This is not – exactly – about Neil Armstrong. The truth is that I knew very little about him as a man. I did watch the moon landing. I think I’ve told before – you have to remember I was a BAD girl – that there were two televisions in the village at the time, one in the coffee shop, where it wasn’t quite all right for little girls to go even with their ten-years older brothers, and the other in my aunt’s home.
I have no idea if this is the true story, or if I’m conflating it from some other event (look, I was six!) but the way I remember it, my aunt was on vacation and so we broke (without damage. Most houses in the village were easy to break into. Yes, I knew this. No, I didn’t have a career as a cat burglar. I had a career as the resourceful kid in a family who often forgot their kids inside.) into her house to watch the moon landing. I know my memories are somewhat scrambled, because the room I remember us being in is her living room in the house she moved into a year and a half later (next door to my parents.)
HOWEVER the story fits well into my personal mythology and gives my fans warning that I was ALWAYS a bad girl, (now semi-reformed. Well, I try to be.) So I’m sticking with it. To paraphrase from Stranger in A Strange land, because I’m too lazy to go find the book and look up the passage (which I haven’t read in ten years, since it’s not one of my favorite books) “When I was six, my mom wouldn’t let me sleep with my junior space explorer’s helmet on.” – that sort of personal mythology.
Now let’s move past me, a topic all too likely to focus my attention and make me go on for pages, and instead go to what the moon landing meant. What we thought it meant at the time was new frontiers (it’s interesting that growing up in Portugal I devoured books about Daniel Boone, David
Bowie Crockett — Bowie knife got in the way and damn it, not enough coffee — and Little House On The Prairie.) The chance to go where no man had gone before and to forge new ways of living among the stars. As a kid, that’s what resonated with me, I think, and it resonated very deeply because there’s something instinctive about it. Humans want to go forth. Humans want to conquer.
Or we did, once. We did.
As an (amateur) historian, as far as I can tell the cycle goes like this: the mainland spawns the colony. The colony is originally populated by the odds – those who don’t fit in well in the motherland. Not just the eccentric but also those with odd ideas of how society ought to be organized and those who just don’t conform well. In the normal way of things these aren’t survival-enhancing for the individual, but they are for the species, because they cause the species to send forth (as it were) pods to colonize new lands. Overtime the colony ossifies and it sends out its odds to colonize… And this way we came from the savannah to everywhere in the world that our ingenuity and work can carve a way for us to live. Well done. Pat yourselves on the back. And what now?
It was no coincidence it as the US that sent a lander to the moon. It would have made sense to then have sent out a colony. Instead… Instead we sat on our hands and became Europe.
This is no disparagement of Europe which is, in general, a fine place and has very good food. But Europe is what is known as a “mature” civilization. In the way of nature, you really can’t mature before you start to become senescent.
We in the US turned that corner at a screeching pace from brash adolescent to seeming senescent in ten seconds flat, going from the sixties to the depressed seventies in no time.
The thing is – and the reason I use “seems” – that I don’t think it’s real. It’s a cultural pose, an idea imposed from above that “Europe knows best, and we should be more like her.” It might be a good enough pose to fool the elites who go abroad and meet with Europeans in controlled circumstances. It wouldn’t fool for a moment anyone who has lived there and who knows Europeans in private life, when the pant crease comes undone.
Comparing nations and their development to individual development is a violation of taste and metaphor. Guys, I write Space Opera. The intellectuals would say I violate taste for a living. What is more, I ENJOY it. So, here it is, what the US is going through is not true senescence but that rather trying time in which a thirteen year old affects the world-weary pose of its elders and meditates on the crimes it imagines it has committed, inflating its pecadillos not only to the same level as its elders’ sins but to world-staggering violations.
The key to this is the “affects” and “immitates” (Thomas Bailey Aldrich in Tom Bailey, story of a bad boy – a book I recommend everyone who can find it read – refers to this time as “when I was an unfortunate being” – which is how we called it as each of our boys went through it in turn.) Underneath the world-weary pose and the drooping airs (it’s worse for girls. No, really. We usually fancy ourselves in hopeless love.) lies all the vitality of a young person. Either a crisis that forces them to drop that pose, or an interesting enough project, and they forget they’re unfortunate beings and turn joyfully to the new thing.
I think that’s what annoys most Europeans about us, and why they can’t articulate it. They approve of our unfortunate being intellectual elites, but our vitality shocks them and confuses them. They never had any time for our pulp fiction. Our glorification of colonization and expansion has horrified them since about the time they stopped colonizing and expanding, too. And our tastes are crass and brash, and we find way too much enjoyment in life.
The problem is that Europeans and European tastes rule “real literature.” The bigger problem, too, is that our well-educated elites wanted to be accepted by them. When they took over science fiction, they too were appalled at the brashness, the boldness, the polished tin spaceships, the men who were the best thing among the stars, the simple codes, the frontier values.
They recoiled. Their recoil brought us mannered Science Fiction which “held a mirror” to today’s problems, as their college teachers had told them it should. The college teachers said it was the only reason that people read it and that it was so popular, and the well educated young writers (most of the pulp writers were well educated too, after a fashion, but not in the literary arts) obeyed. Enter the involuted novels, gazing at the present through the navel of a future that could never be unless everyone in it were on prozac. (No, really, seriously. Thought experiment. Drop a Heinlein character into 1984.) Enter the tooth sucking – and please, keep in mind I actually like some of these – novels where we go to the past and try to remake it, a pastime of old age, not of a young, vibrant colonizing civilization. Novels of going out to space and starting colonies were right out, unless there was some feminist moral and all the men died at the end or another approved political just so tale.
Turns out, though, that the college literature professors were wrong. (yes, I know. Who would have believed it?) and that SF sales plummeted right along with the introduction of “relevant” themes. People moved on to fantasy, which was, of course, just colonization novels under a new guise.
Unfortunately fantasy does not point in the right direction. I firmly believe literature is how we dream, and science fiction is how we dream about the future. It points us in a direction; it tells us “this is how we’re going to be when we grow up.”
We lost that. There are other problems, that might or might not be related. We lost our birth rate, which in turn lost the needed “expendable genetic investment.” (No, I’m not being evil. But when you only have one child, or even two you’re more careful of each of them than if you have six.) Some of our elites seem to outright hate mankind.
This might be because Earth Species, such as we are, have only two modes. Expand and die. If you’re not expanding, you’re dying.
Our literature has been dying. Our dreams of have been dying. But there is no way in h*ll I’m going to say we should go quietly into that good night. Nor would most Americans and for that matter a significant minority of Europeans. There’s life here beneath the mock-seriousness and the die away airs.
It’s time we stop being unfortunate beings and learn how to expand again – how to get out there and colonize the stars. And we should start, first, by stopping putting all our thoughts and dreams into how bad we are and how we should die. Stop with rewriting the past (literally or by default.) Stop sucking your teeth. Stop sitting by the fire wrapped in a shawl. You’re barely a teenager, and you’re not sick. Get out there in the universe and discover some new places, invent new things, go forth…
Write awe, courage, risk, endurance, survival, strength. Dream Human Wave.
And choose to live. There is a future out there. And it’s ours.