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September 2004

Sunday Night Journal — September 26, 2004

I Miss the Future

David Mills of Touchstone, writing on that magazine’s blog one day last week, solicited readers’ opinions as to the best science-fiction movie ever made. It required no reflection at all for me to come up with my answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey. There aren’t many sci-fi films that I consider to be worthy of comparison with 2001. Mr. Mills asked his question in the context of discussing a survey in which a number of scientists named Blade Runner as the top science fiction film. I haven’t seen Blade Runner, having been frightened away by its reputation for graphic violence, so I’ll admit the possibility that it may be better than 2001, but I imagine I would still prefer the latter. That’s because it is more than a good movie: it represents a kind of science fiction, and a kind of future, that is now for me an object of nostalgia.

As a boy in the early 1960s I fell deeply under the spell of science fiction for a couple of years. The pictures of exotic worlds and futures painted in the stories I read were almost mystically attractive to me, mainly, I think, because of their strangeness and remoteness. I directed to them what I later recognized as a displaced religious longing. The phase did not last very long, partly because most of the writing was inferior to that in the classics I was also then discovering, and partly because the vision of a future technological wonderland soon came to seem thin and shallow.

But now and then I have spells of nostalgia for those days of wonder, and sometimes in the midst of these I do slightly embarrassing things, such as seeking out and purchasing on eBay some of the very issues of Analog which enchanted me at sixteen. I find, somewhat to my disappointment but not much to my surprise, that most of the writing is even worse than I feared. Stories purveying ideas which seemed at the time very deep now seem naïve at best. Many of them seem, aside from their fanciful settings and gadgetry, almost laughably conventional: genre pieces in the basic pattern of Westerns and war stories, but done up with futuristic trappings which all too often are amusingly bound to the time in which they were written. One story, for instance, in which the special effects work of a movie crew provides a trick that saves the day, refers continually to the manipulation of tape—on a starship. The effect is of an anachronistic future, in which the electronic systems of the imagined distant future sometimes still have vacuum tubes and mechanical relays that were obsolete by 1970 or so.

And yet there is still an appeal in the endless vistas of technological marvels and galactic civilizations, and 2001 captures it better than any movie I know. It was the first movie in which technology could actually provide a convincing visual representation of what science-fictions writers and readers had previously only imagined. (“Star Trek,” for instance, never interested me much, because it was so visually unconvincing, and the stories were simplistic even by the standards of printed sci-fi.)

Thematically, 2001 is, as you know if you’ve seen it, an exercise in evolutionary wishful thinking. It supposes an ascent of human progress by evolution as directed and encouraged by an ancient, wise, and benevolent alien civilization. Stanley Kubrick had the good sense to keep these aliens offstage, so that they remain suitably beyond the ordinary. It’s remarkable how often this basic notion of salvation by godlike aliens recurs in science fiction and apparently among some scientists: the late Carl Sagan seems to have felt its pull quite strongly. It is an idea supported by considerably less empirical evidence (to wit, none) than the Resurrection, yet some intelligent people seem more willing to believe in it than in any traditional religion.

I find it fascinating that this vision of the future suffered a rapid decline even as it attained its greatest expression. I didn’t follow science fiction very closely after the mid-60s, but it’s my impression that by the 1980s dystopia was the prevalent theme. I did read a few of the so-called “cyberpunk” novels of the ‘80s, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and they were certainly grim enough. A number of very popular movies, such as the Terminator and Alien series, which are at least superficially classifiable as science fiction, are set in a nightmarish future. I don’t consider these as being quite in the running for the sci-fi prize, as they are basically horror or action films with sci-fi paraphernalia. The Star Wars series is more in the old-time mode, and I’ve always enjoyed the original trilogy enormously, but it’s pretty lightweight stuff, a comic-book style adventure the excellence of which is in proportion to its lack of seriousness.

Here’s a question for the Christian: which is better: the hope and optimism of 2001, founded on illusions and delusions, or the darkness and violence of Blade Runner? Perhaps Blade Runner is more true to the earthly condition. I suppose I really ought to see it. But for sheer entertainment, and for its capturing of a sense of cosmic mystery, purpose, and grandeur, I much prefer 2001 and its older future.


Sunday Night Journal — September 19, 2004

After the Storm

We missed the worst of Hurricane Ivan, or rather it missed us. The storm did weaken somewhat before it made landfall, but was still a worse-than-average hurricane. We went to bed on Tuesday night having made the decision to flee inland if the storm did not significantly weaken or change direction overnight. It didn’t, and we did, heading eighty miles or so inland to Thomasville, where my brother-in-law and his family live.

I’m always a little surprised at the readiness of family members to come to each other’s aid when it really counts. The way my wife put it to me was that she had called her brother and “told them we might be coming,” as if there were no question that they would be willing to have us—if not to welcome us actively, then at least to accept us in the emergency. In the event we were in fact warmly welcomed although we were extremely inconvenient, being five people, two dogs, and a cat. We drove up on Wednesday morning, taking back roads to avoid the congested interstate, and left a couple of days later, deeply grateful and feeling that we really ought to see them more often.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.

