One of the problems with looking for historical analogies is that history doesn’t repeat itself (it only rhymes, according to Samuel Clements).

And, one of the problems with looking for literary historical analogies is that you have to have a profound knowledge of both history and literature or you’re going to wind up merely representing the limits of your own present. Why? Because literary history is a tangled mess of conflicting representations, their multiple interpretations, and their disputed historical location.

That’s why I was disappointed to see this from the otherwise excellent writers at io9.com. The article demonstrates a lack of knowledge of history, fiction, and science fiction.

An omnislash is in order, though it may seem rude.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

We could be headed for a great adventure. Or apocalypse. Either way, we’re in for a wild ride.

By Annalee Newitz
Sunday, January 4, 2009; B01

When the present promises only economic hardship and political upheaval, what does the future look like?

In 2009, it looks like a world of gleaming spaceships filled with enlightened people who have emerged with their humanity intact after a terrible war. They have entered the 23rd century, shed racism, no longer use money, possess seemingly magical technologies and are devoted to peaceful exploration. I refer of course to “Star Trek” and its powerful story of a better tomorrow, which has been mesmerizing audiences for almost half a century and returns to movie theaters this coming May with an eagerly anticipated 11th full-length feature.

But that gleaming future has absolutely nothing to do with the present and how we view our immediate prospects. Instead, it’s a bit of mid-60’s utopianism which is still being marketed today, a task so difficult that it has to undergo a “reboot,” which is a word I hope I never hear again. If that world weren’t 45 years out of date, it wouldn’t need such a face-lift.

But wait. The future also looks like this: a dark, violent world where a horrific war between humans and cyborgs leads to the near-extermination of humanity. This vision, in the latest “Terminator” movie, is also arriving at your nearest mutiplex in May.

Uh, no. That represents a re-packaging of late-cold-war paranoia: that a nuclear holocaust would wipe us all out and we’d have no notice and little chance of survival. The only twist is that defense systems take over for themselves, so the joke’s on the US and USSR. That’s the world I grew up in and I recognize it, but it’s 20 years out of date.

We imagine the future in places other than the movie theater, of course. Still, these two familiar franchises underscore the conflicting stories we tell ourselves in uncertain times about what lies ahead: Either we’re bound for a techno-utopia of adventure, or a grim, Orwellian dystopia where humanity is on the brink of implosion.

I cannot disagree more. The only reason these franchises persist is because American media companies are scared shitless and will only put money into things they know, which they assume are sure things. These two franchises stumble forward like freshly decapitated corpses. They do not speak for us. They cannot.

We’ve seen this dichotomy before. Nearly a century ago, Europe was headed toward war on an unprecedented scale. Traditional alliances evaporated, shocking new weapons ripped apart bodies and countries, and a generation of artists such as Picasso responded with paintings that showed reality reduced to unsettling, jagged abstraction.

Well, Picasso also reduced nudes to “unsettling, jagged abstraction.” So what? The impact of the horror of WWI is overstated. It did not stop the war, it did not prevent a stupid peace that led to another war, and it did not do anything to restrain the ferocity of the subsequent, inevitable war.

Meanwhile, a pulp writer from Chicago named Edgar Rice Burroughs was concocting stories about a soldier who wakes up one morning in a miraculous, futuristic world full of lost cities, advanced technologies and little green men.

“A Princess of Mars,” serialized in 1912, was the first in a long line of swashbuckling adventure tales Burroughs wrote about his hero, John Carter, sword-fighting and ray-gunning his way across Barsoom — the natives’ name for Mars. Carter and his new Barsoomian companions fought wars like the one the United States itself would soon be fighting. But they were winnable wars, against comprehensible, easy-to-vanquish alien enemies.

As I’ve recently admitted, I was a childhood fan of Burroughs. But there was nothing forward-looking about his work. That’s why he could so easily leap from Barsoom to Africa: they were trashy, pulp derivatives of long-established “great white hunter” stories, merely substituting radium for gunpowder.

Burroughs, who also went on to publish the Tarzan novels, supplied escapist fantasies of the future to a public weary of the grim, terrifying present. It’s clear that hard times make audiences yearn for fantastical tales of a better tomorrow. During the paranoid heights of the Cold War, they thronged movie theaters to see Leslie Nielsen conquer the alien technology of “Forbidden Planet.” But in between the escapist fantasies of tomorrow, audiences also tuned in to grim tales of techno-fascist futures such as “Brave New World” and “1984.”

When do these last coincide? Do you mean that the 1956 radio play of the 1931 novel coincides with the 1956 sci-fi rendition of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as “Forbidden Planet” is somehow significant? Or did you mean the 1980 made-for-TV movie, or the 1998 made-for-TV movie?

The best example of our polarized dreams of tomorrow came during the Great Depression. During this period, Americans couldn’t get enough of Buck Rogers, a 20th-century soldier who falls into a coma and miraculously awakes in the 25th century. The story of his adventures, originally published as two novellas, became a long-running radio and movie serial and a newspaper comic strip that ran through most of the 1930s.

