The Death of the Future: From Final Frontier to Final Fantasy

Feature / August 29, 2017

Catacombs beneath the Saturn V F1 Engine Test Stand, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1998. Photo by Roland Miller

ROBERTS: Today is the one year anniversary of We Are the Mutants! To celebrate our already extensive exposé of Cold War pop and not-so-pop culture, as well as our unexpected (and quite gratifying) success at alienating potential subscribers by spurning unqualified nostalgia and its pernicious consequences (a growing contingent of Ready Player One-besotted man-children, the malevolent stupidity of “Make America Great Again,” etc.), we’ve decided to talk about why we think the human species is still confined to Earth, which it continues to ravage and insult, instead of exploring and responsibly colonizing space like the scientists and writers and everyday dreamers of the latter half of the 20th century assumed we’d be doing by now. Did I just answer my own question? Happy Anniversary, guys!

MCKENNA: We’re One! Okay, enough celebrating. Unfortunately, I think it’s all science’s fault. Well, reality’s fault—science just pointed it out. One of my students was telling me the other day about how she’d learned in science class that relativity and the vastness of space mean interstellar travel is impossible. She’s optimistic that a solution will be found eventually—she’s ten—but the gap between her (to me) disheartening realism and my own absolute faith at her age in the intergalactic destiny of humankind is vast. In the popular culture of the day, those dreams of the future were predicated on naivety about our chances of dominating the mechanisms governing the universe: as the difficulty of getting anything larger than an aeroplane out of the atmosphere, never mind bridging the gaps between the stars, dawned on those outside the scientific community, disillusionment spread. I mean, I know there are people who find just the existence of an Earth-type world exciting, but I’m not one of them: much as it depresses me to admit it, unless there’s some chance of someone going there, I couldn’t really give a shit. The optimism of our science-fiction youth wasn’t built upon the abstract wonders of science; it was built upon a promise of concrete change in some reasonably foreseeable future. The nuclear blasts whose shadow we lived under become spaceships blasting us upwards and off the rock, not leaving us sat here photographing Ballard’s overgrown, abandoned launch pads.

At the same time as we’ve grudgingly admitted the limitations of technological advancement, the scope of the public bodies tasked with realising it for us has shrunk—and we’ve become more aware of its costs, which, with so many facing hardship here on Earth, feel increasingly difficult to justify. But at the same time, we know full well that not spending money on grand projects like, say, a space elevator doesn’t translate into resolving pressing earthbound problems like providing everyone on the planet with access to clean water, and that just feeds the torpor. And now those dreams are being co-opted by ambiguous Heinlein-esque übermensch entrepreneur types who we’ll then have to hope don’t decide to start taxing sunlight or become their own religion or something. It all makes the inclusive, ecstatic Roddenberry-eque frontier feel very far away.

GRASSO: Happy anniversary, guys! The beginnings of this discussion reminds me: have either of you read 17776 yet? It is a piece of fiction ostensibly about “the future of American football,” but it’s really a meditation on exactly these themes. It posits a far-future world locked in stasis: people stop aging, dying, and being born right around the dawn of the 21st century. And so people need to find something to do with their new-found immortality, given the very impossibility of space exploration as you mention above, Richard. Our point-of-view onto the story is that humanity in the 178th century is “all watched over by machines of loving grace,” a trio of long-abandoned space probes (Pioneer 9, Pioneer 10, and the yet-to-be-launched-in-this-timeline Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) who comment on humanity’s faltering steps towards enlightenment (through playing increasingly-baroque games of football). It’s a poignant meditation on the impossible distances of space and our seeming aloneness in the universe, and the fact that literally all we have in this universe is our ability to distract ourselves from reality with games and diversions… and each other.