I heard that cynical but true line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” long before I read the poem. The line is spoken by the husband of a farm couple discussing whether they should take in a former hand who “has come home to die,” as the wife says—whether they should be to him as his actual family, in the person of a rich brother, is not. It was much later that I read the warmer and wiser response of the farmer’s wife:

I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

Both together make, to me, as vivid a nutshell summary as any I know of what family really means: a tie deeper than mere affection, a bond of obligation so potent as to outweigh most others. In using the word “home” the wife is making the hired man part of the family, in effect adopting him. Read the poem, if you don’t know it; it is one of Frost’s masterpieces.

We were lucky, or blessed, or both. The storm took a last-minute turn to the east, with the result that instead of being on the fiercer east side of the system our house was in the middle, with the eye passing directly over it. The house suffered minor damage in the form of a hole in the roof which ruined the ceiling and a few expendable furnishings in a bedroom, but it will be easily repaired. Thirty miles or so to the south and the east it was another story; there is devastation on the coast and as much as fifty miles inland. The downed trees must number in the thousands; everywhere you go there are huge piles of debris piled beside the street, containing everything from leaves to eighteen-inch logs. This area will feel the effects for years to come.

The power of these storms is almost inconceivable. There is a half-remembered line from the Bible floating around in my mind, something to the effect that if the Lord did not stay his hand no flesh would live. As the old routine re-forms around the obstacles—power outages, cleanup, and the like—I think of how much we owe, at all times, to mercy.

Sunday Night Journal — September 12, 2004

Sunday Night Comes on a Tuesday Morning This Week

If you looked in at this site anytime between Monday afternoon and 11am or so (Central Daylight Time) Tuesday morning you saw a journal entry dealing with the Dan Rather/CBS/apparently-forged-memos controversy. But now I’m staring down the barrel of a very large gun labeled Hurricane Ivan, and somehow carping at the hapless Mr. Rather isn’t the appropriate note.

Maybe it never is. Samuel Johnson in a famous remark noted that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. Flannery O’Connor in A Good Man is Hard to Find has the psycho killer say to an old woman, just before he shoots her, that she would’ve been a good woman if she’d had somebody ready to shoot her all the time. It’s highly unlikely that I will die in this hurricane, but at the moment it looks entirely possible, if not probable, that my pleasant life will be seriously and lastingly disrupted. It feels a bit like a rehearsal for the end of life, and time to let go of political quarrels, at least for now.

If you’re reading this before it happens, please offer a prayer that the power of this hurricane would be diminished before it makes landfall, as it seems pretty certain to do. At the moment it is of such force that its impact would be devastating, with effects that would last for many years.

I wonder if anyone recognizes the Pogo reference in my title above.

See the August 15 journal entry for some thoughts on hurricanes and Providence.

Sunday Night Journal — September 5, 2004

As One Human Being to Another

When Ronald Reagan died a few months ago I wondered what sort of obituary I might produce on the death of Bill Clinton. The question returned this week when the ex-President entered the hospital for coronary bypass surgery. I was a little surprised at my immediate reaction, which was quite simple and direct: Good luck; best wishes; get well soon. It really was an unforced reaction, and I was glad to see that the intense and bitter partisanship which Clinton provoked in me (as in many) was not so poisonous that I did not, when a question of life and death presented itself, react simply as one human being to another.

It happened on Saturday night that I saw a re-broadcast of a June interview with Mr. Clinton on Larry King Live. Perhaps still a bit under the influence of the sympathy I felt because of his illness, I was struck again by how very gifted this man is. He discussed the war in Iraq with something pretty close to wisdom, and was in general, as is usually the case when his self-interest is not at stake, intelligent and articulate to a rare degree. I found myself for a moment understanding why people fell for him. And I felt an unexpected regret: I think I fully appreciated, for the first time, his potential as a democratic leader, and, simultaneously, his failure to achieve it.

As his admirers are quick to point out, he is still a fairly young man. Does he have something else to contribute? Genuine love of his country is undoubtedly a real component of his complex motivations. Will he spend it in the relatively petty and partisan maneuverings that characterized his presidency, or can he rise above that? Might a brush with death awaken a greater seriousness of purpose within him? In what capacity could he yet serve, since he cannot be president again?

I write this only a few weeks after the Democratic convention, in which Mr. Clinton delivered a speech that was a classic expression of the talents and attitudes we saw most while he was president: a brilliantly planned and charmingly executed piece of demagoguery, in which, in a practiced move, he used the charge of divisiveness to divide. Shall we look forward to this sort of thing for the rest of this political career, or can he find his way to higher ground?

Best wishes, Mr. Clinton. Get well soon.