In 1965, at the age of thirteen, I was confident that long before the 21st century rolled around I’d be living on Mars. It wasn’t a fantasy, but faith in the future. At twelve I had given up Christianity and God, exchanging that belief system for science and the acceptance in my heart of hearts that the manifest destiny of humankind was in traveling to the stars. During my junior high school years I acquired a sense of existentialism that told me there was absolutely no meaning in the universe. Our job was to go forth make our own meaning – with the silly understanding that we’d find it light-years away. It wasn’t a bleak nihilistic headspace, but one freeing me from the past burden of superstition and theological brain washing. I was a skinny geek who discovered science fiction.
This was a couple years before Star Trek when there were few science fiction fans. 1965 was a transitional period between the fading out of the Happy Days 1950s and the Psychedelic 1960s. The Vietnam War had begun in earnest, the Great Society was the political keyword of the day, battles for civil rights were in full swing and the race for the Moon was well underway with the Gemini rockets taking men into space for two week trips. Science books of 1965 painted a panoramic future unfolding step-by-step that would take men to the planets. Was I so wrong to believe I could be walking on Mars by the 1990s?
What went wrong? I’m not the only person who took up these beliefs. There were millions like myself. In 1965 the Earth had three billion commuters riding around the sun. One percent would have been thirty million people. I doubt the hard-core believers in science fiction ever numbered more than three million. One tenth of one percent of the population doesn’t make critical mass to change the future. Today, I would guess there are far more people calling themselves science fiction fans in the United States, but all that means is they like Star Wars and Spielberg movies. I don’t think the percentage of science fiction fans that are true believers of space exploration ever grew greater than it was back in 1965.
In 1965 science fiction meant you believed in space travel. All the other tropes of the genre were just gee-whiz sense of wonder roller coaster riding. No true fan believed in time travel, psychic powers, supermen or immortality – those ideas were just repackaged myths. Serious speculation was spent on robotics and artificial intelligence but no one even dreamed of the Internet. All the hard core believers thought about two things: traveling to the stars and meeting intelligent aliens.
Space travel never took off and for all our efforts to find little green men we find ourselves alone in this universe. Forty years later science fiction has woven a baroque wealth of fantasies but we’re still all living on Earth and the future seems no more than waiting for next fall’s TV season or maybe the next generation iPod.
Would my life have been that much better if I was living on Mars? Is the failure of a childhood fantasy all that tragic? If I had made it to Mars, the reality of such a life would be harsh beyond anything I can comprehend. Was it the challenge that I miss? Living on Mars would have meant living underground, struggling with limited resources to survive in an enviornment of rusty rocks and little to breathe. And even if mankind had gone to Mars, it’s doubtful that I had the right stuff required to get there. I think why I’m really disappointed is because no one lives on Mars! In the future of my thirteen year old self, people were heading to the stars – whatever that meant. My life has been one of work and watching humans destroy their environment and kill each other in endless petty wars. Maybe I’m disappointed in the human race.
The other transcending fantasies of my sixties upbringing was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I still listen to the old music, but drugs and free sex never panned out because of their cousins: death and disease. Stranger in a Strange Land, the epic wish-fulfilling sci-fi novel of the hippie sixties, is a pathetic story advocating nudity, wife swapping and an endless supply of subserviant nubile young women for old men. Sure it promised life after death, pantheism and the unlimited power of thought, but so has a bunch of other religions. I remember being kids in the sixties waiting for the school bus and discussing the coming revolution – so many of us expected to grow up in a brave new world. At least I got computers and the Internet.
Strangely enough, many of the young Internet billionaires are putting their money into space travel. The dream doesn’t die. However, there is still no critical mass that wants humans to colonize space. President Bush advocated returning to the Moon in his plans for NASA two years ago, but the new Congress is already planning to remove that money from the budget. Most young people seem content with science fiction movies, books and video games – preferring fantasy over reality. I doubt if I wait another forty years if the future will ever catch up with my childhood dreams.