Sunday, January 17, 2010

Expired Futures

In every January of the twentieth century for which I was present, my casual awareness of the of the new year’s number was shaky. Accordingly, when paying bills, I often dated checks the previous year. Sometimes I would catch the error and try to re-tweak the date. Changing with a pen stroke 1985 to 1986, for example, was inelegant but possible. Changing a 6 to a 7, on the other hand was so much messier that in 1987 (and other 7 years) I tore up a lot of checks and started over. I have no idea how many misdated checks went out uncaught and unedited. None ever came back for that reason, so I presume banks make allowances for that error. By February I always was fully adjusted to the year.

Since the turn of the millennium, the annual transition has been much smoother, and my checks so far this year remain untweaked – yes, I still write them by hand rather than on some computer bookkeeping program. This is not because my day-to-day awareness has grown sharper in any way. Rather, it is because all twenty-first century dates seem equally unlikely to me. 2009 looked just as surreal to me as 2010. The former never looked quite right, so writing it never became a habit. I've hesitated before writing any date in the past 10 years. All of them seem to belong to a faraway future.

I remember sitting in a Boston theater watching 2001, A Space Odyssey during its first release; being 1968, the marquee outside actually said, "For Stoned Audiences." I didn't question the film's suppositions that by 2001 we would have true AI computers, passenger flights to moon bases, and manned flights to Jupiter. For all the hot wars, cold wars, and turmoil of the time, it was an optimistic era.

Visions of the future always say more about the time in which they are made than about the future itself. Take the classic film version of HG Wells' Things to Come (1936). The movie was right about upcoming global war, of course, though perhaps in 1936 one didn't need to be a science fiction writer to foresee that. The film’s postulated post-war (in the context of the movie, utopian) recovery, however, was disturbingly authoritarian, which was very much a 1930s way of looking at things. Try another Wells adaptation, The Time Machine (the 1960, not the 2002 version). The ambiguous anti-war message (ambiguous because Rod Taylor’s character takes on the Morlocks) is a little less disturbing, but still very 1960. The actual 1895 novel, of course, is not about war at all but about class cleavage, a theme reflecting the industrial politics of the day.

What does twenty-first century scifi say about us – The Matrix Reloaded, Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, et al -- other than that we expect the future to be rife with experts in martial arts? By and large, the visions are darker than in earlier years. Compare the 1970s Battlestar Galactica with the 2000s one. Perhaps it is reassuring that scifi dates quickly. Our gloom may yet prove to be as misplaced as the cheeriness of 1968.

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