Ed Driscoll

'Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction'

At Popular Mechanics, Glenn Reynolds (whom I believe has taken up blogging recently as well…) writes that “The future isn’t what it used to be. And neither is science fiction:”

While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias. That could be contributing to something that I see as a problem. It seems that too many technically savvy people, engineers in particular, are going to work for Web startups or investment firms. There’s nothing wrong with such companies, but we also need engineers to design bold new things for use in the physical world: space colonies instead of social media.

If I’m right, that’s bad for all of us. But are we really losing the will to do big things or are the big things just different than they used to be? I asked around and, on this subject, found science-fiction writers to be pessimistic.

One of today’s best SF authors is Neal Stephenson, whose books include Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age. In a recent article in the World Policy Journal, he writes that during science fiction’s so-called golden age—roughly the late 1930s to the late 1960s—the stories being published were about big things and big breakthroughs: moon rockets, Mars bases, robots, and teleportation. Perhaps by coincidence, those were times when the United States was actually doing big things and making big breakthroughs. Now, writes Stephenson, “[s]peaking ­broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a darker, more skeptical, and ambiguous tone.”

Those stories can be good—some credit Stephenson’s own 1992 book, Snow Crash, with anticipating the social media revolution—but are they good for us? Or have we been focusing our imagination and efforts on things that are amusing but unimportant? Stephenson recently told The New York Times, “We can’t Facebook our way out of the current economic status quo.” He is calling for new ways to expand civilization, not new forums for gossip.

I called Stephenson and asked him to elaborate. “There was some moment in the late ’60s and ’70s when people thought we had enough tech,” he says. “Technology was too dangerous, and people became reflexively skeptical of new ideas. If you stay that way for a couple of decades, it can come back to bite you. There’s also a less obvious danger, which is that if science and technology stop wowing us, people start to develop skepticism about the scientific method.”

I think in terms of cinematic science fiction, the flip-over date was 1968; as I’ve written before, during that presidential year, Bobby Kennedy explicitly rejected the optimism of his late brother’s New Frontier, instead calling for “men who riot” and producing depressing campaign ads such as this:

Couple the dawn of the seemingly permanent liberal malaise with sci-fi’s one-two punch that year — 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes — and you have the beginnings of the dystopian sci-fi that would rule movie houses until the present day, with only intermittent timeouts during the late ’70s and ’80s for the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Planet of the Apes (spoiler alert!) deposited Charlton Heston onto a futuristic Earth decimated by nuclear war, with less than hospitable inhabitants to greet him. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a technological vision of the future that Wernher von Braun presumably loved — his vision of a space station, a moon base, and routine manned probes to rest of the solar system fully realized in glorious Cinerama. But populated with Nietzsche’s Last Men, blank cyphers cocooned inside their overwhelming technology, and spiritually dead.

As Glenn writes, “In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists could cite antibiotics, nuclear energy, and moon flights as evidence that science just plain worked. This gave them credibility on a range of issues.” But after those two movies, science began its current path of telling man why he couldn’t, or shouldn’t do anything, and even if he did, overpopulation, global starvation, and global cooling (later global warming) would doom him anyhow:

Not coincidentally, it was also during the late 1960s that younger members of the left during the 1960s made an even more pronounced return to their reprimitivized Rousseauian roots; the efforts of the old left and the new could be seen by all in the summer of 1969, the year that modernism died:

Today’s scientists continue to spend far more time standing athwart history (to coin a phrase) than attempting to build a better future. An obsession with global warming continues to enervate progress. And today’s dystopian science fiction, and the rest of Hollywood’s now-decade long creative malaise isn’t exactly setting the box office on fire, either.

Kubrick’s 2001 posited that man was in need of spiritual rebirth, a trope that appears throughout the history of Liberal Fascism, as Jonah Goldberg noted in his book. But the self-styled “progressives” who dominate Hollywood and academia, and are responsible for the stasis that demoralizes both of those realms, are certainly in need of a creative rebirth, at the very least.