Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Atlantis: an excess of fantasy

“It was an excess of fantasy that killed the old United States, the whole Mickey Mouse and Marilyn thing, the most brilliant technologies devoted to trivia like instant cameras and space spectaculars that should have stayed in the pages of Science Fiction . . . some of the last Presidents of the U.S.A. seemed to have been recruited straight from Disneyland.” 

J. G. Ballard, Hello America

If you click here, you can see the last images of the space shuttle Atlantis with the cockpit powered up. It's a fascinating, and elegiac, series. Despite our technological fantasies, Atlantis is an analogue machine: bakelite switches and dials with jury-rigged laptops squeezed in here and there. It's a 1970s vision of the future, from a time when - despite the looming nuclear war - people could assume that The Future was A Good Thing. In retrospect, they were wrong. The shuttle (the name declares its lack of ambition, while promising cheap frequent trips which never materialised) was a horribly contrived bundle of compromises. Manned space exploration is a militarist fantasy and a distraction. We're not going to the stars, so let's fix this planet before wrecking others. 

And yet… to escape the atmosphere at huge personal risk, whatever the motivation, remains noble, even admirable. That those days are over is both sensible and terribly, terribly sad. Trapped on this planet with only Jeremy Clarkson for company… what a terrible fate to befall humanity. 

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