Wednesday, 17 September 2003

Counterblast to "Grumpy Old Men"

From John Carter McKnight :
This gripe began as ironic nostalgia when 21st Century reality paled in comparison to the projections of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lately that claim has devolved into a favored lament of grumpy old men in the space community, whose stubborn refusal to acknowledge society's priorities threatens any real effort to advance our presence in space.
Count me in with the Grumpy Old Men then.
A full-bore cranky-geezer rant was delivered recently by science fiction writer Spider (not to be confused with Kim Stanley) Robinson at the World Science Fiction Convention, and adapted as an op-ed article in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Spider's a good mate of mine - he still has the Atrax Robustus paperweight I gave him many moons ago. He's quite capable of defending himself, so I won't comment on the phrase "cranky geezer rant".
The article gives voice to those in the space community who long for a future that never was. Whether in fiction or in policy, many are selling the unwanted solutions of a failed past. They find themselves baffled by their loss of market share, but rather than identifying society's concerns and offering credible solutions, they blame us for our crass refusal to buy their old whine in new bottles.
As opposed to the Chinese, who find that particular vintage quite palatable.
Robinson argues that science fiction is in a critical and financial decline because "[i]ncredibly, young people no longer find the real future exciting. They no longer find science admirable. They no longer instinctively lust to go to space. SF's central metaphor and brightest vision, lovingly polished and presented as entertainingly as we know how to make it, has been largely rejected by the world we meant to save."
What is it, 2 million of the US population people claim to have been "abducted by aliens". At least one US Presidential Hopeful wants to ban Orbital Mind Control Lasers and Chemtrails - the insidious DiHydrogen Monoxide spread by airliners. Yes, Science has been rejected by a large proportion of young and not-so-young people.
He is indisputably right about our rejection of the mid-20th Century view of the future. Contemporary culture cannot be understood without a firm grasp of this key truth. But by no means does it follow that a rejection of 1950s "conquest of space" visions means a rejection of science fiction, or a closing of the door to space.
But the wholesale rejection of rationalism that is post-modernism et al has had many casualties. The environment. Space Science. Free Trade. The abolition of Dictatorships so that something better can take their place.
Science fiction has long been what the Western once was: adventures idealizing the values and technologies at the forefront of the newest, most interesting realms. In the Fifties, that meant space, and engineering, and the customs of the technocrat and megaproject engineer.

What typical Cold War-era sci fi produced was a linear extrapolation of technological development while assuming culture as a constant.
Hence such typical sci fi as Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (which explores the sociological implications of voluntary service required for the franchise), Asimov's "The Caves of Steel" which deals with a society wholly agrophobic, anything by Ursula K. LeGuin, anything by Harlan Ellison, in fact... pretty much anything. Exploring the sociological implications of changing technology was always the staple fare of "Sci Fi". The rest - Star Wars et al - was rather sneeringly referred to as "Space Opera", good for entertainment value (and therefore to be prized), but not of great worth and moment.
The future we chose, while keeping us planetbound longer than anticipated, has been much more complex. Technology branched into unexpected directions, stifling heavy engineering while innovating in communications at lightspeed. And, most profoundly, culture itself transformed just as rapidly.
As predicted by the "Grumpy Old Men" who wondered at the long-term implications of easily-available Birth Control, or declining standards of education, or the tendencies towards a Talibanesque Theocracy in Heinlein's "Revolt in 2001".
The reason we - and I mean I - chose computers as a field of study was because Space was dead in 1976. I had to look inwards, because my way outwards was blocked. In a small way, this "Old Geezer", like many "Old Geezers", made much of the world we live in today. Everything from the Internet to Smart Bombs, we take the credit and the blame. And what killed the US Manned Space Program? As Mark Whittington said:
... the Apollo Program, born of the Cold War politics of the early 1960s, perished of the Vietnam era politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Neil Armstrong had barely lifted his foot from the surface of the Moon when people began to decide that we now needed to spend more money on social programs and less on space adventures. We had beaten the Soviets, now it was time to help the poor, clean the environment, and so on. Liberal politicians and the media encouraged the attitude. Some did that because they believed the proposition that every dollar spent on space was food taken from the mouths of the hungry. Others, with more sinister motives, saw an irresistible issue. Then Senator Walter Mondale expressed the latter very well, in the wake of the Apollo Fire, when he said, "I don't give a hoot in hell for the program or your future. I intend to ride this thing for all the political advantage I can get."
Well, look at the vast improvements the money has bought us. Is the plight of the poor in Kenya or Zimbabwe any better now than it was then? The decliining longevity and per-capita-income says emphatically "NO". What about the Urban Poor in the US? Or the environment? How about Dr Martin Luther King's vision of a day where Race meant nothing, an end towards Racial Quotas and preferences based on skin colour?
The end of the 1960s saw a rejection of technocracy, for many valid reasons.

Industrial-age organizational methods - standardization, hierarchy, bureaucracy, mass movements - were rejected as dehumanizing and immoral. They were supplanted by better methods - networks, customization, niche marketing - made practicable by technological revolutions in communications and production.

