Tuesday, August 07, 2012

When Science Fiction was Real

When I was a boy my friends and I would bring our ten cents in our grubby little fingers and congregate every Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Theater for the matinee. The feature film was usually a western with Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autrey, or other of the famous cowboy stars of the 30’s and 40’s. Along with the feature there was always an installment of some ongoing serial, often having something to do with Science Fiction, the one I remember the most vividly was Flash Gordon. There were others, having to do with strange mud men and the like but I don’t remember them very well. This was our introduction to Science Fiction when it was still, literally, FICTION. That is, we didn’t believe these kinds of things would ever happen, were somehow realistically possible, we knew they were completely fictional. It was obvious that Flash Gordon’s space craft was little more than what appeared to be two or three metal garbage cans welded together that could barely even manage to land and take off from the completely artificial landscapes the cheap production companies could afford to produce, and even Flash Gordon himself was not a very convincing character. We knew it was all fake, just hokum to please the mostly juvenile audiences it sought to please. Those were happy times, we didn’t worry about any of it ever coming to pass, and we most certainly did not worry about any possible consequences if somehow it ever were to become real. To us, it was just not thought possible, it was simply real in the sense that it was real fiction.

In the 70 or more years since those happy, carefree days, a great deal has happened and what was simply science fiction then has become scientific reality now. First it was Sputnik, then the moon, and now, of course, we have managed to land an exploratory vehicle on Mars, some 154 million miles from earth. One cannot help but be in awe of the scientific achievement this represents, something that would have been unthinkable for thousands of years all of the sudden made possible by the scientific community, an absolutely colossal event! Everyone should rightly be proud of this fantastic event.

I am proud of it, but why is it that at the same time the first disturbing thing that entered my mind upon hearing about it was the thought it would just be another planet to ravish and trash. Why did I think that? Why have I become so cynical about such things? I guess it must be the simple fact that after watching for 80 years what we humans have done to this planet, and also to each other, I have lost all confidence in our ability to manage our affairs, both environmentally and interpersonally. I keep asking myself (1) Why are we spending these billions to reach Mars when there are so many serious problems here on earth that need fixing, and (2) Are we so close to the destruction of this planet we are now actively searching for the next one for our basically parasitical existence? Of course from the first couple of pictures I saw, Mars does not look very habitable. But that can’t be an impossible problem for people who have already moved mountaintops just to get the coal underneath them, or re-routed rivers that didn’t run where we wanted them to run, or shipped irradiated sand from the middle east to rest in Idaho, invented the internal combustion engine and plastic with no thoughts of the future, built gigantic dams on the rivers with no regard for the consequences, invented fracking, and otherwise fouled our little planet however we chose. No mountains on Mars? We’ll build our own mountains. No water, we’ll pipe it in from elsewhere, no available energy, we’ll install some gigantic wind tunnels, and maybe some artificial tides to produce it, not enough oxygen, no problem we’ll invent something. There is just nothing we can’t do, we’re the lords of the universe, masters of all, we know best what to do.

None of this will probably happen during the remainder of my lifetime. But I never thought that during my lifetime air travel would become commonplace, television would be invented, nuclear energy would be discovered, the typewriter would not only be invented but replaced by computers, a part Black man would be elected President, and one of two political parties would cease to govern. Some say “things change but stay the same. Wrong, things change but do not stay the same. Some say history always repeats itself. Wrong, when before was there television, nuclear energy, an explorer on Mars? If history merely repeated itself there would be no change, no “progress.” Perhaps that would be a good thing? Personally, I hope explorer will find nothing, no oil, no diamonds, no gold, no water, no habitable land whatsoever, and no traces of life either in the past or now, a dead and useless planet, and that we have wasted our billions on a fool’s errand. Alas, don’t bet on it.

If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run - and often in the short one - the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.

Arthur C. Clarke

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