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Each contributor was asked to reflect on our anxiety about the new millennium and to write about how science fiction could help us envision the far future and future cultural spaces. The resulting array of speculative writings, both critical and fictional, is diverse and illuminating—from a personal essay by Marge Piercy on love, sex and the power of fiction; to a new story by Harlan Ellison in which consumerism is the opiate of the masses; to a fictional book review by Kim Stanley Robinson which imagines what future historians will say about science in the third millennium.
CONTRIBUTORS: Marleen S. Barr, Rosi Braidotti, Harlan Ellison, James Gunn, Walter Mosley, Patrick Parrinder, Marge Peircy, Neil Postman, Eric S. Rabkin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pamela Sargent, Darko Suvin, George Zebrowski.
marleen s. barr
Envisioning the Future: Science Fiction and the Next Millennium presents fiction and essays in a manner that combines the meaning of two titles-Ad Rinehardt's artwork How to Look at Space and J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words-to juxtapose the words and space encompassing science fiction/cultural studies. Envisioning focuses on how to do things with words to look at present culture's relationship to the far future space fiction portrays. The contributors-Rosi Braidotti, Harlan Ellison, James Gunn, Walter Mosley, Patrick Parrinder, Marge Piercy, Neil Postman, Eric S. Rabkin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pamela Sargent, Darko Suvin, George Zebrowski, and I-reveal how to look at future cultural spaces.
Antony Gormley's sculpture Quantum Cloud is emblematic of their visions. (See the frontispiece to this book.) As the LUSAS Engineering Software Products Web site explains, "Quantum Cloud is a 30 metre high X 16 metre wide X 10 metre deep elliptical cloud sculpture which stands on four cast iron caissons in the River Thames adjacent to the Millennium Dome in London. It is formed from 1.5 metre long lengths of randomly oriented steelsections which diffuse at the edges and condense into a 20 metre high human body form at the centre. Modeled after Gormley's own body, Quantum Cloud is currently the tallest sculpture in the UK" (LUSAS).
Gormley explains that the image of his body located in the center of Quantum Cloud "will be elusive, visible from some angles and not from others." He continues:
The finish will be galvanised, therefore reflective, the angled sides of the
members will make it highly responsive to atmospheric conditions, both of
light and humidity. The outer antennae will vibrate and move in the wind.
The work will rise out of an open-work grill supported by four 12 metre
high cast iron columns that stand in the river adjacent to the Millennium
Dome. It represents a shift in my work, from a preoccupation with mass,
volume and skin to a concern with air, energy and light. Hovering above the
cast-iron caissons that were bequeathed to us by the industrial revolution,
the work alludes to the transformation of classical physics and its concern
with the building blocks of matter to a new quantum reality: that everything
is in flux and that solid objects are an illusion. Quantum Cloud is a project
that can only be realised with digital design systems and I am very fortunate
to be collaborating with energetic and ground-breaking engineers. The result,
a combination of art and technology, will be a monument to the future,
expressing the potential of the human being at the end of the twentieth century.
The far future, too, is elusive; some of its aspects can be guessed at and others are unknowable. No stationary entities, Quantum Cloud and the future both shift according to random currents. The sculpture is grounded upon the cast-iron caissons inherited from the industrial revolution; the past is the future's bedrock. Our present is continually in flux and our future is an illusion. Gormley's monument to the future-which combines art and cutting-edge technology and addresses human potential as the new millennium begins-aptly represents this anthology's intention: to focus upon the present's relationship to the far future through a merged science fiction and cultural studies lens.
