Thursday 22 March 2018

Tomorrow isn't about yesterday

For a genre that’s dedicated to the future, Science Fiction spends an awful lot of time looking in the
Published in 2011,
Ernest Cline's debut
novel isn't very good.
(Image via Goodreads)

You can see this trend in Hollywood’s endless remakes and reboots of popular franchises. You can see it in the continuance of the Retro Hugos and from those who evangelize the works of long-dead authors. We are bombarded by it via pastiche re-writes and homages.

Fandom’s focus on the past isn’t always a bad thing – today’s works exist in dialogue with those published in the past, and certainly there’s enduring value in some of the classics. And yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

However, there is a subtle – but significant – difference between genuine appreciation for works from those who wrote before us and an ugly, toxic nostalgia that displaces the creation and appreciation of new works.

Red Elf needs an editor badly.
(Image via VintageArcade)
Which brings us to Ready Player One, a book that has become emblematic of the notion that the works of the past are somehow superior to those of the present or perhaps even the future.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel tells the story of an online gamer in a dystopian future on a quest to solve the greatest online puzzle of all-time. In the world of the book, a 1980s-obsessed trillionaire has left an incalculable fortune to whoever completes a pop-culture challenge. Against this backdrop, the protagonist finds love and success amidst a cavalcade of references to Star Wars, Goonies, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Gremlins, Thundercats, Ghostbusters, Dungeons and Dragons, Jem & The Holograms, Snorks, and the like.

Personally, I found the book loathsome and will be forever grateful that Hugo voters did not include it on the ballot in 2012, despite the massive hype it received when published.

'member The Powers of Matthew Star?
I 'member.
(Image via
With the movie version of Ready Player One hitting cinemas next Friday, I’d like to explore the book’s most pernicious ideas: that everything great has already been done, that the works of the past are all better than anything new, and that everything has been downhill since some imagined golden age.

Ernest Cline spells this argument out fairly definitively in Ready Player One, as the protagonist yearns for his own imagined golden age wistfully explaining that ‘Everything good came out in the 1980s,’ and ‘Things used to be awesome, but now they're kinda terrifying.’

 As has been previously argued in this blog, all science fiction is political. And likewise, this argument that everything good has already been done is a political one, and it is a corrosive one at that. If everything good has been done, why bother creating anything new?

For people in the 2040s to be obsessed
with Family Ties would be like someone
in 2018 being obsessed with 
The Morey Amsterdam Show.
(Image via Youtube)
When people believe that everything from the past is better than anything in the present, it can lead to
apathy. When they believe that there are no new ideas worth exploring, it can kill the desire to create and contribute culturally. When they start believing that a golden age has been taken from them, they can start looking for a scapegoat.

The British statesman Aneurin Bevan aptly described fascism as the sound of the future refusing to be born, because axis leaders called upon their nations to remember a mythical past and to fight against progress.

I would suggest that there is a direct link between lapsarianism in our appreciation of literature, and this yearning for a version of the past that never really existed.

I would not suggest that Ernest Cline shares any ideology with fascists, rather that his work draws upon a similar intellectual tradition. It is to his credit that he has taken these political ideas in the direction of apathy, rather than regressive political action.

Funny thing about the movie ... I don't
remember Tracer from Overwatch
being popular back in the 1980s.
(Image via Kotaku)
It is interesting to note that the movie adaptation, while trying to offer the same primary thesis, actually negates it. By updating a number of the pop cultural references, the adaptation implicitly admits that everything progresses – even nostalgia.

The fact that nostalgia is itself a moving target also means that works whose appeal is based solely on a cavalcade of pop cultural references are unlikely to have enduring value. Imagine trying to decipher Ready Player One without being steeped in the cultural moment that produced it.

It’s long been said that the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, this being a common age at which many people discover the genre. But I’d like to make the suggestion that the golden age of science fiction should always be the future golden age that we imagine, and aspire to build.

It's fine to look into the rearview, as long as we keep an eye on the road ahead.


  1. The movie seems set to selectively ignore some aspects of the book. io9 had an interesting article today with quotes from Zac Penn (co-writer):

    1. The article establishes that Penn/Spielberg haven't run with the "Culture died" angle (hence Tracer, Master Chief, Harley Quinn).