Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Past is a Foreign Country (Take Four)

Perhaps it's the death of Ray Bradbury that's occasioned this thought, but, when I think of all the ways that my children's world of the imagination is different than the one of my youth, what stands out most is that they have no expectation that men will one day walk on the surface of Mars or have colonies in space. Growing up in '70s, manned exploration of the solar system -- and beyond -- was an almost unquestioned assumption among not just children but many adults as well. While I don't remember the last Apollo mission in 1972, I do remember vividly the Apollo-Soyuz mission from 1975, not to mention the landing tests of the space shuttle Enterprise in 1977. These were events that profoundly affected me as a young person and no doubt explain why, even today, I still consider myself a "science fiction guy" rather than a fantasy one.

What's funny, though, is that, back then, manned space travel wasn't just the stuff of science fiction; it was real. When I was in school, I think we watched nearly every space shuttle launch between 1981 and 1983, stopping everything and bringing out these old TV sets for the occasion. For my children, though, space travel is almost completely science fictional. It's something that only happens in books and movies and video games, but not in the real world. The Apollo program and the space shuttle mean about as much to them as listening to soap operas on the radio meant to me as a child -- relics of a past they never knew and will never completely understand.

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and saw a not at all implausible projection of what men might be doing in space when I was 32 years old. Yet, here I am, living in The Future my friends and I dreamed about in the '70s and it's not at all like we were promised. I won't go so far as to say it's worse, but it is a different, less romantic future than I had hoped for. Much as it saddens me that my childhood dreams of Moon bases and space stations haven't come to pass by now, I think it saddens me more that, for my children, such ideas are nothing more than dreams and unlikely ones at that.

34 comments:

  1. "Yet, here I am, living in The Future my friends and I dreamed about in the '70s and it's not at all like we were promised. I won't go so far as to say it's worse, but it is a different less romantic future than I had hoped for. "
    I'd say this future we are living in is much, much worse that the one envisioned in the 70's.

    I could point to the economic crisis, the decline of Western Civilization on many levels, the abandon of manned space exploration, the unsolved problems and issues that have only gotten worse since then and all that, but there is no need.

    The main reason this future is so much worse is that it does not envision a better future, like the 70's did. If we don't even dare *dreaming* about the future like we did before, what then of the actions needed to actually build a better one?

    ReplyDelete
  2. In contrast, when I was growing up in the 80s, science fiction promised us a future in which mega-corporations waged war in third-world countries over mineral resources using mercenary companies; in which another front for such warfare was the Net, where combatants deployed infrastructure-destroying viruses against each other; where the megacorps used the state as a tool to suppress the teeming masses of disaffected workers; in which the only people working to expose the most nefarious workings of the powers that be were anarchist hacker collectives who infiltrated corporate and military computer systems to expose their dark secrets; and in which most people grew up in squalor in teeming cities, surrounded by nonstop distraction and entertainment delivered to their personal computing devices over the Net, which also serve to track their every movement and every communication for the benefit of those in power.

    So I have to tell you: this future feels pretty familiar to me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. So I guess Boardman was right after all. :-D

    ReplyDelete
  4. There is a reason I generally prefer older SF to the newer stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  5. My friends and I regularly joke that, except for the lack of cybernetics, we are definitely living in a cyberpunk world.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I was born in '61, so I've been around for most of the space program. I vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong step off onto the Lunar surface, and watching Jules Bergman and Walter Cronkite and all their colleagues during the moon missions. I miss those times.

    What baffles my mind is that Bush set a target to get back to the moon by 2020. When he made that statement, 2020 was still about 12 years away  (I don't recall exactly when he made it). 12 years, really? We already KNOW HOW. It didn't take that long to do it the first time and we didn't even have men in orbit when Kennedy set the original goal. Virtually all of the technology had to be invented from the ground up (as it were).

