Monday, June 8, 2009

the future of the future

Wikimedia commons photo: Samuel Delany. NASA photo: Charles Bolden in 1992

Yesterday, I was registering the fact that President Obama has appointed Charles Bolden, an African American astronaut, to run NASA. I googled him, thinking about how it's not that incredible anymore to have black people go up in space, and that therefore it doesn't seem incredible that there's a black astronaut in charge of NASA. And then one article, which included various people gushing about Bolden, included a comment from his astronaut buddy Franklin Chang-Diaz, whose daughter is a Massachusetts politician with the same last name.

I don't want to dwell on the point, but "Franklin Chang-Diaz" used to not be an astronaut kind of name, nor a Boston politician name either. In fact, it is hard to know which would have seemed more improbable in 1950, or 1960, or even 1970.

I don't want to be the white guy who looks on in wondrous rapture about little victories of diversity as a way of ignoring inequality and discrimination. So let me pause and register that the world is still what it is; inequality still is the rule, not the exception. At the same time, the world is different than it used to be.

NASA made a decision, when it started the shuttle program, to change what astronauts looked like. Now, many years later, there are a fair number of black astronauts, women astronauts, astronauts from different parts of the world. Some of them are rising through the ranks. There are still plenty of white guy astronauts and white guys slapping each other five in Mission Control--the world hasn't changed so much--but it's different than Apollo.

This got me thinking about science fiction. I've mostly left the genre behind in my own reading over the last few years. My friend S. knows it better and is able to write about it more seriously. Still, from the reading I did in years past, I can say there are a few different versions of the society of space in science fiction. One of those versions comes from an often quietly utopian impulse, which involves more small-bore problems of dealing with difference, or of trying to make a better society, or of living in a different way than we now imagine. It does not describe utopias, but its broad imagination, its sense of possibility, is a form of utopianism. It is a way of saying, anything is possible. This genre uses science fiction as a way of stretching our imaginations about what could be. Some of the practitioners of this kind of science fiction, people like Octavia Butler or Samuel Delany, were African American, and the humans who inhabited their worlds were often of many colors, not to mention genders and sexual orientations. In fact, not at the time, but retrospectively, some people call them pioneers of Afrofuturism.

There is no immediate relationship between Samuel Delany, a gay man with a big unruly beard who now teaches creative writing at Temple, and Charles Bolden, a former Marine and astronaut, who will now run NASA. They are both black men who are interested in outer space, but then, so was Sun Ra. I can't really imagine Borden and Delany at the same event. And though there must be someone who knows them both, I don't think they travel in overlapping circles. They have outer space in common, sort of (though Samuel Delany does not even depend on that trope). But one of them is interested in imagining different planets as metaphors for different ways of living. The other is interested in specific real different planets as places we might drive a space ship to. Delany is wildly progressive; Bolden is not, at all.

When NASA chose its astronaut corps for the shuttle program, it did so for political reasons that were very much of the here and now. NASA understood then and understands now that its work can either seem like an inspiration, a bold project of building human capacity, a project on behalf of nothing smaller than humanity itself; or, alternatively, a wasteful boondoggle and gadget racket that has nothing to do with anyone's concrete problems. Choosing a diverse astronaut corps helped keep NASA looking like it was staying on the right side of that line. That has nothing to do with anything as edgy or visionary as Samuel Delany. Yet, if you would have written a science fiction story, in 1969, that imagined a black president and NASA chief, you would have placed yourself firmly in the left wing of the genre.

There are all sorts of possibilities come true lately, which I've been noticing simultaneously. Less lofty but maybe more spectacular: in my pocket, my iPhone seems more spectacular than a lot of gadgets I read about in science fiction books when I was a kid, exactly because it is an everyday device. Without any mythic resonance, an improbable-seeming thing I carry in my pocket, the iPhone is not a super phaser or a scanning diagnostic tool that instantly does my medical work for me. It's just a phone, a newspaper, a street map of the developed world, a global positioning device (the very existence of which is improbable, much less that it is in my pocket), a massive encyclopedia written by a global collective, a camera, some video games, a music player, a way to write people brief letters or read letters from others, and other things as well. And I put it in my pocket and carry it around! Every so often, we do make note of how incredible this seems. Perhaps I'm just getting older, and remember more and more time, more and more of my own history, that took place before we could take such things for granted.

Whether for the head of NASA, or my iPhone, the future is harder to accurately imagine than it first seems, and not just because you thought the phone/clock/navigational device would be a Dick Tracy-style watch and not some pocket version of the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once the future arrives it seems ordinary. To imagine the future puts a wondrous glow on it.

The future is not simply a time like other times; it is a time when anything is possible and therefore it is a time made up of a larger-than-appropriate proportion of our hopes and fears. When we find ourselves in the time that used to be the future, there is no such resonance. Some things are newly possible, others not possible anymore, and we simply find ourselves in a new set of circumstances. We fear and hope for new things. AT&T sends a bill for the iPhone minutes. The future is no longer the future.

But there is something about this year, and I know I'm not the only person to feel this way, that feels a bit more like science fiction than most years. The dull apocalyptic dread of the American economic empire in collapse; a black president with a Muslim name; iPhones in our pockets; gay marriage through all of New England but not in California or New York; a black astronaut in charge of NASA. Some Puerto Rican lady gets appointed to the Supreme Court and it is the exact person that the press has been predicting all along, which makes her appointment seem like an almost unadventurous boring political move by our president, who--we're almost used to it now--is a black man named Barack Obama. (Afrofuturism, indeed.) We take the internet for granted but we're still figuring out how to use it; we're also now used to things like dance music made entirely by computer programming; and we forget how extraordinary it is that in so many ways, from dumb television to crucial navigation, we depend on satellites orbiting the earth.

It's not future shock I feel; just a sense that the present is improbable, and thus, that the future must be even more so, for better, for worse, or, simply, for different. Really different. All possibilities remain possible. We are in a time that feels like the future even as it arrives. This year, more than most years, I find myself in the future, still catching up.

No comments: