make the case without assuming we're all suddenly transported back to the Fifties, or supplied with zillion-dollar budgets or barrels of unobtanium. Leaders don't whine about how lame their troops are: they train them, educate them, inspire them, and lead.
For storytellers, Spider Robinson included, prove it: if nobody else is writing space fiction that that reaches us where we are, write some. Tell a better story than the fantasists are doing. Show us how a movement into space can give us back our liberty, individuality and power. Make us believe space is the answer.
Or just take your rocking chair out onto the porch and complain there. The rest of us have work to do.
The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column � 2003 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at [email protected]
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Not Culture but Perhaps a Cult
Aug 30, 2003
"I do not believe there is a NASA culture other than a willingness by its engineers to work their butts off to keep us in space. It might be said, however, that there is a Shuttle cult. It is practiced like a religion by space policy makers who simply cannot imagine an American space agency without the Shuttle. Well, I can and it is a space agency which can actually fly people and cargoes into orbit without everybody involved being terrified of imminent death and destruction every time the Shuttle lifts off the pad," writes October Sky author Homer Hickam.
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