    Our present and future is almost more like something from the Matrix than Jules Verne. The bulk of our technology development now is more and better ways to keep us entertained, happy consumers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I say it without the joking. And with the understanding that we do have prosthetic limbs that have gotten quite sophisticated. All we're missing from most cyberpunk conceptions is the direct mind link to electronics, and that's been done in prototype.

    ReplyDelete
  8. You are a little pessimistic here. Remember, we have a permanently manned space station. There are shuttling space ships between it and the surface pretty often. It's just not that special anymore since it happens so often.

    And don't fall into the pit traps of technophobia. Right now we - two people that wouldn't have known each other 10 years ago - are communicating by a medium, which can be called the most massive change in history since Gutenberg invented movable types pressing. At no time in history could as many people share as much knowledge in as fast ways as now.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Doesn't anyone remember all those "we are doomed" scifi movies from the 70's? Our world is so much better that the one predicted by the so called futurist.  In our fantastic world the price of technology has dropped so much that I can sit on my porch with a tiny computer and type this. The problem with space exploration is that it's bloody expensive. Most scifi writers ignore economics. 

    ReplyDelete
  10. I wouldn't worry the folks at SpaceX, X-Cor, Masten, Armadillo Aerospace, Scaled Composites,mBigelow, and others got your future covered. We may even wind up with rockets that land on their tail in the classic profile!

    ReplyDelete
  11. You have made me profoundly sad. I hereby resolve not to procreate until man commits to a manned mission to Mars.

    ReplyDelete
  12. How 'bout walking your kids outside one evening and showing them how to spot the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth?

    ReplyDelete
  13.  I sit on a city bus and see 30 people without exception plugged in with headphones and staring at tiny screens, it's very Matrix-y.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The whole point of those kind of statements now is to be far-off enough that you're out of office and unaccountable. When he uttered that I instantly shouted "BS" out loud. I'd do the same for either party.

    ReplyDelete
  15. lol, I can remember back in the late 70's when quite a number of futurists were predicting we'd all be living in fallout shelters or frozen in glaciers by now.  We're not doing so bad.  I can also remember there being quite a lot of pollution problems and air quality problems in north america back then that don't seem to be in the news much anymore. 

    Things haven't worked out quite the way the sci-fi authors envisioned, but theres been lots of huge developments that have profundly changed the world in many ways both positive and negative. 

    ReplyDelete
  16. When I was at Game Developer, most of my coworkers were at
    least a decade younger than me. Whenever I would mention space exploration to
    them, maybe something about an astonishing image from one of the Mars Ex rovers
    or the Huygens probe, they would give me the blankest looks. It just didn’t
    register with them. Of course they enjoyed science fiction games like Mass
    Effect and so forth, but they couldn’t relate to actual space exploration. A
    curious thing was that many of their game design heroes; people like Richard
    Garriott, Will Wright, and John Carmack are actively involved in space travel.
    But then I guess they’re older. Somehow a generation got skipped.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I don't know if this helps, but Orion pre-flight activities are set to occur FY12 and FY13 while the Exploration Flight Test-1 is set for FY14.  And if I remember correctly from the NASA conference I attended a few months ago, they're looking to get back to the moon in the 2017-2019 timeframe.

    http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/mpcv/index.html

    ReplyDelete
  18. As I understand it, it's taking a while because they need to re-engineer the module and delivery system using current technology.  They're not just going to re-use designs from the past.  So, we do know how in some respects, but in other respects we're going into new territory. 

    Also, I found it interesting that there seemed to be only one guy at the conference who was in NASA when the previous missions (that were similar to this new effort) went down.

    ReplyDelete
  19. As a side note about returning to the moon... a friend's husband works for NASA and is part of the design team to reverse engineer the old school systems.  He mentioned that the biggest hurdle is the lack of surviving documentation that thoroughly describes those systems.  Apparently, a lot of improvisation occured in order to rig things up.  He also mentioned that paper documents have decayed and been lost.  He does say that it amazes him even with his background how much was accomplished with what amounts to slide rules, scratch paper, tin foil, wire, and basic engineering.  Remember, your cell phone has more 'electronic computing power' than the early space program did.

