A few times a year, I re-read some classic science fiction, just for some variety, but also to see if it still works. One of the funny things about our age is the past is increasingly more alien to us than any imagined future. Reading stories, written in the 1950’s, that depicted life in the far off future, you get some insights into the society that laid the groundwork for our age. Often times, though, it reveals the foolishness and, in retrospect, absurd optimism, about the future and technology common in the last century.
The old science fiction guys got some things right about the future. Jules Verne, who is the father of science fiction, had amazing insights into the future of technology. You can read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea today and it still holds up pretty well. On the other hand, a lot of science fiction turned out to be wildly wrong about the future, even by the standards of fiction. I recently re-read The Martian Chronicles and it is laugh out loud terrible in parts. It is corn-ball pulp fiction now.
Of course, people were much more optimistic about the future in the heyday of science fiction writing. If you would have told Ray Bradbury in the 1950’s that man would not be on Mars by 2018, he would have thought you were a ridiculous pessimist. Of course, man would be exploring the solar system in the 21st century. We would have conquered human suffering, united as one and be riding around in nuclear powered flying cars. Instead, the future is trans-gendered otherkins stalking your daughters in public toilets.
We cannot blame the people of the last century for not seeing this stuff coming. We are living it and it still seems impossibly insane. For Americans in the 1950’s, optimism about the future was natural. America had conquered the world, saving Western Civilization from itself. Technological progress was making life comfortable, even for the poorest. There was no reason to think we were heading for a bad turn. It is a good lesson that no matter how bad things are now, they can get worse. The future is not written.
Reading The Martian Chronicles, I was reminded of something that turns up in old black and white movies. That is the acceptance of casual violence. In the 1950’s, fictional characters would say things like, “You better give it to me straight or I’ll bash your teeth in” to some other character playing a store clerk. In one of the Bradbury stories, a man from earth arrives on Mars and starts talking with the Martians. The conversations are peppered with threats of personal violence, but in a casual, haphazard manner.
Imagine going into the local retail store and seeing one of the customers telling the clerk that he was going to bash in his skull if he did not hop to it. I doubt fist fights were a regular feature down at the piggly-wiggly, but the threat of personal violence was a common occurrence in movies and fiction. It is reasonable to think that the people in the audiences for this stuff found it perfectly normal that men talked to one another in this way, which suggests it was how people talked in their normal lives.
Similarly, most of the characters in Bradbury’s future smoked. In one story, the first thing the earth men do when they land on Mars is have a smoke. Maybe Bradbury was a smoker, but his best writing is when describing the joys of smoking on Mars. I guess it makes sense to think that the future will have better versions of the stuff you really enjoy today. Imagine going back in time and telling sci-fi writers that in the future, men would not only not be on Mars, but smoking would be a crime. They would think you were crazy.
The other thing about old sci-fi, and it jumps out in The Martian Chronicles, is the fascination people had back then with rockets and nuclear technology. It makes perfect sense. Both seemed impossibly amazing to the people of the time. The fascination with nuclear energy is amusing in hindsight. Science fiction writers 70 years ago thought it was perfectly logical that tiny nuclear reactors would replace all of our energy sources. Still, nuclear powered garments to keep you warm at night is laughably silly in hindsight.
Putting that aside, it is amusing to look back at these conceptions of the future. Many were wildly wrong, because they wanted to be wildly wrong. It is fiction, after all. It is easy to forget that writers in the first half of the last century were expecting their stuff to be read by men with high school level educations. Granted, a 1950’s high school education was much more than what we see today, but the audience was not a collection of literary sophisticates. The job of the writer was to entertain, not lecture, the reader.
Still, reading old science fiction has a utility to our age, which goes beyond mere amusement. The people of that era, producing this stuff, were optimistic about the future. They were committed to building a better world. Granted, it all went to shit in the 60’s and we have yet to pull out of the death spiral, but they did not know what they could not know. Our generations do not have that excuse. We have the hard lessons of failed social experimentation. We have no excuse for tolerating this stuff. We know better.