August saw the death of Neil Armstrong, the first-ever human being to set foot on an alien world. All right, it was only the moon, which is hardly in the same league as Krypton, Tatooine or the fancy three-dimensional planet in Avatar, but for a wee species that only evolved out of the Homo genus about 200,000 years ago, that first step of his in 1969 was still pretty impressive.
Armstrong’s passing got me thinking about an uncomfortable question. How come the future has turned out to be so rubbish?
Even I am a little too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf 43 years ago, but I can just about recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s. Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure of what I was watching. At the time my family and I were huddled around a tiny black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which only picked up one channel, the BBC. (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Irish Free State, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some dangerous-looking twiddling.) All I could make out on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a fuzzy dark-grey background. However, my Dad assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took his word for it.
It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap that was almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module. The cause of this were two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered – a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers. Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the top of the sideboard in our living room. They made an imposing sight. Until then, I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill our sideboard.
I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened. Not all the consequences of this were positive, however. My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement – if they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America. As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there. Also, some quaint words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which inevitably had my classmates at primary school tearing the piss out of me.
One feature of these encyclopaedias that really rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism. This was a scientific as well as an American optimism. It’s hard to believe today, now that one of the two main American political parties is infested with right-wing religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was built in six days flat a few thousand years ago (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/republican-congressman-evolution-lies-straight-pit-hell), but there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools in converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way. At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up – even those assertions in the encyclopaedias that, with the benefit of hindsight, were a bit over-optimistic.
For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too. The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars. Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed a bit suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous. (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.) Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin can left littering a lunar crater.
Anyway, I assumed this was what I could expect by the time I’d reached my thirties. I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.
My expectations were buoyed further when in the mid-1970s my parents finally got round to buying a new TV set that got three channels, the BBC, RTE and ITV – Independent Television. Although ITV had (and still has) a reputation for cheap and lowbrow programming in comparison with that made by the BBC, it did broadcast at the time various action / adventure series made by a subsidiary called ITC entertainment, run by the cigar-smoking Jewish-Ukrainian impresario Lord Lew Grade. Aimed at international markets and at the American market in particular, ITC’s shows commanded higher-than-average budgets and looked quite glossy by the standards of 1960s and 1970s British TV. They included The Prisoner, The Persuaders, Department S and a host of science-fiction shows made by the remarkable Gerry Anderson. These I was suddenly able to watch for the first time.
Gerry Anderson, of course, is best-known today for his ‘Supermarionation’ sci-fi series, which were populated by puppets and featured special effects that, for the time, looked impressively cinematic: Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Joe 90… Not to mention the surprisingly grim Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, each episode of which began with the rumbling, terrifying Voice of the Mysterons transmitting from Mars and threatening to wreak havoc somewhere on earth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV8YbLvGrb0&feature=related). But it was seeing repeats of Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi show, UFO, made in 1970 and starring Ed Bishop, George Sewell, Michael Billington, Peter Gordeno, Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum) and Gabrielle Drake (Nick Drake’s sister), that convinced me that the future was going to be absolutely brilliant.
For UFO, Anderson’s production team envisioned the shape of things to come through a prism of gaudy late-1960s design and fashion, with a smidgeon too of then-fashionable psychedelia. It didn’t just feature spaceships and moonbases, but also sleek super-cars, talking computers with hallucinogenic panels of flashing lights, giant submarines with detachable nose-modules that turned into aircraft when they reached the ocean surface, guys in groovy-looking suits that didn’t have lapels, and a lot of sexy ladies wearing silver miniskirts and sporting purple hairdos. (Here’s UFO’s famous title sequence, by the way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb4nMFHXxro). So, I thought, I’d be living on a moonbase, watching spaceships streak past towards Mars, and Gabrielle Drake would be shimmying around me looking fetching in silver and purple. The future seemed better than ever.
Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that little futuristic stuff was happening any more. As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, not much occurred after the Skylab project – yes, there was the space shuttle, but that didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit. Meanwhile, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars but, alas, found nothing interesting. There were no aliens, Martian canals or three-legged war machines shooting out death-rays – just some boring geological formations that had once been river valleys. And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism? It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.
I still held out hope, though. In the mobile library that came to our village every week, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic late-1960s sci-fi movie he’d co-written with director Stanley Kubrick. It was reassuring to read Clarke’s sober, matter-of-fact account of a journey from the earth to the moon and then on to Saturn. (In Kubrick’s film, the final destination was changed to Jupiter because the job of convincingly depicting Saturn’s rings was too much for his special effects team.) By then I was well-versed in astronomy and space travel and the book seemed to reinforce everything I knew already about the subjects. It also made the idea that humanity would be out exploring more of space in the early 21st century seem feasible and, indeed, logical.
When I finally saw 2001 the movie, however, it was the early 1980s and even I had to concede that it’d become a bit of a museum piece. In some ways it possessed an admirable, almost documentary-like realism – for instance, I was impressed by the fact that, unlike the spaceships in every other sci-fi movie I’d seen, Kubrick’s spaceships didn’t make any noise (because sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space) – but it struck me as a historical artefact nonetheless because it was clearly rooted in a past time and in past conceptions of what lay ahead. It offered a late-1960s view of the future, one that just wasn’t plausible any longer in 1981 or 1982.
(By then, the Mad Max movies had started to do the rounds and, after the oil shortages of the 1970s, they presented an unfortunately more credible vision of what the 21st century might be like. It was also telling that a couple of years earlier, in 1978, Lord Grade’s ITC Entertainment, which had once stimulated my space-age fantasies with the Gerry Anderson shows, had produced the movie Capricorn One – a cynical sci-fi thriller about a NASA expedition to Mars that is actually a hoax, with the supposed landing on the Martian surface being filmed in a TV studio in the American desert.)
And now in 2012 I find myself inhabiting a world far removed from the visions that Neil Armstrong, Gerry Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke inspired in me during my childhood. An international space station has been in low earth orbit for the past dozen years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station) but, still, little else is happening on the manned space-travel front – I doubt very much if people will get to Mars in my lifetime and I’m beginning to wonder if they will get there at all, ever. Okay, I spend my working days squinting into the screen and poking at the keyboard of a computer, but it doesn’t seem like a proper computer. After all, when a proper computer developed a fault, it would surely – like HAL in 2001 – start singing ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…’ Mine just mutely informs me that it has encountered a problem and is going to shut down.
In fact, the only thing that anyone back then got right about the future was the scenario in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet. For many years, up until recently, we did cower as the Voice of the Mysterons, at regular intervals, threatened to wreak havoc in our lives – though to be fair, it wasn’t the Voice of the Mysterons broadcasting from Mars, but the Voice of Osama Bin Laden broadcasting via smuggled-out video cassettes from a compound in Pakistan. (I often wonder if the ten-year-old Osama watched that show on television in late-1960s Riyadh and borrowed a few ideas from it.)
Armstrong departed from this world – again, and this time for good – on August 25th. Clarke died back in 2008 (whereas poor old Kubrick didn’t even live to see 2001). And Gerry Anderson, I was saddened to read recently, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-18614483).
And that’s ironic in a way, for I sometimes feel I am suffering from a reverse form of Alzheimer’s – not one that erases my memories of the past through neuro-degeneration, but one that erases my fanciful memories of the future through on-going exposure to dull, disillusioning reality.