    ReplyDelete
  20.  Makes you feel a bit better about 5E. Sure it's just the RPG equivalent "going to the moon again", but at least they're doing it.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I'd like to borrow 2 billion-billion dollars to finance the colonization of the Lunar and Martian States. Colonization Efficiency requires Female only Colonists with the male contribution in a sperm freezer.

    Or would you like to squander the future and fight it out with China?

    ReplyDelete
  22. What about all the old Godzilla movies predicting that nuclear power was going to rouse the worst monsters to trod the Earth since pre-historic days?

    ReplyDelete
  23. The old school SF definitely had a naive wonder to it that spoke of promise. Then along came Bladerunner with all it's maudlin themes.  :-o

    ReplyDelete
  24. I was really thrilled to see the Space Shuttle Discovery launch in February of 2011. It was one of the last two or three launches of the space shuttle era. Very cool. Plus, I really dig watching shows like the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds...they're still awesome.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Well, that happens if a whole society starts getting pessimistic and realizes the limits of real-life space travel...

    ReplyDelete
  26. The Recursion KingJune 8, 2012 at 8:53 AM

    It's somewhat ridiculous to call the vast sea of insults and inane status updates traded across the internet as 'sharing knowledge.' In terms of furthering knowledge and making people smarter.. there is no evidence that this happening. Instead, the web is making us dumber: the young today will web search and plagorise in preference to do any work if they can get away with it (and that's just one example). The internet is a crutch for a limp that we didn't have until we started using it.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Participating in the sewers of the internet will certainly give that impression. It's not universal, however.

    On your second point, the ancients argued against writing, saying that it would destroy the carefully conditioned memories of the learned. They were right, of course: we generally no longer bother to learn the advanced techniques of memory, and haven't since about the Renaissance, more or less. I don't know that the internet will cause us to develop a different way of approaching intellectual material, but it remains possible.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Great post. I was born on that fateful year. that year we as humans looked back and saw what a fragile little blue dot we were on that immense black canvas. I think that must have played a part in my upbringing, and interest in what's up there.

    I sometimes have the same sadness you speak of that I can not capture my boys interest in the real and amazing that is the surrounding universe. I found I was the only one staring at the sun through welders goggles as venus made her lonely jouney across the sun.

    But, I am hopeful. In many ways, moon and mars bases and space stations and to visit and asteroid mining is so much closer to them and reality than they can imagine. Just make it a business and it will happen.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I have exactly the same feeling about how we Americans (or, at least, some of us) saw what 2001 A.D. would look like back in 1973 (which was when I saw Kubrick's movie, at age 9).  Back in '73, the world of 2001 looked moderately optimistic but not at all unreasonable -- after all, the U.S. had just gone from having only subsonic airplanes to landing on the Moon in 30 years.

    If somebody had told my nine-year-old self that, in Dec. '72, I'd just seen the last human being who'd walk on the Moon for forty years ... well, I don't really know what my reaction would have been.  Amazed and horrified, in equal measure, I think.

    But it does look to me like we're finally seeing a return to space that has a real chance of not sputtering out.  SpaceX has just managed to reach low earth orbit and return.  And as Heinlein said, when you're in low earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere.  I think we'll see a huge amount of manned space exploration in the next four decades.  Which, after the last wasted 40 years, will be a relief...

    ReplyDelete
  30. > Instead, the web is making us dumber: the young today will
    > web search and plagorise in preference to do any work if they
    > can get away with it (and that's just one example).

    Sorry, but as a teacher, I can tell you that you are wrong here. Both studies and my and a lot of colleagues' personal experiences show a different behavior.  Even 10 year old pupils can react pretty ungracious when their co-student try to sell plagiarized material as their own work. And that's in Germany where there's traditionally less competition between students than in the English-speaking parts of the world.

