It is not all that often that my reading in paper meets up with an interesting idea on the net and the two actually have a direct crossing point. The posting was a link by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit to a look at SF movies by our friend and taser volunteer at Popular Mechanics, Eric Sofge, to see about the prophetic forecasts of SF. This is a pretty much perennial late-night topic at SF conventions when there is nothing better to talk about, although most of that usually looks at the literary form, not the cinematic form. Still, anyone who has been in a few of those knows the basic ground rules: which film best depicts realistic science and science based extrapolation that could or has been done since its showing up?
Like all good sessions this one has a different form, however, as SF also looks at humanity, society and government, and how they respond to the changes in science. Here the criticism of the 'utopian' form is a high art, and each casts their eyes to things like Orwell's 1984 (available at The Complete Works of George Orwell site) or Huxley's Brave New World (available at Huxley.net), and similar views on works that do not concentrate specifically on the outcomes of government and society, but use them as the gestalt of presentation, like Frank Herbert's DUNE or Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. From great works to lesser ones (like William F. Nolan's Logan's Run) the ability of film to capture these views has been difficult.
Where this intersects with my current reading is the book by Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism. The review of western and US history, in particular, is deeply disturbing as it shows that the 'memory hole' of 1984 is being married up with the 'do it for your own good' view of Brave New World, to give us something far worse than either: a technocratically led society where the elite get to decide for the masses what is good for the masses and the State. This set of views is the Americanized form of Fascism, and the details of the much over-glorified 'progressives' and current crop of 'Third Way' politicians (stretching the bipartisan envelope to include Bill Clinton, George W. Bush to the current nominal selectees of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain) each pressing for technocratic 'experts' and 'government control' over aspects of life in the US that would be chilling to anyone told of such in the 19th century. The lauding of the 'good' of technology would then be criticized at separating out control of it from society and given to that institution least suited to controlling it: government.
This anti-individual form of 'progressive' views, where the State controlled by 'experts' wipes away the 'primitive common man' was actually presented before 1984 or Brave New World, in cinema. That work was by the same man that coined the term 'Liberal Fascism' to describe the route that progressives during the 1930's should take to head towards the future: H. G. Wells. The work that would embody this is The Shape of Things to Come (available as etext at Adelaide University) which Wells, himself, turned into the screenplay for the movie Things to Come. The film version in particular, is highly prophetic, but the book version, also, has its shares of prophecy, including a Polish Corridor struggle leading to a World War.
Concentrating on the film version, the next World War, like the first, would not end quickly and would be global in fighting and outcome: technology would allow for it to spread to all corners of the earth and then drag on for decades. As the war continues the civilization would falter and then decline as natural resources and the productive capacity were either ravaged by war or lacking fuel. The warm and friendly Everytown at the beginning of the film in the mid-1930's has turned into a rubble strewn husk of a town ruled by a local warlord. In from the air would arrive a well dressed, sophisticated man in uniform who would be announcing that a new order was arriving from those who knew better on how to control technology and, thus, society. This airman represented the very lofty group 'Wings Over The World' which would then drop non-lethal 'Gas of Peace' bombs to knock everyone out and allow a benign take-over of society. After that, 'civilization' run by the technocrats would have returned, glorious new cities arise and a large broadcast system so that everyone could hear and see the State announcements invented to keep folks informed of the latest techno-marvel.
As prophetic SF it is one of the most chilling views of the future, the nature of Fascism and the concept of a 'good State' controlling everything and removing the 'unhealthy' views of 'primitive' man. Things to Come is one of the clearest, most forceful of the Anglo views of Fascism of the mid-1930's and the greatest pronouncement of the 'good' that will come to mankind when the State is in control of everything. It is also one of the smoothest bits of support for technocratic dictatorship ever produced outside of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Stalin's USSR (which has a long and storied legacy of same dating back into the 1920's with The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, being a prime first example of the genre in the non-prophetic, propagandistic method). The technology, itself, during the beginning and middle portions of the film are all well known, and it adheres to the SF view of 'invent as little as possible and then show how it changes society and culture'. The war of tanks, aircraft, nerve gas, and then disease warfare gets out of hand and things collapse with the original war becoming a series of local survival conflicts as the basis for industrial society are lost. Indeed, this would be one of the first 'post-apocalypse' films and The Road Warrior would fit right in to this view of the world.
While metal monocoque aircraft were not unknown during the filming of Things to Come, in 1935-36, the film sticks to the known 'fabric falcons' of biplanes for viewer familiarity. Thus when 'Wings Over The World' delivers its benign bombs from huge mono-wing, metal skinned aircraft, they have a dramatic and cinematic flavor when compared to the older wood and fabric aircraft that mankind has been stuck with. The aircraft used looks very much like a post-WWII heavy bomber, like the B-36, thus making it a harbinger of what technological change could look like. Delivery of of various forms of 'knock-out' gas have been used to varying degrees of success, but conceptually remains a distinct possibility as a 'non-lethal agent' if destructive side-effects can be avoided which has been troubling to date as dosage cannot be precisely administered.
