The Future Was Now, a guest post from Kamo
Posted January 5, 2014on:
Today’s guest post is from Kamo, who blogs at this is how she fight start. If that’s not an alluring enough blog name for you, Kamo posts about speculative fiction, life in Japan, and food with a quippy wry style.
The Future Was Now, by Kamo
“Vintage Science Fiction.” There’s an oxymoron right there.
In my day job I teach English to Japanese high school students. At night I don a sentient suit of armour (with cape) and deal out vigilante justice to the scum of the city in a psychologically disastrous attempt to displace my raging alcoholism and avenge the death of my parents at the hands of Big Mo’s henchmen when I was naught but a child. But I’ve been asked to write about Science Fiction here so I’m going to talk about the day job instead.
In addition to the linguistic aspects of English teaching, there are also certain cultural considerations that accompany the role. As such, I’m expected to be something of an ambassador for the entire Rest of the World. Me. This is hilarious.
I am patently unsuited to many roles, but perhaps none more so than Ambassador of the World (Ambassador OF THE NIGHT, maybe). But I’m getting paid real money for this so I may as well give it a go, eh? Thus we watch a lot of dvds and clips I’ve ripped off youtube. This year my students have been subjected to Jane Eyre (the BBC TV adaptation), Mad Men (the AMC mega-phenomenon), and The Matrix (the movie, singular. There is only one Matrix movie).
In preparation for their final presentations I’ve also shown them a couple of famous speeches: Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech (obvs) and JFK’s speech at Rice University launching the Apollo programme. I must have watched the same clips about fifty times by now, and the part that still surprises me is when JFK poses the question, “Why, 35 years ago, did we fly the Atlantic?” Thirty-five years ago. The speech was made in 1962. We are now further away from Armstrong’s moon landing than Armstrong was from Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.
Let’s all just take a moment to consider that.
Compounding this is my suspicion that Red’s 1979 cut off for ‘vintage’ classification isn’t entirely arbitrary. It’s the year Alien was released, for one. More importantly, it isn’t so far off my own ill-starred emergence into the world and so Alien is to me (us?) what The Matrix is to this coming intake of students. They will have been born in 1999, and so if I choose to show them The Matrix (year of release: 1999) it will, for them, be very much ‘Vintage SF’.
Let’s all take a moment to consider that as well.
This is, needless to say, depressing as all fuck in a we’re not getting any younger time is ticking away every second you spend reading this is a second closer to your inevitable death kind of way. How do you cope with that? Besides drink, self-destructive extrajudicial crime fighting, and borderline sociopathy that is (none of which are really working all that well if I’m being honest)?
I suspect the answer is that you don’t fear the future, you embrace it. You welcome the inevitable march of time as taking us onwards to if not a better place, then at least a different one. Science Fiction is inherently forward looking in a way other genres are not. The speculative must inevitably speculate.
Because, and this is the point I really want to make, Science Fiction isn’t really about science at all. It’s not about rockets or robots or spaceships or purple aliens with seven arms and knees where their ears should be. I mean, sure, at its worst it’s about all those things and more, usually under the rubric of Worldbuilding (don’t get me started on Worldbuilding, I fucking hate Worldbuilding. It is the fart in the elevator of narrative elements, stinking the place out and requiring Characterization and Plot to breathe through their mouths while Dialogue repeatedly jabs at the button for the next available floor and Pacing slowly collapses into a heap in the corner), but really it’s not about any of that. It’s about people and what we do and how we cope.
This is why I think that ‘Vintage Science Fiction’ is an oxymoron, because the other yoking of opposites I want you to consider is this – the only constant is change. At heart SF is about people coping with, and on occasion creating, change at a societal level. The details of that change vary, but that’s what it’s really about. The temptation with older SF is to pick nits with what they didn’t get right, the failed predictions: the moon is uninhabited, we were not conducting odysseys to space 13 years ago, and as for the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel? Pah. Netflix all the way, baby.
But this is to miss the point. The best SF works because of what it got right, and what it got right ahead of time. Sure, the neologisms stick around (‘cyberspace’, ‘robot’, ‘utopia’), but the human factors are what really hold. Look through a sample of today’s fiction, or even reportage, and tell me you can’t find any number of Frankensteins or Moreaus playing fast and loose with the Law of Unintended Consequences or Nemos and Neos pacing the boundaries between freedom fighting and terrorism.
Vintage SF is a perfect singularity of past, present, and future tenses. It shows us the world as it was going to be. When the world is changing fast enough that it becomes unrecognizable within the space of a lifetime that’s a rare kind of unity. It’s not perfect, no endeavour is, but at heart it reminds us of what it is to be human: the core of how we define ourselves against this constant change. Even if the visions presented aren’t optimistic the fact of their presentation is, as it puts us in a time when anything was possible: when the Earth was hollow, when Mars had a princess, and when Big Mo was just another anonymous street hoodlum and my parents were still alive, goddamnit.
At least that’s what I tell myself as I perch brooding on a gargoyle, surveying the desolate urban landscape through night-vision goggles. You take your humanity where you can find it, whether in pulp novels from the 1950s or soaring through the night on wings of steel striking fear into the hearts of miscreants across the city.
Or pilates. That’s meant to be quite good as well. Try pilates.