Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness - Waiting For A Miracle – Near Future SF Of The 1950s-1970s

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December 17th, 2012


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01:05 am - Waiting For A Miracle – Near Future SF Of The 1950s-1970s
I recently read John Brunner's 1963 novella "Listen! The Stars!" (expanded to the short novel The Stardroppers in 1972, and realized something about SF of that era. From WWII to the dawn of cyberpunk, there were several large subgenres of SF – one of the big ones was space opera – vast sprawling star empires and republics with faster than light travel, anti-gravity, and often huge space battles. Also, when you looked at the backstory of most of them, there was a global nuclear war that had destroyed most of Earth. You get in in authors ranging from H. Beam Piper and Andre Norton, to Isaac Asimov and Poul Anderson. Most of these novels were quite optimistic compared to much modern SF, but first Earth's population had to largely blow itself to pieces and then people learned at least a modicum of sense. There were exceptions – I don't remember any nuclear wars in James Blish's more space operaish works, but there weren't all that many exceptions.

The situation becomes even more interesting when you look at near future SF of that era. Most of it was also pretty darn optimistic. You get a spate of eco-doom novels & stories from the mid 60s to the late 70s, but there was also a bunch of fiction that wasn't quite to big on gloom, cannibalism, and toxin breathing mutants.

However, almost all of the optimistic novels shared one common feature – a miracle. This miracle can take many forms – a few years ago I wrote about one such form - magic peace drugs, like those found in Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar or Fritz Leiber's The Green Millennium. However, that's not the only option. Poul Anderson has force shields created by humans working with Martians in Shield, Brunner has alien broadcasts that teach vast psychic powers in "Listen! The Stars!" and drastic intelligent enhancement in The Stone That Never Came Down, Clifford Simak uses everything from alien flowers in All Flesh is Grass, to a psychic peace projector in Way Station.

In all cases, the basic situation is the same, humanity is either likely or certain to destroy itself (or at least remain locked in a seemingly endless cycle of wars) until the aliens arrive or people discover some wonderful natural or alien macguffin that in some way eliminates the threat of nuclear war. Suddenly, all those optimistic stories looked a bit different to me. I remembered how likely many people though nuclear war actually was, and that these are basically stories where the only happy ending humanity could find to the Cold War and the post-nuclear world was some sort of miracle that would save us from ourselves.

It's a bit odd reading these novels now – we made it, not only wasn't there a nuclear war, but overall war has been headed out of fashion ever since WWII. It's fascinating reading all of those novels about how people were saved by alien intervention or a chance discovery, as I sit here in a world where people simply made the choice simply not to have a civilization-ending war. As a quote about nuclear war from a movie of the later days of the Cold War goes - "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?" and all on our own, we didn't play.

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Comments:


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From:xuenay
Date:December 17th, 2012 11:21 am (UTC)
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Thanks, this post made me smile.
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From:james_nicoll
Date:December 17th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
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In all cases, the basic situation is the same, humanity is either likely or certain to destroy itself (or at least remain locked in a seemingly endless cycle of wars) until the aliens arrive [...]

Poul Anderson's After Doomsday is interesting in this context: the aliens arrive but while Earth is balkanized, so are the aliens and no one group of them dominates the Earth just yet (although it's only been a generation or so since First Contact and I bet European-Indian relations did not look that one-sided in 1520).

As it turns out, we dodge WWIII in exchange for a world-sterilizing event. Happily, there are survivors: the US, for example, had a ship on a long range mission that returns after the Event. Less fortunately the US only allowed men on such a dangerous mission.
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From:mlerules
Date:December 17th, 2012 06:01 pm (UTC)
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people simply made the choice simply not to have a civilization-ending war

Hmm, I'm not convinced this is so. The so-called "War on Drugs" and more recently the "War on Terror" keeps much of the US pretty firmly in fear-land, by-and-large patiently waiting around as TSA and "Homeland Security" strip us of many of the rights (and expectations of privacy, &c.) which are, TMM, what keeps us a "civilized" society. Meanwhile, outside our borders, Middle-East tensions may well spill out and affect way more than the folks out yonder. Mind you, I DO hope an "historic settlement" happens soon in Syria (although this is but one of the hot-spots out yonder).
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From:heron61
Date:December 17th, 2012 09:16 pm (UTC)
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I agree that it's certainly possible that one nation might decide to drop a nuke on another - India and Pakistan are obvious choices, and if we get really unlucky sometime in the next decade or so, I could see a crazy-run US dropping a nuke on Iran, but I don't see any reasonable chance of anything like the predicted Cold War apocalypse of two or more nations dropping hundreds or even dozens of nukes on each other.
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From:tcpip
Date:December 18th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC)
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Of course, in John Brunner's Shockwave Rider the protagonist makes the big breakthrough. But the ultimate questions are left to us.


#1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.

#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.

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