Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this essay misidentified certain plot elements of "A Princess of Mars" and of the Buck Rogers story.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

By Annalee Newitz
Sunday, January 4, 2009

When the present promises only economic hardship and political upheaval, what does the future look like?

In 2009, it looks like a world of gleaming spaceships filled with enlightened people who have emerged with their humanity intact after a terrible war. They have entered the 23rd century, shed racism, no longer use money, possess seemingly magical technologies and are devoted to peaceful exploration. I refer of course to "Star Trek" and its powerful story of a better tomorrow, which has been mesmerizing audiences for almost half a century and returns to movie theaters this coming May with an eagerly anticipated 11th full-length feature.

But wait. The future also looks like this: a dark, violent world where a horrific war between humans and cyborgs leads to the near-extermination of humanity. This vision, in the latest "Terminator" movie, is also arriving at your nearest mutiplex in May.

We imagine the future in places other than the movie theater, of course. Still, these two familiar franchises underscore the conflicting stories we tell ourselves in uncertain times about what lies ahead: Either we're bound for a techno-utopia of adventure, or a grim, Orwellian dystopia where humanity is on the brink of implosion.

We've seen this dichotomy before. Nearly a century ago, Europe was headed toward war on an unprecedented scale. Traditional alliances evaporated, shocking new weapons ripped apart bodies and countries, and a generation of artists such as Picasso responded with paintings that showed reality reduced to unsettling, jagged abstraction.

Meanwhile, a pulp writer from Chicago named Edgar Rice Burroughs was concocting stories about a soldier who wakes up one morning in a miraculous, futuristic world full of lost cities, advanced technologies and giant green men.

"A Princess of Mars," serialized in 1912, was the first in a long line of swashbuckling adventure tales Burroughs wrote about his hero, John Carter, sword-fighting and ray-gunning his way across Barsoom -- the natives' name for Mars. Carter and his new Barsoomian companions fought wars like the one the United States itself would soon be fighting. But they were winnable wars, against comprehensible, easy-to-vanquish alien enemies.

Burroughs, who also went on to publish the Tarzan novels, supplied escapist fantasies of the future to a public weary of the grim, terrifying present. It's clear that hard times make audiences yearn for fantastical tales of a better tomorrow. During the paranoid heights of the Cold War, they thronged movie theaters to see Leslie Nielsen conquer the alien technology of "Forbidden Planet." But in between the escapist fantasies of tomorrow, audiences also tuned in to grim tales of techno-fascist futures such as "Brave New World" and "1984."

The best example of our polarized dreams of tomorrow came during the Great Depression. During this period, Americans couldn't get enough of Buck Rogers, a 20th-century soldier who falls into a coma and miraculously awakes in the 25th century. The story of his adventures, originally published as two novellas, became a long-running radio and movie serial and a newspaper comic strip that ran through most of the 1930s.

Like John Carter on Barsoom, Buck and his comrades are fighting a war -- in this case, against the Han. But war isn't hell; it's a backdrop for awesome adventures and astonishing inventions. Later, the Flash Gordon comics and radio show competed with Buck Rogers for audiences craving escapism. Flash found himself on the Barsoom-esque planet Mongo, swashbuckling his way through weird places filled with strange natives and sexy queens.

But while Buck and Flash crossed swords on the radio, a very different idea of the future was being prophesied by British writer Aldous Huxley, who published "Brave New World" in 1932. The novel takes place in a 26th century where strife has been eliminated by means of state-controlled eugenics, mental conditioning, drugs and various technological niceties. Like a Buck Rogers in reverse, our hero Bernard finds himself alienated from the urban world of perfect plenty and promiscuity and repulsed by the "savage reservations" where unmodified humans live. In "Brave New World," Buck's shiny future is revealed as an insidious, high-tech fascism.

The basic question raised by Buck Rogers and "Brave New World" is whether humans would be more prosperous in the far future than in the 1930s. The answer? Humans in both tales live in worlds of seemingly unlimited wealth. Whether that represents an improvement is a matter of debate.


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