- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

There is now a relatively old tradition of futuristic, beyond-the-earth, space-travel literature.

It began perhaps most notably with Jules Verne in France and was soon taken up by the Englishman H.G. Wells. After World War I and its unanticipated horrors on a mass scale, Buck Rogers appeared in the United States as a futuristic space hero. World War II then took place and upped the ante on terrestrial violence and cruelty. So-called extraterrestrial science fiction then came out in full force as a literary form of its own in comic books, short and long fiction and films.

I remember when the film “2001: Space Odyssey” first appeared. Its imagination, poetry and idealism thrilled a generation. “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” seemed to be a corrective of H.G. Wells’ earlier “War of the Worlds” as the first contact with extraterrestrials was regarded as positive. The television series and films of “Star Trek” went through various metamorphoses, but all of them portrayed a still-problematic but idealistic world of the future. In this world, disease or injury could be cured in a few minutes with a hand-held device, transportation over long distances could take place in seconds at “warp” speed, individuals could be “beamed” to any destination and human starvation, want and greed had virtually been replaced by an intergalactic federation of evolutionary good.

One might say that the science-fiction genre was literature and cinema, but it was, and is, also entertainment. It also can be noted that much of science fiction’s futuristic environment was also a commentary on the present and not just a prediction of a future world.

Watching one of the “Star Trek” films the other night, I was struck both by how much of the technological prescience of science fiction has come true in the past century and by how little we seemed to have advanced in humanitarian terms over the same period. Technology and medical science, of course, have catapulted human society into new levels of daily life. We live (in certain nations) longer, healthier and better fed, and can perform functions of communication, transportation and manufacturing that simply could not be imagined or anticipated in the middle of the 19th century.

As then, however, religions clash, ideologies battle, diseases threaten and kill, enormous natural disasters occur, geoclimatological forces alternately warm and cool the earth, masses of human beings live in poverty, hunger and ignorance and under totalitarian rule.

So, what have we accomplished? Someone might answer that the lives of more and more persons have been improved, and that would be true. Someone else might point out that, with so many more persons in the world, there have not ever been so many who live in squalor without hope. Daily accounts from Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and much of South America seem to bear this out.

What about the United Nations and other world organizations? The United Nations is a gross failure and reflects the contradictions already operating in the individual nations of the world.

On so clear an issue as human rights, it manages to cloud the unspeakable behavior of member nations with rhetorical and legalistic justifications. As an organization, it has never been so corrupt as it is now.

Where there is some positive activity, in private humanitarian organizations, the United Nations and the world community fail to protect their personnel and operations. Most financial and material aid from developed nations to Third World nations appears not to reach those in need. The current decrying of “global warming” is a cause of fashionable distraction. It employs “science” as a rallying cry when there is no meaningful “science” to justify its political emotions.

The world of “Star Trek” takes place in the 24th century (when its characters are not travelling backward or forward in time to save previous or future worlds). Like most, I find “Star Trek” and much of the work of its science-fiction colleagues to be entertaining and often delightful.

Although some science fiction portrays dark and foreboding futures, the qualities of the best of our “contemporary” examples of speculations about the future are optimistic, idealistic and positive. I used to think these qualities also gave science fiction depth beyond delighting and entertaining us.

Facing a world of indefinite terrorism, resurgent totalitarianism, unchanging prejudice, suffering and inhumanity, I wonder whether science fiction, for all its brilliance and imagination, has become just another evasion today of the actions the human family needs to take to survive and flourish in a future our species would like somehow to reach.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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