Summer Blockbusters: Sci-fi and Alternate History

It seems the past has replaced the future as Hollywood’s preferred setting for summer’s science fiction blockbusters. Jon Favreau’s screen adaptation of the graphic novel, Cowboys and Aliens imagines an extraterrestrial invasion of the Old West. X-Men: First Class offers a prequel to the popular franchise, tracing Magneto and Charles Xavier’s education and upbringing and (of course) crucial involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

Truth (happily) stranger than fiction

I recently finished rereading, for the first time in many years, one of my childhood favorites, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I was immediately struck that the dates Bradbury imagined for his tale of human colonization of Mars are 1999-2026, setting the main action of the book in what is now today. Writing around 1950, Bradbury imagined a world fifty years hence where interplanetary travel was easy and the threat of nuclear war made Martian colonization a looming necessity. Almost musical in its rhythms, the writing is nearly timeless. But to today’s reader, there are more than a few anachronisms that sadly serve to break the spell Bradbury casts. Not least of these is his emphasis on the threat of total nuclear annihilation, which (though it still most definitely remains today) now seems almost quaint.

Yet an even more striking example is found in the chapter entitled “Way in the Middle of the Air.” In it Bradbury imagines a still segregated American South faced with a voluntary, sudden mass exodus of African Americans to the new colonies on Mars. Bradbury uses the device to examine and uncover the simultaneously hidden and vitally present role of black people and black culture in the social fabric of mid-20th Century South. It’s still a very effective critique, but what stood out most to me is not so much anything Bradbury had to say about race relations, but the fact that a brilliant, educated, committed futurist of the 1940s and 50s could more easily imagine his grandchildren living on Mars than in a desegregated South. This fact hit home even harder in light of the recent election of Barack Obama.

There are many, many joys to be had in The Martian Chronicles. That Bradbury was wrong about the relative possibilities of space travel and race relations is one of the greatest. If Bradbury were alive today [See correction, courtesy of reader Kenz, in comments] I’m sure he’d agree.

Briefly Noted for March 25, 2008

Wikihistory is a short science fiction story about a group of future time travelers’ journeys to the mid-20th century. Structured as a series of posts to a message board or wiki, Wikihistory is good mix of alternative history and science fiction, which in several ways again makes the point that science fiction is often just history in disguise. (Thanks Rob and Feeds.)

Ken sends Yahoo’s list of the ten most historically inaccurate movies. Granted, all of them—Braveheart, The Patriot, Gladiator, 300—have their problems. But it would be very easy to find ten more egregious offenders than these.

Curacao, Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier? Confused about the difference or trying to decide which tipple to use in your Cosmo? A London “cocktail enthusiast” provides relief with a short history of orange liqueurs.

Forty Signs of Rain

This post may be even shorter than usual. I’m writing from Breckenridge, CO where I’m enjoying a couple (very cold) days of skiing. (The conditions are epic in case you’re wondering.) But I didn’t bring my laptop, so I’m writing this on my Blackberry. It seems to be working fine, but I don’t think I’ll have the patience or thumb strength for more than a couple hundred words or so.

Once again this semester I’m teaching a history of science-focused Western Civ. survey, and once again I’m using Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt to try to shake my students of their preconceptions about scientific progress and Western exceptionalism. I love Robinson, but I have read YRS several times now, so instead of YRS, I brought another of Robinson’s books with me on my vacation: Forty Signs of Rain, the first book in a trilogy about climate change in the very near future.

So far, FSR isn’t nearly as brilliant as YRS. It’s not even as creative as Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Nevertheless, even in the first 150 pages of this comparatively unremakable effort, Robinson’s seemingly endless font of knowledge is revealed again in an extended passage about the NSF panel review process.

A lot of public historians and digital humanists are very rightly baffled by the grant application and evaluation processes of NEH, IMLS, and other federal grant-making agencies. It is indeed a pretty arcane process, especially to the novice, but one good way to wrap your head around it is to serve as a panelist for a program in your field. I have been lucky enough to serve on a couple panels for NEH and IMLS, and in addition to a great intellectual experience and a fantastic way to make new friends in your field, serving as a panelist is probably the best way to learn what makes proposals succeed and what makes them fail. I guarantee your own grant proposals will be vastly improved by the experience. If you get a chance (the agencies frequently put out calls for panelists), I’d jump on it.

