I reflect back on the 1980’s as a good decade, but many science fiction writers of the time didn’t.
As a recent article in The American Conservative observes, the 1980’s turned out providing a congenial context for a grim, dystopian vision of science fiction, one that followed in the wake of technological advancement.
There is no place in this reality for Star-Trek-style optimism – no sublime quests for global government or space colonization leading to interplanetary federations – far from it: nation-states are superseded or supplanted by corporate behemoths and human destiny becomes increasingly tethered to computers amid a world blotted by urban decay, anarchy and anomie.
So many films come to mind: Alien and Mad Max, which were released in 1979 but were close enough to classify as Eighties genre science fiction; Outland; Blade Runner; Escape from New York; and Terminator.
And to think that this turnaround from the heady optimism of Gene Roddenberry to tedious pessimism only took a decade!
Reflecting on this creative volte-face, I’m reminded of the third season Star Trek Original episode “The Savage Curtain,” one episode among several in which humans, with a little help from the half Vulcan Spock, demonstrate human singularity to a curious, highly advanced extraterrestrial species. The ETs in this episode are known as the Excalbians, who lack the ability to distinguish between good and evil and wish to learn this concepts by locking the Kirk, Spock and McCoy in a desperate struggle against a few of the most evil humans and humanoids of Federation history.
One scene in The Savage Curtain especially expresses this optimism of the original series: the one in which a reconstituted Lincoln, created by the Excalbians from Kirk’s memories of the 16th president to serve as a sort of emissary to humanity, refers to Lieutenant Uhura as a “charming negress.” Immediately recognizing this as a faux pas, Lincoln apologizes, only to be assured by Uhuru: “But why should I be offended, sir? You see, in our century, we have learned not to fear words.”
That’s is precisely what I cherished the most about Star Trek and other science fiction series: They often pointed the way to a future in which tech and the insights that grew out of it would empower humanity to look beyond the hostilities of the present to a future in which most, if not most, of these would be resolved.
Consider the yawning psychological chasm between that optimistic scene from 1969 and the dystopian science fiction that followed scarcely a decade later.
Even so, the dystopian visions of 30 years ago speak more than a few essential truths about many unvarnished facts of life in the 21st century: Balkanization, lawlessness, social anomie, rampant obesity (I’m one of them), and a rising tide of ignorance despite our species being afforded, compliments of the digital revolution, a surfeit of information of which previous generations scarcely could have conceived.
Yes, we still have a lot of work to do.
As the recent incidents at Middlebury and Evergreen State colleges demonstrate, we have drawn no closer to a Star Trek future in which humans are so well integrated and actualized that they are no longer susceptible to rhetoric deemed threatening or hateful.
Technological innovation, in that respect, isn’t drawing us any closer to universal understanding, much less, a future that could be considered even faintly utopian.
I’m reminded of a jarring image posted on social media a few years ago of the collapsing, flooded-out Carnegie Library in Detroit – all of the recorded knowledge of man wantonly discarded and consigned to the corrosive elements of nature. I think about Lincoln and other intellectually hungry youngsters from a century or so ago who walked miles or labored for days or weeks to acquire a clutch of coveted books – the works of Shakespeare, the King James Bible or Montaigne’s Essays – anything that could be read and mastered to acquire a rudimentary grasp of language and common knowledge.
Still, I can’t bring myself to counterrevolution or to counterrevolutionary – not yet, at least.
I note what Joseph de Maistre and his intellectual heirs, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger said about the baneful effects of progress. There is a case for bemoaning the technological ascent of humankind and the concomitant loss of primitive values that once characterized our species. But this ignores one of of the basic characteristics of our species: that we are technological creatures by nature. Technology and humanity have been melded in symbiosis from the start – intimately – and there have been disruptors throughout history that have only contributed to the acceleration and intensification of this nexus. And from what I’ve gathered through my reading, this connection is simply unbreakable – so bound up with the human condition that it can never be reversed.
Consequently, some ultimate merging with technology seems all but inevitable to me. Indeed, scientists recently estimated that humans essentially will lose their stewardship to AI within the next 45 years. Within 120 years, artificial intelligence will have acquired all the skills once considered exclusively to humans.
This has often led me to wonder if singularity is the ultimate purpose of the universe – in other words, if some highly advanced intelligence created this universe and possibly many, many others to determine how long before naturally evolved organic life merges with or is overrun by so-called artificial life.
We do at times seem to be regressing rather than progressing as a species. But I, for one, am still not convinced that we’re being led inexorably into a future that could be even vaguely described as dystopian – a troubled future, in some respect, yes, but dystopian? Again, I’m not convinced.
Great thinkers throughout history have lifted their gaze to the future and conjured up all manner of calamity, and many, if not most, of these ultimately have been resolved long before they exacted their toll.
As Matt Ridley relates in The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, some of the world’s most astute thinkers once imagined that Europe was on the brink of starvation as supplies of quano, the principal source of fertilizer at the time, depleted. Then Fritz Haber stepped in with the Haber-Bosch process.
Once again I’m reminded of something worth sharing: one of the observations the dour Calvin Coolidge once offered regarding long-term optimism.
“If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”
Sound advice. Largely for the simple reason that we are technological creatures, human have proven enormously resourceful at several critical times throughout our history. And that is why I think that his likely will turn out the way that it generally has: troubled and a long way from utopian but a far, far cry from dystopian.