When I was young I used to be – and I suppose I still am – a huge fan of Thunderbirds. One of the reasons I loved it – and still do – was the designs of the various vehicles. The individual Thunderbirds were absolute gems of design, of course, utterly iconic, but the `guest star’ vehicles were brilliantly done as well. I’m thinking here chiefly of the Fireflash, the supersonic airliner, which is what all transcontinental jets ought to look like, and the Mole. The Mole always looked a bit battered and rusty, as if someone had taken it on a number of previous perilous missions, and I liked that attention to detail. The blast shield that popped up behind Thunderbird Two had scorch-marks on it. I was lost in this stuff, I thought Gerry Anderson was God. When I was a little older and I worked out what the credits meant, I thought Derek Meddings, who did the design, was God too.
I suppose my parents must have noticed this, because for one of my birthdays they bought me a Century Twenty-One annual. Century Twenty-One was Gerry Anderson’s production company, which made Thunderbirds and UFO and the very dark Captain Scarlet. Anyway. The Century Twenty-One annual. I presume it was produced, or at least licenced, by the production company, but I have no idea who was involved in producing it. If I remember correctly, there were comic-strip Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet stories – although I was also given Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet annuals around this time, and I may be mixing them all together. But what caught my attention was the essays.
There were essays about the colonisation of Mars, about Lunar exploration – all of which would be commonplace by Century Twenty-One – and it probably isn’t pushing it too far to say that this book was one of the things – along with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the discovery of Isaac Asimov’s fiction – which made me want to write science fiction in the first place. There was one essay – and this was a book for kids, don’t forget – which detailed the future reclamation of the Sahara, with beautifully-rendered drawings of Derek Meddings-style vehicles planting crops. Pure sensawunda. The Twenty-First Century, it said, was a place of endeavour and marvels and really neat vehicles.
Which brings me to the point of this ramble. I have looked around me, here almost halfway into the second decade of Century Twenty-One, and I am disappointed. Yes, there is sensawunda, and much of it will bend your mind. I have heard the sound of the wind on Titan, and seen a photograph of sunrise on Mars. I have stared for hours at the Hubble images of the Eagle Nebula, and dreamed of putting a house just…there. I have a telephone that I can carry in my pocket and take anywhere, and which also take photographs and plays music. I’m typing this on a device that I can go down to Curry’s and buy for three hundred quid, but which was barely-imaginable, outside fiction, when I was given that Century Twenty-One annual back in 1970 or so. And when I’ve finished, I’ll hit a button and this unfocused bumbling will become available on a worldwide network that nobody – as far as I’m aware, and I’m sure someone will correct me – had thought of when I was 10 or 11. Oh yes, there is sensawunda galore.
But look about you. Doesn’t the Twenty-First Century look exactly like the Twentieth Century? Just a bit more tired and battered and with cool technology? We haven’t colonised Mars – and I have doubts we ever will, in any meaningful sense. That old annual detailed strategies to reclaim the Sahara which I used to think might work, although I can’t clearly remember any of them now. To my knowledge, nobody’s really tried.
I keep seeing a rather plaintive cry on various social media. The words vary, but the sentiment could best be summed up as, ‘Where is my flying car?’ The gist being that Science – and science fiction, I suppose – promised us great things – flying cars, personal jet packs, etc and so on – and none of these things has actually turned up. What we’ve got instead is Xbox and satellite television and Google Glass and smartphones and iPods – stuff we didn’t actually expect. We were promised utopia, and we got white goods.
I think the main falling-down of all these utopian predictions about the future is that they predicate a change in human nature, that in years to come we will all cooperate in great acts of global philanthropy. I suppose Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek would be a more recent example. I also think that’s their main strength. We like to think that we can transcend our natures. Reality is harsher. We can’t transcend our natures. We’re a divisive, tribal species, always looking for the thing that will give us and our `people’ the edge over others. We’re incapable of cooperating unless we see something in it for ourselves. Philanthropy, as a species, is not in our nature. It’s not an evolutionary advantage – in order to survive, we have to fight our own corner.
I think – and this is only a personal view – that this is why I still like reading Arthur C Clarke. Clarke, it seems to me, thought the best of us. He thought we would transcend and do great things, and matter, if in a small way, in the greater scheme. There’s a scene towards the end of A Fall Of Moondust where, the lost tourists rescued, the pilot of Selene calls his lost craft a `good old bus,’ and I think that recalls the moment towards the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where John Mills and Sylvia Syms and Harry Andrews and Anthony Quayle finally make it to Alexandria in their battered old ambulance, and pat the bonnet as they step down. They have transcended the War, the Desert, and their Natures, and they go into the bar, where Paul Stassino pours them all an ice-cold Heineken. And then they conspire to cover up Quayle’s identity as a German spy, because their experiences in the desert have taught them that human life, human endeavour, transcends ideology, that there is something bigger than the War. Quayle makes the only clunky speech of the film, something about the desert being the greater enemy. But what it’s about is people working together, going into the future together.
Okay, this is simplistic. And okay, it’s almost certainly coloured by what’s happening in my life at the moment. But, for me, the Twenty-First Century, that shining land we looked to back in the 1970s, is a bust so far. We’re no better now than we were then, and until we figure out a way to bury our differences and recognise that the desert really is the greater enemy, this century, for all its wonders, is going to look, to historians a hundred years from now, almost indistinguishable from the last one.