The Thing With Feathers

 In Books, Culture, Fred's Blog, Uncategorized

Listen to “The Thing With Feathers” By Fred Smith

 

Watch the SYFY channel and one of the obvious changes you’ll see is the apocalyptic nature of so much science fiction today. It’s all about the end of the world as we know it with either invasions or self-destruction. Being now in my 70’s, I started thinking about what science fiction was like when I was growing up. It was not apocalyptic at all. It was futurist and optimistic – even a bit naïve. Yes, it was something of a paradox to be huddled beneath our wooden desks shielding ourselves against the near-certain nuclear blasts while reading Tom Swift piloting an atomic submarine exploring deep worlds and rocket ships blasting to far off planets. It was the same for a whole generation of us brought up under the prospect of a looming second coming of Jesus that would shorten all our futures. Science fiction was hope for a future that seemed unlikely given the imminent end of our world. Science fiction drew us willingly into a world made better by the very things that threatened our survival. It was not fantasy. It was fiction and genuine fiction must be grounded in reality to be believed. It was the future whose beginnings I could see around me.

When did science fiction become so dystopian? Yes, there have always been invading aliens, wars of the worlds, escapes from a dying planet but, on the whole, it was positive about the future. Some say, just as World War 1 turned a generation cynical about God and Watergate poisoned another generation about politics, terrorism has colored the tone of current science fiction. In fact, they trace it to the final sequel of Star Trek when the producers intentionally created a film at odds with traditional Star Trek values. New audiences wanted science fiction that was dark and not hopeful. They wanted a movie for those who did not like Star Trek. Jane Carr writes, “Such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fiction the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole. Certainly, at the time, there was much to be disillusioned about; the optimism and hope of the late ’60s fell apart as the hippie dream of a new Age of Aquarius came face to face with a reality filled with an unpopular war, civil rights riots and all-new reasons to feel suspicious of and disappointed in those in authority, so it’s hardly any surprise that the future became a darker, less inviting place…The problem is science fiction seems to have become stuck in a rut of hopelessness.”

Even someone as sophisticated and innovative as Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and earliest investors in Facebook, has lamented that America “the country that invented the modern assembly line, the skyscraper, the airplane, and the personal computer has lost its belief in the future.” In an interview in the New Yorker George Packer writes that Thiel “thinks that Americans who are beguiled by mere gadgetry have forgotten how expansive technological change can be. He looks back to the fifties and sixties, the heyday of popularized science and technology in this country as a time when visions of a radically different future were commonplace. Thiel’s venture-capital firm Founders Fund has an online manifesto about the future that begins with the complaint: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” As he puts it “You have dizzying change where there’s no progress.”

So…I indulge myself in joining The Smithsonian in celebrating 100 years of Tom Swift and his impact on at least two generations of us who looked forward to good things we could only imagine with the help of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Victor Appleton. As the original dust jacket on my copy of “Tom Swift and His Spectromarine Selector” reads “It is the purpose of these spirited tales to convey in a realistic way the wonderful advances in land and sea locomotion and to interest the boy of the present in the hope that he may be a factor in aiding the marvelous development that is coming in the future.”

As a boy, I would have never been caught beneath my desk during the drills with a poem by Emily Dickinson but now, as an older man, she speaks to me as only poetry is able.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -“

Here’s to flying cars, megascopes, jetmarines, electronic hydrolungs, the triphibian atomicar and, yes, the thing with feathers perched in our souls.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
More Posts
Showing 10 comments
  • John Kelly
    Reply

    Amen!

    Yes, Gene Roddenberry’s original utopian vision of the future in Star Trek got hijacked in the Abram films. What’s interesting to me is I can still watch the original episodes (styrofoam rocks and all) and come away with a sense of hope and wonder. And it’s enduring, I think, because of those very qualities.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. Hope and wonder. Who could ask for more?

  • Howard Freeman
    Reply

    I never liked science fiction as a kid. Maybe a little Ray Bradbury. Sci-fi TV and movies have always intrigued me more. But what sci-fi of any medium, at its best, does for me is to put me in a completely alien environment — all the gadgets, creatures, and cultures etc. — so that the only thing I can recognize is the inner workings of the protagonist, which when done well looks a whole lot like me, warts and all. And which ultimately helps me live more fully today.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Everything I have read about science fiction would agree with you. If the gadgets, etc get in the way of the human story being essentially the same but responding to different circumstances then it does not work. We want science fiction but not science fantasy.

  • Barb Pinson
    Reply

    Just lovely…here’s to hope:)

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Say no more. Hope is that thing with feathers.

  • Alyson Hinkie
    Reply

    Interesting. My daughter had an assignment to write fan fiction and continue the storyline of Fahrenheit 451. Her addition was grounded in reality, but still full of hope for the future. She says that exercise has given her a new filter for engaging the dystopian stories which dominate the YA fiction genre and much of American lit.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, a completely bleak future is only possible without humans. That’s contrary to what some people would say!

  • Stanley bergen
    Reply

    A story told with hope, adventure and a happy ending. How can we ever achieve what we do not dare to dream?
    Thank you

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Stanley. As well, thank you for your Facebook conversation.

Leave a Comment