Not because they are easy but because they are hard

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“[The] question that should be haunting science fiction is: why did Ballard get it right, while all of the other science fiction writers were getting it wrong? Why did their apparently logical and well-grounded predictions about ongoing advances further and further into space prove to be so flawed? The standard answer of unrepentant space enthusiasts, as I described it in my Locus Online commentary “Tunnel Vision and the Unfarmed Sky,” is that we “have all been betrayed by a short-sighted public, gutless politicians, inept bureaucrats, and—pace Jerry Pournelle—effete academics” whose obdurate myopia and selfishness prevented humans from easily conquering the universe in the manner envisioned by science fiction; but can anybody really continue to believe that it is all a matter of incompetence and villainy after forty years of a stagnant space program? My answer in that essay, and in an earlier 2003 essay about the Columbia disaster which provoked a bit of controversy, is that humanity to date does not have the technology or the resources to master the unexpectedly difficult and expensive task of conquering space, leading to unwise initiatives like the space shuttle program implicitly inspired by the overly optimistic visions of science fiction. Another answer, which I hope to develop in a forthcoming book about space films, is that the observed realities of space travel—astronauts lumbering about in spacesuits through the unprecedentedly lethal vacuum of outer space or upon equally forbidding planetary surfaces—are simply not appealing to most people, diminishing their inclination to support actual space programs and heightening their interest in the far more conventional, and far more attractive, fantasies of unproblematic space travel without any need for spacesuits, as epitomized by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. But here, I wish to explore J. G. Ballard’s own, quite different, answers to this question.

“The implication was that the entire space programme was a symptom of some inner unconscious malaise afflicting mankind, and in particular the Western technocracies, and that the spacecraft and satellites had been launched because their flights satisfied certain buried compulsions and desires.”

The least remarkable answer for the imagined collapse of the space program found in Memories of the Space Age would fall into the category of suspect motives, as first discussed in “A Question of Re-Entry” (1963), which involves a NASA official named Connolly, searching for a downed astronaut in the Amazon jungle, who seeks the assistance of an embittered Westerner living there named Ryker. At one point, Ryker abruptly asks him, “Why did they really send a man to the moon?” When he is met with Connolly’s cautious reply, “Well, I suppose you could say it was the natural spirit of exploration,” “Ryker snorted derisively” and exclaims, “Do you seriously believe that, Lieutenant? The spirit of exploration? My God! What a fantastic idea.” Later, contemplating Ryker’s remarks, Connolly muses, “The implication was that the entire space programme was a symptom of some inner unconscious malaise afflicting mankind, and in particular the Western technocracies, and that the spacecraft and satellites had been launched because their flights satisfied certain buried compulsions and desires.” Ballard says nothing else about this issue, and readers of the time probably imagined he was referring to the obvious fact that the Americans and Russians were venturing into space more as a matter of national pride than because of any genuine interest in exploring unknown realms; thus, once America “won” the space race by landing on the Moon, satisfying this urge to glorify itself, the nation had no further incentive to pursue ambitious space initiatives. However, when he returned in later stories to the questions of why humans had ventured into space, Ballard’s additional explanations of the “unconscious malaise” and “buried compulsions and desires” that had driven people away from Earth, as will be discussed, would prove to be more original, and more provocative…”

The Man Who Didn’t Need to Walk on the Moon: J. G. Ballard and “The Vanished Age of Space” by Gary Westfahl, Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Image: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I, 1964. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 213.4 x 152.4 cm.

Envisioning Banality

“There is no real and no imaginary except at a certain distance. What happens when this distance, even the one separating the real from the imaginary, begins to disappear and to be absorbed by the model alone? Currently, from one order of simulacra to the next, we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance, of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection…”

“Reality was able to surpass fiction, the surest sign that the imaginary has possibly been outpaced. But the real could never surpass the model, for the real is only a pretext of the model. The imaginary was a pretext of the real in a world dominated by the reality principle. Today, it is the real which has become the pretext of the model in a world governed by the principle of simulation. And, paradoxically, it is the real which has become our true utopia-but a utopia that is no longer a possibility, a utopia we can do no more than dream about, like a lost object. Perhaps the SF of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality will only be able to attempt to “artificially” resurrect the “historical” worlds of the past, trying to reconstruct in vitro and down to its tiniest details the various episodes of bygone days: events, persons, defunct ideologies-all now empty of meaning and of their original essence, but hypnotic with retrospective truth. Like the Civil War in Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra; like a gigantic hologram in three dimensions, where fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past. We can no longer imagine other universes; and the gift of transcendence has been taken from us as well.

