The Way the Future Wasn't

It’s a funny thing, this attempt to discuss the future in advance. Much of the time, like everyone else in the business, I talk about the future as though it’s a place we simply haven’t reached yet, with a geography that can be explored at least to some extent from the vantage point of the present. That’s not entirely inappropriate; so much of the near future has been defined in advance by choices already made and opportunities long since foregone that it’s not at all hard to sketch out the resulting shape of things.

Still, the choices we make in the present are as often as not defined by our beliefs about the future, and so there’s a complicated series of feedback loops that comes into play. Self-fulfilling prophecies are one option, but far from the most common. Much more often, predictions about the future that gain enough of an audience to become a force in their own right kickstart patterns of change that go ricocheting off in unexpected directions and bring about a future that nobody expected.

Industrial civilization’s attempt to expand out into interplanetary space, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, is a case in point. The handful of space technologies that turned out to have practical uses, and the technological advances that spun off from each of the major space programs, weren’t anticipated at all by the people who ordered the rockets to be built, the satellites to be launched and the astronauts to risk their lives. Cold War rivalry played a major role, to be sure, but that rivalry could have expressed itself in any number of terrestrial ways. What very few people noticed then or later was the extent to which all parties involved took their core assumptions and ideas from an utterly improbable source—a genre of pulp literature that most people at the time dismissed as lowbrow trash suitable only for twelve-year-old boys. Yes, I’m talking about science fiction.

I’m not sure how many people have noticed that science fiction is the one really distinctive form of fiction created by industrial civilization. Romances, satires, and adventure stories are practically as old as written language; the novel of character and manners had its first great flowering in tenth-century Japan, and detective stories were written in medieval China; even fantasy fiction of the modern kind, which deliberately cashes in on legends nobody actually believes any more, flourished in Renaissance Europe—it still amazes me that nobody has rewritten Amadis of Gaul to fit the conventions of modern fantasy fiction and republished it as “the sixteenth century’s number one fantasy bestseller,” which it unquestionably was. Science fiction—the branch of literature that focuses on the impact of scientific and technological progress—is the exception.

It’s important, for what follows, to be clear about definitions here. A story about traveling to another world isn’t necessarily a work of science fiction; the ancient Greek satirist Lucian wrote one about a ship tossed up to the Moon by a waterspout, and Cyrano de Bergerac—yes, that Cyrano; you didn’t know he was a real person, did you?—wrote a ripsnorter about traveling to the Moon and the Sun via a series of even more unlikely gimmicks; both of them were engaging pieces of absurdity riffing off the fact that nobody actually thought the thing could ever happen. It took Mary Shelley, watching the rain splash down on a Swiss vacation as her husband’s literary friends toyed with ghost stories in much the same spirit as Lucian imagined moonflight, to create a new kind of literature. Frankenstein, the novel she started on that vacation, became a bestseller precisely because it was believable; recent advances in the life sciences, especially Alessandro Volta’s eerie experiment that caused a frog’s amputated leg to kick by running electricity through it, made it entirely plausible at the time that some researcher might take things the next step and bring a dead body to life.

Take a single scientific or technological breakthrough, combine it with the modern world, and see what happens—all through the 19th century, and into the 20th, that’s what science fiction (or “scientifiction,” as it was often called) meant. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the two great masters of the early genre, rang just about every change on that theme that the technology of the age would justify. Of course both of them wrote voyages to the Moon; in an age of explosive technological progress, traveling to the Moon had moved just that little bit closer to plausibility, but it was just one of the many lively improbabilities they and other authors explored in their stories.

Except, of course, that a good many of them didn’t stay improbable for long. The feedback loop I mentioned earlier was coming into play; in the first decades of the twentieth century, a generation that had grown up on Verne and Wells started putting scientifiction’s dreams into practice. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus quickly took on an uncomfortable reality as the first U-boats slid down the ways. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” provided the conceptual blueprint for the first generation of tanks, just as his The War in the Air got militaries around the world thinking of the possibilities of aerial bombardment. Most of the other technological notions in turn of the century science fiction got tried out by somebody or other during those years, and those that worked found ready acceptance among audiences that had plenty of fictional models in the back of their minds.

Meanwhile, the fictional models were shifting focus. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that science fiction changed from a genre about any kind of scientific and technological advance you care to name, which it had been until then, to a genre that was basically about space travel. Slowly—it wasn’t an overnight change by any means—stories about spaceships and alien worlds came to dominate the pulp magazines that were the major SF venue of the time; voyages to the Moon became old hat, something to stick in the backstory; Mars and Venus became preferred destinations, and then E.E. “Doc” Smith shot the characters in his Lensman series across interstellar space, and what Brian Aldiss later described as science fiction’s “billion year spree” was on.

