The protagonist of William Gibsons 1981 science fiction short story, The Gernsback Continuum, is a photojournalist, collecting images for a coffee table book he plans to call The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was. As he searches for ramshackle roadside attractions and other traces of the ways people in the 1930s and 1940s imagined the future, he encounters what Gibson calls semiotic ghosts, glimpses of a parallel world where the euphoric dreams of urban boosters and technological utopians had come true: Behind me, the illuminated city: Searchlights swept the sky for the sheer joy of it. I imagined them [the residents] thronging the plazas of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars. Over time, the impressions fade until all that is left are peripheral fragments of mad scientist chrome flickering on the corner of his eye.
Gibsons story swept aside the technological utopian fantasies that formed around what his sometimes collaborator Bruce Sterling called the giant steam-snorting wonders of the past – the great engineering and technological accomplishments of the early twentieth century. Gibson and Sterling wanted to push science fiction in new directions and saw little use for streamlined airships. Exit the World of Tomorrow, enter the Digital Revolution.
Two experiences this past week brought this story to mind watching the current science fiction film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and reading Art Spiegelmans new graphic novel, In the Shadow of No Towers. Both want to bring us back to the future. Sky Captain uses state of the art digital technologies to reconstruct the popular American imagination, circa 1939; No Towers tells a personal narrative of September 11 through iconography drawn primarily from early twentieth century comic strips. No Towers makes explicit what Sky Captain leaves implicit the idea that we are returning to images from the past to cope with our uncertainty about the future.
Lets call it retro-futurism. Science fiction, post 9/11, has offered little by way of alternative visions of the future beyond more of the same. Perhaps the only way forward is to retrace our steps.
Between them, No Towers and Sky Captain map two very different responses to the technological and social changes Americans faced in the first half of the twentieth century one full of laughter, the other full of hope. Both are in short supply at the moment. As Spiegelman explains, The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the twentieth century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment.