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A Farewell to the Future

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 01:18 pm:   

The Concorde is history. The supersonic jet officially flew its last flight yesterday. I call for a moment of silence...

Okay, moment's up.

Surely this must make you feel something. When I was a kid, I could barely believe in the Concorde. My god! Faster than sound? Only bullets go that fast. What's next? Suborbital? Superorbital? Interplanetary? The ceiling seemed to recede with every step mankind took.

Of course, those were also the days when everything -- and I mean everything -- was streamlined. I remember thinking my family must have owned the fastest refrigerator in town. Zero wind resistance. That baby could make ice so fast the trays went backward in time! And forget about your leftovers going bad. With a streamlined Frigidaire, they just got fresher and fresher. Zoom!

Then it all came crashing down. Buildings turned into blocks of reflective windows held together by thin strips of darkened aluminum. It seemed the whole country -- the whole damn world -- wanted to admire itself in a mirror rather than stand back, look upward, and gape at the majesty of a forty-foot-tall sword-wielding hood ornament fronting an art deco Tower of Babel.

Not everyone mourned, of course. Some smart-asses noted that the old Streamline Modern style was not friendly to the people. Some even had the gall to label it as fascist (or at least crypto-fascist, which is what college-boy leftists call something when they can't prove a link to the political right, but feel as though it ought to be right-wing). After all, as Fredric Jameson noted, the new buildings were ironic, and irony is the next best thing to democracy. Why, just recently, the proposed American WWII monument, with its columns and arches, was criticized for looking like something Albert Speer would have designed. As though the Third Reich had a corner on the market of architectural excess. Those critics should take a look at photos of Los Angeles's Union Station.

But the Concorde didn't look fascist. It looked sleek and rocket-like. It looked Pulp in all the right ways. And yet, tickets cost $11,000 apiece, and no company PR flack was apologizing for it, either. You want to ride the lightning, you better have the juice. If you didn't, you could take a flying... jumbo jet.

Singular (or almost), elitist, revolutionary (or is that counter-revolutionary?). It was a pointer for a vision of the future. It was a branching vision whose bifurcation hinged on personal faith. Was the Concorde a good thing? If you said yes, you believed that all technologies would eventually find their way down to the masses, or that the masses would some day rise to the level of the technology. Or maybe you didn't give a rat's ass about the masses so long as you could be one of the deserving rich. If you said the Concorde was not a good thing, then you believed that some technologies were not only made expressly for the wealthy, but that they would always be kept so, and that this was a problem which required a solution.

However you look at it, whatever you think the Concorde meant, you must feel something at its passing. Even hated symbols are packed with emotion, and when the symbol evaporates, it leaves an emotional space behind, a kind of aching vacuole. Even those who harbored a virulent and paranoid fear of Communism expressed some bittersweet emotions as the Berlin Wall fell.

What, you may be asking, has all this to do with SF? Everything, I say. SF is a catalog of our dreams and nightmares of the future, as that future is working itself out before our eyes, day by day. SF is the quotidian written with the ink of desire. The Concorde had a place in that catalog, among those dreams and nightmares and desires. What will we say about it, now that it's bound for the mothballs of some aerospace museum, to sit side-by-side with dirigibles and rocket-planes? And what, if anything, will take its place?

SF has always been about transportation, at least in large measure. Our quintessential symbol is the rocketship, and our greatest leaps of faith have to do with speed and distance. We not only want to reach the stars, but we want to reach them right damn now! The Concorde seemed a step in that direction. Even if it was elitist, it was visible; it landed on public runways and flew through public skies. Now it's gone, and we are left with aging jumbo jets and airbuses for the masses. Even those are being phased out.

Our shuttles fall victim to self-serving corporate managers and hasty corporate production schedules, and they detonate in the skies above us. We strand crews of astronauts in space stations whose most likely eventual use will be to house weapons systems. The government has high hopes for space, but they don't include us. We the people are ground-bound, or nearly so, and the dream of space recedes from our mind's eye at twice the speed of an expanding universe.
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JV
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 11:28 am:   

Well, maybe now we'll at least pay attention to the environment around us and perhaps focus on something important--like saving the Earth.

