Vintage Science Fiction

The undiscreet and unPC charm of vintage science fiction

I think science fiction is at its best when it ignites our mind with imaginative, daring visions of beautiful possible futures, and the drive to turn them into reality. Recently I joined The World Transformed hosts Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon to discuss the importance of positive stories in science fiction, and why there are not enough positive stories in today’s science fiction.

Many vintage science fiction works of some decades ago are very optimistic, and deeply inspiring. In light of today’s scientific knowledge and the literary sophistication of today’s best science fiction, we might consider “old” SF as “naively optimistic,” but that would be entirely missing the point.

Vintage science fiction, “naive” or not, inspired young people with the awesome potential of science, and motivated them to study science and engineering, and build the space program and the Internet. I have the impression that modern science fiction has abandoned this important role.

One reason is a general decrease of optimism in society in the last decade after 9/11. 9/11 and all that followed had a huge, negative impact on the zeitgeist, which is now timid, over-cautious and often defeatist.

We should forget the pessimism of the last decade, whose tone was set by 9/11, and go back to the solar and positive optimism of the 90s, occasionally naive, often politically incorrect, but always vibrant, full with energy and inspiring visions. Also, back to space, and why not back to the sixties (a truly magic decade.) “Give a vision and people will self-organize, and yes, back to the 60s and the 90s and to OPTIMISM,” said author Howard Bloom. “The spirit of the 60s and of the 90s is the spirit of taking over and using will to take the future in the direction that we want, rather than laying down and letting destiny do it for us, which is the spirit of 9/11.”

We are becoming old, ossified, with far too much obsession for safety, security, control and political correctness, like old people afraid of their own shadows in a safe, PC and sad retirement home. Nanny-states make more and more intrusive (and completely useless) regulations on what we can or cannot eat, drink or smoke. Sooner or later they will be making regulations on which hand we must use to wipe our own butt. Sooner or later sex will be illegal when it is not practiced in presence of a qualified nurse who can give emergency treatment in case one of the participants has a heart attack, and I am afraid that we-the-sheeple will meekly acquiesce.

This is not the attitude of the daring space explorers of vintage SF, but the attitude of senile persons who fear life and wait for death. Of course, this is reflected in much of today’s science fiction. But I think science fiction could, and should, help reversing this trend and wake us up. Perhaps the meek shall inherit the Earth, but the rest of us are going to follow Lazarus Long to the stars, and THAT is the right stuff of vintage science fiction.

Another reason is a certain (pseudo)”intellectual,” (fake)”liberal,” “cultural” (all scare quotes intended and deserved) fashionable apology of weakness and mediocrity. There seems to be a crusade against strength, determination, courage, ambition, confidence, optimism, and “Western culture” in general. Of course, women are always good and men are always bad, especially if white and straight.

From a relatively recent review of the 1955 masterpiece Star Bridge, by Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn:

“At first impression, this is a straightforward adventure story, guilty of some of the pulp sensibilities of the age in which it was written. The hero is a Manly Man of uncommon strength and intelligence, who wondrously manages to get out of every jam he gets into, and over whom the women swoon, of course… His attitude is sometimes forthrightly optimistic, as he declares his belief in the power of a single man to shape his own destiny.”

“Guilty of pulp sensibilities” of long ago, indeed. A Manly Man, how outrageous! Strong, intelligent, and optimistic? Optimistic? Strong??? The author must be out of her mind. The hero believes in the power of a single man to shape his own destiny? Oh My God, this is unbelievable. And like that wasn’t enough, the filthy male hero oppressor even gets to screw women? ??? This is absolutely, totally disgusting!!! (actually in Star Bridge the hero only kisses the heroin, but the reader can imagine disgusting scenes of heterosexual love male domination after the word END, perhaps even with the guy on top (!!!)).

Seriously now. Yes, vintage science fiction tends to be mostly about “Big Ideas” and its heroes tend to be strong Manly Men. Of course I welcome the more inclusive spirit of today’s science fiction, culture, and society, and I am happy to see more inclusion in modern science fiction, which often is better and more engaging literature. But we must not throw away the baby with the water. Strength, determination, courage, ambition, confidence, optimism, are not sins that we should repent of, Big Ideas are not juvenile distractions, and men, even Manly Men, should not have to apologize for being alive.

The feeling of high destiny. A certain sense of greatness. A knowledge that somewhere off beyond the horizons lay adventure and things greater than adventure. (Clifford D Simak, City)

We are losing that sense of the frontier, wonderful places beyond the the horizons where the restless can hope to go. Many of our ancestors, including many of the best and brightest, went from Europe to America in search of something new and better. Once in America, they “went West” with a powerful, religious sense of “manifest destiny,” following the ever receding frontier until the Pacific coast. It is no wonder, then, that the West Coast culture with its beautiful (and of course often demonized) “California Ideology” is so innovative, because the West Coast is where the best and brightest restless souls went.

The fundamental importance of the frontier for our mental health cannot be overstated. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier, the West, offered the psychological sense of unlimited opportunity. Today, there is no frontier, and the result is widespread defeatism, with a mental “rats in a cage” syndrome that is beginning to show its very harmful effects.

A few decades ago we thought of space as a new frontier, and those who watched on TV Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon remember that powerful sense of cosmic destiny. Now, space seems a failed dream.

Looking at today’s world, we see that there is no way we can start real space colonization anytime soon. We are, instead, in the same position of the pioneers of space exploration, who dedicated their life to a vision that only future generations could achieve. But the space frontier is there. It’s difficult to reach, more difficult than we thought, but it’s there to give us energizing, motivating visions.

Future generations, armed with “transhumanist technologies,” will colonize the stars. They will be able to upload their minds to more powerful and durable substrates, leave biology behind, and merge with sentient, super-human artificial intelligences. Among the stars, they will meet other super-advanced civilizations, and merge with them in an explosion of intelligence that will drive the future evolution of the universe.

This is our new frontier, and optimistic “hard” science fiction is the best way to communicate Turner’s psychological sense of unlimited opportunity in the wonderful cosmic frontier. I hope science fiction will rise up to the challenge and recover its confident and optimistic spirit of cosmic adventure, which can perfectly co-exist with diversity, psychological engagement, and literary value. See for example Ramez Naam’s recent masterpieces Nexus and Crux, and the Hieroglyph project at Arizona State University, a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.