Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Rocket Boys and Jet-Pack Girls: Let's Throw a Golden-Age Sci-Fi Revival

Talk to nearly any adult who grew up reading SF and they'll probably tell you: they just don't make 'em like they used to. The Golden Age, with moonbases and robots and perhaps slightly shaky grasps of advanced physics, is over. And that's sad. They shake their heads and maybe suck their teeth, as if discussing a particularly grisly car accident. It'll just never be the way it used to.

CC BY 2.0 license, by flickr user pasukaru76

There's no interest in it, they'll say. We used to be so naive, and now that we know better, science fiction is becoming an arena for cynical cash grabs, gaudy shoot-em-ups, maudlin space operas, and—ugh—dystopias. Besides, the Space Race is over. We figured out just what the ordeal was about after Apollo 17's command module splashed down: jingoism and TV ratings. Only a few true believers at NASA and some powerless voters actually bought into the "exploration" thing, and we never went back to the moon. It's truly a bleak time to be around if you don't want to live on this planet anymore.

Well, I'd like to counter with the following: Whatever.

Modern SF is at a crossroads. On the one hand, cynical filmmakers take an excessive plot from the Action genre, put hackers or nanobots or spaceships in it, and sell it as speculative fiction. On the other hand, the best modern SF practitioners tend toward the desperately bleak "20 minutes into the future" dystopia trope. And that's necessary, to some degree. I would hardly tell William Gibson to stop doing William Gibson. But I agree with Neal Stephenson's take on the power and complete absence of optimistic science fiction. (Full disclosure: I cannot read Stephenson. I've tried three of his books; they are just too gigantic and out of control for me.)

Sure, the "Project Hieroglyph" that came out of that effort feels a bit contrived (but he got some fantastic authors to sign on, and of course I'll be reading the first installment). But the principle is sound—get people excited about new technology, especially young people, and you'll get more interest in building new technology. And while I laud the effort, Hieroglyph is mostly about the practical magic of positive SF, when the pitch could actually be: Let's stage a full-scale revival.

But, you say, people won't read it. And I say again: Whatever. People are reading YA lit about wizards and vampires, why not about rockets and Mars colonies? People watched Moon. People watched Gravity and Interstellar. People read The Martian. Why would people not read stories about the perils of great human achievements in science?

But, you say, you can't repeat the past. Of course you can! Like any other artistic revival, it won't be a strict repetition of the naivete, the pie-eyed nonsense factory that was the Golden Age. But the themes of solving mankind's largest problems with good science, of moral people trying to better the planet (and beyond) and resisting the cynical and the corrupt? There's still tons to be done there.

And we'll make it better. Every artistic revival in history has taken as its article of faith the patching of moral and aesthetic bugs in its original source. And the Golden Age Revival will have to do the same: responsible politics, minority representation, sex issues (looking at you, Heinlein), and other seriously concerning trends of the state of the art in the mid-20th century will be addressed. And if the recent trends in comic books and video games are any indication, it can be done without sacrificing a ripping good story.

But, you might still be saying, it's not the right time. We did wizards, then vampires, and now we're on dystopias. We can't go to space today. Or maybe ever. Well, that's literary trends for you, especially in YA, which seems to have become the barometer for what's coming up in pop culture. For all the good that's come out of YA-land's penchant for fantasy—and I think that one cannot overstate the benefits of Harry Potter on young readers—it feels like it's time to leave the trolls and head for the stars. Hopefully the next generation's hero will emerge from the bedroom under the stairs to hear, "Yer an astronaut, Harry."

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