Monday, December 1, 2008

Dream Big

This is from May, 2007. I just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.

The Legacy of our Generation

Science fiction is easily the most thought-provoking literature in print. The general format is pose a problem, then create a solution. The problems tend to be Herculaen in difficulty, and the solutions monumental. Older sci-fi novels have possessed plot devices that, while unknown in their own time, later came into reality. One HG Wells novel mentioned mobile armored artillery platforms years before World War I, which saw the advent of tanks. Jules Verne was writing about submarines before bathyspheres were even ivented (someone check this for me). Not an invention, but it's cool nonetheless: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, before astronomers ever saw them.

That's old sci-fi. Modern sci-fi has a thousand books about colonization of space, politicking with alien cultures, unified world-wide governments, war where skirmishes are fought light-years apart, zombie plagues... The list goes on. And almost all of it takes place far away from Earth.

Let's take the Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson for an example. No aliens, no galactic wars, no hordes of shambling undead. Just a mission to establish a research colony on Mars, Earth's most hospitable neighbor. A team of 100 men and women gets sent. They build cities. They begin controlled global warming to get the ice water on Mars to liquefy. They send robots to mine the asteroids. They dig holes 20 kilometers deep to pour areothermal (like geothermal, but for Mars) heat into the atmosphere. They create a space elevator that is at once touching the planet surface and in orbit. They do things in one lifetime that rival nothing since the industrial revolution of the late 19th century.

The end of the trilogy has a successful colony on Mars, colonies in progress on Titan, Mercury, Europa, Ganymede, and anywhere else that's big enough to put a person on.

The colonization project totally changed every aspect of everyone's life on every world. From politics, to interpersonal relationships, to technology, to religion. And it started from an idea.

From fiction to fact. By my reckoning, the last several centuries have seen a few ideas like this, and they all revolve around travel. Marco Polo's excursion opened up a whole new world. Fishing junks grew to schooners, to ships that could sail from England to Hong Kong. Columbus paved the way for his own sort of off-world colonization project. All made possible by the invention of really big boats. New products are introduced, based off of different agricultural methods, substances, divergent evolutions.

Later, James Watt discovers that steam is useful for moving things. Big things. Very fast. Lay down a couple of rails to give it a smooth ride, and what was once a month or so of boat ride becomes a week or so of train. Stuff that would rot traveling by boat from China to Portugal now can travel overland fast enough that the orient becomes less of a legend and more like a tangible place.

Later, some Ohioan immigrants to North Carolina put Bernouli's Principal to clever use. Around the world in 80 days? Phineas Fogg sure was sandbagging. People travel all over the world, stopping on each continent in a week. What was a journey of years, was now whittled down to a journey of a single day. People could get fresh oranges any time of year. Venezualan coffee, whenever they wanted. The exports of every culture, delivered to their door.

Then man goes into space. We know there are no cultures waiting to be discovered on the moon. No new toys to bring back to the little ones. This is a venture that will show no fiscal returns. Mankind puts all its effort into it nonetheless. Successful venture. Then--nothing.

The space program was the first and last monumental undertaking that was completely for scientific and research purposes. The movement to faster movement stopped there.

But wait! you say. What about this internet thing? Lots of people worked on that! Well, it's brought people closer together than ever before. All the combined knowledge of the world is at our disposal. We can travel to the far reaches of the planet, without leaving our climate-controlled living rooms, in which our HD tvs reside, playing our favorite episodes of House.

Well. Here we are. Since the internet, what progress has been made? What new ideas born? What heretofore unknowns have become known? What figurative mountains have been conquered for no other reason than because it was there? What progress is there to be made?

What point is there to making any progress? We have arrived.

A short story I read once told of a wizard who created a Man from his dreams. The Man was a hero, sent to slay an ogre who routinely terrorized the town. The ogre lived on an island, thus the hero was forced to sail to the ogre's lair to defeat him. The wizard, fearing for his creation and given to worry instructed the crew to raise black sails on their return home should the hero fall in battle. Battle ensued, the hero used fire to defeat the ogre, smoke from said fire staining the sails black. The hero emerged victorious, and unscathed. The wizard, upon seeing the black sails, wept, and died. Last words of the story: "What man lives, when his dreams are dead?"

Civilization, with the birth of the internet, has stagnated. There's no future to look forward to. Only a continuous, mind-numbing perpetual present. Another daily grind at the office, another routine day of scanning produce labels while customers yammer to stupid devices jammed in their ears. What's there to dream for? A different job? Everything is service industry. Gamestop is the same as Food Lion. Move to a different city? Architecture and the accents change, but LA has the same problems as DC.

In all eras previous, there was always a frontier for malcontents to run to--for the disaffected to pull up roots, and create for themselves utopia. They weren't always searching for a promised land as much as an adventure. Now, there's nowhere to go. We can see other planets, but we're fish, trapped in our terrestrial aquarium.

I'll end with a hypostrophe. What man lives, when his dreams are dead? Our dreams are stillborn. What kind of life is that?

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