I always thought of the Concorde as something rich people used.

Jeff
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 05:35 pm:   

Yes, Jeff, the Concorde was a toy of vanity like so many others. But that didn't keep some people (my young self included) from dreaming that one day, the technology would filter down to the masses. I was wrong.

As for saving the Earth, well... It would be nice to say that those contributing most flagrantly to the decline and decay of our planet could be shaken from their narcissism, their acquisitiveness, and their sheer moral inertia by the end of the space race. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced they were ever pinning their hopes on getting off this mud ball in the first place. They were more concerned with acquiring the things of this world -- fuel, land, and lots and lots of cash.

If the world is to be saved, it won't be by those who have the most power to save it. At least, not unless people like us force their hands.

There are ways of doing this, both fair and foul. There are also ways of acting on our own. My wife's biological father purchased many acres of prime Oregon timber land and has guarded it against all comers, even entering into non-development agreements with his nearest neighbors. That's one way. There are many others. Sadly, they're all rather inconvenient.

Better we should all slap a Save the Planet bumper sticker on our SUVs, drink only gourmet coffees grown on quaint and organic Third World collective farms, and cap off a day of conspicuous (but alternative) consumption by generously donating our used newspapers to the recycle bin, thus assuaging our guilt.
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JV
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 07:02 pm:   

Boy, you are one jaded, cynical son of a bitch. Mixed in with about a turkey baster's full of nostalgic sentimentalism. :-)

Jeff
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 08:01 pm:   

Hey, it works for Oliver Stone. And I'm so much smarter than he is.
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Thomas R
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2003 - 08:31 pm:   

Hmm I always thought the Concorde seemed kind of neat. I used to dream of going on one some day when I was a boy. There's certainly better things you could do for the money, but there's certainly worse too. I'd imagine a cruise, for example, is in many ways worse. I know people who went on them and the wasting of food that goes on is horrific. Especially when considering they take people to many poor Caribbean countries. I imagine it also damages the ocean in some ways. Luxury cars probably do more environmental damage in the long run.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 05:28 am:   

I have mixed feelings about cruises. I'm a lousy tourist. I don't mean I'm rude or belligerent or more arrogant than usual. I mean I'm incapable of following a program. When I go to a place, I want to wander around on my own, sit down in the absolute worst restaurant or cafe I can find, and watch the least important people walk past me. If the place employs a language other than English, I want to point at things and waggle my eyebrows until I am told the word that goes with the thing. Most of all, I want to get comfortable.

Cruises, on the other hand, are like cultural drive-by shootings. The ship pulls into a port city (which is grateful enough for the Yankee dollar, mind you), puts its passengers ashore long enough for the worst of them to become an obnoxious social chancre, then throws its food waste into the water and makes for the next port. I could never make that schedule. I'm afraid I would end up stranded in some expensive and unforgiving port, fending off predatory vendors and begging for a ride out. Besides, vacations aren't for hurrying; they're for relaxing.

My idea of a perfect tourist vacation is a drive through the mountainous coffee-growing region of Mexico, stopping at different villages and staying overnight in some of them. These villages are celebrated for their coffee, most of which we Nortenos will never taste unless we travel south. The coffee is locally grown, hand-picked, and dried on the roof before roasting. On those occasions when you find yourself driving downhill toward a village, you can see the red, amber, and green beans in trays on roofs, like a vista of planted fields seen from the air. No two villages will serve you the same cup of coffee. There's no hurry to visit the next spot on your brochure, and you'll have to make due with local food and drink because there's not a McDonald's around for miles and miles. Now THAT'S my idea of a vacation.
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richard
Posted on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 07:35 am:   

Interesting thing about Concorde for me is the dense mesh of symbolic associations it has.

