Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow...

Over at the Socialist Review, Mark Bould muses on the subject of H.G. Wells legacy (by way of the new Spielberg-Cruise movie). He makes an interesting point about the failure of our utopian dreams to manifest properly:

In his early scientific romances Wells depicted the vast expanse of space and time, and our relative insignificance. Like Darwin, Marx and Freud, he punctured the illusion of bourgeois man's centrality. The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) recast humankind as one species among many, as a temporary condition found somewhere between ape-like ancestors and devolved descendants. The War of the Worlds (1898), originally serialised during Victoria's golden jubilee year, explicitly criticises the Tasmanian genocide while Martian invaders lay waste to the heart of the British Empire. These vivid early novels are rich in ambiguity. Moreau is a fabulously blasphemous gothic replay of the Garden of Eden and a Swiftian satire on modern man's self-image. The beast-men that Moreau creates demonstrate humanity's place in Darwin's universe. They embody the struggle between evolution and ethics. They are estranged versions of proletarian and colonial subjects. And Wells keeps all these possibilities in play, not permitting his novel to collapse into some monolithic allegory.

In 1926, when Hugo Gernsback launched the first pulp science fiction (sf) magazine, he called for 'the Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story'. He quickly reprinted 14 stories and novels by Poe and Verne, but reprinted 26 by Wells. Consequently Wells has often been dubbed the 'father of science fiction'. However, in the US pulp tradition, Wells's offspring were rather poor pupils. Its first decade was dominated by small-town bigots (as scared of the future as they were of women, people of colour and the working class) and dreadful writing. In the second decade the generation of Robert Heinlein bootstrapped themselves into competent-enough prose but abandoned Wells's metaphorical and moral complexity. Instead they championed reactionary renegades and unfettered capitalist expansion. They fantasised about purity, mastery and unbounded energies. Mostly, their offspring still do. Wells's real children are to be found in Britain, in Olaf Stapledon and George Orwell, M John Harrison and Gwyneth Jones.

Curiously, Wells's own sf novels after The First Men in the Moon (1901) fall into the error which so debilitates the pulp tradition he 'fathered'. Too often, from Gernsback to the Roddenberry-Lucas-Spielberg complex, a spaceship is just a spaceship and a robot is just a robot. They are there because they are there, not because they mean anything. Similarly, when Wells turned his art to the task of changing the world, he forgot that it was also necessary to fantasise it. He fixated on utopia's plumbing rather than the vision utopia allows you to imagine. Blueprints became more important than hope. Utopia demands such a radical transformation of self and society that it is unimaginable and inexpressible. But in the later Wells, as in most subsequent sf, social transformation became merely about superficial things.
We get so lost in the plumbing that we forget to fill in the gaps in our own ethics and pragmatism with a few judicious fantasies. This is an important detail that we often forget, in politics and in life: that however great and shiny and new our ideas may be, they need to be tempered not just by the practicalities of human nature but also supported by the breadth and depth of our imagination.

If no one had envisioned a world without slavery as the backbone of commerce, we never would have had the Civil Rights Movement. But also, we can't get lost in dreamland, mistaking metaphors as the real thing. Robots aren't just Robots. Likewise, homosexuals, socialists, and terrorists aren't just cardboard cutouts, stand-ins for our fear and self-loathing. They are intrinsic parts of the world around us. And if we spend our time fighting CGI-bogeymen and Queers in rubber masks, then we won't bother to address the real reasons that those forces exist: that in our dreaming of the World of Tomorrow, we got so swept up in making sure the sky scrapers were high and the cars fast, that we forgot to include everyone in the fantasy.


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