Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Future Back Then

It's fun to imagine what the future will be like. Usually the first thing we think of is all the technological advances-- we'll all have personal jet packs and our Flintstone vitamins will inoculate against cancer.

It's harder to imagine what kinds of social changes there will be-- what new societal problems will arise and how attitudes about certain issues will change.

These are the thoughts I've been having as I listen to a collection of science fiction short stories from 60 years ago: Earthlight and Other Stories: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, 1950-1951.

As the title states, these stories were published in the early 1950s. Some of them are very gripping with a neat twist ending. Some bring up interesting ideas I like to think about. Others are kinda lame with massive plot holes.

It's fascinating to see what Clarke's vision of the future was. In some ways he underestimates what's possible and in other ways he overestimates.

One of the main plot holes in many of the stories is that although he can envision space travel and colonies on distant planets outside our solar system, the idea of a personal communication device (i.e. cell phones) seems to be out of his grasp. So, for example, a man gets caught in the middle of a road on a planet colony when his car breaks down, but has no way to call for help. I know they had radio communication back then. Didn't Clarke think that we would advance on that front?

One of the stories is about taking a vacation on the moon. Neat idea. This story was particularly salient because it takes place "early in the 21st century." So, like, right now. Clarke way overestimates our advances when he envisions research colonies on the moon, and even people living on Mars and Venus.

But then he underestimates other things, like although they have a "long long-distance" call from the moon to Earth, they have to wait an hour for a "telegram" with travel details to arrive. Imagine what he would make of email, texting, and smart phones.

What's even more interesting, though, is the social attitudes. The stories are riddled with words like "men," "man," and "mankind" to mean people and humans. Any sweeping statements about human development, technology, or space travel are reduced to "man." I guess only humans with penises contribute to civilization. It gets tiresome after a while.

In the story about the vacation on the moon, an astronomer invites his wife, daughter, and son to visit him at the moon research colony where he's staying. The attitudes are incredibly paternalistic. The parents are patronizing to the kids, and the men are patronizing to the women. The wife of the research scientist has no interest in all his science-y stuff, and he chides her-- in a jokey, patronizing way-- for not knowing about the big supernova event that's going on.

During their spaceship journey to the moon, the teenage daughter is intimidated by all the dials and buttons on the ship, while her little brother can't get enough of it. He's completely "in his element."

Later, much of the story is told from the point of view of the teenage daughter, and after she sees a pretty nebula through a moon telescope (with the help of a handsome young male astronomer), she realizes that all this science isn't just about complicated equations and calculations (boring math stuff) but something more beautiful.

She's also surprised to see all the female astronomers at the moon base, and learns that in some cases the women scientists outnumber the men! Interestingly, though, no female scientists are actually characters in the story, you just hear about them in a distant, abstract way.

So the young teenage daughter of the astronomer decides that maybe she could be a scientist herself one day. I'm sure Clarke felt like he was being very progressive, what with his idea of female scientists in the future, and he probably was for the 1950s.

But the plot hole in this story is, if there are so many female astronomers, how is it that the daughter of one is so ignorant of this fact? Why does she need a visit to the moon to realize that this career path is available to her? I would think that by the time that women are that well represented in the field, it would not be news to this presumably middle-class educated young adult. In other words, where are all these other female scientists coming from if it's so unusual?

Ironically, right after his progressive feminist passage in the story, Clarke writes a sentence about "All the planets in which men have lived." I guess in Clarke's utopian progressive vision of the future, none of the ubiquitous female scientists have made it to other planets. Sigh.

(I'm also guessing that "men" in Clarke's vision were all white, but that's a different story. And the idea that little daughter would naturally be interested in a young male astronomer, and not in another female... that would have been totally anathema to the world of 1950s sci fi. If the writers of these stories could see the LGBT movement today, what would they think? Alien world, indeed.)


As Jack Handy says, "We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can't scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me."

I'm not here to rag on Arthur C. Clarke's antiquated sexist world view. He's a product of his time and place. He's trying his best to stretch his his mind and imagine all that the future might hold for "man." And he does a pretty good job of it. I'm sure in 60 years my ideas will be antiquated, too.

But for chrissake, what's so hard about using the word, "people"?

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