Hands down, for predicting technology, Things to Come tops just about everything else on the list because it did invent sparingly and along basically known lines of science. The large generators and such are extrapolated from then known designs, and are more or less infeasible due to sizing constraints. Likewise the super video system (and this hearkens over to Blade Runner) is outside the envelope of now current technology, but not beyond thin-film display technology now starting to come into the marketplace. And in a greatly amusing twist for the modern viewer, the basing of 'Wings Over The World' is out of Basra. Iraq.
And set on eliminating all other Nation States to subsume humanity under one, single State.
Perhaps Saddam watched the movie?
It is in the societal realm that Things to Come is less than prophetic and trying to be visionary, but grasping propaganda, instead. The film's view, from Wells, is one that sees man 'liberated' from his base needs and ending with this line to re-inforce *why* a global state is such a good idea:
"...if Man is merely an Animal then he must fight for every scrap of happiness he can, but if he is something more, then he must strive for more — the Universe or nothing - which shall it be?"
That is the harsh and diametric view that is the point of Fascism: the way to the glorious State to rule everyone and everything, or nothing. It is also a very Christian view of the divinity of man, and if we could just set ourselves free from base desires we could have the universe and eternal happiness right here on Earth. And what better instrument to *supply* that eternal happiness than the State, and what better State to do that than the one that benignly eradicates all other States that do not fit with this pre-conception of man?
When I hear those saying that the UN is a 'first try' at a global state and that it is 'inevitable', please do watch Things to Come. The implication of a global state is that we cannot come to agreement amongst ourselves and are foredoomed to self-annihilation without it. And if we put the 'experts' in control of everything and homogenize humanity and get rid of different cultures to form a common one, then all will be sweetness and light with the State telling us what is good and bad for us as individuals. And if 'multiculturalism' is pressed into service to 'raise all cultures to equality' then those that harbor concepts that murder of women for any acts of marital transgression are EQUAL to those where a court would step in to administer fair and even justice without regard to sex, race or ethnicity. That, too, homogenizes culture and removes differences especially when done from the top-downwards as stoning from religious views becomes exactly as equal and uplifting as due process in a court of law for equal justice. Discrimination becomes injustice, and allowing injustice to murder and not recriminate it become justice.
If the idea of a technocratic elite led by 'the best principles' going in to bomb primitives and then removing 'unwanted views' is anathema to you, then why is it perfectly acceptable to press 'unwanted views' upon everyone else and claim that all these views are equal? That *is* the 'Wings Over The World' view, save that they have decided one way and you another, but the concept being pressed is exactly the same: a given political view needs to be impressed upon everyone to eliminate all differences to get a homogenous humanity to control.
That *is* Fascism: State control over society from cradle to grave. No exceptions allowed or permitted.
In the genre of resistance to Fascism and State control, SF does have some pretty dark novels like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (which, ironically, had been deeply censored since its first printing and was only restored for its 50th Anniversary) and many films have given us those views from the previously mentioned film versions of 1984 and Brave New World, to such originals as Gattaca. One would think that the individual fighting against the all-powerful State would be compelling cinema and gain some popularity as one can be looking at the future and yet still basing the premise of the individual's struggle to be superior to that of the State's need for control. In cinema we do get films like the darkly conspiratorial Total Recall, in which who is trying to control the protagonist or if, indeed, there is even a 'reality' or a 'conspiracy' are all thrown up for grabs, to such light things as The Truman Show. What we are served up, instead, are the 'resistance to the conspiracy du jour' like The Bourne Identity or The Manchurian Candidate, which both offer up villains that have become staples for films needing generic villains: Corporations, Government Agencies, or the nefarious cross-mixture of Corporations and Government. The flip side of these sorts of films are those where government by its size is benignly evil, so that 'doing good' means you end up getting targeted. Here the list gets a bit more diverse with the very humorous Brazil being a top candidate to the more traditional Blue Thunder where the nefarious government/military/corporation conspiracy complex is trying to foist a super armed helicopter on the LAPD under the guise of 'protecting the Olympics', all the way back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, where robotics meant to keep the workers under control ends up overthrowing the existing order of things with much chaos ensuing.
The very last category is the one where the pressure to conform from government and society is arrayed against the individual. While 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are part of this genre, actually getting past the immediate films to find similar works gets difficult. Here the tools of government to make individuals conform is paramount, as once control over society is established, nothing is off-limits to the State to 'do good'. When the rest of humanity is controlled by the State either via drugs, 'discipline', 'training', or pure removal from the population (either via imprisonment or killing) the totalitarian State has no limits to disallow any form of coercion. Only if an individual is of interest to the State for reasons of the State are there limits, and the rare individual that has such value points out to where it will go to excess for those with lesser or diminished value to the State as individuals become replaceable elements in the entire working setup.