By the late 1940s, many of the most popular science fiction writers were working within a common vision of the future—a future history that began sometime in the near future with the first voyages to the Moon and then went on from there, colonizing the solar system, then leaping the gap that separated our solar system from others and beginning the settlement of the galaxy. Whether humanity would meet alien life forms out there in space was a subject of much disagreement; the more romantic authors peopled Mars and Venus with intelligent species of their own, but the spectrum ran from there to authors who imagined a galaxy full of empty but inhabitable planets just waiting for Homo sapiens to inhabit them. Even among the imaginary galaxies that bristled with alien species, though, they might as well have been human beings; the universe of the original Star Trek series, where the vast majority of “aliens” were extras from Central Casting with a bit of funny makeup splashed on, was a pretty fair reflection of the SF of a few decades earlier.

It’s a useful exercise to go back and read essays by the SF authors of the 20th century’s middle decades—Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were particularly prolific in this vein, but there were plenty of others—and take in what they had to say about the coming Space Age. It wasn’t, by and large, something they felt any need to promote or argue for; it was simply, necessarily going to happen. There would be the first tentative flights into space, followed by the first Moon landing; somewhere in there the first of many space stations would go into orbit, perhaps as a way station to the Moon; Mars and Venus were next on the agenda, first the landings, then the bases, then the colonies, growing as naturally as Jamestown or Plymouth into booming new frontier societies; the asteroids and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would follow in due order, followed by the outer planets and the cometary halo, and then would come the challenge of the stars.

Among the most fascinating details that popped up here and there in this literature, though, was the conviction that science fiction itself—the literature, the writers, and the subculture that grew up around it in the 1930s and became something like a force of nature in the decades that followed—would play a major role in all this. I’ve long mislaid the title of the Isaac Asimov essay that argued that science fiction had the role of advance scouts on the great onward march of human progress, revealing new avenues for advance here, discovering dead ends and boobytraps there. That wasn’t just Asimov exercising his unusually well-developed ego, either; SF fans, droves of them, shared his opinion. "Fans are Slans," the saying went—I wonder how many people these days even remember A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, much less the race of superhuman mutants that gave it its title; a great many fans saw themselves in that overly roseate light.

What makes this all the more intriguing is that all this happened at a time when science fiction was widely considered very nearly the last word in lowbrow reading. Until the paperback revolution of the late 1950s, most science fiction appeared in pulp magazines—so called because of the wretched quality of the paper they were printed on—with trashy covers on the front and ads for X-ray spectacles and Charles Atlas strength lessons in the back. The cheap mass-marketed paperbacks that picked up from the pulps dropped the ads but by and large kept the tacky cover art. ("There has been a great deal of talk about the big questions of science fiction," SF author L. Sprague de Camp said once. "The truly big question of science fiction is ‘What is that woman in a brass brassiere doing on the cover of my book?’") As for the stories themselves—well, there were a handful of very good authors and some very good short stories and novels, but let’s be honest; there was much, much more that was really, astonishingly bad.

Just as the young engineers and military officers of 1910 had all grown up reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, though, as America stumbled into its age of global empire after the Second World War, a very large number of its young men (and a much smaller but still significant fraction of its young women) had grown up daydreaming of rockets to Mars and adventures with the Space Patrol. All that was required to make those daydreams a powerful force in the American collective imagination was a well-aimed shock, and that was supplied in 1957 when a small group of Soviet scientists and military officers talked their superiors into letting them strap a 22-inch steel sphere on top of a big new ICBM and launch it into Earth orbit.

The advent of Sputnik I sent the United States into something halfway between a tantrum and a nervous breakdown. Suddenly it became absolutely essential, in the minds of a great many Americans, for the US to beat "godless Russia" in the Space Race. For their part, delighted to find an effective way to goad the United States, Soviet leaders started putting real money into their space program, scoring one achievement after another while Americans played a feeble game of catch-up. Before long a new US president was announcing a massively funded plroject to put men on the moon, the first rockets were blasting off from Cape Canaveral, and a nation already intrigued by the notion of outer space, and alternately amused and intrigued by the space-centered folk mythology of the UFO phenomenon, signed on to the opening stages of the grand future history already sketched out for them by decades of pulp science fiction.

For the next decade and a half or so, the feedback loop I’ve described shifted into overdrive as fantasies of a future among the stars shaped the decisions of politicians and the public alike. By the time the Apollo program was well underway, staff at NASA was already sketching out the next generation of manned interplanetary spacecraft that would follow the Moon landing and cutting blueprints for the probes that would begin the exploration of the solar system. That’s when things started to run off the rails that seemingly led to the stars, because the solar system revealed by those probes turned out to have very little in common with the "New Worlds for Man" that the fantasies required.