    ReplyDelete
  31. After Ray Bradbury's passing I flipped open the table of contents in the Martian Chronicles, and felt an instant wave of nostalgia. I remember how I felt years ago reading all those dates on the chapter headings:  2001.  2002.  2005. Just putting a "20" at the front of a date placed it far enough into the future that any amount of optimism was plausible.

    I don't think there's any date you could use today in a work of fiction, whether 30 or 50 or 100 years in the future that could recapture the same sense.

    ReplyDelete
  32. We haven't gone back to space because we can't.  In the 1960's the US was soaring  with a young population, stable families   a strong economy and even with the burden of the Vietnam war, the county was in a powerful place.

    Today  we have an aging poorer  population that  can't even feed itself . Our budget for food support (called SNAP in the US) is 80 billion, 5x that of NASA! That's not actually enough to prevent widespread food insecurity.

    We also have other social issues involving race, family make up (30% out of wedlock births) infrastructure, technology, jobs, poverty, wealth distribution and such that we can't even discuss. The opinion gaps are too great and the anger level is toxic.

    As for Europe, despite John Glenn or what Space Cowboys would have you think, Space is a game for a young society and youngish men  with optimism and resources to spend. With a median age of 40, high youth unemployment and unstable pensions, Europe does not have the resources for Space

    Same for Japan, Singapore and well pretty much everywhere with technology.

    Two exceptions, China will probably manage something cool in the next few years. They have major internal contradictions but they do have money to burn and an ego to feed. A long term presence is probably unlikely   but that's another topic

    Also the private sector, they'll do a few things, maybe a a space hotel. This will serve as a retreat for the super rich but will accomplish nothing in the broader sense.

    As for 40 years out, I won't predict anything. There are so many problems on the horizon that anyone of them could end very badly.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I disagree James, I think that space travel has been normalized. As another commenter observes, the proliferation of private companies doing it tells you all you need to know. And if walking on Mars were such a simple expectation, it would have been done in a previous generation - but it wasn't, because it's damn hard. Instead we have a constant stream of data coming from Mars, something the previous space landers weren't able to do - the scientific world is achieving great things in space through automation (think of the Hubble space telescope as an example). We have actually got a great many more pictures of the surface of Mars than we got from the moon, for example.

    Also, aren't you Canadian? I'm surprised that you watched "nearly every space shuttle launch" because when I was growing up in the UK we watched precisely one (the first one). I thought the phenomenon of  watching every irrelevant tidbit of NASA activity was a strictly American idiosyncracy.

    But on the topic of the space shuttle - some people argue that it was a boondoggle that led NASA to its doom, and that we'd possibly have got deeper into the solar system if NASA had spent all that money on cheaper rockets and automated explorers instead...

    ReplyDelete
  34. I disagree James, I think that space travel has been normalized. As
    another commenter observes, the proliferation of private companies doing
    it tells you all you need to know. And if walking on Mars were such a
    simple expectation, it would have been done in a previous generation -
    but it wasn't, because it's damn hard. Instead we have a constant stream
    of data coming from Mars, something the previous space landers weren't
    able to do - the scientific world is achieving great things in space
    through automation (think of the Hubble space telescope as an example).
    We have actually got a great many more pictures of the surface of Mars
    than we got from the moon, for example.



    Also, aren't you Canadian? I'm surprised that you watched "nearly every
    space shuttle launch" because when I was growing up in the UK we watched
    precisely one (the first one). I thought the phenomenon of  watching
    every irrelevant tidbit of NASA activity was a strictly American
    idiosyncracy.



    But on the topic of the space shuttle - some people argue that it was a
    boondoggle that led NASA to its doom, and that we'd possibly have got
    deeper into the solar system if NASA had spent all that money on cheaper
    rockets and automated explorers instead...

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.