It appears strange that in an era in which technological, institutional, sociological and every other kind of change takes place at such lightning speeds, we're so short on hypothetical tomorrows. Whatever else it may be, the future is on an accelerated production schedule, and you'd think we'd like to ponder what we're in for.
Pondering what we're in for has been a preoccupation of poets and artists through the ages, and the arts have been at pains to show us not only where we've been but where we're headed.
To be sure, we have escapist space adventures and our pulp meloduamas in futuristic guise -- "Battlestar Galactica" and "Mork and Mindy" on our TV screens, for instance. But more philosophical crystal-gazing isn't much in evidence.
The Utopian tradition, however, is a venerable one, and it's hard to believe that this is more than a temporary lull.
Fictional panaceas for the world's ills are of ancient provenance. Perhaps the earliest is Plato's "Republic," which saw the key to ideal society in the enlightened rulership of philoso-pher-kings. Thomas More's "Utopis" of 1516, depicting a classless, communal civilization resting upon Christian moral principles, became the namesake of an extensive literary and artistic genre. In the next century, in the light of new rationalistic and empirical advances, a Francis Bacon held up science as the cornerstone of right living in "The New Atlantis."
No less vital has been the tradition of anti-utopias -- a future extrapolated from present sins as a warning to humanity to mend its ways. In this category fall not only Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," Butler's "Erewhon" and Bellamy's "Looking Backward," but also the two major literary caveats of our own century -- Huxley's " 984."
Authors from H.G. Wells on have also used conventional science-fiction trappings as the scaffolding for utopian diatribes or prescriptions. One of the better known modern instances is Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy, which predicates direct mind-to-mind communication (on a plausibly outlined scientific basis, not mere ESP) as the destiny and possible salvation of the species.
Speculative fantasy in 20th century theater goes back at least as far as the almost forgotten Italian Futurists of the earliest decades of the era, whose drama anticipated many of the "radical" techniques of the contemporary stage. Enrico Prampolini, for example, championed the theater as "a center of spiritual abstraction for the new religion of the future," and sought to replace human actors with undulating luminous vapors.
In the modern theater, though, as in the modern world generally, not soothsaying but doomsaying has been the precalent mode of prognostication. This is borne out from Karel Capek's "R. U. R.," whose dehumanized automatons gave us our word "robots," to Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," in which men are all metamorphosing into ravenous beasts, to the plays of Samuel Beckett, which, while not explicitly prophetic, intimate a bleak, frigid future.
Parallel cases in the realim of musical composition are rare. Wagner's "Ring" cycle is a Utopian vision of sorts, though there's more murk than matter in its pretentious metaphysical underpinnings; G. B. Shaw, who saw in it what he wanted to see, took it to be a socialist allegory. Richard Strauss' Nietzschean tone-poem, "Also Spake Zarathustra," also qualifies; film director Stanley Kubrick put it to shrewd use in the opening measures of the score for his futurist epic, "2001; A Space Obyssey."
Beyond these vintage cases, the only musical example that comes readily to mind is Karl Birger-Blomdahl's 20-year-old "space opera," "Aniara," a more or less upbeat fantasy about a mass voyage to Mars, with sociological reverberations.
Neither has classical ballet, for a variety of reasons, been overrun with utopian disquisition. Still, George Balanchine's recent "Kammermusik," abstract though it be, has portentous overtones, and Lincoln Kirstein has likened its quirky, electric footwork to a computer. Earlier Balanchine works, too, like "Electronics" and "Metastaseis and Pithoprakta," while not specific formulations of a future world, seemed to project a contemporary sensibility beyond their own time frame.
Modern dance has been far more hospitable to utopian or anti-utopian subject matter, particularly in the formative '30s, when a pervasive consciousness of social mission led to such ambitious projects as Doris Humphrey's "New Kance," which attempted to depict "the growth of the individual in relation to his fellows in an ideal state," and Hanya Holm's "Trend," which similarly strove toward nothing less than a critique of Western civilization and a vision of future renewal. More recently, the violent discordancies of Cunningham's "Winterbranch" suggested the malevolent consequences of mindless strife, and the work of Alwin Nikolais, whose technological wizardry has always given his dances a futurist veneer, assumed conspicuously apocalyptic significance in pieces like "Tower" and "Tent."
The movies, of course -- the medium par excellence for unbridled fantasy -- have been simulating moon trips and outlandish futures from the days of Georges Melies onward. Firmly within the Utopian tradition, Fritz Land gave us "Metropolis" in the silent era, and William Cameron Menzies "Things to Come" in the earlier sound priod.
The S.F. genre brought us such classics as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which a stern but essentially benevolent visitor from another planet arrives to strong-arm Earth into getting its act together. That was 1951. Compare it to today's box-office blockbuster, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," whth its gerbil-like "aliens" of sweetness and light, and you see how spineless we've become about facing our real prospects. As for "Star Wars," there's no question here of the future at all -- it's merely our movie past, masquerading in spacesuits and robotic circuitry."
Tocay's "Invasion of the Boby Snatchers" is just a recycling of Don Siegel's inspired original of 1956 with the same title, squarely within the antiutopian lineage. A curious case is Francois Truffaut's "Fahreheit 451": a filmmaker who dotes on the past makes one futurist fantasy (1966) and it turns out to be a paean to book-learning. More germane to the century's prevailing moods and concerns were Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville," which took up the thread of "R.U.R." by pitting love against technological totalitarianism, and the vrilliant "Weekend," which forecasts universal rapacity and cannibalism as the logical end of our contemporary (1967) transgressions.
Another filmmaker of strongly prophetic tendencies is Kubrick. Most recently, in "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) he gave us a juture that offered a choice between soulless conformity and amoral, crazed viciousness. But the far more ambivalent. Perhaps one reason -- beside its technical virtuosity -- why this film has struck such a broad response is the feeling it embodies that the revolutionary changes of our time are different not just in degree but in kind from the past: that the computer and the spaceship will alter life shead in profound and mysterious ways, and that if mankind's conflicting destructive and creative impulses can find some sane resolution, the outcome could be human rebirth on a cosmic scale.
Shcy speculations relate Kubrick's "space obyssey" to what has bee, perhaps, the grandest and most complex envisionment of human destiny over the past 10 years -- Robert Wilson's mystical theater piece, "Einstein on the Beach," comvining drama, music (by Philip Glass), dance (by Any de Groat and others), and extraordinary scenic design (by Wilson). It was Wilson's genius to divine in Einstein's life and work the perfect symbol of both the peril and the promise of our future -- the nuclear destructiveness his theories empowered, and the power plays and corruption this engendered, on the one hand; and on the other, the unlimited mastery of time, space and energy those same theories being within seeming reach.
In the last decade, there's been only one such utopian favrication. But on second thought, maybe thaths all we can ask, in a world bounded by Hiroshima on one side, and Vanguard space probes on the other.