The Thing With Feathers
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.