When I was doing some part time teaching at Uni, I had to organise a seminar to discuss ‘tales of the future’. As this was a seminar for Modern History students, I remember thinking that everyone would be talking about HG Wells and George Orwell. Well, most of them did choose to discuss these two authors, but others delved much deeper.
They came up with little-known books from the 19th and early 20th Centuries covering subjects like the Channel Tunnel (and the threat of invasion from France), the First Man On the Moon (being an Englishman :)), the discovery of aliens in ‘Darkest Africa’, and a number of apocalyptic events caused by germs attacking the population of Britain, carried in via ships, strange flying devices, or (again) the Channel Tunnel.
What all of these books had in common was actually a fear of what could happen in the future. Just like Orwell’s 1984, the novels dwelt upon current events and discussions and transferred these to a near-future with catastrophic consequences.
I searched alongside the students and could not find a single book which celebrated new technology or new social structures, or even the explorations of the World or Universe, without providing at least a sense of threat. Even the Englishman who landed on the Moon was forced to make a hasty retreat, before his craft was taken over by ‘moon men’ prepared to invade Earth.
What we were doing in the seminar was matching up novels that were published with events taking place at the same time. So, for example, the aliens discovered in Africa (I can’t remember the exact word used to describe them, but they were what we today would call ‘aliens’) were written about at the time when the ‘Scramble For Africa’ was taking place. It was as if the author was warning us that it was better not to go there at all, because we would discover beings and situations that we really did not wish to find. The student who presented this novel argued that the author was picking up on the message provided in Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ and taking it one step further, but others saw this as a speculation of events to follow on from the Scramble for Africa, culminating in the First World War.
Hindsight is a great thing I guess, but either way, the idea of ‘discovering something we do not wish to find’ when we undertake a new adventure, or partake in the discovery of new technology, scientific breakthrough, or new ways of ordering society, was a theme throughout these novels.
And looking at later novels and now films as well, there always appears to be an element of threat in a ‘future tale’.
Often the future appears to be a dreadful place to live. Perhaps it is the result of a technological error in the present which profoundly affects the future (Terminator), a future wasteland, raised to the ground by nuclear war (Mad Max and many other movies), a future where robots take over the world or, the complete nightmare, where humans are barely-living beings, plumbed into a giant Matrix and existing only in a virtual reality World. And those in charge of this future world are always shady beings who exert complete control over the rest of us.
And of course, it is always our fault for letting this happen. We should have seen that taking strides with technology or exploration of any kind was a bad thing…
Okay, at certain points in time, you do find novels and films being produced where the heroes beat back the ‘outsiders’, often with the use of technology, and the World lives to fight another day. But there is still a warning here – the future is a scary place. We really should be afraid of it. And in any case, bookshops and cinemas will soon be filled again with the ‘don’t mess with science/technology/the social structure as we know it’ … scenarios.
Interestingly a future novel with an optimistic ending – Jack Finney’s 1954 book ‘Body Snatchers‘ (linked variously to perceptions of McCarthyism, Soviet Russia or the Cold War), had its ending changed to something much darker when turned into a movie. In the original novel, things get tough for the residents of a small village, but ingenuity (and the short lifespan of the aliens) helps humankind survive. However, in the original movie, just before the final scene the main character can be found screaming, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” Later film versions have been even less optimistic.
The current continued interest in a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ could be seen to represent our acceptance that the World is in one hell of a mess right now, politically and most of all financially, and that no one can see a way out. Being European or American will not protect us. In fact, just like the ‘Walking Dead’ idea, that even if we remain unbitten, we will still become zombies on our demise, so it is that, with the current world crisis, no nation on Earth will be able to survive unscathed.
So it appears to me that our current interest in an ‘apocalyptic future’ simply follows on the historical trend that the future is to be feared and that all our efforts to control it (however ‘good’ those efforts may be) are worthless, as we have no real control over our future at all.
Or is it simply that, as thinking beings we prefer to be scared by a book or a film, rather than facing concrete issues in the real World?