Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Planet Of The Baldwins

Monrovia, California

July 11, 2014

Well, I just re-read that last posting, and it reads a bit like a mediocre commencement speech, which of course wasn't my intention.  It was a fragment of an idea I'd been gnawing at for some time and just couldn't quite finish the right way.  But what the hell, it's only a blog, a mere step above a Facebook posting or a tweet.  At least I didn't tell you what I did over the 4th of July weekend or post a selfie taken at a restaurant or a photo of a cat or dog doing something cute.  By the way, though, do you remember that picture of the evolution of man from knuckle-dragging tree-dweller to upright homo sapiens?  I've always wanted to do a version of that using the Baldwin brothers as the primates.  I'd put Stephen first, behind Daniel and William as they became less simian in appearance, with Alec representing modern evolved man (to the extent that anyone from Long Island can be considered as such).

But the bone on which I wish to gnaw today isn't that, exactly.  It's the genre of science fiction.  I'm specifically referring to stories set in the future as differentiated from mytho-fantasy (like the Tolkien-inspired tales of the imaginary past, glorifying monarchy and feudalism, filled with statuesque Viking-like warriors and women with heaving bosoms wearing leather breastplates).  Nor am I referring to anything having to do with vampires or zombies.  Lots of people love science fiction.  I suppose they figure it's a way to imagine something that hasn't happened yet.  But it really isn't, especially when it's about a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future, which most of science fiction is.  It's really a way of expressing fears about the present as differentiated from the more stable and safer past.  Essentially it's nostalgia, one of my favorite betes noire. Rarely if ever do good things happen in science fiction. You're supposed to think the story's about the future, but what's really going on with most science fiction is that the author is pissed off with things as they are, and wishes to push the present to its worst logical conclusion.  And of course what's behind that motive is a longing for things to be as they once were.  Naturally there are some exceptions to this rule, including the very intelligent works of Douglas Adams, which make fun of the limiting agendas under which most sci-fi writers labor while also making fun of the bureaucratic present.  But most of the genre is just as I've described it.  It may begin with a premise based on some current scientific breakthrough, such as nuclear fission or advanced robotics or gene splicing, but what happens is pretty much always the same, that is, that things get quickly out of hand and go freakishly bad, or they're already that way because, in the time between the author's present and the date when the story is set, something cataclysmic happened.  Nuclear war is a biggie, but there's also alien invasions and the latest worldwide source of fear, climate change.  So the story is usually either dismal or scary of both, and almost always carries the same implicit warning:  "Be careful of progress!  It can go too far too fast, and we won't be able to handle it!"

So what's wrong with such a warning? you may ask.  Shouldn't we be at least a little afraid of progress?  Shouldn't we be worried about the future?  The answer is, simply, no.  Not because bad stuff isn't happening all around us even as we speak.  And not because bad stuff isn't likely to happen in the future, perhaps as the result of what we're doing now.  It does, and it will, without a doubt.  But we have never heeded our own warnings in the past, and we aren't likely to begin doing so anytime soon.  The advantages of progress simply outweigh its disadvantages, and so it continues.  This isn't really conscious on our part; it's biological.  Any there's no point in worrying, since although things will most definitely change, they will do so in ways we cannot possibly anticipate right now.  We've never been good at anticipating the consequences of our actions.  What we're much better at is making adjustments once the damage has been done.  That's how we roll as a species.  Change is the only constant.  So relax and enjoy the ride.
The situation on which the sci-fi author bases his or her vision of the future is essentially just the present writ larger or more frightening or transferred onto another planet.  Which is why science fiction becomes almost instantly dated, and as a result, silly.  Just watch any old sci-fi movie from the 1950s, or an episode of Twilight Zone.  The space ships have primitive dials and gizmos from what is now pre-modern air travel, superimposed on some unimaginable cataclysmic event in the future.  Even the stories that try to break out of the box a little have to use the information and technology at hand when they're written, so that in Star Trek, for instance, people dress a little like people actually dressed in the late 60s, wearing tunics that make them look like they could be swinging with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion.  Oh, and pointed ears and sideburns, for whatever that signifies.  And of course the women are always buxom and always wear tight-fitting and revealing costumes.  Some things never change.  Ultimately the impetus for most science fiction is the mindset of the adolescent male, resulting in combat-filled jerk-off fantasies.  (Oh wait...that describes pretty much all entertainment, doesn't it?)

Another bit of silliness is the fact that most (though not all) science fiction movies and stories are not set far enough into the future to prevent them from outstripping their own days of reckoning, so to speak.  "The year is 2023, and bioengineering and robotics have relegated humans to the status of helpless subordinates to the monsters of science."   Or "The year is 1999 and pollution and overpopulation have overtaken the cities, causing the government to scoop people up and turn them into food." Or "The year is 1984, and Stalinism has attained its apotheosis."

Yet another aspect of science fiction I find to be ridiculous is the whole subject of travel to or from other planets and galaxies.  Space is quite simply too large to make this practicable.  Are we alone in the universe?  Of course not, but assuming there are beings out there who resemble us, as well as ones that differ from us, we won't be encountering them even if they can travel many eons at the speed of light.  Just too damn far to go for too little in return.  If they're smart enough to travel this far they're smart enough to know they don't want to waste their time coming here.  Why would they?  For the burgers and fries?  For Disneyland?  For Facebook?  Give me a break.

One of the things such science fiction usually overlooks is the incredibly long life of the infrastructure of most places, an intransigence that is built into life because of the high cost of and amount of work it takes to construct things, and because of the entrenchment of our institutions.  Highways are built to last for decades, and as long as they're around there will be automobiles, not little flying spacecraft flitting between buildings.  For one thing, such craft would be ridiculously expensive compared to cars, and for another the air traffic control situation in a three-dimensional world would be too formidable.  In all the time automobiles have dominated the human scene--a century now, in which other incredible advances have been made in medicine, air travel, astrophysics, you name it--the basic style of land travel has not changed in any fundamental way.  Roads have become smoother and wider and cars have become faster, but roads are still roads and cars are still cars.  And guess what?  They still run on petroleum and electricity, for the most part, just as they did a hundred years ago.  That's because some things are just too ponderous to change in a few decades, and the people who build them have a vested interest in keeping them the same.  While progress has been fast in some respects (electronics and telecommunications for example), in other respects it has been comparatively slow.  If a science fiction writer is at all interested in something approaching verisimilitude (as oxymoronic as that concept might be within the realm of the genre) the writer should set things in a future too distant to be disproved during the lifetime of the author or his contemporary audience.

Personally I look forward to seeing the things that really are going to change, as differentiated from the purely speculative and outlandish ones like alien visitation. For instance, I like the idea of global warming. The inundation of south Florida, for example, will be enjoyable to watch.  Also, it might be fun to go see what Greenland and Antarctica look like underneath all that ice.  It'll be interesting to see what kinds of technological challenges will be encountered and met by humans in response to climate change, and I hope I live to see some of them.  One thing is for sure--there's no use worrying about it.  It's going to happen, and definitely in some ways that prove to be wildly unexpected.  It's too damn late to change it, even if we wanted to.  Let's stop wringing our hands and stop making all those stupid movies about it.  Or to put it in another way, in the words of that old Jethro Tull song "Locomotive Breath,"
The train it won't stop going
No way to slow down.

The changes that will take place in the future are sometimes fun to imagine, and I'm sure that's part of the charm of science fiction.  But the imagining will prove for the most part to be utterly wrong.  In the short run, and probably in the much longer run, we are going to continue to live not on the Planet of the Apes, but on the Planet of the Baldwins, from which, it appears, there is to be no escape.