Let RES Speak!
*I will do my post on what ya’ll have been up to later today. Meanwhile, with a remarkable lack of punny stuff, RES sent me a guest post which I’m proud to put up, it being remarkably more lucid than the stuff I normally grind out. RES admits to being a corporate accountant and a long time science-fiction reader, but claims to be innocent of any wish to write the stuff. Well! Having tempted him into blog post I consider myself happy, if not satisfied. As you all know my evil insidiousness is never satisfied and never sleeps.*
It Used To Be Better
Once upon a time, long, long ago, giants strode the Earth. Our ancestors built towering palaces, did great deeds, mastered arcane mysteries whose secrets are today lost. Or so most Fantasy tells us.
A past Golden Age is a common theme in Fantasy, an earlier time when things were better. And of course our modern age is a fallen one, deteriorating every day and twice on Sunday. Tolkein’s is a fallen world, as is Conan’s (although perhaps from not so great a height.) The tale of Camelot is a story of glory lost, and its promised return. Harry Potter’s world has slipped from past glories, with no one to match Merlin or the Hogwarts Founders. Even in SF we find the theme of lost knowledge ~ what is the theme of McCaffrey’s <I>Dragonflight</I> if not discovery of <I>lost</I> and rediscovered knowledge?
Nations, tribes, clans almost always trace their origins back to a near-mythical demi-god founder. Ancient Egypt thought its pharaohs deities, as have the Chinese and Japanese peoples. England’s King Arthur is matched in Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa in France and Germany. Founding myths commonly trace a present culture to an older, greater one, such as Rome’s establishment by refugees from fallen Troy.
There are many reasons this theme captures our imagination; prominent among them is that it reflects our own psychological progression. Thus there is a comfort to the idea we inhabit a diminished culture.
In childhood we lack understanding of the complex world into which we have entered. As we grow, idealizing our parents is a fundamental stage in our development. We begin ignorant of our world, lacking knowledge and skills required to survive. We depend on our parents for all our needs, including especially understanding of the world.
Our parents, our teachers, our mentors all seem to possess great knowledge. They read books which baffle us. They perform mathematical calculations incomprehensible to us. They with ease do myriad things which we struggle to accomplish, from drawing a picture to making music to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Over time we master many of these skills and in the mastering disparage them. Hurdles nigh insurmountable to us as children are miniscule in hindsight.
We learn, too, that our childhood heroes have clay feet, will often disappoint us as we observe them in everyday life. In adolescence we vent our disillusionment, resent those people and institutions for being less than we thought them. Eventually we become cynical, declaring “they’re all rotten.” Idols from the perspective of childhood are all too clearly flawed when we meet them as near equals. The disappointment we feel for their being less than we imagined, for being merely human, causes a letdown, however unfairly.
The young observe the world with large eyes, wide open and wondering. Eventually we squint at it through narrowed gaze. We still hold onto our childhood dreams, however, and imagine that the world which we entered was better than the one we inhabit.
We never quite shake childhood expectations; our emotions yet yearn for the comforts we knew. As children our experience with the mail is that it brings us positive things: birthday and holiday cards, often with checks or small cash gifts. I recall looking at adulthood with anticipation of all the mail I would receive, never realizing that the bulk of that mail would be asking for money, not granting it to me. But I still receive every day’s post with hopeful anticipation, even as opening it engenders small disappointments.
We similarly are forgetful — or ignorant — of the downsides of times past. The romance of Western cowboys, Victorian highwaymen and French musketeers is not diminished by actual experience of the pleasures of a day spent in saddle, thighs chafed and spine rattled. Nor do we consider the pungent odour of the horses’ manure, nor their sweat nor the work required to feed and curry them. Children may yearn for ponies but seldom do they contemplate the work required by their keep.
Just so do we look back on prior ages as superior to our own. We forget (or never learn) the flaws of their leaders, seeing mainly their accomplishments. Achievements make up the histories while the compromises and abuses required to attain them get forgotten. We see our modern era as flawed because we are too close; we view past generations as more heroic because we look not closely at their realities. Village life is romanticized, imagining everybody caring one for another and we declare “It takes a village” mostly because we either never lived in a village or, more probably, have forgotten the pleasures of having everybody in the village watching you and reporting your misdeeds to your parents.
We reflect on childhood with fondness and forgetfulness, recalling joys and sorrows vaster than our present experiences because we had not yet grown inured. Triumphs were sweeter for being newer and unexpected; the pleasure of every additional triumph growing slighter as they accumulate and come to be expected. The first time you achieve something is glorious, each successive time rather less so. We look at our present times and notice that the golden sheen of everyday has gotten tired and dingy.
Our personal development is reflected in our view of the world. We remember our personal pasts and our cultural pasts as rosier, as better, and our present as less admirable, less desirable. A longing for a better cultural past is an expression of our longing for a more attractive personal past, a time when the world seemed more secure and glorious, a time before we learned of the flaws of the world.
We take modern marvels for granted for having become commonplace. Soaps are expected to be scented and gentle, not harsh and abrasive. We expect our electricity and our internet connections to be reliable, our foods to be safe, our kitchens free of vermin. We expect our effluvium to be swiftly flushed away, not sit in a chamber pot to be dumped in the privy. We forget the tedium of few television channels, of slow internet connections but we remember the marvel and excitement of watching cartoons every Saturday morning, of being able to connect to others online who shared interests like our own. The glamour through which we viewed the world fades, but its memory and its allure remain. Even though we have figured out many of the tricks, we remember the wonder and magic that enthralled us.
Jim Baen reportedly observed that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is fourteen — because that’s usually our age when we discover the genre. And upon that discovery we not only lacked the critical capacity to evaluate what we were discovering, we likely read much of the best the field has produced. Librarians and friends more versed in the genre point us toward Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon and others whose works have stood the test of time and the judgement of more critical readers. As we delve further into the genre we discover lesser authors, often deservedly forgotten. Our sense of wonder diminishes both from diminished quality and diminished novelty.
Science Fiction has long taken a positive view, looking at the growth we have known, seeing how we can improve our lives and our world. Human Wave SF reminds us that we can make the world better. There will be costs, but the results are worth it. Human Wave SF calls for progress, for making a better rather tomorrow rather than pining for a falsely idealized yesterday. It encourages because it inverts the normal aging process, by promising us that the future is brighter if we want it to be, tantalizing us with youthful novelty regained.
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