The Hollow Men

:::this is the way the world ends:::

Introducing Science Monday — “Where’s My Jetpack?”

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For the next few Mondays I’m going to try to post a science related. Today I’ve expurgated Salon’s review of Daniel H. Wilson’s “Where’s My Jetpack”. You can also read the complete review but if you are not a Salon subscriber you may have to watch an advert.

Staring out of my window in Manhattan’s East Village the other day, it struck me suddenly that the street scene below did not differ in any significant way from how it would have looked in 1967. Maybe even 1947. Oh, the design of automobiles has changed a bit, but combustion-engine-propelled ground-level vehicles are still how we get around, as opposed to flying cars or teleportation. Pedestrians trudge along sidewalks rather than swooshing along high-speed moving travelator. 21st century New York looks distressingly nonfuturistic. For a former science science fiction fanatic like me, this is brutally disappointing.

Nostalgia for the future, neostalgia — whatever you wanna call this peculiar unrequited feeling — is widespread enough to constitute a market. Enter Daniel H. Wilson’s “Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.” This paperback sometimes strikes a melancholy note: A passage on moon colonies, which the New York Times in 1969 predicted were a mere 20 years away, notes that “the centerpiece of Disney’s Tomorrowland attraction was the luxurious Moonliner spaceship. But a future that included giant glass moon domes never appeared. Tomorrowland was torn down.”

Some of the best material here entails a sort of archaeology of stillborn or prematurely abandoned futures. In the 1960s, for instance, concerted attempts were made to build living environments at the bottom of the ocean, in the form of the U.S. Navy’s Sealab program. But instead of aquadome cities nestling on the ocean floor and a massive exodus of pioneers emigrating to settle the briny depths, all that remains today of the dream is a solitary subaquatic hotel, the Jules Undersea Lodge, located just off Key Largo, Fla.…

Another classic futuristic idea made real is “cultured meat,” i.e., animal protein grown in the laboratory, where, Wilson reports, it is repeatedly stretched as a surrogate for physical exercise, in order to give it the texture of a living, active organism. This grotesque technology was memorably anticipated in Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 novel “The Space Merchants,” a corporate dystopia of the 21st century in which peon workers hack slices off a gigantic blob of animate but nonsentient poultry breast called Chicken Little. But in our nonfictional 21st century, the idea languishes in the laboratory thanks to consumer resistance. Our cultural biases reject cultured meat as gross, unnatural, an abomination. Indeed, popular taste is trending the opposite way, toward the organic, the uncaged, the nonprocessed.

Wilson’s talk of space elevators and other grandiose inventions like solar mirrors or the fully enclosed city indicates how our expectations of the “futuristic” have undergone an insidious scaling down in recent decades. Mostly, “the future” seems to infiltrate our lives in a low-key, subtle fashion. In their own way, the miniaturization of communications technology (cellphones, BlackBerrys, etc.) and the compression of information (iPods, MP3s, YouTube, downloadable movies, etc.) are just as mind-blowing as the space stations and robots once pictured as the everyday scenery of 21st century life. Macro simply looks way more impressive than micro.

Sometimes it feels as if progress itself has actually slowed down, with the 1960s as the climax of a 20th century surge of innovation, and the decades that followed consisting of a weird mix of consolidation, stagnation and rollback. Certainly change in the first half of the 20th century seemed to manifest itself in the most dramatic and hubristic manner. It was an era of massive feats of centralized planning and public investment: huge dams; five-year plans of accelerated industrialization; gigantic state-administered projects of rural electrification, freeway construction and poverty banishment. Science fiction writers who grew up with this kind of thing (including the darker side of “public works” — the mobilization of entire populations and economies for war, the Soviet collectivization of peasant farms that resulted in massive famine, genocide) naturally imagined that change would continue to unfold in this dynamic and grandiose fashion. So they foresaw things like the emergence of cities enclosed inside giant skyscrapers and grain harvested by combines the size of small ships voyaging across vast prairies.

The 1950s and 1960s were characterized by future-mindedness, an ethos of foresight that attempted not just to identify probable outcomes but to steer reality toward preferred ones. It’s no coincidence that those decades were the boom years for both sci-fi and a spirit of neophilia in the culture generally — the streamlined and shiny aesthetic of modernity that embraced plastics, man-made fabrics and glistening chrome as the true materials of the New Frontier.

