Thursday, March 29, 2007

Postmodern Paleo-Future

Lately, I've been trying to organize my thoughts around this idea of the postmodern paleo-future. That is to say, when did a certain level of self-awareness about futurism outweigh the sincere, optimistic brand of futurism?

I might suggest that the first great postmodern paleo-futuristic film was Woody Allen's Sleeper from 1973. Allen was not so much reflecting present-day anxieties and dreams of the future but rather those of generations before him.

In a world of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Meet the Robinsons, and the Futurama TV show, (not the General Motors exhibit from the 1939 World's Fair), where do we go from here?

Is a return to sincerity the answer? Is such a thing even possible, let alone desirable?

Despite what some may have argued at the time, irony did not die on September 11, 2001. In fact, it was the only way Americans knew how to deal with tragedy. Yet, there continue to be moments when a sincere reverence for the future and its possibility poke through, as though asking if it's safe to come out and play.

As usual, your thoughts on this topic are more than welcome.

12 comments:

mathew said...

"Sleeper" was merely a comic version of the sudden cynicism about the future that hit in the early 1970s around the time of "THX 1138" (1971).

It's quite amazing that in 4 years we went from "2001" (1968) to "Silent Running" (1972). Also "Westworld" (1973), "The Parallax View" (1974).

Then came "The Stepford Wives" (1975), obviously hooking into the "kitchen of tomorrow"/"robot house servant" meme.

And by 1978 we had the full-on "X-Files" style paranoia of "Capricorn One".

It's tempting to blame the Nixon white house and the Vietnam war for a lot of this, but I wasn't around so I'm hesitant to accept that hypothesis.

adamrice said...

The opposite of "postmodern" here isn't "sincere," it's "fabulist."

Hugo Gernsback, with his hovercars and space communities, formed a big part of what we now consider "classic retrofuturism," but that was at a time when SF was not generally a serious form of literature.

Perhaps more importantly, this classic retrofuturism comes from a time when there was a huge disconnect between the sanitized reality we wanted to believe in and the reality we actually lived in. So perhaps we should consider that idyllic, antiseptic version of the future to be the anomaly. Any serious futurism would take into account human imperfection.

I haven't seen much serious futurism on TV or in the movies in a long time (Strange Days? Johnny Mnemonic? That's the best I can come up with). But there is some in books. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has both optimistic and pessimistic qualities, and is a serious attempt to think about the near future.

Also: Sleeper, Silent Running, and all the rest are commentaries on contemporary society, not predictions of the future.

jglenn said...

I disagree with these two comments. You're onto something, Matt. Right up through the 1950s, I think, it didn't occur to anyone to make fun of the possibility that one day societies would be run by computers, or robots would try to destroy us, or humans would become mutants because of radiation. Now... we laugh about it. When did it begin?

Over at the Brainiac blog, I've responded to your challenge with four pre-"Sleeper" futurist fictions that seem to mock the genre while still scaring readers.

Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" (1957) might count, right? But the trend probably began with something like...

"The Penultimate Truth" (1964), by Philip K. Dick, offers a phildickian twist on the already well-established genre of post-apocalyptic fictions in which the survivors of nuclear war must live in underground cities: It turns out (spoiler alert) that everything is fine aboveground, and cynical governments are just making undergrounders think the war's still going on.

Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (1969), made into the excellent movie starring a young Don Johnson. Ellison romps merrily through the usual post-apocalyptic scenario.

"Love in the Ruins" (1971), by Walker Percy -- offers a wry twist on the then-established apocalyptic scenario in which survivors hole up in motels and fight pitched battles on golf courses.

Here's my post:
http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/brainiac/2007/03/postmodern_pale.html

adamrice said...

Having thought about this a little more, I realize my previous comment is a little off-topic. I can't pin down the earliest example of one form of futurism that is an ironic commentary on someone else's futurism. Michael Moorcock's "Warlord of the Air" may have been an ironic commentary on HG Wells' futurism. Certainly Wells' work has been widely read for long enough to expect some literature in reaction to it by, say, the 1920s.

In the Wikipedia entry on Wells, "In C. S. Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength, the character Jules is a caricature of Wells, and much of Lewis' science fiction was written both under the influence of Wells and as an antithesis to his work." Again, a little off-topic, but still interesting.

Anonymous said...

Its funny, I stumbled across this article today on CNN, It has a distinctive Paleo-Future optimistic vision of the future ring to it.

http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/
autos/0702/gallery.future_safety/
6.html

Maybe optimism is still kicking around.

Nick Teeple said...