First, it was supposed to be a symbol of Anglo-french co-operative endeavour, building a technological bridge between two cultures who traditonally hated each other's guts (and perhaps more than traditionally - rumour has it that British PM Harold Wilson tried to cancel the whole thing because he didn't like the word having an "e" on the end of it!) Then, it was supposed to be symbolic of the modern "speed of life" ethic that Neal identifies above. Next, the plane's retirement is symbolic of a shift in understanding that the future, rather than being about technology per se, is about technology's intersection with the politically charged factors of commerce and inclusion - the next big thing in air travel is the Airbus, an achievement in terms of its ability to carry lots of people rather than go really really fast. It's also, I suppose, symbolic of the whole style over content idea - so, at huge cost, you can get from one side of the Atlantic to another in a couple of hours. So what? How, with the exception of transporting donated organs (which I don't think Concorde was ever used for), was this ever a practically useful achievement? As far as I can see it just means you had even longer to wait before your jetlag wore off. Taking Concorde was only really useful for one thing - proving you had the money or connections to take Concorde.

Finally, a fascinating minor symbolism has played itself out in British Airways' refusal to sell the planes to Richard Branson (who apparently planned to operate a certain number of them as a novelty) at ANY price whatsoever. Basically a manifestation of corporate sulking over Branson's success in prosecuting BA for illegal practices in the Virgin Atlantic feud. And all this despite the fact that BA don't really have any right to call the plane their own - it was the British and French taxpayer, not BA or Air France, that actually footed the huge, overextended development bill. So much for the rational hand of the market, eh.

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 03:56 pm:   

Richard, thanks for that fascinating analysis. You brought up some angles on the Concorde I would never have thought to include, and some I didn't even know about. Wilson really objected that strongly to the francophone spelling? Jeez Louise.

I'm especially grateful for your encapsulation of the shift in visions of the future. You're quite correct, I think, in saying that the new future is about "commerce and inclusion." Perhaps the future was always about those things, only the iconic images of SF allowed for larger dreams, or at least fewer other dreamers with which we had to share.
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richard
Posted on Tuesday, October 28, 2003 - 01:40 pm:   

"only the iconic images of SF allowed for larger dreams, or at least fewer other dreamers with which we had to share."

Heheh - excellent. Now we're getting down to it. SF's always been good at making room (whole planets of it sometimes) for pristine isolation. Brave New Colony fiction for the Marlboro man types, post-apocalyptic tales for those who like the idea of being able to raid the corpse of the consumer society free of charge, cyberpunk for those desirous of an exclusive credit card existence in a Hilton-level shoppers paradise (and steampunk, I suppose, for those who fancy that without the whiff of social guilt inevitable in more modern settings). And the Matrix for those who'd just like to shoot everyone who spoils their day by existing!

Still - it's a good place to have that escapism - on a page or screen instead of trailing high octane pollutants and sonic boom overhead.

PS - the Wilson story is apocryphal (a Greek term meaning my mother told me she'd read it in the paper the other day), but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if it were true. You'd be amazed the pitch of anti-french feeling you can get out of a Brit if you squeeze him hard enough. (Well, maybe you wouldn't - freedom fries and all.....:-))

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Wednesday, October 29, 2003 - 07:59 am:   

Richard -- Excellent examples, all. I've always felt this vaguely, but those concrete examples strike to the core of the idea.

It's more than just the maverick-spaceman idea and its variants that trouble me, though. I remember reading Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! when I was a kid and thinking "Hell yes! That's what's wrong with the world today!" This despite the fact that I lived in a relatively underpopulated small city, in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes, far from the nearest housing project. I went back and re-read the novel along with the short story "The Roommate" many years later, and I found myself appalled. The undercurrent of disgust and hatred leaped off the pages at me, whereas I had never noticed it before. It was all I could do to finish the text.

Perhaps it was something in the cultural air of the Seventies, some obsession with overpopulation and "those people" who contributed to it -- Catholic, hispanic, Third World1 -- that permitted me to sympathize with Harrison even though I'd never been in a situation even remotely analogous to the one he described. Whatever it was, something had changed in me by the time I took up the text a second time. And by that time, I had experienced multi-family dwellings, congested streets, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, the whole shebang. Isolation -- not familiarity -- breeds contempt.