The fact that the guardian angels of humanity are these unmanned space probes says so much about our inability to go forth into the stars. These little tin cans were launched in the hope that they’d be our first emissaries to the stars, but more than 15,000 years after they were launched, they still have no purpose. At one point, Pioneer 10 explains the crushing despair of humanity at discovering there was no practical way for us to leave Earth and nothing to explore once they go there: “People had a choice. They could continue wandering through the endless darkness, an absence of everything they loved, an endless void of disappointment and loneliness… or they could look down, and embrace what they always had and loved.”

The Western mentality during the Cold War was that since all the frontiers were conquered on Earth, our eyes now needed to be pointed to the heavens, to a “new frontier” that would give humanity’s great triumphs and tragedies some sort of meaning in a new postwar world in which God’s existence was, if not outright denied, then highly indeterminate. The vastness of space and, let’s be honest here, Americans’ fantasies of taming its immensity, gave something close to that numinous feeling that people used to experience before the horrors of the 20th century. But in the end it was ultimately all just the same narrative of conquest, colonization, and exploitation. All done to help us in the West assuage the fact we’d made such a fucking mess of things down here.

ROBERTS: And yet the abandonment of this quest for the “numinous” among the stars is depressing to me, notwithstanding the Mars rover projects and several other notable initiatives (I will always adore NASA). I understand the cost-benefit analysis. I understand that we need to direct public funds to stem or eliminate hardship on this planet. And yet we don’t do that; we continue not to do that. Rodenberry’s United Federation of Planets (we’ll talk more about this tomorrow) is based on a money-less civilization that prizes the advancement of science, culture, diversity, and compassion, and the universe is explored to this end. There are definite moral problems lurking in the Star Trek philosophy, but certainly it is possible to evolve in this peaceful and unselfish manner. As we know, it hasn’t happened. We still live in a world that is tainted by ignorance and evil, and the focus of our new technologies over the last 25 years has been to discover more immersive ways to stroke our own egos. In short, we’re not ready for space. The history of science fiction is largely a document of this acknowledgment. The real tragedy is that, as a species, we are not even closer to being ready for space than we were at the time men first walked on the moon. And now, collectively, we’ve even given up on the dream.

Despite the political genesis of the Space Age, the fact is that the accomplishments of the Apollo program were and are extraordinary. Looking to space doesn’t have to be a nationalistic or capitalistic act. The argument that machines can explore the universe just as well as men and women—at less cost to life and the public pocketbook—is a compelling one. Unless, of course, you’re an astronaut, or one of the millions of kids who once dreamed of being one.

MCKENNA: I certainly agree that it’s depressing—it feels like we’re missing something, and that the lack of some vast, existential frontier of possibility and awe has fed back into the modern world, making it increasingly airless. As if for a moment we thought we were finally going to be climbing out of the bunker, but in the end we’re still down here, filling up our increasingly tiny cubicles with as much onanistic junk as possible. Looking at it from that perspective also makes me wonder if the upsurge in UFO interest in the ’70s wasn’t some kind of reaction to the dawning realisation that we were no longer actually going anywhere—hope that maybe “out there” would at least come to us!

Part of me wonders if the post-moonshot mood isn’t a kind of romantic disenchantment. Going into space was like embarking upon a new relationship, and one of the reasons the beginning of a new relationship is exciting is because it offers us the chance to cast off our old selves and habits and be different, perhaps even happier and better, people. In our relationship with space we got a glimpse of how different we might be (despite much of the space program being a continuation of the work of Nazi scientists and its agenda driven by pathological brinksmanship between opposing political blocs), but when things didn’t work out we retreated to nurse our hurt feelings and devote ourselves to the existential equivalent of stamp collecting. Maybe that was the thing—to be ready for space, we should have kept going there even if there was really no reason to go there.

As ambivalent as I am about the costs and goals of space exploration, I doubt I’ll ever be able to rid myself of the suspicion that getting away from Earth, with its accreted nations, hatreds, and belief systems, would be somehow good for us. Mike’s right to point out that for many, space probably represented another frontier to despoil, but I suspect for many others it represented hope and the possibility of change for the better. It’s hopelessly naive to believe that a fresh start changes anything, I know, and we’d probably just start doing the same shit all over again, only this time on some airless moon—but who knows, maybe we wouldn’t.

