Wednesday, 19 January 2011

"During one of our frequent impasses, we discussed the possibility of the Soviet Union collapsing and the West sending in robot tanks and androids to save what could be saved. . . After a day or two we retreated from the idea. But let us suppose we had thought events through, and had been able exactly to replicate the true events of 1989, only seven years in the future. . . And if we had put all this on the screen in 1982? No one would have believed it. Even SF is the art of the plausible."
- Brian Aldiss, 'Foreword: Attempting to Please,' on collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on Supertoys Last All Summer Long / AI
If it is true that, today, 'it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,' as the first chapter title in Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism would have it, it may be propitious to recall that, less than a decade before it did in fact end, much the same might have been said of communism.

Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, science fiction was willing to imagine all manner of extraordinary futures. Rare though was the author willing to forecast the fall of the iron curtain without some extraordinary catastrophe or intergalactic intervention to effectuate it. Rare, but not quite nonexistent.

In his 1953 novel, Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke imagines a world society forcibly brought about by the instruction of peaceable alien invaders. Nine years later, in a work of non-fiction, Profiles of the Future, he implies that 'voices from the sky' of rather more terrestrial origin might be capable of bringing about the same result. In a chapter in which Clarke speculates about the possibilities of satellite broadcasting, he compares a still "parochial" radio network to a global television future in which "the great highway of the ether will be thrown open to the whole world,
and all men will become neighbours - whether they like it or not. Any form of censorship, political or otherwise, would be impossible; to jam signals coming down from the heavens is almost as difficult as blocking the light of the stars. The Russians could do nothing to stop their people seeing the American way of life. . . "
Now, I'm far from qualified to speculate about the possible role of satellite broadcasting in the collapse of the Soviet Union (and obviously the idea that every form of censorship is rendered impossible by it - or any particularly accurate picture of American life transmitted by it - must now seem absurd). But from a purely chronological perspective, the rise of one did seem to happen at about the same time as the fall of the other. . .