I didn’t grow up during the space age and so I accepted it as commonplace. Ray Bradbury was born before the space age, and he envisioned it. In his fantastical and simple short stories, he wrote of dinosaurs and dragons, of witches and time machines, and of course, rockets.
He forever possessed a youthful imagination that too many either repress or simply ignore as they age. He was not bounded by the limits of practicality in his mind or in his writing; we have yet to colonize Mars and intermingle with Martians, nor have we traveled to the sun to collect it in a cup, but still he wrote of it.
In 1962, Bradbury explained some of his impetus. “When I was a boy in the Midwest I used to go out and look at the stars at night and wonder about them.” When he suspects that every boy has done that, he is right. At least they did when he was growing up in the twenties and thirties. He continues, “When I wasn’t looking at the stars, I was running in my old or my brand-new tennis shoes, on my way to swing in a tree, swim in a lake, or delve in the town library to read about dinosaurs or Time Machines.” Every boy has done that too. Or at least they used too.
Science fiction writing is a curious thing. It is of course based on our own experiences, sciences, and rules. A writer then chooses to amend or destroy such presuppositions, creating a world different from our own, but still run by laws. With the real-life image of a rocket from his childhood, Bradbury envisioned infinite possibilities in a realm that is still yet infinite.
There will always be dinosaurs, but they are trapped in the past and in the earth. The beauty of space is that it is one of the few last unknowable areas in our realm. The dark abysses of the ocean still leave us with much to discover, but even that is finite.
It was a bittersweet moment last Saturday when the last space shuttle mission took flight. I was not alive when the first one took off in 1981, but I do believe I would have been inspired then and in the sixties and seventies, growing up during a time when humans took to space.
There would seem to be nothing comparable at the moment. I don’t know what unknown thing inspires people today, mainly because so much is known. Maybe the downside to so much information, so much access to information, and the constant media stimuli of the current world is that it forces out imagination. There is little time to think.
In a brilliantly written monologue by Tony Kushner in his equally brilliant and imaginative epic, Angels in America, Harper Pitt, a depressed and currently hallucinating character, muses, “the imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bit and pieces of the world and reassembles them into visions. So when we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness and untruthfulness of our lives, its really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.”
“Nothing unknown is knowable.”
She is right, I fear. We may be running out of things to discover.
Steven Spielberg is, or more accurately was, the Ray Bradbury of cinema, enchanting audiences with images of dinosaurs, robots, and of course space. He offered us moments of awe and inspiration, but even that is now fleeting. Jaws is still a great movie, but it someone seeing it today wouldn’t be as scared as they would watching it for the first time decades ago. Jurassic Park imagined dinosaurs realistically on the big screen, but now the History Channel and others can recreate them with ease.
J.J. Abrams’ charming Super 8 was the most original and Spielberg-esque movie in some time, but while it was enjoyable and made you long for childhood naivete and optimism, it unfortunately made you long more for the movies Spielberg used to make. Even arguably the most imaginative movies in years, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a film about dreams heavy on the special effects, was lacking. For a movie that had characters travel through different levels of dreams, there were innumerable rules governing a landscape in which one would assume anything goes.
Nolan could only do so much with the medium; there were limits to his dreams, as were there limits to making a movie itself. That is one of the many reasons why books are almost always better than their movie equivalent. In a book, you can create the world being described. It is a loose construction, and however the author creates an environment, you can add or subtract as you go along, making a world that is as much yours as it is the authors. Bradbury’s lightning can be as loud as you want, his authority figures as dark and towering as you wish, and when he describes a sea monster, it is your sea monster.
This is all to say that imagination seems to be dying and if ever there were a real life representation of such an event, it was on Saturday in Florida. I am not longing for a time in which I didn’t exist, one where political rights were suppressed for groups of people, where nuclear war was a real threat, and where health care and technology were a shadow of what it is today.
You can never recreate the feeling by being scared, surprised, or elated by a movie during the first initial viewing. NASA cannot inspire the way it once did, as shuttles and space travel became common place in real life and in popular culture.
“The world: finite. Terribly, terribly…” concludes Harper Pitt.” The world, yes, but space, not a chance. The United States isn’t sending people out into space anytime soon. It will be there though, patient, and endless, waiting for our return, hopefully offering that which we cannot yet imagine.