Sunday, August 3, 2014

Futures

I've written about this before, but I'll say it again: the future ain't what it used to be.

I grew up in a fairly odd place. For whatever reason, the thrift shops and used book stores of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan were something of a dumping ground for...well, for lack of a better term, weird shit.

You'd walk into a St. Vinny's in Escanaba in the eighties and you'd see what you'd expect to see: rows of junk stereo equipment, racks of thread-bare clothing twenty years out of date. Tired naugahyde furniture and weird brick-a-brack nobody in their right mind would ever want. There'd be piles of waffle irons, hair curlers and worn crucifixes, the detritus of peoples' lives, stuff which would never move at even the most hopping garage sale.

But. There was always an unaccountably large book section, way larger than you'd expect at a thrift shop. And in amongst all the cookbooks and encyclopedias and dime-store romances, there'd be weird shit. A lot of it.

Science fiction, naturally. Lots of sci-fi fans in the Upper Peninsula back in the eighties, I think. My introduction to Doc Smith, for example, was from thrift store acquisitions.

But it's the other stuff you'd occasionally find which mystifies me. There must have been a heavy contingent of hippies back in those days, because I'd find all sorts of strange books: UFO contactee biographies, the secrets of Atlantis, revealed. There'd be old issues of Fate magazine and strange volumes dealing with the occult. I am sure, if I'd gone to even more remote stores, perhaps up in Houghton or the Sault, I'd find the Al Azif or something.

I was an indiscriminate reader back then. I'd hoover those things up, repeat tidbits of information I gleaned from them to friends and family. They were so much better than normal science fiction because it was all true! Or at least it was to my ten year old younger self who was not armed with Google and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Back then, before the internet made everything so much less mysterious, I could sustain a sense of wonder for days, staring at a painting of what the sky must look like from the jungles of Titan, or perhaps a grainy photo from the surface of the moon which a UFO expert claimed proves that aliens built pyramids in outer space. If you squinted and turned your head just so, in amongst all the dots and smudges, you'd see it, too. You'd wonder briefly why NASA kept the truth from us, but you would come to the same conclusion every time: after all, the Cold War was on, and maybe there were Secrets Too Large for the public to handle.

My absolute favorite were the contactee books. Stories from men and women who'd been abducted by aliens, who'd invariably look just like you and me, except better in every way. Psychic. Blonde. Tall. The women were liberated and the men square-jawed and confident. They'd take the authors up into their saucers, show them the sights, tell them what's wrong with us as a culture and then set them down in a cornfield in Iowa with a pat on the head and maybe an idea for a best-selling book or two.

I think it must have been a great time, growing up a science fiction fan in the fifties when most of these books were written. It must have been a time when anything felt possible. Space was a new frontier, and, even if you didn't know it just then, there was a freaking moon landing ahead of you.

I really want to write a book some time about that, rekindle a bit of that sense of directional imperative, that technology is heading a specific direction worth going to, recapture that sense that there's a better future out there, that everything's going to be all right.

I think one of the primary things readers will talk about in a hundred years when talking about the fiction of the oughts and the teens is just how damn morose we are. Science fiction hasn't been this depressing since the grand days of the seventies, with all its economic turmoil, the Cold War and gas scarcity. Just as it was then, everything's all dark dystopian futures and sudden and implausible apocalypses now.

We're slogging through this zeitgeist of doom and woe and it's no longer hip to dream of a better future.

I probably have sort of a skewed perspective. There was plenty of bad stuff going on back then, after all. The usual wars, famine, racism, class struggle and plagues. People can be awful no matter what the time period. It's one of those things you can set your clock by: assholes make the world go round, after all.

But sometimes I just wish I could get that feeling back, of driving down a lonely dark highway out in the crack of nowhere, forest and corn field rolling by on either side of your rusty Studebaker. Nothing on the road at this hour but you. The AM radio coughing out the usual parade of loonies and semi-truths on Art Bell. You can see the stars shine bright and crisp overhead, so bright you barely need your headlights.

You pull over, get out on the gravel shoulder, leave the door open and the radio on. You look up and up and you know that maybe there's something out there somewhere besides us. You hear a woman talk softly on the radio about how the saucer-men have a plan, see, and, watching the lights in the sky flicker and shine, maybe you see a satellite roll fast overhead and the future seems kind of swell after all.

Totals: 647, 808, 795, 832, 772, 699, 960.

I'm averaging roughly 742 words per day, which ain't half bad. I've got two more chapters in this act, after I wrap up the small amount I have left in my current chapter, then Act III, which is looking like it might be kinda short. Maybe six chapters. Cool.

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