To exemplify this science fiction studies/cultural studies reading practice, Envisioning the Future presents four thematic sections: "Future Past," which investigates the relationship between past events and future scenarios; "Future Present," which addresses the reciprocity between the past and the future; "Future Perfect," which discusses women's futures; and "Future Critical," which investigates the future of future fiction. The authors who contribute to these sections are among the finest science fiction authors, scholars, and cultural critics writing today. My decision to place fiction and criticism in the same volume reflects the current cultural moment-the post-September 11, 2001, world-in which former assumptions about the fixed definitions demarcating the differences between fiction and reality no longer hold. The terrorist attacks exemplify science fiction imagery becoming real in a manner that we could not predict prior to their occurrence. Presently, then, an anthology about envisioning the future appropriately includes both imaginative literature and cultural criticism. This lack of adherence to usual generic classifications-a table of contents that exemplifies the term I call "genre fission"-reflects our new uncharted reality in which former rigid categorizations have become amorphous. If, for example, "war" no longer involves particular nation-states, then "anthology" need not be relegated to one particular textual genre. Further, since the far future is uncertain, fiction and nonfiction are equally useful tools with which to speculate about it.
"Truth," as postmodern theory reminds us, is subjective. The attacks of September 11th underscore this point: Osama bin Laden is at once a hero in the eyes of the terrorists and a villain in the eyes of the Americans. Stanley Fish, writing about the attacks, explains that there is no definitive standard for discerning which of several versions of an occurrence is true: "Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies. Invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our cause wouldn't be effective anyway because our adversaries lay claim to the same language. (No one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice.) Instead, we can and should invoke the particular lived values that unite us and inform the institutions we cherish and wish to defend" (Fish 2001, A19). Fish's comments about envisioning the attacks are applicable to envisioning the future. There is no one way correctly to interpret the attacks; there is no one way correctly to speculate about the future. We can only approach the future by discussing the values and institutions we cherish and defend with the hope that these ideals will be operative in the future. Envisioning fosters this discussion. After all, with regard to the future, which (like definitive interpretation) must always be speculative, language and communication assume utmost importance. Language and communication are our only means to understand both the recent past's terrorist attacks and the far-future world-the next millennium-humanity might eventually inhabit. Talking about both subjects forces consideration of the newly past millennium and evokes such millennial issues as the end of the world, annihilation versus survival, and the place of technology and theology. Millennial issues are the focus of the media in the wake of the terrorist attacks; millennial issues are the focus of Envisioning the Future: Science Fiction and the Next Millennium.
Envisioning discusses the impossible: presently knowing the far future. Its contributors grapple with this question: How do we look at the presently potential space that will become the future?
Neil Postman, in "Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century," assumes an unusual position: understanding the future does not involve being forward looking. When he defines the eighteenth century as days of the far-future past, he suggests moving back to the future. He takes issue with those who look ahead to contemplate a forward temporal trajectory: "I am suspicious of people who want us to be forward looking. In fact, I literally do not know what people mean when they say 'we must look ahead' to see where we are going. What is it that they wish us to look at?" According to Postman, being forward looking involves looking backward, "turn[ing] our attention to the eighteenth century." Postman proclaims, for example, that the eighteenth century enables us to see that our current-and our future-devotion to information is not sensible. He believes that looking toward the far future involves understanding that eighteenth-century occurrences and worldviews will pertain to that far future.
James Gunn's story "The End-of-the-World Ball" investigates culture by having an end-of-the-world millennial ball's participants explore the relationship between future prediction and the fact of the known present. They question how paradigm shift occurs: "The questions remain: What changes the times? What brings about the sudden acceptance of this theory or that?" Answers to these questions involve blurring boundaries between fiction and reality. The catastrophe prediction experts gathered at the Millennium Celebration Ball act in the manner of literary critics. One of them contemplates the meaning of the president's decision to exit the premises where the ball is occurring: "What does that mean?" The answer: "Maybe nothing.... Maybe catastrophe." This answer, which encompasses two extremes, proclaims that there are no fixed definitions. Gunn's protagonist offers a suggestion that subscribes to poststructuralist theory which explains that reality is a constructed fiction: "[L]et's create a new world, for ourselves and whoever wants to join us." A glittering woman appears at the end of Gunn's story to address the heavens and portend the end of the world. She might be an angel-or one of the superior beings George Zebrowski imagines.