Industrial age attitudes - seeing the environment as a storehouse of resources rather than as our home, nature as a thing to be conquered rather than protected, body-count approaches to warfare - were rejected as well.
As these were all products of our fathers' era - the era of World War 2, Macarthyism and the Depression - we rejected them, not you. We didn't and don't reject technocracy, we want to see all people, not just the fortunate few in Western countries gain the benefits of clean water, female sufferage, and the choice to adopt or reject Democracy. And how many of those "better methods" - such as the improvement of global communications - were direct outgrowths of what little Space Programme we had? And how many other advances have we missed out on by not taking Space seriously?
Industrial age politics - governmental control of industry, the choice of state-glorifying megaprojects over the health and welfare of the country's citizens - also met with rejection. Nuclear testing near civilian areas ended. Construction projects that poisoned the air and water were successfully opposed.
Which is why we have all those Space-based solar powersats instead of greenhouse-gas-producing fossil-fuel powerstations, right? And why all nanotech and biohazard research is performed on the Moon instead of in our own backyard. And why we de-orbit chunks of nickel-iron instead of raping the landscape. And...
When human spaceflight stopped being the newest, most interesting realm, science fiction stopped telling so many stories about it. When computer science and communications technology became the new frontier, science fiction developed a new sub-genre, cyberpunk, that took its information technology as seriously as space opera ever took thrust-to-weight ratios.
Ummm. Space Opera was all about Handwavium and Doubletalk-generators, not Specific Impulse and Physics. And today's Information technology (did you you know that the PERT chart was invented for the Polaris Missile program?) is a direct outgrowth of that dreadfully wasteful Space R&D that could far better have been spent on, say, a bigger advertising budget for the latest Detroit behemoth, or homeopathic medicine rebates for the disadvantaged.
When cultural change became at least as interesting as technological change, science fiction discovered that engineering and physics weren't the only disciplines about which stories could be told: sociology, psychology and political science found a home in the literature.
As in a book I mentioned before about the dangers of Right-Wing Christian Fundamentalism, "Revolt in 2100", first published in its final form in 1954. Or perhaps another of Heinlein's, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", (1967) which dealt (among other things) with Political Philosophy, Artificial Intelligences (Adam Selene is dead ringer for Max Headroom BTW), and an expanding UN sending multinational "peacekeepers" in dubious causes. Oh yes, an a perfectly reasonable mass transport system for getting Lunar resources back to Earth. Another one I've mentioned, "The Caves of Steel deals with a society gripped by both Agorophobia and Technophobia. Published in 1954. Why not read some of the stuff that was written before your parents were born?
Robinson couldn't be farther from the mark in condemning science fiction readers for rejecting the "real future." The "real future" of the Jetsons era died a generation ago, along with Camelot and the Baby Boomers' lost youth. Even the cyberpunk "real future" is now our present, and its great authors are showing gray in their goatees.

Yet there's no Next Big Thing, no hot trend in science fiction, no vision of the future spreading like a virus through the zeitgeist.
Apart from Vernor Vinge's Singularity. A whole heap of technologies, from an increased understanding of the way the Human Brain works, through to Genetic Engineering and Nanotechnology, might just mean that there are kids today who may become effectively immortal - if they choose. And if some Rock or Iceball doesn't give practical confirmation of the solution to the Fermi Paradox - that the Universe is a Dangerous Place.

Hmmm... this is getting too long.
For those who believe that space is a viable solution to contemporary problems, what can we do?

The answer's very simple: prove it. Queen Isabella's advisors told Christoforo Columbo...
For engineers, prove it: build affordable civilian space transportation. However small a start, however humble an effort, prove the concept.
Fair enough. We're working on it. I've done some of my bit. What about you? If you want everything handed to you on a silver platter, tough. Those who make the stuff might not be willing to share - unless you learn Mandarin first. Oh yes, and we're supposed to do this for you without payment, right? Yo sho' nuff is mighty generous, Massa.
For advocates, prove it: make the case without assuming we're all suddenly transported back to the Fifties, or supplied with zillion-dollar budgets or barrels of unobtanium. Leaders don't whine about how lame their troops are: they train them, educate them, inspire them, and lead.
Us "Old Geezers" can remember the days when there were no Communications satellites, no Meteorological satellites. Things like "Hurricane Isobel" did not give us days to prepare, sometimes they didn't give us minutes. Mariners at sea sometimes got many miles off course because they didn't have GPS, were out of the range of LORAN or other radio beacons, and cloudy weather meant they didn't have a good sun sighting. If you haven't been convinced of the need for a Space Program, it's because you take it all for granted. It's a bit like making the case for a better power grid before the blackouts happen.
For storytellers, Spider Robinson included, prove it: if nobody else is writing space fiction that that reaches us where we are, write some. Tell a better story than the fantasists are doing. Show us how a movement into space can give us back our liberty, individuality and power. Make us believe space is the answer.
You can lead someone to knowledge, but you can't make them think. If what you want is easy answers, a "Royal Road to Space", then find out what some even Older Geezer than I said about it.
Or just take your rocking chair out onto the porch and complain there. The rest of us have work to do
Like what? Another Video game? Or perhaps a book on Alien Abductions? Or the Power of Pyramids? Sorry, getting Grumpy in my old age after all... :-)

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