If you can’t serve on a panel, however, take a look at Forty Signs of Rain. Ignoring the intrigue and vaguely dirty progam officer that assist the broader plot line (I assure you, in my experience, actual program officers are among the most honest, impartial, and helpful people), in the first half of the book Robinson provides a very good account of the proposal and peer review process at NSF, which is more or less the same as that at NEH and IMLS. I’m not saying it’s right on the money, but as an easy and readable glimpse at the grant making process (especially pp. 134-145, where Robinson describes the panel room itself), it’s definitely worth a read. And if you’ve never read anything by Robinson, this is as good a reason as any to get started.

Red, Green, and Blue

I’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s superb Mars Trilogy, an imagined history of humankind’s colonization of Mars. The first in the series, Red Mars, was published in 1992. It was followed in 1994 by Green Mars and in 1996 by Blue Mars.

I have said here before that most science fiction takes the form of historical narrative, and the Mars Trilogy is no exception, chronicling the “terraforming” of Mars from the arrival of the first human colonists in 2026 to their fight for independence from Earth in the 22nd century in a story that roughly parallels the outlines of American history. But what is most interesting to me about the Mars Trilogy are the subtle adjustments Robinson made to that story line as he completed the books in serial. It’s clear that Robinson altered the course of his future history in response to the actual history that was so quickly unfolding around him during the course of the early-90s. Thus in 1992’s Red Mars, we find the “First Hundred” settlers chosen almost entirely from the ranks of American and Russian military scientists, with a few European and Japanese civilians thrown in for good will. But in 1994’s Green Mars—in a shift that clearly parallels the geo-political shifts of the early-90s and the rise of globalization in the mid-90s—we see American and Russian national influence on Mars greatly reduced and replaced by powerful corporate “transnats” which run everything from Martian mining operations to its police forces. This is just one example of how, in order to construct a plausible history of the future, Robinson had to respond “on-the-fly” to the momentous events playing out in his present.

Of course there are lots more; as always Robinson is a gold mine. If you’re a fan of science fiction and/or alternative history, and you haven’t read the Mars Trilogy yet, close your browser and get to the bookstore.

History on the Corner

To commemorate 30 years of Star Wars, the United States Postal Service has started painting its blue corner mailboxes to look like R2-D2, the lovable droid who first appeared in 1977.

R2D2

I was three years old when A New Hope premiered, and standing in line for tickets with my parents outside Showcase Cinemas in Worcester, Mass. is one of my earliest memories. I’m not sure I need the post office to remind me how old I am, but as I child of Star Wars I appreciate the gesture nevertheless.

Upadate (3/30/07): So it turns out that the mailboxes have been installed to promote a series of Star Wars commemorative stamps. No surprise there, I suppose.

F/X

A quick one tonight from Popular Mechanics: The Top 10 F/X Scenes in Movie History. In fact it’s not a countdown of scenes at all, but rather a list of the most important applications of digital technology to recent filmmaking. Yet it’s ordered chronologically according to the dates of the films in which the techniques were first used, and it’s structured as a “top ten” list, so I guess it fits our bill.

FuturesWatch Timeline

Here’s another (crazy) example of how futurists (science fiction writers, etc.) look to history for process and inspiration. The FuturesWatch timeline begins in 1750 and simply carries forward to 2100 as if events from the late 18th century and events from the late 21st century qualified equally as history. Interestingly, FuturesWatch confidently documents things such as “First commercial fusion power plant” (2035) and “Period of increased social and civil unrest” (2055-2080), and only hedges when it comes to music: The timeline dates the end of “Rock and Roll” at 2010, but only tentatively suggests “World Beat?” as its replacement during 2010-2060. Perhaps it’s easier to write the history of future technology and politics than to do the same for art.