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“Classic SF was one of expanding universes: it found its calling in narratives of space exploration, coupled with more terrestrial forms of exploration and colonization indigenous to the 19th and 20th centuries. There is no cause-effect relationship to be seen here. Not simply because, today, terrestrial space has been virtually completely en- coded, mapped, inventoried, saturated; has in some sense been shrunk by globalization; has become a collective marketplace not only for products but also for values, signs, and models, thereby leaving no room any more for the imaginary. It is not exactly because of all this that the exploratory universe (technical, mental, cosmic) of SF has also stopped functioning. But the two phenomena are closely linked, and they are two aspects of the same general evolutionary process: a period of implosion, after centuries of explosion and expansion. When a system reaches its limits, its own saturation point, a reversal begins to takes place. And something happens also to the imagination…”

“From this point on, something must change: the projection, the extrapolation, this sort of pantographic exuberance which made up the charm of SF are now no longer possible. It is no longer possible to manufacture the unreal from the real, to create the imaginary from the data of reality. The process will be rather the reverse: to put in place “decen- tered” situations, models of simulation, and then to strive to give them the colors of the real, the banal, the lived; to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because the real has disappeared from our lives. A hallucination of the real, of the lived, of the everyday-but reconstituted, sometimes even unto its most disconcertingly unusual details, recreated like an animal park or a botanical garden, presented with transparent precision, but totally lacking substance, having been derealized and hyperrealized…”

Jean Baudrillard and Arthur B. Evans. “Simulacra and Science Fiction (Simulacres et science-fiction)”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, Science Fiction and Postmodernism (Nov., 1991), pp. 309-313

First and last men

“On waking one morning, B was surprised to see that Shepperton was deserted. He entered the kitchen at nine o’clock, annoyed to find that neither his post nor the daily newspapers had been delivered, and that a power failure prevented him from preparing his breakfast. He spent an hour staring at the melting ice that dripped from his refrigerator, and then went next door to complain to his neighbor.

“Surprisingly, his neighbor’s house was empty. His car stood in the drive, but the entire family—husband, wife, children, and dog—had disappeared. Even more odd, the street was filled by an unbroken silence. No traffic moved along the nearby motorway, and not a single aircraft flew overhead toward London Airport. B crossed the road and knocked on several doors. Through the windows, he could see the empty interiors. Nothing in this peaceful suburb was out of place, except for its missing tenants.

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“Thinking that perhaps some terrible calamity was imminent—a nuclear catastrophe, or a sudden epidemic after a research-laboratory accident—and that by some unfortunate mishap he alone had not been warned, B returned home and switched on his transistor radio. The apparatus worked, but all the stations were silent, the Continental transmitters as well as those of the United Kingdom. Disconcerted, B returned to the street and gazed at the empty sky. It was a calm, sun-filled day, crossed by peaceful clouds that gave no hint of any natural disaster.

“B took his car and drove to the center of Shepperton. The town was deserted, and none of the shops were open. A train stood in the station, empty and without any of the passengers who regularly travelled to London. Leaving Shepperton, B crossed the Thames to the nearby town of Walton. There again he found the streets completely silent. He stopped in front of the house owned by his friend P, whose car was parked in her drive. Using the spare key that he carried, he unlocked the front door and entered the house. But even as he called her name he could see that there was no trace of the young woman. She had not slept in her bed. In the kitchen, the melting ice of the refrigerator had formed a large pool on the floor. There was no electric power, and the telephone was dead…”

The Autobiography of J.G.B, The New Yorker. Read more

Brothers of The Head

“Brothers of the Head is the 2005 mockumentary featuring the story of Tom and Barry Howe (Luke Treadaway and Harry Treadaway), conjoined twins living in the United Kingdom. The brothers form a punk rock band calling themselves the Bang Bang. As the band’s success grows a music journalist, Laura (Tania Emery), follows the band writing an article. A romantic relationship develops between Laura and Tom causing friction between the two brothers.” – Wikipedia.