Because most stories would end up in the end of the individual involved, this genre remains the darkest as the final extinguishing of human identity into group identity is not a pretty sight to behold. When governments are given such free reign, as they have been under many authoritarian and totalitarian states, the horrors of torture rooms, rape rooms, and feeding individuals into plastic shredders and taking that on video tape to distribute in his neighborhood as a warning, makes this a very, very grim view of the world. From the Cold War era comes most of these as allegorical tales about the subversion of individuals into communal thinking, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has a true alien life replacing people we know with ones that only seem like humans. The 1978 version was, perhaps, the most chilling as the psychologist, who is seen as the quintessential 'expert', played by Leonard Nimoy, underwent no real change in personality at all. While there are many 'invasion' themed films, actually seeing humanity having given itself willingly into this condition is rare and the fight against conformity even rarer.
That is why Fascism is so very compelling: to get from your current state to the 'desired' end-state, it should really happen instantaneously. No fuss, no muss, no bother.
Modern 'progressives' want to get to that State, but find the intermediate steps to be temporarily good, but counter-productive in the longer term. Still the supposed 'good' of coming to depend on the State for everything is worth the 'ills' and 'problems' which can then be raised to heights and pontificated about to bring about more State controls that never, truly, address the ills and make the problems, themselves, more intractable and insoluble. Giving racial 'preferences' instead of 'righting past wrongs' continues on a set of race-based agendas far past righting a wrong. Encouraging welfare and then having children out of wedlock makes those women doing so perpetually dependent upon the State and destroys family life by not holding men accountable as fathers. That ill brings up 'youth pregnancy' as culture collapses without stability of male and female views in a family, and in no time at all you get a child brought up believing they are entitled to having the basics of life provided for them ad infinitum. Soon a once vibrant culture deteriorates into crime and disorder as the order provided by the family and teaching the necessity of law disappear. Each 'crisis' to handle the problem with a State funded handout makes the entire cycle worse and destroys individuality in an attempt to create a true nameless, faceless class of identical individuals with identical beliefs. Attempt to instill 'pride' fall flat as there is nothing to be prideful *of* if one does not have a basis for having a self-perception beyond race and class. Soon race and class identity are pushed which makes the entire suite of problems 'intractable' and 'needing more money from government' for an ill that was best solved by the people involved getting a hand-up via self-responsibility and self-reliability. Remove the latter and the ability of an individual to *be* individual falls.
Those that sign up to this are seeking a 'Third Way' that is not 'Right' or 'Left' but is wholly totalitarian in outlook and schema. If these 'experts' are so smart, how come they cannot run a government agency efficiently? And if so wise, why do they fail to give prudent advice when raised to positions of even trivial power and, in business, government and industry, become petty and controlling over such small amounts of responsibility handed to them? To correct *that* comes 'oversight' which then requires more 'experts' and, incidentally, more cost and overhead that is non-productive. But never fear, government will step in with *more money* to 'fix' the problem and put more people into that system... which we call 'health insurance' but is, in fact, a subsidy given to a paperwork management system that sometimes delivers 'health care'. After inflation the cost difference between what your grandparents, who used 'health care' sparingly and took care of themselves, and your cost is that not of greed but of paperwork, overhead and 'management' between what goes on between you and a doctor. Never fear, however, the State will 'help' by adding more 'oversight' and putting more people into the system.
Between point A and point B there is a treadmill running ever faster and elevating as you work harder to stay in place. Point B looks so great to get to! Until you realize that no matter how fast you run, how hard you try, you will soon be giving up everything to stay in place... until you are exhausted and give up to those who have been egging you on for the 'greater good' and 'benefits' to be provided at point B. All those lovely things are, like in Stalin's USSR, only cardboard cutouts filled with nothing although they look like such pretty things on the outside. And every time a goody is added, you are told to give more and more effort as it really is worth the cost... isn't it? That is what we are told when government is supposed to do more and more and more, while being less and less and less capable and efficient of doing anything. That may start off sounding like a lovely 'Wings Over The World' ideal, to push more to government until it is everything... but, if you are lucky, you end up with Brazil and NOT 1984.
What Things to Come left out between A and B was the unfortunate part of what happened to the diverse peoples of the world once the ever benevolent technocrats got to them. If a society did not want or, by their own view, *need* rescue... that is too bad, they GOT IT ANYWAYS. All to that 'greater good' of 'progress'. What is forgotten is that 'change' is NOT progress. I am sure that 'Wings Over The World' changed a *lot* of things... but I wouldn't call it progress by any extent of the imagination.