Our future as history

The finder cannot unsee once it has been seen
– Nabokov

Reading Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s current State of the World 2012 conversation on the Well I was reminded of the abject failure of all our futurologist predictions to ring true. Sterling muses that people have abandoned their belief in the future as a coherent goal, he writes ‘It’s surprising how little vitality these [ideas] have nowadays. Instead of fanatically dedicating themselves to narrow, all-explanatory cults, people just sort of eyeblink at ’em and move on to the next similar topic. In a true Network Society, all fringe beliefs about the future seem to be more or less equivalent, like Visa, American Express and Mastercard. “Conservatism” conserves nothing; there is no “progression” in which to progress.’

Although the final shuttle flight landed safely, it makes for a rather futile symbol of futurity, even to one raised on yellow jacketed sci-fi novels from the local library as a child. I read a fascinating article a while ago where a scientist had modelled the evolution of a civilisation’s technical base and had concluded that we had a projected limited window of opportunity to develop serious interplanetary travel before the dense integrated global economy that was necessary to maintain the sophisticated science fell over due to a lack of oil based systems. Essentially he argued we have only a slim chance of resolving these fundamentals before humanity wanes.


Spiral Mig 105 Soviet space test plane from Wikicommons.

Desolate and cracked space-yards laced with skeletal launch pads in the former Soviet Union are now combined with a streamlined and castrated NASA, testament to the failures of non-military space travel. Rusting Soyuz modules lie like beached whales in corn fields, the Soviet shuttle alternative Buran never even went beyond unmanned launches before the cosmonaut industry bankrupted itself. NASA has become the barking dog for the military industrial complexes plan to mount titanium rod launch vehicles in orbit, ready to fire 10000 mph spears at anyone who would dare to look heaven in the face again and commercial space travel currently wilfully interprets the location of outer space. Conventional sci-fi thus has become a quiet parody of a failed endeavour. Spanish architect Sola-Morales’ assertion that objectivity has ‘shattered into a thousand divergent rays’ is prescient here too, those ‘ghosts of the new century’ as William Gibson writes, haunt our waking lives and define the new cyberpunk vista, the visual collage of ‘retro-fitted future-noire’ Bladerunner themes then offers a bewildering array of more suitable urban metaphors for this gossamer liminal city bewildered by the burnt spectre of the Icarus legend.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s excellent 1983 short story Red Star Winter Orbit details a mutiny aboard a patchwork Soviet orbital Salyut platform some time in the near future, a drunken Colonel Korolev reminisces about being the first man on Mars whilst earth-based political officers decide to shut down the operation. Korolev recalls that the ‘Martian sunlight glinting within his helmet visor, had shown him the reflection of two steady alien eyes, fearless, yet driven and the quiet secret shock of it, he now realised had been his life’s most memorable, most transcendental moment’. He had transformed into something else entirely at that moment, for him the nascent future was utterly incomprehensible. The tale is now as quaintly charming as Wells’ Time Machine or 2001’s curious Jupiter voyage.

No mention of dystopia and future histories can pass without echoing JG Ballard. His short story The Dead Astronaut details the weird post-USA cargo cults of abandoned Florida space programs, he writes ‘the relic hunters were at Cape Kennedy, scouring the burning saw grass for instrument panels and flying suits and — most valuable of all — the mummified corpses of the dead astronauts. These blackened fragments of collarbone and shin, kneecap and rib, were the unique relics of the Space Age, as treasured as the saintly bones of mediaeval shrines’. For Ballard the future is a fractured tale of strange faded desolation, our luminous stellar triumphs already woven into the mythological narratives of past civilisations.

Finding ourselves effectively now living at the edge of architect Will Alsopp‘s baffling ‘1000 mile pan European linear super-city’, which philosopher Diderot (founder of the Hermitage and Encyclopedia) would be incapable of comprehending, the end of the future neatly symbolises the extremes of the contemporary urban struggle, of the clash between ruptured history and slick visions, of crimson battles between society and self, our progress as Rilke would say is ‘heavier by the weight of where it has been’. All those old architecture lectures seem like so much dust now, effortlessly transgressed by blunt photographs I witnessed of architect Zaha Hadid’s early LF1 structure. The Supremacist brutal forms which once mirrored her slick paintings are now crumbling and abandoned, the Hermitage is overrun by graffiti and spidery vegetation. The building wrecked now with echoes of Half-Life 2’s Soviet kitsch, the concrete is a flowing canvas for the failed Gibson ‘testbed of futurity’.

Francis Fukuyama famously announced (and subsequently retracted) the end of history, he saw western liberal democracy as the peak of human progress and its final stage, completing Hegel’s universal drive. He regarded us as essentially having already achieved our sci-fi future. His mistake was that in reality our future may well be utterly alien to us, a linear progressive narrative thus is ultimately naive. Erik Davis in his superb book Techgnosis discusses the concept of datapocalypse, of dystopia and revelatory hubris, the future as a supernova of digital culture. He writes ‘the apocalyptic turn partly derives its power from the commingling and even confusion of salvation and doom’,  any semblance then of a viable and predictable future is infused with palpable dread. The future is shattered like Sola-Morales divergent rays, the wanderers of the liminal city drift in uncertainty and reside in the radon shadows of confusion, clambering over the fossilised imprints of once gleaming rocket ships.


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