If you live long enough you can get to the other side of the future. In the 1960s I consumed massive amounts of science fiction and quite a bit of it was set in years that have already past. I have lived through a lot of futures. 1984 was just another year in life, and so was 1999, 2000, and 2001. One of my favorite novels growing up was The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, which was written in 1956, that I read in 1965, about a man in 1970 taking the cold sleep and waking up in 2001, and who eventually time travels back to 1970. Even in 1965 the year 1970 was so full of futuristic possibilities.
Of course its 2010 now, and that novel is way in the past, from so many perspectives.
I’m in an online science fiction book club called Classic Science Fiction where a bunch of members are like me, who came of age reading science in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re reading the great science fiction stories of our youth from the other side of the future, and it’s a whole different vista than we saw from that distant shore of the past. Now it’s not like we don’t have a lot of future still to outlive, especially when you think we might live another 40-50 years, the amount of time we’re looking back over. But we have lived long enough to live past many speculative fictional years.
Let’s just say that the future is everything I never imagined. I’m sitting here typing on a computer that’s linked to the world wide web while listening to Katy Perry sing “Teenage Dream” over digital streaming, from a library of over 10 million songs that I have access online. Didn’t see that one coming back in 1965 when I was mowing lawns to buy the latest Byrds’ album to play while reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel.
The thing is, back in 1965 I thought I knew the future because I was reading so many science fictional roadmaps. I was youthfully confident that by 2001 we’d have a colony on the Moon, and we’d have hundreds of men and women roving all over Mars, and there would be manned spaceships heading out to Titan and Ganymede. Quite a few of us old fart guys and gals at Classic Science Fiction are crying in our beer over that lost future. How could Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov have been so wrong? Of course we’re haven’t reached Clifford Simak’s future of City either, but I still wonder about that one.
In 1964 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation while I was discovering 1940s and 1950s astronomy in musty old books in the Miami Public Library. I never imagined anything like the Hubble Space Telescope, or all the magnificent robotic explorers that have flown across the solar system in our lifetime. And who imagined a future with only eight planets? Isn’t that a step backwards? On the other hand, just rent The Universe from Netflix and watch several seasons. What we’ve learned about cosmology is mind blowing, far beyond the wildest imaginations of legions of science fiction writers.
Back in the sixties our parents told us to clean our dinner plates because it was horrible to let food go to waste when people were starving in China, but now China is about to eat our lunches racing to new far out futures. Did any SF writer see that change coming? Did anyone foresee America retiring from manned exploration of space? Or that maybe the Chinese might do what we once dreamed.
One of the strangest things for me living on the other side of the future are the deaths of Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov. In the book club we’re mostly partial to books from the 1950s and 1960s and we feel science fiction itself has changed. In that old back to the future world, science fiction was about conquering reality, but now it’s either about escaping from reality, or dark stories about how reality is going to conquer us. Science has discovered a universe far vaster and more slower to travel than we ever imagined.
Nostalgia seems to be the order of the day for us old folks at Classic Science Fiction. We read and reread the good old days of science fiction. Political and scientific realities make us dream of simpler days of rocket ships and ray guns. Do we return to the classics of science fiction like opium addicted dreamers giving up on reality? Do we cherish the dreams of youth more than reality on the other side of the future?
JWH – 11/15/10