Space Baby, Is the Future Getting Closer? // J. Lee Morsell
(Space Baby hasn't learned to talk.)
1984: Oceania, Every Thought 'Tis for Thee
George Orwell's 1949 novel envisioned a distant dystopian future (or a veiled present?) in 1984 (1948?) when the only permissible pleasure is "a boot stamping on a human face," and the government promotes Newspeak, a new version of English devoid of words to express freedom and rebellion.
A film adaptation released in the year 1984 featured a national anthem for the totalitarian empire of Oceania, of which both the United Kingdom and the United States were part. The anthem, "Oceania, 'Tis for Thee," contains the refrain
Oceania, Oceania, Oceania, 'tis for thee
Every thing, every thought, 'tis for thee
This nationalistic devotion would seem to refer to Adolf Hitler's command that Germans "every hour, every day, think only of Germany."
During the third quarter of the January 1984 Superbowl, Apple ran its famous 1984-themed ad, in which a woman chased by riot police runs into a hall where grey masses watch a screen on which a Big Brother-like figure advocates uniformity of thought. She throws a hammer, and the screen explodes in light. A voice-over tells us, "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."
The personal computer certainly empowers dynamic discourse in a way that the one-way television screen does not; and yet, like Orwell's transceivers that allow Big Brother to watch you while you watch TV, the personal computer also makes us vulnerable to peeping intruders.
1999: Why does everybody have a personal computer?
A song by Prince, released in 1982:
They say two thousand zero zero party over,
Ooops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999 . . .
Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?
After performing this song on New Year's Eve 1999, he vowed never to play it again. But eight years later he did, and now it's back in his repertoire.
("What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more?'" -Nietzsche, The Gay Science)
2001: Dunh-dunh-dunh....DUNH-DUNH! (rumble)
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick released his classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which grew out of Arthur C. Clarke's 1948 short story "The Sentinel." Humans discover a great black monolith buried beneath the surface of the moon, beaming a powerful radio signal, which astronauts follow to Jupiter.
The dramatic theme song, Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, combined with copious birth imagery (spaceship corridors like fallopian tubes, an astronaut floating helplessly with a severed oxygen cable like an umbilical cord, sperm ships approaching egg planets), emphasizes a Nietzschean subtext of humanity's development from ape to human to superhuman, with each transition a traumatic birth.
If the full apocalypse is the unveiling of the face of God, the apocalyptic moment of 2001 would be the unveiling of what humanity might become: our hero battles a rebellious computer, is immersed in dreamlike projections of his own mind, and then transforms at the end of the movie into the Space Baby (or "Star-Child"): a fetus floating in the void with a view of distant earth. This is the barest glimpse of the future, of course--we want to know how Space Baby will grow. But it is a revelatory glimpse of a beginning.
There is a visual pun here. Nietzsche disdained otherworldly heaven as a religious rejection of life. He urged his readers to "remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go!"
Space Baby, the young Übermensch that Nietzsche would make the "meaning of the earth," is otherworldly in that he floats somewhere near Jupiter. Is this sly humor or is it an adaptation of Nietzsche's dream for the space age, when the this-worldly becomes vaster and more mysterious than this one planet?
The ambiguity of register is shared by Strauss's tone poem. The earnest bombast with which the music begins could easily escalate into a romantic hero song, like Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. It's hard to take earnest bombast seriously these days, and Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra has been quoted in parody many times since it was popularized by 2001. But even back in 1896, Strauss seems to have intended a mixed register: the heroic theme of growth and overcoming ends in two conflicting keys, without resolution.
When we reached the actual year 2001, we were transformed not by a monolith on the moon but by the destruction of monoliths in New York: the 9/11 attacks. Instead of being reborn in space, we entered the weird rhetorical regime of "homeland security," "the axis of evil," the "Patriot Act," "freedom fries" and the perpetual "war on terror." It felt both futuristic (because we are accustomed to stories of the future as dystopia) and atavistic, because these crude propagandistic terms so resembled Orwell's now-ancient 1984. As something contemporary, it was hard to accept these terms as actual political speech: they'd have gone down easier in a parody remake of that Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will.
2012: Time for miracles?
2012: an apocalyptic film released in 2009. In supposed fulfillment of an ancient Mayan prophecy, neutrinos from a solar flare heat the earth's core to boiling over. Massive earthquakes and megatsunamis wreak havoc through disaster-porn computer graphics. One trailer claims that the Mayans were "mankind's first civilization," a goofy erasure of ancient Egypt. The schmaltzy ending theme song is "Time for Miracles" by Adam Lambert. As the world falls spectacularly, hopelessly apart, Lambert sings,
This aching heart ain't broken yet
Oh God I wish I could make you see . . .
Maybe it's time for miracles . . .
No I ain't giving up on us . . .
Maybe it's time for miracles.
2010: "And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea." (Revelation 16:3)
As British Petroleum has made one futile attempt after another to plug the gusher that nobody knows how to stop, many have turned to God. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal designated June 27 a Statewide Day of Prayer that God will deliver us from this catastrophe. Louisiana state senator Robert Adley explained, "Thus far the efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail. It is clearly time for a miracle."
Last night I dreamed that the whole sweep of the Gulf Stream was carrying the oil north, and it was raining oil in Europe. This morning I checked the news and saw that indeed the oil is getting captured by the Gulf's Loop Current and shot through the Straits of Florida into the Gulf Stream.
Then I found reference to Gustav Meyrink's 1903 novella "Petroleum, Petroleum," which I quote not to assert any fact but just to add, in a paranoid manner, to a genealogy of memes, or at least a chain of coincidences. In the novella, a series of explosions sends massive oil reserves gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. One fictional consultant warns, in the midst of this crisis, that "If the oil continues to spill as it does, it will have covered the oceans of the world in twenty-seven to twenty-nine weeks and there will be no more rains, ever, as water can not evaporate anymore. At best, it will rain petroleum."
Mission to Jupiter image courtesy of NASA