Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Future Without Hope

I set out many months ago to identify a monster for the twenty-first century. The idea that monsters represent the spirit of a given age is not mine. Fritz Leiber, Jr., may have been the originator of the idea, and even if he wasn't, he must have been among the first to articulate it. (1) So what is the spirit of our age? I wrote yesterday about an issue of American Heritage from the 1960s and an article about nostalgia. Well, I also have an issue of the same magazine from about the same time with an article about decadence. The question was, essentially, Were we then living in decadent times? It may be human nature to believe always that we are living in decadent times, but the answer is irrelevant. What matters is that we ask the question, or that we believe we are living in a time of decadence. It seems to me that those two articles--on nostalgia and decadence--are really about the same thing. After all, the person suffering from nostalgia sees the past as being better than the present, that there was once a Golden Age and now there is not. In other words, once there was life, vigor, joy, and love, but then decay set in and all has been lost.

I have attempted to make the case that fantasy, horror, weird fiction, and stories of the supernatural are about the past, about nostalgia, and about decadence. Science fiction on the other hand is about the future, about hope, and about an expanding universe. As a literary genre, fantasy prevailed for thousands of years, for there was no such thing as science as we know it, hence no science fiction. That genre wasn't possible until there was such a thing as science, but it also wasn't possible until there was the concept that the future might be different from or better than the past and present. Frankenstein (1818) may have been the first science fiction romance, but it is more Gothic than rational, more nostalgic than forward-looking. (It is also in its way a story of decadence.) Only in the nineteenth century did science reach a point where people had reason to believe the future would be different or better. Only then was science fiction as we know it possible. H.G. Wells of the 1890s was a pioneer. Thirty years after his first science fiction novel, the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, went into print. (2) In the following decade, science fiction entered its so-called Golden Age. (3) That Golden Age (a term used afterwards by people in the grips of nostalgia) lasted a mere dozen years by some accounts and no more than a quarter century or so. Now the question is this: Is science fiction dying? There are many who believe that it is and that fantasy is once again on top. If those two things are true, they would indicate that we have turned our backs on the future, that we may be living in a time of decadence, and almost certainly that we are looking once again to the past and are filled with nostalgia.

Another way of asking the question Is science fiction dying? is to ask Is science fiction decadent? In other words, has science fiction itself become nostalgic? Fans and writers answered that question decades ago (about the time American Heritage published its article about nostalgia) when they decided that there was once a Golden Age of Science Fiction. But look at the science fiction of today. What does it tell us, or what do its various subgenres tell us? I'm not an expert on science fiction. I can't say that I'm current in my reading. But I see three trends. All are about nostalgia and decadence. First there is steampunk, a subgenre that is literally about the past and about an imagined Golden Age set between the times of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells (and which is nonetheless a little grungy or decadent). (4) Second is dystopian fiction, a science fiction subgenre about an oppressive rather than a hopeful future. Third is post-apocalyptic fiction, which is about a chaotic, desperate, and decadent future rather than one in which we reach the stars.

Steampunk, dystopias, and post-apocalysm have great appeal today, especially among young people. Do those subgenres reflect the spirit of our age or of certain generations? Maybe so. For decades, Americans believed they would live better lives than their parents, or that they would provide better lives for their children than they had had for themselves. Do the younger generations of today have the same hopes? Not being one of them, I can't say, but I'm not sure that they do. I sense a feeling of oppression among them. If they feel that way, it can only be for good reasons, not least of which is the weight of the generations above them, generations that have exploited, deprived, and oppressed them, and have attempted to cage their minds. (5) Some people believe that we're moving towards dystopia or an apocalypse. Even if those two futures don't come about, there is a kind of hopelessness in the world today. No wonder that people look to an imagined better past or fear a desperate and oppressive future. If that's the spirit of our age, what is the monster to reflect it?

(1) Leiber used the word ghost as a substitute for monster, as in the short story "Smoke Ghost." The words ghost and spirit are also interchangeable. So in asking the question What is the monster of the twenty-first century? I suppose I'm asking, by substitution of terms, What is the spirit of the twenty-first century? or What is the spirit of our age?
(2) In 1926.
(3) In 1938.
(4) Horror fans have their Goth subculture, while science fiction fans have steampunk. I suspect there is overlap between the two.
(5) The cohorts born between 1960 and 1974 are the largest among us. Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, still make up about 30 percent of the population. In thinking about oppression of one generation over another, we should remember that Baby Boomers slaughtered younger generations en masse, the first generation in the history of humanity to do so, thereby securing their power and influence while also assuring that there wouldn't be anyone but the overarching State to take care of them in their old age. (Younger generations are now doing the same thing to those under them.) The alternative of course is either suicide or euthanasia, the option seemingly favored by Ezekiel Emanuel, age fifty-seven and an architect of our current "health" care system. Strange that a man with the name of God in both his given name and surname should prove evil beyond words and beyond comprehension. Once again, the totalitarian--a totalitarian monster in fact--rears its ugly head. If people of today sense an approaching totalitarianism, you can't say they're paranoid.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley 


  1. Is the glass half full or half empty? I guess it's an age old question, and depends on one's perception. I tend to think, the more things change, the more they stay the same. If Star Wars, Trek--or some other futuristic world did exist wouldn't it still have problems? Was the Golden Age all that golden? I have nostalgia for some of that too, but I prefer living now in this age, with whatever problems we may face.

  2. Dear El Vox,

    I agree with you that things don't change very much, even after centuries or millennia. My argument is that if human nature changes, we would not be able to understand the Iliad or the Odyssey. Also, I question whether people of a given age were more or less happy than people of today. I doubt that they were.

    In every Golden Age, there is a worm, or, by the Latin phrase, "Et in Arcadia Ego." Conversely, there is yet life (and hope) even in a concentration camp. The original Star Trek I think dealt well with the idea that even in the future we will be human. Star Trek: The Next Generation seems to take place in a future perfected by the removal of human emotion. It all goes to the idea of progress: Is there such a thing or no? I say no (for the most part). The person with a Utopian vision says yes. Too often, that person is willing to sacrifice the rest of us for his vision.

    Thanks for writing.


  3. Having discovered your blog recently, I'm reading and enjoying some old posts.

    I would definitely agree that steampunk is a decadent movement. (Sometimes fun but still imaginatively decadent as science fiction though not as fantasy.)

    As to "even in the future we will be human", that's a very open question. As we learn more about the human genome and what part it plays in human thought and emotions, engineering human nature away seems a possibility even if not necessarily desirable.

  4. Dear Marzaat,

    Welcome to my blog, and thanks for reading.

    You make a good point that steampunk is fun. I have been around steampunk people and they invariably seem to be having fun. When it gets down to it, maybe steampunk is dress-up, a child's game, fun and innocent. So are fun and decadence incompatible? The decadent poets and writers of the nineteenth century seem to have been a dreary and dissipated bunch. I wouldn't rule out fun in decadence, though.

    In your third paragraph, you have hit upon a science-fictional idea: Can human nature--our need to love or our desire to be free--be engineered away? The materialist might say yes. The totalitarian, consumed by his Utopian vision, wants to try. The rest of us rebel against the idea. (As I have said, the totalitarian Utopia is a dystopia for the rest of us.) It all comes down to the question, Is there a human soul, or are we simply a soup of chemicals? If we have souls or are souls, then the good stuff in us can't be engineered out. Not that we will stay our hands, for when have we ever stopped what we are doing, saying, "No more"?