The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
Isaiah 11:6, New International Version
Science Fiction authors have always dreamed big. Whether in print, TV, or movies, they painted grand visions of the future. As a child, I trusted that their promises could come true. I accepted that the government, corporations, and even private citizens might soon be able to build spacecraft and launch them into space at a moment’s notice. I accepted that, by applying the latest scientific research, and our willpower, that Humans could do anything. Advancements in psychiatry would banish violence. Herbicides and pesticides would banish famine. Computers and robots would perform all the more mundane tasks for us. And of course, the House of Tomorrow would be maintenance-free.
Beyond all that, Humanity would restructure our societies so that no one would ever go hungry. While we might still work, our shortened workdays would be less stressful. Earth would become the paradise foretold by Biblical prophets. To paraphrase Isaiah, peace, equality, and gentleness would reign.
So much of science fiction, from Jules Verne to Gene Roddenberry, is driven by dreams of utopia. Yet Science and Experience seem to have exposed such dreams as frauds. We might have microwaves and smart phones, but flying cars, easily available space flight, stress-free workplaces and maintenance-free homes have been denied us. People still lose their jobs, or fall through cracks in the structure of society, missing out on meals and health care. Instead of fixing our bodies’ defects and living hundreds of years, cancer and disease still cut our lives short.
Yet those earlier dreams seem to be making a comeback. Through the rising popularity of Steampunk, young people are looking back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for inspiration on how to enhance their lives. They read Steampunk novels that envision futures based on the promises of writers a hundred years ago, or seek out the stories crafted by those long-ago writers. They even seek out the works of largely forgotten writers. At first I questioned the enthusiasm and excitement for Steampunk and such old stories. But then I realized that most Science Fiction writers working today, whether in print, TV, or in the movies, are envisioning dystopian futures. Instead of painting fictional worlds filled with hope and enlightenment, they are extrapolating from present technological and social trends and warning us that we face imminent enslavement, the disillusion of our societies, even the destruction of the planet. Those are not the dreams I grew up with!
So perhaps the young people, who are returning to these older works, and outdated visions of the future, are really onto something. Perhaps, in our progress through the twentieth century, we have missed a vital turning point along the way. Perhaps if we backtrack to those grander dreams, if we spend more time studying the great thinkers and dreamers of that time, we may find where we went wrong. Maybe we can still fashion a society more in keeping with our once-great goals. I, for one, hope that the current generation, which seems so in love with Steampunk, can channel that ideology and lifestyle into remaking our world into one where wars are abolished, no one goes hungry, and every individual is treated with equal respect and dignity. Where we don’t spend our days stressed out over making money, and trampling over other people in the process. Where we address the issues in climatology, space flight, and genetics that are holding us back from achieving our grand visions of the future.
History teaches us that Humans are incapable of creating a utopia, so perhaps it’s naïve for me to cling to such dreams. Still, I want to believe that the current Steampunk movement, and the renewed interest in the literature of a century or more ago, is about more than dressing up and making things that look cool. I want to believe that it represents something more.
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