GRASSO: I agree that the concept of space exploration allowed the existentially-riven Cold War world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, some hope of a “swords-into-plowshares” future. We must remember that nuclear power was the flipside of the nuclear genie unleashed in August 1945, and that there were not only science fiction which featured nuclear fission as a propellant for interstellar travel, but science fact plans as well. Would our earthly problems follow us into space? A man like Robert Heinlein would tell you no; the exploration of space would allow us to live up to the promise of our best selves and a steely pioneer’s resolve married to technological, military, and ideological superiority would conquer the stars. (I do find it interesting that Heinlein’s early dalliances with Socialism metamorphosed so easily into militarism in the postwar years; a pair of very different utopian ideologies.) Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert might concede that the grand scale of human adventure and misadventure would simply be replicated on a galactic scale and that these empires, rising and falling, would be the fate of humanity in space.

But believe a writer like Philip K. Dick or Alfred Bester and all of a sudden you realize that our earthly problems—violence, vengeance, pettiness, surveillance, religious messianism, consumerism and commercialism—would not only follow us to the stars but would poison and mock that long-lived dream of liberation on a cosmic scale. Even the late-era Golden Age sci-fi authors who saw a “cosmic”-scale fate for humanity, such as Arthur C. Clarke, saw that history’s end in a place of cosmic peace would bring with it pain, loss, and the destruction of anything that made us human. One might argue that utopias make for poor narratives, and that’s the reason all these postwar science fiction scenarios seem to contain the creeping seeds of their own destruction. But for all the New Frontier dreams of space colonization that were being depicted in the ’50s and early ’60s, they all seemed to transplant Earth’s problems to space, and then magnify them.

ROBERTS: The will to go to space is the will to survive, to become worthy of the new frontier. It didn’t cost anything for Princeton Professor Gerald O’Neill, “concerned over student disenchantment with science and engineering,” to start discussing the possibilities of space colonization with his freshmen in 1969. The resulting ideas became the basis for a NASA grant in 1975, and O’Neill later testified before Congress about the importance of his conclusions: “that the surface of a planet was not the best place for a technical civilization. The best places looked like new, artificial bodies in space, or inside-out planets.”

That hope in the very real possibility of a better life among the stars—as well as a better life here—has been subsumed by fantasies of stardom in our respective digital universes, or in the simulacra of countless video games that no longer leave anything to the imagination. If the turn inward were one of self-reflection, we would be well on our way. Instead, self-loathing and self-love walk hand in hand, and we elect the idiot sociopaths we deserve.

4 thoughts on “The Death of the Future: From Final Frontier to Final Fantasy

  1. It’s interesting to me that this is an incremental change, also. At some point in the late 80’s-early 90’s, it seemed like many science fiction authors had given up on interstellar travel and colonies on other worlds, but they settled for things like sophisticated inhabited structures in earth orbit. I suppose this reflects the notion that NASA and other space agencies would instead concentrate on ever more sophisticated versions of shuttles to carry things up to earth orbit. Now even that fallback position seems overly ambitious.

    • Well said. It’s frightening how many shuttle missions were run in the ’80s with relatively slim resources. If you look at NASA’s budget over the years, there’s a striking dip after Apollo, and that line never recovers. We are lucky there weren’t more accidents, honestly.

      And how were we going to get a space station without increasing the budget? The shuttle program was justified by the space station, and vice versa.

  2. I heard a girl in a dress
    Say her face was a mess
    I heard there’s no reason why
    I heard that now’s the time to buy

    On planet earth
    I’ll probably stay
    On planet earth
    It’s a place to live your life

    Where pleasure follows pain
    People go insane
    Fly around in planes
    Pray that it won’t rain
    Drive around in cars
    Get drunk in local bars
    Dream of being stars
    Well I lived all my life on planet earth

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