Friday, 19 October 2012

Eat your heart out, JG Ballard…

Here's a time-lapse video of the space shuttle Endeavour making the two-day trip 12 miles from an airport in LA to its final resting place in the California Science Center.

It's poignant, and deeply sad, though I can't help feeling that the music and the photography does most of the work for us. JG Ballard's evocations of an exhausted near-future world in which a few connoisseurs and obsessives go mad in the tumbleweed-strewn abandoned launching pads they see as symbols of existential anomie were fundamental to my teenage years. Surrounded by political cynicism, crumbling infrastructures and above all a planet which we are consciously driving towards ruin, I felt I'd missed out on the Age of Optimism.

I grew up: I learned that the Space Race was a costly, military-driven diversion into extra-terrestrial willy-waving, sucking in billions of dollars while the poor starved in every superpower country. I learned that the Shuttle was a beautiful white elephant, its lack of ambition summarised in its unadventurous name ('shuttle': may as well call it a taxi). I mourned the loss of Star Trek's innocence as it moved into The Next Generation, harbinger of Liberal Interventionism as its crew rampaged through the galaxy enforcing neocolonialism reassured by the presence of a bloody Ship's Counsellor with her big puppy eyes. Alien and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf presented an alternative, less idealistic version of space, as a hostile, proletarian hell in which boredom is only occasionally relieved by existential terror.

I began to understand that the exploration of space is a myth designed to distract us from our problems here and now. We're never going to other solar systems: perhaps our machines will, but the distances are too vast and the purposes too far. I still read an awful lot of SF, but in a sadder and wiser fashion, and perhaps I read sadder, wiser SF too. I don't believe in space 'races', or 'conquering' space, or any other militarist or technocratic metaphors.

And yet, I'll miss the shuttle. Useless, expensive, unreliable, unsafe but beautiful in a way that the superior Russian rockets aren't. Retiring something called Endeavour really is symbolic, even for us cynics. I would like to have been there, to have walked every step of the way. It was clearly a semi-religious experience, judging by the crowds who lined the route to see this battered, behemoth negotiate suburban streets, passing homes and strip joints and parks, stop-lights and no-parking signs, utterly out of place down here on earth. We all respect the bloodied, unbowed veteran as it's reduced from heroism to attraction: Endeavour is just such an artefact, Moby Dick turned into a heap of blubber and bone.

The end of Endeavour is the end of our space-childhood. Despite being a miserable compromise, its beauty and promise persuaded us – for a while – that we were nobler, better than we really are. But now it's time to put such childish things away and become adults; start to clear up the trash, to engage with the boring but necessary tasks required to pull ourselves out of the mire; to stop acting like the universe owes us a living. Endeavour, Enterprise and Discovery are where they belong - children's toys put aside until some younger, fresher generation finds the energy and leisure to play with them again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this with Philip Glass' Metamorphosis 1 as background music. Fitted the gloom in your piece.

Very good gloom, by the way.