12 July, 2006

Space, endpoints

Lately I've been playing a lot of video games. Actually, I've been playing a lot of video game: Halo 2, the $600 million-selling sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo is a sprawling space epic (or at least it tries to be - the format of first-person shooter is obviously somewhat restrictive). This is my first encounter with Bungie Software, which it seems has a long history of intricate games with detailed backstories and overstuffed plots. I can't say it's particularly inventive, since Halo is an agglomeration of hundreds of ideas pilfered from some of science fiction's best writers.* But there's neat work in that assemblage itself, which I think earns it a place in the annals of worthy science fiction.

This leads me to ruminate on the central appeal of all good (non-dystopian) science fiction, which I think boils down to "narrative". Not the internal narrative of, e.g., the Halo trilogy, which is compelling in its own right, but the implied, grand narrative for human history. The idea that we have some kind of future at all that doesn't suck. Or rather, that's still tense and full of conflict and purpose, that offers new vistas and directions.

Hungering for this sort of narrative is arguably a pretty juvenile impulse, one which might prompt more sober individuals to tell you to "grow up", and possibly to "get a job". But I've never been afraid of juvenile impulses; I'm probably dangerously attracted to them. In this instance, I think the impulse has extraordinary merit.

True, we're hardly in a position to be thinking about such things. It's absurd to even conceive of historical trajectories for humanity when we're parching the ground beneath our feet, and the majority of humanity refuses to acknowledge the humanity of the rest of humanity. But you're never going to cure myopia by staring at the end of your nose. Grand ideas are what's needed, to draw the gazes of us ants away from the dirt and towards the sky. Where, after all, we want to end up, right? We don't want to stay in the dirt.

The grander, the better; preferably, they should be so massive they have their own gravity. So that, even while we're distracted by the idiocy of our lives - our nationalities, our property, our families, our jobs - the individual vectors of our trajectories will tend towards a single direction, and, eventually, hopefully, form a tide.

I realize this is somewhat of a discredited notion, and we're supposed to be living in the end of history where nothing at all happens except possibly the purchase of a new pair of Manolo Blahniks, but I'm tired of postmodernism shitting on the mere idea of imagination. We NEED to imagine something, even if it's false, unattainable, or hopelessly stupid. If we don't imagine something, we're listless and boring. (You may have observed this in your own life. When you cannot imagine your own future, you become unspeakably dull.)

All of which is to bring me around to my fucking point, which is: where do you think we're going? Where do you want us to end up?

* It piqued my interest at first because it's set on a ringworld (the eponymous "Halo"), first conceived by Larry Niven in the book of the same name.

As Lao Tse said, "I don't grow up, I throw up. And when I look at you, I shut up." Insofar as "growing up" means calcification and death, it should be avoided.


What I don't understand is, since when  did the whole of mankind cease to imagine it's own future? I mean, it may seem very easy to become distracted by the voices of postmodern, not-quite-intelligent "intellectuals" who claim that we're all just nearsighted beings playing for grabs.
But look st even the humblest of speeches, whether it be from your local politician or from your high school speech contest, and you will find that the speeches that have any effect at all -whether you agree with it's contents or not- are the ones that contain (usually at the end) hopeful messages of unity if the path suggested by the speaker is followed. I don't believe in the extinction of all of those common toughts, those "grand ideals", merely because somebody suddenly decided they were. If we had learned the great lesson of the Existentialists, that viewed life as a Mystery that couldn't be solved through logic, by "clutching at dirt", but by living, and staring onto the Skies.
The human being has often been described as a being with trascendental traits, who can stare beyond himself despite his apparently limited nature. One of such traits is hope, defined by Marcel as "telling your loved one 'you will not die!'" In Dante's Inferno, hope is only lost when literally beyond Hell's gate.
I would like to encourage all readers to embrace what little they see in life that is worth hoping for; whether it be a religion, a political cause, or even a family member. Let's prove the postmoderns wrong in this respect! (though they are very right in others.) 

Posted by El Chelas

Hi, Saurabh, Saheli directed me to this post because I'm also a Halo addict (originally a huge Marathon fan). Anyway, I thought I'd make a few comments:

1) You should check out one of Halo's biggest influences: The novels of Iain M. Banks. I just read _Excession_, and it's obvious that Halo stole its wacky ship naming scheme form it. (Compare Halo's CCS Truth and Reconciliation, SCS Pillar of Autumn, etc., to Banks' GCU Fate Amenable to Change, GSV The Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival, etc.) The AI minds of the ships in Banks' novels also exhibit a lot of personality and quirkiness, much like the AIs of Marathon and Halo.

2) Also, on your note about the future of humanity, again, Banks' novels have one of the most interestingly realized future societies I've seen. As far as I can tell, his civilization called "The Culture" is an attempt to depict a somewhat realistic technological Utopia, where technology has given us full mastery over our bodies and our environments, but where human instinct is still roughly the same.