Darko Suvin's "Reflections on What Remains of Zamyatin's We after the Change of Leviathans: Must Collectivism Be against People?" discusses how appropriately to read Yevgeny Zamyatin's We during the new millennium, a time Suvin describes as a change of Leviathans. According to Suvin, We confronts a presently irrelevant Leviathan: "the opposition of positive individuality to negative collectivity of State centralization." The new millennium's appropriate Leviathan, in contrast, concerns being "ruled by the psychophysical alienation of corporate capitalist collectivism," which Suvin calls "the emptying terrorism." In other words, the Leviathan applicable to the new millennium emanates from McDonald's-not from a current Hitler. Or, in Suvin's words: "The insipid food in We, made from petroleum and distributed by the State, does not collate to our problems with the overspiced and cancerogenously hormonized 'McDonald'sified' burgers pushed by brainwashing us in the 'free' market. Even less does it speak to the hungry and freezing unpaid millions of 'freed Russia.'" The specifically targeted groups who starved in concentration camps are superseded by everyone being "democratically free to be physically and psychically hungry while chewing abundant junk food." In our world dominated by twenty media monopolies rather than one dictator, the hamburger skillet, not the Nazi death camp oven, is the most potent insidious threat. The new Leviathan, then, is cultural and isolating rather than Fascist and brutal. Suvin, when he rereads We in terms of the new dominant global cultural homogenization, poses this question: "Who is in We the equivalent of the heretic Christ confronting the apparatchik Great Inquisitor?" Zebrowski, in his story "The Coming of Christ the Joker," depicts Christ appearing in the present and far future. Zebrowski answers Suvin's question.
His answer addresses another "we"-an alternative contemporary America, Zebrowski's fictitious reality, which is not a carbon copy of us. He imagines a heretic Christ-a Christ who, instead of being a deity, is a life form from a higher plane of existence-confronting the Great Inquisitor of our culturally homogenized time: the television talk show host. When Zebrowski's Christ, an entity whose technological abilities are vastly superior to our own, appears on television to speak with Larry King and Gore Vidal, he evokes the combination of capitalism and science Kim Stanley Robinson describes.
Like Robinson, Zebrowski emphasizes that combining science and capitalism does not usually yield universal human betterment. "Some of you know about vacuum energy and the impossibility of zero-fields. But you've always ignored your best minds, except when they make weapons for you.... I wish you people were as bright when it comes to your violent history and treatment of one another," says Zebrowski's heretic Christ. Both Zebrowski and Robinson emphasize that we combine capitalism with science to generate violence and mistreatment, not utopia.
Perhaps Zebrowski, the Austrian-born son of Polish parents who were kidnapped as slave labor for the German Reich (someone who experienced the culture that created the past's Nazi ovens and who lives in a present where the Golden Arches of McDonald's are pervasive), believes that humanity does not deserve an effective messiah. When Christ appears on Larry King Live, nothing of great pith and moment occurs; Christ offers banal jokes and performs slight-of-hand magic tricks. According to Christ, banality is an appropriate response to humans' trivial pursuits: "You're only a quantum fluctuation in a superspace vacuum, scarcely more than a greasy spot on the wall in one of our oldest cities. But we have let you be." Zebrowski's Christ (who, unlike Nazis, truly is a superior being) chooses not to eradicate humanity's future in a manner analogous to using Ajax to cleanse a greasy spot on a wall. Zebrowski's superior life forms are better than the biologically human Hitler who annihilated his fellow humans whom he defined as stains. Since Zebrowski's Christ believes that all humanity can be defined as a stain (perhaps a stain in the form of a grease spot dripping from Suvin's notion of the hamburger as new Leviathan), his benevolence may not be permanent. With a tone suitable to an annihilator more polite than Hitler, Christ suggests that the stain that constitutes humanity might indeed be wiped away: "'We might just have to let you go,' Jesus said, 'let you dissolve into nothing.... Have some faith in me when I tell you that you'll be much happier as nothing.'" Christ thinks that having no future is in humanity's best interest. Perhaps he correctly concludes that a species that conducted Nazi atrocities does not deserve to experience 3000, the next millennium.
In the manner of Zebrowski's "The Coming of Christ the Joker," Harlan Ellison's story "Goodbye to All That" echoes Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End: both stories depict humans entering the realm of a higher life form.
Excerpted from ENVISIONING THE Future
Copyright © 2003 by Wesleyan University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.