Robert Guthrie and the World of Tomorrow

It will come as no surprise to people who know me (and most likely, to people who don’t know me), that I am a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. As a young man, probably the most significant and formative experience of my life was seeing Star Wars for the first time. This is no joke. For most of my middle-school and early high school years were spent living, breathing, and dreaming of Star Wars — I wanted to be a Jedi, I wanted to fly an E-Wing (which were way cooler than X-Wings, just so you know), but more than anything, I wanted to live in a world where heroes existed and good triumphed over evil. In my naive inexperience, I was desperately attracted to strong dualistic portrayals of morality: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles of Narnia, that sort of thing.

Not pictured -- lost childhood innocence.
Not pictured — lost childhood innocence.

And then life forced me to grow up. That’s a topic for a whole other post, but like most people, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that the world isn’t black and white, that it’s messy and unpleasant and sometimes there are no heroes. So my tastes changed. I went on an existentialist kick and read a bunch of Camus and Sartre. I struggled through Pynchon and David Foster Wallace (I’m not going to lie, I was pretentious for a while. I blame college). I never stopped loving sci-fi and fantasy though, even though I moved on to darker and grayer texts: Game of Thrones, The Magicians, The Road, Perdido Street Station. I also never stopped loving Star Wars, though the prequels failed to capture that same sense of wonder I had as a child, and I moved on to obsessing over other things (in a way, I probably should thank George Lucas for giving the push I needed to consume other media).

Something that I hadn’t noticed, until very recently, was that my tastes had shifted so much that I wasn’t actually reading any science fiction at all. Part of this, no doubt, had to do with an increased emphasis on my historical studies, but I came to realize when I moved to Houston that it was part of a more sinister trend.

You see, I had lost faith in the future.

Post-Star Wars, my interest in science fiction had been a marriage of entertainment and speculative wonder — I loved the really hard sci-fi, stuff by Charlie Stross and Richard K. Morgan, books and movies that dealt with the complicated issues related to technological advancement. I was interested in cryogenics, practical spaceflight, computer-human interfaces, and the singularity. For a while I tried being a transhumanist, but I wasn’t good enough at science to hang in their circles.

deus-ex-original
Deus Ex made the singularity cool.

Tastes change, of course, but I hadn’t realized how far I had moved away from those once tightly held beliefs, and more importantly, and fascination with and faith in the future until I arrived in Houston a few months ago. Portland is a tech-savvy city, and it’s not backwards by any means, but the emphasis there is so often on simplicity, or even casting aside modern technology — permaculture, organics, sustainability, spiritualism. All good things, but a hemp-wearing, urban chicken farmer is unlikely to excited about nanotechnology or strong AI for their own sake. On top of that, years of un- and underemployment had worn down my inherent optimism. It’s hard to believe in a bright future for humanity when you can’t find one for yourself.

Which, despite its glaring flaws, is one of the things that I really appreciate about Houston — it’s the kind of city that is not only willing to, but excited to look forward. This is the home of NASA, which may be a shadow of its former self, but it still casts a wide shadow. There are labs here working on nano and biotech, space age materials, hyper-advanced communications, and all sorts of technologies with industrial applications. Sure, it’s almost entirely in the service of a greedy and self-serving petroleum industry, but science has to get its funding from somewhere, and its not going to be the government anytime soon.

Most importantly though, Space X just broke ground in Brownsville, far to the south but close enough to be exciting, which was a stark reminder that while the future may be dirty, mechanical, and driven by greed rather than transcendental wonder, it’s still coming. I had intended to get into a discussion of the various merits of fantasy vs. science fiction, but this post is already kind of long, so I’ll table that, and just say that I think a balance is important for any young enthusiast of the speculative, and it’s high time that I started revisiting the genre. The future may be brighter than any of us can see.

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