3) I grew up on the space operas of the Golden Age of science fiction. (I just started re-reading _Foundation_, as a matter of fact.) And I think we've not so much lost our imagination so much as lost our faith in space travel. Ever since manned space exploration died with Apollo 17, we've kind of lost hope in seeing any extra-terrestrial colonies in our lifetimes... And so science fiction moved on to the latest technological developments: computer networks and biology.

The scary thing to me is that science fiction has been dying altogether in the last decade, as people have been enraptured much more by fantasy.

So this is all just a long way of saying that I agree with you: We have lost our hope for the future, and we need to dream again and find some direction.

Oops, one more point:

4) There's been a lot of talk in the science fiction community in the last couple decades about The Technological Singularity . One interesting fact about space opera is that, while technology has typically progressed a lot in those worlds, people are still basically people. In a sense, space operas exhibit a LACK of imagination: We get to fly around a bit, but people are still basically people, and technology in space operas often stays stagnant for thousands of years.

These days, a lot of people think that maybe that won't be the case.. that maybe AI and genetic engineering research will lead to fundamental changes in human nature itself. Scary thought... but that's probably even more reason to dream about hte possibilities and direct ourselves to where we want to go! 

Posted by ToastyKen

the other issue is that big brother wasn't watching, we never built moonbase alpha (and maybe that's why we never found the monolith), never turned over the world's computers to skynet, in fact i think nearly all the dates that used to carry some sense of future have passed without skintight clothes or space programs to match the predictions. i looked quickly for a timeline of predictions; i'll do a more serious search later.

where do i think we're going? it seems easy to predict another moment of people depopulation, which i was just reading, would be something like the fourth time homo sapiens has been knocked down to nearly nothing. this time we seem to have stacked like every deck in the kitty like we want  to see a godlike hand to get dealt just for the show of it. with that wreck of possibilities ahead it's really hard to predict anything.

even though i was a rabid fan, i never thought much of the space travel stuff, partly because it was usually presented as a walk in the park and the reality was ridiculously nervous and expensive even before the first space shuttle explosion. seriously, take skylab, which was supercool from 1973-1979, and then they/we let it fall out of the sky and burn. not worth fixing it, they said. a real blow after star wars and close encounters provided such vivid visuals.

i've felt for a little while that our greatest future was scientific - learning more and more about everything, now in a bit of a race to keep from prematurely triggering epochal change. oceans, weather, biology, energy, giant lists. i think that's impressive. i like it better, too, because we acted on cultural instinct - kind of a universal lebensraum thing - nature and its laws must bend to our will - and look where it got us. this is a good moment to think.

i think the coming couple of centuries will see a big change in the human species. if it's something of our own choosing, i guess i'd prefer that. it really depends what we put on the menu. self-destruction or permanent biological class division, i'd rather have a salad.

where do i want us to go? i still believe in the universal declaration of human rights. that'd be a good one. i don't want to have to get a chip (or a critter) in my head to be in the loop, i want "everybody in the loop" to be the goal. i want the slum population to decrease by its own choosing, and for something that is nicer. i want to live to see the first dolphin prime minister of the world.

i want solar power for everything because if it's good enough for billions of years of biomass before us, we can make it work, too. i want much less stress and much more generosity. i want the first city on the bottom of the sea to be a prison for gray and black market small arms dealers. i want all knowledge available to everybody, for free, everywhere. same with beer. same with curry. i want people to stop building big systems that are too expensive to change.

oh, and, i REALLY want to be able to have already learned to play a musical instrument without passing through the practice in real time. of all the things in science fiction that haven't come true, instant learning is the thing i really feel is missing from my life. 

Posted by hibiscus

What I really want is 5 digit life spans. Would be fun being able to devote a couple of milleniums to particular problems and subjects. 80 years just doesnt sound nearly enough...

Where are we going? The dark side has clouded my vision! I think we are heading for the same old things - World War III or the next ice age... We are appeasing those two futures well enough anyways.  

Posted by Anshul

What disappointed me most (and man do I mean it disappointed me!) about the Halo series was that after setting us up for a really beautiful religious conflict of some sort, with the hyper-(and galactical-)religious Covenant at hand, it reverted into Yet Another Zombie Shoot-em-up. There were SO many potentially fabulous directions for the storyline to take, and yet at the end I found myself wading through yet more hordes of reconstituted humans (an idea not original in videogameplay since the original DOOM, and not original in human thought since god-alone-knows-when) in various forms, with no weapons at hand that I hadn't already seen somewhere in the first third of the game or so. Vehicles were nice, but few and far between, and anyway Unreal Tournament 2004 is the ultimate vehicular manslaughter game.

And where are my flying cars, already? Surely we've gotten our techno-shit together enough for that? 

Posted by Gern

if we had instant learning, we would definitely have already invented a solar-powered  flying car. 

Posted by hibiscus

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