Tuesday, 2 November 2010

History and Scientific Romances

There is one thing I find about too much Science Fiction that critically interferes with my suspension of disbelief. It is not however magical and unscientific the technological advances may be, though I may only be saying that because I'm not a professional physicist. As a professional museums and heritage worker, what I find more wildly improbable and disruptively absent is any genuine sense of historicity and culture.

To be sure, the pyjama-wearing crew of futuristic starships may demonstrate certain cultural affectations when forced - like playing jazz trombone or an affinity for Creole cooking - but one has to interrogate them for it. Otherwise, the halls of the colony ship are spartan, well-lit, and utterly lifeless. Ever since the post-war Sci-Fi boom and futurist speculation, we have seen endless family homes without any indication that a family actually lives in them, our great-grandchildren's rooms devoid of franchised toys and rock-star posters, and fashion's unlikely victory of function over statement.

Lest we rest self-assured, this same problem affects versions of Science Fiction that claim to draw inspiration from the Victorian Era... A parade of brass goggles, metal plates, iron rivets, pointless gears and countless objects that, despite pretenses of being hand-crafted, all look identically like nothing. Granted they're not chrome bikinis and white plastic walls, but these dirty, industrial-looking Urban Fantasy worlds tell the observer nothing about these societies except that they are dirty and industrial. Absent are any indications of artistic and architectural movements, historical processes or ethnic diversity.

There are always exceptions, to be sure. There are stories in which art and dance and pop-music idols and religion play central roles amidst the transforming fighter jets and interplanetary war. Perhaps it is a function of Science Fiction being developed by people who's foremost loyalty is not to science, and as a consequence not thinking themselves intellectually above such things as culture and history. Or by people who aren't Americans, or who are confident that America has a worthwhile culture of its own.

Scientific Romances and their well-done pastiche is another route circumventing this problem of acultural ahistoricity. To quote Rod Bennett once more, as we did in this weblog's introductory post,
On the day I started writing this article, a warm fire crackled in the hearth, snow fell outside the window, and a cup of English tea steamed at my elbow. A setting like that — a cozy, human spot with friends and family near by — really puts me in the mood for just one thing: Science Fiction. You heard right. Science Fiction. Of course, I don't mean just any Science Fiction. I don't mean the sort of thing where characters named "Zargon" from places called "Hydra-Gamma III" listen to bald-headed creepozoids in silver BVDs rant about "pure logic." No, the kind of science fiction I'm thinking of is different. Warmer. Richer. More human. On this kind of science fiction adventure, you don't want skin-tight leotards and chrome bikinis. You want big wool sweaters, hiking books, English tweed and pith helmets, with ankle-length skirts and parasols for the ladies. Yes, this is a special brand of science fiction — my favorite kind. Ever since I was a kid, I've always loved the sort of movie where a proper Victorian professor journeys from the smoke-filled adventurer's clubs of London to some impossible lost world in his own gilded or wrought-iron invention. The kind of story that somehow seems to bypass some of the dead-ends of certain other science fiction; seems to allow us to ponder the kind of mysteries science fiction explores so well without asking us to leave our roots in the past behind. I loved it then, and I still love it today.

Scientific Romances exult in the humanity of human beings. Being timely then and historical now, they are rooted in culture and tradition rather than treating us as a blank slate onto which any particular philosophy can be written. They remind us that while we head into the future and the outer reaches, we don't leave ourselves behind. Nor is our goal to find ourselves transhumanized into something alien; so alienated from our humanity that we wait religiously for that singular day when we can even dispose of our bodies. A good Scientific Romance will take us into uncharted territories, including that least-appreciated one marked "history". All of this wrapped up in that gilded and wrought-iron invention, and that smoke-filled adventurer's club, and if done well, even that impossible lost world.

Historian Henry Steele Commager eloquently links an appreciation of history together with its ken. For, contrary to those who would hide behind the lazy excuse of "alternate history", knowing something of history and culture is not merely the luxury of pedantic "re-creationists":
History, we can confidently assert, is useful in the sense that art and music, poetry and flowers, religion and philosophy are useful. Without it -- as with these -- life would be poorer and meaner; without it we should be denied some of those intellectual and moral experiences which give meaning and richness to life. Surely it is no accident that the study of history has been the solace of many of the noblest minds of every generation.

In the mainstream of Science Fiction, the bland featurelessness may have been the consequence of minds slavishly devoted to a kind of Scientism that denigrated all other pursuits of art, music, poetry, flowers, religion (especially) and philosophy as poor and mean things. In Steampunk, the bland featurelessness may perhaps derive from minds slavishly devoted to the workings of the Mechanism, so that all the world comes to look like the Mechanism... The romance of the steam era replaced with the workings of the steam engine, quite possibly its least interesting subject.

Not that this is anything new. The technocrats of the Victorian Era had an attitude that was hardly much different. According to Henry Ford: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today." That history he made included, amongst other things, the soul-crushing and planet-destroying mechanisms of mass production. Forget the tradition and humanity is obliterated.

The responses come flooding in. Gustave Flaubert replies: "Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times." Harry Thomas Buckle adds: "There will always be a connection between the way in which men contemplate the past and the way in which they contemplate the present." And Robert Penn Warren says most succinctly: "The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world." Indeed, there is a frequent, anecdotal correlation between people who think the world is boring and people who know nothing about it.

For those of us with the inclination, Scientific Romances present us with a means to essay these issues. Through good ones, we can learn something of our society and our selves in the course of rousing adventures and historical "what-ifs". It is a variety of Science Fiction that does not require us to leave ourselves behind as we move forward. It demands that we know something of the world in order to simply understand its setting, whether deep in Meiji Japan or high in the Canadian North. How is the culture, lifestyle and conceptual space of an escaped Southern US slave boarding a literal underground railway going to differ from a venerable Chinese astronaut having perfected firework rocketry?

Nurtured on such tales, we are invited to reinvest in our own histories, to reclaim ourselves. That, ultimately, is the point of this exercise in studying history and creatively adapting it. Neither slavishly recreating it as a lark nor lazily citing an alternate history, but to integrate one's past with one's present. This pleasure helps to integrate oneself in the narratives of history so that they can give depth and breadth to one's present. This works itself through everything from simple aesthetics that refuse to give up the beautiful things of the past to a realization of oneself in one's society and time. In the end, the enjoyment and appreciation of Scientific Romances is very much about today.

As it should. As it can't help but. As David McCullough said, "History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are."


Russell said...

Well written, as usual.

Those that forget or ignore history end up making the same mistakes.

Those that remember and learn from history get to make new mistakes :)

tantalus1970 said...

I only just saw this post, as I haven't visited for a while.

I've been watching DVDs with commentaries of some of the old Doctor Who series, and they've been talking about why so many of the sets were so brightly lit (and thus showing how cheap they were!).

Partly it's because a lot of the audience were watching on poor-quality TVs and wouldn't be able to make out much of the detail (I remember as a child watching an episode of Logan's Run, set in a dark house, and not being able to see anything at all)

But mostly it was because the Lighting Department just wouldn't do it! They were apparently worried that people would think they weren't doing their jobs properly if the sets were low-lit. There was also an attitude of 'we don't like being told what to do'.