It takes a while reading old books on the prospects of space travel to grasp just how wide a gap those first planetary probes opened up. Respected scientists were claiming as late as the 1960s that the Moon was a world of romantic vistas with needle-pointed mountains glinting under starlight; it turned out to be gray, largely featureless, and stunningly dull. Venus was supposed to be a tropical planet, warmer than Earth but still probably inhabitable; it turned out to be a searing furnace of a world with surface temperatures hot enough to melt metal. Since 19th century astronomers mistook optical effects of telescopes pushed to their limit for markings on the Martian surface, Mars had been the great anchor for dreams of alien intelligence and offworld adventure; when the first Viking lander touched down in 1976, the Grand Canals and alien swordsmen of Barsoom and its godzillion equivalents went wherever wet dreams go to die, and were duly replaced by what looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada, minus water, air, and life.

Those were also the years when Mariner and Voyager probes brought back image after image of a solar system that, for all its stunning beauty and grandeur, cointained only one world that was fit for human habitation, and that happened to be the one on which we already lived. As the photos of one utterly uninhabitable world after another found their way into one lavish National Geographic article after another, you could all but hear the air leaking out of the dream of space, and even the most vigorous attempts to keep things moving launched by science fiction fans and other enthusiasts for space travel found themselves losing ground steadily. To stand the title of Frederik Pohl’s engaging memoir on its head, science fiction turned out to be the way the future wasn’t.

And science fiction itself? It fragmented and faded. The boost in respectability the space program gave to science fiction gave it a larger and more critical market, and thus midwifed some of the greatest works of the genre; a series of loudly ballyhooed literary movements, none of them particularly long-lived, zoomed off in assorted directions and, as avant-garde movements generally do, left most of their audience behind; efforts at crass commercial exploitation, of which the Star Wars franchise was the most lucrative example, came swooping down for their share of the kill. While other media boomed—visual media are always a couple of decades behind print—the sales of science fiction novels peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s and then began a decline that still continues, and a genre that had once exercised a potent gravitational force on the collective imagination turned back into just another option in the smorgasbord of mass-produced popular entertainment.

It’s a trajectory worth studying for more reasons than one. The intersection of imperial extravagance, technological triumphalism, and anti-Communist panic that flung billions of dollars into a quest to put men on the Moon made it possible, for a little while, for a minority of visionaries with a dream about the future to think that their dream was about to become reality. The dream unraveled, though, when the rest of the universe failed to follow the script, and a great many of the visionaries found themselves sitting in the dust wondering what happened.

That’s not an uncommon event. The dream of a new American century hawked by the neoconservatives a decade and a half ago, though it ranked down there with the tawdriest bits of pulp science fiction, traced the same trajectory. The election of George W. Bush and the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington DC gave them a window of opportunity to try to make that dream a reality, and it turned into exactly the sort of disaster you’d expect when a group of academic intellectuals try to impose their theories on the real world. It would be less embarrassing if the notion of invading a Third World country and turning it into a happy little puppet democracy hadn’t been tried over and over again, without a single success, since the Spanish-American War.

For that matter, the movement toward sustainability in the 1970s, the subject of a great many posts on this blog, followed a similar trajectory. That movement, as I’ve argued, might have succeeded—I grant that it was a long shot at best. Yet the rush of initial enthusiasm, the real achievements that were made, and the bleak discovery that the political and cultural tide had turned against it and the rest of the dream was not going to come within reach are very reminiscent of the arc traced above.

Still, the example that comes most forcefully to mind just now is the one this blog is meant to address, the movement—or perhaps proto-movement—trying to do something useful in the face of peak oil. Right now it’s still gamely poised on the fringes, attracting members and brief bursts of attention, weaving disparate perspectives into early drafts of the vision that will eventually catapult it into the big time. That’s still several years and a Sputnik moment or two away, but the increasingly frantic attempts of both American parties to treat the end of the age of cheap energy as a public relations problem suggest to me that sooner or later that time is going to come.

The temptation when that happens, and it’s a potent one, will be to assume that whatever window of opportunity opens then can be counted upon to last, on the one hand, and will lead to whatever encouraging future the vision promises on the other. Neither of those is guaranteed, and depending on the shape the vision takes, neither one may even be possible. The question that needs to be kept in mind, straight through from the giddy enthusiasm of the initial successes to the bitter winding down that will more than likely follow, is how much useful work can be accomplished during the interval we get.