Sadly, the only movie mentioned here that I have even seen is A Boy and his Dog which I thoroughly enjoyed because of how much sci-fi I have read. This is an interesting distinction between postmodern and modern paleo-future, as if it was the difference between bleak and optimistic. It is easy to follow what mankind is up to right now and go either way. This duality of hugely beneficial actions (surge of sustainable production methods) with hugely awful actions (keeping troops in the middle east) seems to leave the future balancing on a very thin tightrope. I find the optimistic brand much more likely because I am an optimist first, cynic second. I am particularly fascinated by Kurzweil's visions, that is, if we don't wipe the humanity slate clean with wars first.

Jason Wilson said...

Maybe 'sincere' futurism died at the same time as 'sincere' modernism. I would reccomend books like Martin Parr's 'Boring postcards', where postcards from the 1940s to the 1960s feature highways, concrete-jungle housing developments, strip-mall construction, airports etc. They look weird now because at some intervening point people lost their confidence and lost faith in the project of modernisation as improvement. I bet optimistic futurism died at around the same time.

Jeff Patterson said...

I emailed the following to Matt, and he asked me to post it here:

I'd say it's an ongoing process, and add that futurism is not always
optimistic. Just went through a collection of HG Wells magazine reproductions from the early twentieth, and the accompanying illustrations certainly smack of
seminal futurism. These were parodied to an extent by Winsor McCay and Radebaugh in their future-prediction phases.
But that same self-awareness could be applied in equal measure to the big epaulets and domed-cities of 70s comics, the mirrorshades and trenchcoats of cyberpunk (often set in the late 90s), and the assorted waves of post-apocalyptic wastelands that have hit the shores of pop culture. Hell, look at the recent spate of what my girlfriend calls "Disaster Porn," where
extensive CGI is used to illustrate how supervolcanoes, catagory eleventeen hurricanes and continent-wide earthquakes will reshape the world. They all
declare "the future will be like THIS!" as floes of lava leave only the top half of NYC visible.

Futurism, like evolution, needs to be malliable and adaptable. But more importantly it needs to BE. Having some form of forward-thing running in the cultural background, even if it's the often silly consensus-future of 50 years ago, is a requirement for a healthy society.

Unfortunately what we have today is a microfuturism spurned on by
consumerism. What will the next gadget be, or how will next year's applets work.
There are still bright beacons of true futurism visible, you just have to go
through a lot of crap to find them.

Paul B Hartzog said...

Jason Wilson is right on target. The failure of modernism, i.e. the industrial era, to produce the shiny world of the Carousel of Tomorrow can be linked to postmodernism's exposure of the fallibility of technological society.

What is interesting is that there are two brands of optimistic futurism right now that get different reactions:

1) Technology will save us. This gets pushed around by conservative institutes who believe we can overcome all the horrid things the industrial era has done to the planet. But it also gets support from the Greens who believe a little too heavy-handedly that green technology will solve all of our problems.

2) The Internet will save us. Wired mag and the Internet pundits rave about the delights and revolutionary transformations on the way from network technology.

The odd thing is that if you are in category #1 then your optimism is overtly ridiculed as being a throwback to a naive futurism, but if you are in category #2 you can still get taken seriously by an awful lot of folks.

Soren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Anonymous said...

"Sleeper" was merely a comic version of the sudden cynicism about the future that hit in the early 1970s around the time of "THX 1138" (1971).
...
It's tempting to blame the Nixon white house and the Vietnam war for a lot of this, but I wasn't around so I'm hesitant to accept that hypothesis.
-- Mathew

And one friend of mine said it was a delayed shock from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Okay, guys. What happened is a lot of things in general seemed to go south around 1968 or so. ("The year Sauron got The Ring", according to one blogger.) This was the dividing line between the two 1960s, between The New Frontier and The Sixties (TM). I figure it as a vector solution, where all these things (Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, counterculture reaching critical mass, etc) all came together in a Perfect Storm.

I am familiar with the effects in SF. Before 1968, you had mostly Bright Futures, futures you actually wanted to live to see. (Mass media example: "Old Testament" Star Trek.) Sure, there were dystopias, but they didn't predominate.

Around 1968 or so (perhaps not-so-coincidental with "New Wave SF"), the change in the Zeitgeist reached the SF world, and dystopias started to predominate: Nuclear War Dystopias, Nixon-as-Fuehrer Dystopias, Race War Dystopias, Ecological Dystopias, Reagan-as-Fuehrer Dystopias, Christian Theocracy Dystopias, Cyberpunk Dystopias, Gray Goo Dystopias, Y2K Dystopias, Bush-as-Theocrat Dystopas, etc. All dominated by Dark Futures. Instead of futures you wanted to live to see, futures you wanted to commit suicide to avoid.

Then, around Y2K, another change, to parallel history and "Forward into the Past" time-travel, fleeing the future into alternate pasts.

Notice the progression: From Bright Future, to Dark Future, to No Future.

Exactly the same progression as in another genre I'm familiar with: Christian Apocalyptic Fiction, whose standard choreography is Seven Years of Antichrist Dystopia before The End. Again, Bright Future to Dark Future to No Future.