Friday, February 10, 2012

How the Baby Boom Became the Apocalypse Boom

I recently started following the amazing Twitter feed of William Gibson, author of Pattern Recognition, Neuromancer, and a new collection of essays called Distrust That Particular Flavor.

The title of the latter, it turns out, comes from an essay about his childhood reading of H.G. Wells's Time Machine, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Quoting at length from the end of this essay, titled "Time Machine Cuba":

The future, according to Hollywood, in 1968 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and in 2009.

"In his preface to the 1921 edition of The War in the Air, Wells wrote of World War I (still able to call it, then, the Great War): 'The great catastrophe marched upon us in daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived. Behind that great catastrophe march others today.' In his preface to the 1941 edition, he could only add: 'Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: "I told you so. You damned fools." (The italics are mine.)'

"The italics are indeed his: the terminally exasperated visionary, the technologically fluent Victorian who has watched the 20th Century arrive, with all of its astonishing baggage of change, and who has come to trust in the minds of the sort of men who ran British Rail. They are the italics of the perpetually impatient and somehow perpetually unworldly futurist, seeing his model going terminally wrong in the hands of the less clever, the less evolved. And they are with us today, those italics, though I've long since learned to run shy of science fiction that employs them.

"I suspect that I began to distrust that particular flavor of italics when the world didn't end in October of 1962. I can't recall the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis at all. My anxiety, and the world's, reached some absolute peak. And then declined, history moving on, so much of it, and sometimes today the world of my own childhood strikes me as scarcely less remote than the world of Wells's childhood, so much has changed in the meantime.

"I may actually have begun to distrust science fiction, then, or rather to trust it differently, as my initial passion for it began to decline, around that time. I found Henry Miller, then, and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and others, voices of another kind, and the science fiction I continued to read was that which somehow was resonant with those other voices, and where those voices seemed to be leading me.

"And it may also have begun to dawn on me, around that same time, that history, though initially discovered in whatever soggy trunk or in whatever caliber, is a species of speculative fiction itself, prone to changing interpretation and further discoveries."

I love that last sentence. There's a whole academic field of historiography: the study of how our historical narratives change and have changed over time. Historiography is essentially a literary exercise: understanding the stories we tell about ourselves. Is there really much difference between the stories we tell about our pasts and the so-called science fiction stories of our futures?

"That particular flavor" of dystopian science fiction is particularly strong right now, with heady notes of Mayan prophecies and mideast uprisings and financial collapses. In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Gibson elaborates on his skepticism:

"Futurists get to a certain age and, as one does, they suddenly recognize their own mortality, and they often decide that what’s going on is that everything is just totally screwed and shabby now, whereas when they were younger everything was better.

"It’s an ancient, somewhat universal human attitude, and often they give it full voice. But it’s been being given voice for thousands and thousands of years. You can go back and see the ancient Greeks doing it. You know, 'All that is good is gone. These young people are incapable of making art, or blue jeans, or whatever.' It’s just an ancient thing, and it’s so ancient that I’m inclined to think it’s never actually true. And I’ve always been deeply, deeply distrustful of anybody’s 'golden age' — that one in which we no longer live."

As concerned as I am about human civilization's capacity to commit suicide, I'm still with Gibson here. America's baby boomers have been a uniquely self-important generation — and uniquely destructive. But the idea that they're the apex of a million years of humanity, after which everything must decline, really takes the cake for arrogance.

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