October 27, 2004

Halcyon Futures

I had always generally considered retro sci-fi utopias as rather charming, earnest, genuinely communal ascents of our more childlike hopes for the future (well they certainly seemed that way compared to the puritanical purges of the Jehova's Witness 'New System' utopia I had been brought up to believe in my real childhood), but a visit to the recent 'Sweatshop' debate at the Serpentine Gallery on 'science fiction, retro-futures and second-hand utopias' attended by Kodwo Eshun and John Timberlake, among others, yielded a rather darker side of the picture to say the least.

One of the few strands of thought that linked a rather fragmentary debate was also the coldest and most cynical. Picking up from notions of utopia as a fear of inability to project a desire and utopia as paraniod exclusion of everything outside its foundation desire, ie nazism as utopia, the discussion on retro-utopias continued to combine elements of both these strands to build a pretty damning case.

The starting point of the debate was current exhibiting artist Glenn Brown, especialy his re-interpritations of epic sci-fi airbrush illustrator Chris Foss's sublime visions of intergalactic cities and spacestations. Foss's rise to eminence was in some ways not only an indication of a nostalgic yearning within the traditional popular sceince fiction imagination, as a new wave of writers and thinkers came to the fore, but of much greater anxieties.

As the realisation that the moon landing was a plateau not a starting point was taking the sheen off NASA's realword vison of space exploration, and the popularity of 2001 and Solaris highlighted anxieties entering the public consiousness, young upcoming illustrator Foss got his first big break with a series of covers for reissued 1940's and 50 pulp sci-fi by the likes of EE Doc Smith (writing that was sneered at by the new wave of writers).
This combination of Foss's huge gleaming victorian steamtrain like spacecraft covers and male white middleclass technocrat fantasies, yearned back to an imagined future untainted by contradictions, femenism, black power (which Kodwo poined out was a utopia itself) and the agony of the Vietnam war, and was hugely popular at the time, resulting in huge sales.

Perhaps most surprising is that this retrogressive escapist tendancy within sci-fi can be traced back through the earlist and most seminal works, Kodwo singling out the, already outdated at the time of writing, notion of the smoking-jacketed scientist showcasing his discoveries to the mayor and other assembled local bigwigs in his study from H.G.Wells 'Timemachine' for special attention.
At this rate I can imagine a certain popular tv drama being based on a turn of the century sci-fi utopia where crime in small towns has been reduced to single incidents of Rhubarb theft due to a new generation of streamlined motorvehicles that allow the police to respond to incidents in a 'heartbeat', yeuch!!!

Posted by Karl Kraft at October 27, 2004 08:42 PM | TrackBack