SF, as you suggest, is a wonderful stage for melodramas of beset individuality. The lone genius, the Marlboro man, the vigilante -- these types have strutted across our stage since the beginning -- since before the beginning; we take them from the Great Books and trace them back to the Classics. We couldn't have had "Doc" Smith, Isaac Asimov, or Robert Heinlein without the Nonconforming White Male Who Will Put All Things Right. And you're right -- Space and Apocalypse are where the Lone Wolf is finally free to roam. Those stories are often delightful and free in a way more realistic fiction can never be.2

SF is less accomplished, it seems to me, at serving up the pleasures of human congestion -- the support, the comfort, the laughter, even the occasional surprising frisson. I've sometimes wondered why this is, but I never seem to take up the challenge and write this stuff into my own fiction. Maybe that's the key: the Lone Wolf is easier to write than the Man of the Crowd. But isn't this true of all fiction? It's the Empire of the Protagonist, and rabble is only there for realism or local color.

1. I want to be fair. I don't recall an instance where Harrison racializes the problem. I was living in Southern California when I first read the novel, so perhaps my associations are a reflection of my own ethnic discomfort at the time. While Harrison's overly-fecund mob does seem to open itself out to any racial stamp the reader cares to place on it, I'm not going to brand the man a racist. Misanthrope, yes, but not racist. That label I'll reserve for Robert Heinlein.

2. I use "realistic" advisedly. Have you noticed that, for all the soot and grime of the Realist and Naturalist novels of the early to middle twentieth century, they were no less tales of the Oddfellow? McTeague, Sister Carrie, The Octopus, and so on -- The message is clear: the crowd, the mob, the throng, the Others, they're all out to crush the soul of the sympathetic individual and wipe their shoes on his dream. Sartre got it right in No Exit: Hell is other people.
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Michael Bishop
Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2003 - 04:50 am:   

I've never been a great admirer of the work of Orson Scott Card, but one of the things that he has striven to do all along in his fiction is dramatize the legitimate demands on, and the sometimes not so obvious virtues of, a life lived in community. Hell may be other people (a line from Sartre that I thought exquisitely profound as a teenager), but often other people are the lost or despairing person's only concrete hope of redemption. Card insists on this idea in a lot of his work, undoubtedly because he grew up in a close-knit Mormon family and determined to model these values when he began a family of his own, and consequently sought to offer an alternative to the cyberpunk model of the lone hacker that otherwise dominated SF in the early eights and beyond. He deserves kudos for that effort.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2003 - 07:55 am:   

Michael, I agree. But Card aside, few SF writers bother to tackle the highs and lows of a crowded house. Having grown up in a large family and lived most of my life in situations where privacy was something one hoped someday to achieve, but where family was something one required, I appreciate a writer who can tell the truth about such situations. Most writers in and out of SF don't bother. If a large family or close community are shown, it is most often for the purpose demonstrating what a drag on the protagonist these other people can be. The hero has dreams and ambitions, but he has to stay home with his retarded brother, or take care of his ailing mom, or defend his sister's honor, or what have you. It almost seems childish to me, this notion even in some of our best writers that "I'd have been somebody if it weren't for all those other people holding me back."
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Michael Bishop
Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2003 - 09:59 am:   

You're right, of course. But I have to think that if we put our minds to it, we could come up with a few SF writers who do in fact deal with the "crowded house." My bet is that the majority would be women, and perhaps Le Guin qualifies. If, that is, we can find characters other than Genly Ai and Shevek to illustrate the thesis. Kate Wilhelm? Maureen McHugh? Mary Doria Russell? Carol Emshwiller? I'm afraid I haven't read enough recently to make me confident of putting anyone forward as an exemplar of the writer who looks to, rather than away from, the community for self-empowerment.

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