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The Tomorrow That Never Was

Are we living at a moment when yesterdays ideas about the future are more attractive than our own?
October 1, 2004

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.

Comics entered American newspapers at a moment of rapid, profound, and prolonged change the dawn of the twentieth century was met with an explosion of new technologies, not to mention significant dislocations of the population from the farms to the cities, from the south to the north, and from Europe to America. Comics spoke for the lower classes who had not yet reaped the benefits of those changes and for a middle class that felt disoriented by them. Characters like the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat with their perpetual energy and eternally elastic bodies could neither be contained nor destroyed; their misadventures were being read alongside news reports of people suffering electric shocks from faulty wiring, dying in tenement fires, or getting run over by streetcars. These comics helped turn-of-the century Americans laugh at things that otherwise felt hopelessly out of control.

Spiegelman reproduces a selection of early comic strips, including a remarkable Winsor McCay strip, published in September 1907, in which his protagonists are depicted as giants, trampling over buildings in Lower Manhattan, not far from where the twin towers were later built and then destroyed. The McCay cartoon is striking because of the contrast between the artists detailed representation of New Yorks architectural wonders and his surrealistic images of giant cigar-chomping clowns climbing skyscrapers. Similarly, the cover of No Towers uses a realistic but shadowy rendering of the World Trade Center as the disturbing backdrop for cartoonish figures raining from the sky.

Spiegelman wants us to read these vintage images of toppling skyscrapers and raining people against the reality of what happened on September 11, transforming slapstick fantasies into chilling prophecy. He has explored this terrain before, depicting the horrors of the Holocaust through images from funny animal comics in Maus. No Towers is not as good as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus but these images hit such a raw nerve at the time he created them two years ago that he had trouble finding a U.S. publisher.

Kerry Conran, Sky Captains director, was also haunted by ghosts of tomorrows that never were. He told Entertainment Weekly that the film took shape around a haunting mental image of a Zeppelin descending through snow and searchlights toward its moorings in Manhattan, which called out to him from some now-forgotten Hollywood movie. Conran spent years recreating these images on his home computer before getting independent funding to finish the film. The result is gee whiz technological magic with most of the sets created digitally as actors performed in front of blue screen and with Lawrence Olivier, who died in 1989, restored to life and playing a new character, thanks to digital sampling.

In the film, The Zeppelin is identified as the Hindenburg III, suggesting a world where the deadly explosion of the original Hindenburg never took place or where the culture chose not to let the tragedy reshape their lives. If Spiegelman wants us to reconnect his slapstick images with the pain and suffering of 9/11s real world victims, Conran invites us to imagine a world where many of the traumatic events that would shape twentieth and twenty-first century history have not and may never occur.

An army of giant robots march down Broadway. Airships barely avoid colliding with skyscrapers. A mysterious mad scientist with a quasi-religious vision of purification and redemption – threatens to destroy the world from his hiding place in some uncharted spot. Just as we can now go back and read the popular culture of the late 1930s for its traces of an America on the eve of a world war, future historians will be able to read these images as displacements of early twenty-first century concerns but mapped onto an imaginary world where gum-chewing boy geniuses, dapper young pilots, plucky “female reporters,” and dashing British commanders can overpower anything the terrorists throw at us.

Conran sets his film in 1939, a time when Hollywood produced some of its best movies and when tourists lined up outside Futurama at the New York Worlds Fair to glimpse the world General Electric promised they would be living in for the rest of their lives. The United States was emerging from the Depression and had not yet entered into the Second World War. Can we return to that moment of innocence before Dresden, Hiroshima, or Auschwitz? Can we reclaim the idealism and optimism with which that earlier generation confronted the future?

The images of technological destruction in Sky Captain are comfortingly far-fetched. The threats are larger than life but so are the resources with which we may combat them. The movie flirts with global destruction, only to end on a much more reassuring note. This is the kind of movie that studio era Hollywood would have made if it had access to todays digital special effects. Sky Captain is full of the kinds of gizmos and gadgets that filled the pages of Tom Swift novels, pulp magazines, and Buck Rogers comic books: flying fortresses, ray guns that melt solid steel, airplanes that can fly under water, robot armies, shrunken animals, and vast underground kingdoms. The film celebrates the sense of wonder and the can do spirit of an America that was, in the language of the time, constantly striving to reach new horizons. One running gag in the film concerns the reporters agony over having only two shots left in her camera as she encounters one spectacular experience after another, always convinced that what comes next will be even more wondrous.

Sky Captain doesnt just bring old images of technological wonders to life; it also captures the technophilia that shaped those glistening images. Go back and watch a movie like Things to Come (1940). The film stops dead for five minutes or more so we can take pleasure in showering sparks, pounding pistons, and spinning gears. Technology of the1930s was sleek, sensuous, and sexy. According to the prevailing myths, government and corporate efforts were leading to steady improvements in the quality of life, urban planners were already designing the cities of the future, and what happened next was constrained only by the limits of publics energy and imagination. Everyone anticipated better and better tomorrows.

If Sky Captain taps mid-century myths of technological progress, it also reminds us of a parallel history of popular fictions that challenged the quiet desperation which motivated mans hurried progress. Frank Capras 1937 classic Lost Horizon depicts Shangri La as offering modern man a haven of peace in a world on the eve of war, and a refuge from the relentless demands of modern civilization. The film can be read as a poignant reminder that even then, not everyone wanted to live in the world of tomorrow. Sky Captain depicts Shangri La not as a timeless utopia but as the site of atrocity and suffering: its residents have been enslaved by the evil scientists, forced to work in his toxic mines to generate the raw materials needed to fuel his war machines. We cannot escape the forces of change, the film seems to suggest, but we can survive and master them.

We might think of retro-futurism as a sance where ghosts of the past come out to speak to our present concerns reassuring us that we may never get the tomorrow of our dreams but we also never face the future of our fears. Nostalgia, Susan Stewart has written, is a desire to return to a world that never really existed. Is it possible to feel nostalgia for the future?

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