Today we seem to have trouble picturing the future, except in cataclysmic terms or as the present gone worse (“Children of Men”). Our inability to generate positive and alluring images of tomorrow’s world has been accompanied by the fading prominence of futurology as a form of popular nonfiction. It carries on as an academic discipline, as research and speculation conducted by think tanks and government-funded bodies. But there are no modern equivalents of Buckminster Fuller or Alvin Toffler. The latter, probably still the most famous futurologist in the world, warned in his 1970 bestseller “Future Shock” that change was moving too fast for ordinary citizens’ nervous systems and adaptive mechanisms to cope with; 1980’s “The Third Wave” sounded a more positive note about the democratic possibilities of technology. But Toffler was just the most visible exponent of a bustling paperback subgenre of “popular thought.”.

In the ’80s, thinking about the future in nonnegative terms seemed to become almost impossible. Yesteryear seemed more attractive: Postmodernism and retro recycling ruled popular culture, while politically the presiding spirits of the era, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, were dedicated to restoration of an older order, to rolling back the gains of the abhorred ’60s… and the bestsellers in the “popular thought” tended to be jeremiads and “Where did we go wrong?” investigations like Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985) and Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987).

The ’90s, however, saw a slight resurgence of futurism, driven by the information technology boom, theorized by magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000, soundtracked by another wave of electronic music (the techno-tronica rave-olution). While some of the new breed of futurologists were classic gee-whiz technology types like Kevin Kelly, others were “zippies,” hippies sans any Luddite technophobia or back-to-the-land nostalgia, people like Jaron Lanier and Ray Kurzweil.

After the info-tech boom’s bust and 9/11, we haven’t heard as much from these digi-prophets. All that Dow Jones-indexed mania has sagged to a sour calm. Futurology as a popular nonfiction genre has been largely reduced to short-term trend watching, cool hunting in the service of marketing people and brand makers.

Then again, perhaps sociocultural and political prediction is simply a mug’s game. In the 1970s, no one would or could have imagined that the dominant form of pop music of the last two decades of the 20th century would be rhythmatized boasts and threats delivered over beats; few would have foreseen the emergence of reality TV as the most popular entertainment format. On the political front, the annals of sci-fi are littered with dystopian soothsayings that now look laughably off-base, from Anthony Burgess’ “1985,” a 1978 novel about a trade-union-dominated U.K. of the near future in which the country is brought to a standstill on a weekly basis by general strikes, to Kingsley Amis’ 1980 novel “Russian Hide-and-Seek,” a vision of Britain 50 years after its conquest by the Soviets. “Where’s My Jetpack?” shrewdly sticks to science and technology. But this relentless focus on machines, gadgets and life-enhancing innovations means that Wilson never touches on that whole other aspect of the “unrequited future” — the dismay and disbelief felt by many who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s only to witness a drastic deceleration in the rate of social and cultural progress.

Perhaps the expectations of the 1960s, that era of rampant radicalisms, were hopelessly unrealistic. Still, if you grew up, like me, reading radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone (who argued in “The Dialectic of Sex” that female liberation would come only with the invention of an artificial womb that could unshackle women from the procreative function) or New Wave of science fiction authors like Thomas M. Disch (who in his novel “334” imagined men being able to get mammary implants and breast-feed their offspring), scanning contemporary popular culture with its supermodel competitions, desperate housewives and scantily clad pop divas is acutely disheartening. And these are about gender, just one zone of stalled progress or outright regression. Race, gay rights, drugs, socioeconomic equality, religion — on just about every front, things either are not nearly as advanced as we’d have once expected or have actually gone into reverse. Forget the goddamn jetpack: It’s the sociocultural version of the “amazing future that never arrived” that really warrants our anguish.

1 Comment

  1. I think I have heard of this book. does make an interesting point from any angle you look at it. I am looking forward to more of this….I think ol Gabby Johnson said it best. “Righroh!” By the way, loved the Wilde quote. can never get enough Oscar. Cut to the core. Reminds me of the Voltaire quote: “Anything too stupid to be said, is sung.”

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