Like John Carter on Barsoom, Buck and his comrades are fighting a war — in this case, against the Mongols. But war isn’t hell; it’s a backdrop for awesome adventures and astonishing inventions. Later, the Flash Gordon comics and radio show competed with Buck Rogers for audiences craving escapism. Flash found himself on the Barsoom-esque planet Mongo, fighting the “Han” and swashbuckling his way through weird places filled with strange natives and sexy queens.

But while Buck and Flash crossed swords on the radio, a very different idea of the future was being prophesied by British writer Aldous Huxley, who published “Brave New World” in 1932. The novel takes place in a 26th century where strife has been eliminated by means of state-controlled eugenics, mental conditioning, drugs and various technological niceties. Like a Buck Rogers in reverse, our hero Bernard finds himself alienated from the urban world of perfect plenty and promiscuity and repulsed by the “savage reservations” where unmodified humans live. In “Brave New World,” Buck’s shiny future is revealed as an insidious, high-tech fascism.

The difference is that Buck Rogers and John Carter were adventure serials intended for a mass audience and Aldous Huxley was an intellectual supremacist who thought that LSD was some sort of nerd sacrament. Different writers, different milieux, different story. Utopian thought is also not peculiar to this period or to economic downturns in general. It’s a particularly persistent theme in American fiction in particular (which is probably why realism had to get started in France).

The basic question raised by Buck Rogers and “Brave New World” is whether humans would be more prosperous in the far future than in the 1930s. The answer? Humans in both tales live in worlds of seemingly unlimited wealth. Whether that represents an improvement is a matter of debate.

Holy fuck! I haven’t read Brave New World in a while, but if you think the issue at stake was “will we have more money,” you’ve missed the boat. Brave New World shows an institutionalization of the class differences that had been exacerbated by the robber barons, etc., of the turn of the century from a perspective that could not anticipate the development of a broader middle class with its attendant, mostly democratic sensibilities. For a sense of that, see Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. In Huxley’s time, the only viable successors to a caste system were fascism and communism.

In the post-World War II period, it seemed as if the wealthier future had arrived, at least for many in America. A more bountiful tomorrow was no longer a source of moral ambiguity, especially in Robert Heinlein’s wildly popular young adult novels of the 1940s and ’50s, including “Space Cadet,” “The Rolling Stones” and “Have Space Suit — Will Travel.” In these stories, nice kids and adventurous families, blessed with a seemingly endless supply of rocket ships and fuel, romp through the sprawling offworld colonies of the solar system.

Heinlein was also a closet Spartan, and the trials he depicts are rites of passage that entitle one to a place in society (Tunnel in Space, Starship Troopers). He was also paid by the word. And it showed. If you want to see Heinlein’s vision of the future, don’t read his pulp, read Stranger in a Strange Land and consider the shit he went through to get it published.

Films such as “Forbidden Planet” splashed this vision of the future across hundreds of movie screens. A heroic space captain (played by an earnest Leslie Nielsen) leads his intrepid crew to a planet where a lone scientist and his nubile daughter bask in a world of endless riches. But the astronauts are menaced by an amorphous, deadly creature which, it turns out, is created by powerful alien technology, buried beneath the planet’s surface, that “manifests” aspects of the scientist’s “unconscious mind” — savage, invisible monsters that strive to protect his daughter from the Nielsen character’s advances.

No. Shakespeare. Tempest.

The film also represents the broad militarization of male society after WWII and the Korean War, sensibilities that are also present in Star Trek TOS.

In these futures of plenty, the one problem that dogs our heroes again and again is the power of technology. In the best-case scenarios, deadly technologies are easily defeated or are put in the hands of right-thinking people who won’t abuse them. Will the high-tech fruits of the Cold War quest for knowledge destroy us? These stories say no.

No. Star Trek TOS says yes. Star Trek TNG says yes. Star Trek Voyager says yes. Star Trek Enterprise says yes. All refer specifically to both Eugenics Wars and WWIII. Star Trek: First Contact shows the results. Aside from cheap booze and doo-wop, the world is pretty much gone. It takes Vulcans to save humanity.

But darker views from the Cold War offer authoritarian futures where technology wipes humans out entirely (as in the nuclear wasteland of “On the Beach”) or is used to brainwash populations into submission. Televisions are among the most insidious technologies depicted in Cold War dystopias. The book-burning masses in Ray Bradbury‘s “Fahrenheit 451,” first published in 1953, are addicted to interactive, wall-size TVs. And in Orwell’s “1984,” published in 1949, the population is both pacified and monitored by the omnipresent telescreens in every home and workplace. While Orwell and Bradbury were writing, the menace of the near future came from atomics. But the threat of the far future seemed to emanate from a technology that destroyed populations by controlling their minds rather than blasting apart their atoms.

Actually, the literary reaction to mass-marketing and the mass-mentality that goes with it was already well-established. It’s even visible in the scorn e. e. cummings heaps on advertising and polite society.

