Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mark Shea on the Future of the Past

James Pawlak of the blog Crusader Knight recently sent me an article by Catholic writer Mark Shea entitled "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be," which appears on, and which you can read here.

In this article, Mark Shea writes about an interesting blog called Paleo-Future, which chronicles ways people in the past thought about the future. Many of the predictions, of course, were wrong. Paleo-Future is a blog about what we here might call outdated science fiction, including such novelties as domed cities, flying cars, rocket packs, and other ultimately impractical inventions.

Such outdated science fiction sometimes appears in modern science fiction as a form of nostalgia or as an elaborate joke. For example, Victorian projections of the future form much of the background scenery for Alan Moore's comic, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and an alternate Victorian-like present in which blimps won out over airplanes forms the basis of Kenneth Oppel's highly recommended novel, Airborn. Depictions of alternate history high-tech Victorian periods are now so common that some have even bestowed upon them their own subgenre called "Steampunk."

Science fiction has at least since the 1960s struggled to keep up with changing technology and culture. Our futures are constantly becoming outdated. In the 1980s, William Gibson complained that science fiction writers were still producing projected futures of the 1950s, and he made a bold move to rectify this by inventing Cyberpunk and producing his novel, Neuromancer. As rapidly as science is advancing now, and as weird, off-putting, and dehumanizing as post-Cyberpunk, post-human, and post-Acceleration sf can sometimes be, it's no surprise so many writers and readers are taking refuge in fantasy or nostalgic sf.

Shea, with a bold segue both I and the B-Movie Catechist would have to approve, moves the conversation in his article away from outdated sf to the real world. He argues that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century notions of inevitable progress--and the often incorrect predictions of the future they produced--were a form of unprecedented hubris.

I think we are living in the period of reaction to that hubris. Extreme relativism is a reaction to scientistic hubris. The New Age worship of nature is a reaction -- not to Christianity, but to the attitude that says of Creation, "There it is, boys! Take as much as you want! She's yours to rape!" It is, I think, sacramentality without God. For the New Age is driven, in part, by an instinct to see Creation -- and that piece of Creation called the Self -- as a holy thing and not a mere source of raw materials. Like all human reactions, it is an overreaction. So now we live in a time where there is uncertainty that there is any Plan at all, just as we live in a time when people whipsaw between seeing themselves as gods and goddesses and being uncertain whether they are any higher in nature than chimps.

I have to ask, though: is this whipsawing or just two different opinions from two different groups? Anyway, it's an interesting article, and I recommend you read it.
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