The first wave of the Cold War was temporarily stilled in the wake of the political and social upheavals of the 1960s. While previous generations had worried about future prosperity and scientific progress, far-future stories of this new era asked a single stark question: In a world of scarce resources and constant war, would Homo sapiens survive at all?

Partial answers came in movies such as “Soylent Green,” in which overpopulation and food shortages have forced the world into cannibalism. And the far future series “Planet of the Apes” depicts humans as the new wild animals in a world ruled by hyper-intelligent simians. These films, and many others like them, blamed humanity’s demise on its abuse of nature.

The change here is technological, not economic. No one had had to contemplate anything like atomic weapons since the Mahabharata, and no one seems to read that one anymore. Furthermore, “Planet of the Apes” is easily misread if you don’t take the author’s perspective: citizen of a declining empire, retracting not only geographically but ethnically. The narrators (present in the framing device) return home to find that Earth, too, is a “Planet of the Apes.” The darkies are taking over after what we did to them. Be afraid.

But this era also marked the beginning of the utopian Star Trek franchise, which spawned spinoffs, movies, comics, conventions, subcultures, costume contests and books that are still ragingly popular today.

Like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Star Trek has its easy-to-understand enemies, the alien Klingons and the Romulans. But wars against them don’t undermine the basic message of the story, which is that humanity has evolved into something better.

Of course, this year Star Trek will do battle at the box office with Terminator’s human-destroying cyborg carnage. Though their visions of the future are dramatically different, both movies share one basic premise: Despite hardship, humanity will survive. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Again, I have to disagree. These things are hitting the screen for the same reason that Brittany Spears still has a career: someone with lots of authority and little imagination thinks he can make money off of them.

Media franchises are not a democracy. They are the product of an oligopoly that has little regard either for its product or its audience. That’s something I learned by reading io9.com.

For the sake of not being all criticism and contributing nothing of my own, here’s what I’ve said on the subject:

Human history did not end with the industrial revolution or the Cold War. Nor are changes in human societies linear enough that we can project them into the future without making fools of ourselves. Gerry Anderson, working on the series “UFO” in 1969, thought that race would cease to matter in the US by 1980. Considering the social changes that Anderson lived through, I can see why he might have assumed those changes would continue. And perhaps it’s unfair to seize on 1980 and race, when characters of color actually became more rare in American entertainment in that decade, as the great white revanche provided cover for Grand Theft Economics. Race relations deteriorated, social liberation was at least supposed to have been rolled back and for a while, that was supposed to be a good thing. We might as well pick on Anderson for thinking that wigs would return to men’s fashion, too, by 1980. Other than Reagan’s shoe-polish head, Gerry was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Our freedoms, our standard of living, even the space program itself, all of these things have suffered miserable setbacks in my lifetime. So why should I assume that “the future” entails “improvement”?

Instead, in the act of world building, science fiction should take into account how mass society will react to the physical environment we’re constructing. What previous, latent elements will reemerge? How will these changes influence the future’s representation of the past? How will they mis-remember us, for instance? What prejudices will supplant which other prejudices, since it’s reflexive to despise what you don’t know/can’t have, and easy to make power out of dimmer people’s fears?

Same shit, different century. New toys to accessorize the ceaseless games of hypergamy. New schemes to con the many into subsidizing the luxury of the few under the pretense of the natural, the good, the just, or the divine, all the usual lies. Lies, suffering, distruction, false starts, misrepresentations and disappointments: all the things that make for good drama.

Even physics began to cope with the same ambiguities that soft sci-fi has abused (Einstein denounced quantum physics for its vagueness; paradigmatic shifts are often generational ones, says Kuhn). These are just further examples that show how long ago their era has passed.

But [E. E. “Doc”] Smith’s portrayal of the future was mired in his modern past. “Mind” is some abstract force that can be divorced from physical being. Humanity is bred to remove “weaknesses,” whatever those are supposed to be. Maybe Smith should have called his series “The Lenzmen”? The force for good is transcendent. The force for evil is materialist. The war is two-sided and the sides are clear. The good manipulates humanity to serve good through means that are incomprehensible to all but a select, purified few.

Great. You’ve just reinvented dualist cosmology. Zarathustra’s lawyer is on the phone. They’re threatening to sue. Since George Lucas just settled with Jesus Christ for an undisclosed sum, I think we should cooperate.

The crisis of authority of the 1960’s isn’t written on Roddenberry’s Star Trek because he was the product of the prior generation, not the one taking shape at that time. TNG reinvented both the Klingons (i.e., from wily oriental gentlemen to teutonic warriors) and the Vulcans (i.e., from totally logical to just pretending to be and very annoying) because those depictions of good and evil had become laughable.

And what sensibilities will our own generation project into the future? You could start with the utter contempt for authority, not of the rebellious and reforming 60’s variety, but instead the cynicism of people who’ve been sold every form of idealism and “good versus evil” only to find that they were listening to a con man. This downturn accompanies the decline of an empire, our, not its emergence.

I see a black future in the minds of your audience. In fact, I enjoy writing for it.

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