The Machines Of Desire

I would read any comic that was full of stories about humans interacting with each other, facing a constantly shifting future and trying to define the 21st century condition while framed by the presence and use of giant fictional machines.

This is partly because I am in my early 40s and grew up with Gerry Anderson productions, and therefore I frame everything in terms of giant fictional machines, hideous future disasters and scientific adventurer-pilots relaxing after barely-thwarted eschatalogical events with martinis and cigarettes in their elegant volcanic-island home bases. It’s possible that my long desire for a volcano base meant not that I have a deep-seated need to be a James Bond villain, but that I have an intense repressed wish to be Jeff Tracy.

This is also partly because we live in an age of giant fictional machines.


Possibly also that we are in fact passing beyond that age of giant fictional machines, and yet, like much of the 20th Century’s chattel, have not quite come to terms with it yet.

(This may additionally be partly me projecting, as it appears that, no matter how I struggle, I seem to still be dealing with the business of the 20th century as a writer.)

And, I think, partly because I’m terminally infected with the metaphor: that we can build our way out of anything, bound not by our imaginations but only by the speed at which we can develop the necessary skills to make what we see in our heads. I mean, if we’re going to be in the business of selling fantasies, I don’t think it’s a bad one to sell.

I would connect this excuse for a thought with Design Fiction, which Julian Bleecker defines thus:

Design Fiction is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. It’s about reading P.K. Dick as a systems administrator, or Bruce Sterling as a software design manual. It’s meant to encourage truly undisciplined approaches to making and circulating culture by ignoring disciplines that have invested so much in erecting boundaries between pragmatics and imagination.

And a term Matt Jones threw at me during a drinking session the other month: Engineering Fiction.

Yes, we’re generally talking about speculative fiction here. But I come from the classic British tradition, where science fiction is social fiction. Therefore, in my head, the most valid way to come to terms with The Age Of Giant Fictional Machines and the terrifying miasmic presence of the 21st century is in fact to frame the whole discussion in terms of monstrous chunks of implausible technology, remaking the world by drilling or blasting or generally stabbing it with nuclear-driven metal bits, trying to stop things from exploding, and having the Cigarette Of Victory afterwards.

I think stories like these contain important lessons for our children.

My child, of course, watches SUPERNATURAL and gets all her news from MOCK THE WEEK. So we’re all doomed anyway. But I wanted to note the thought down.


9 thoughts on “The Machines Of Desire”

  1. Man, I love shit like this! I think I have the American version of the same disease. I grew up on the science fiction of Asimov, Heinlein and Clark and the social commentary of Ellison (Both Ralph and Harlan). We can Science our way out of anything. Yes I used Science as a verb! What are you going to do about it? Who needs a jet pack? We have personal computers and the interwub. Just about any job you can think of can be done from the comfort of your own bed. I can feel my legs shriveling and my skull expanding as I write this.

  2. “Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. ”
    –Alfred North Whitehead, “Science and the Modern World,” 1925.

  3. A lesson from Thunderbirds I just thought of: It’s not really *possible* to show the impact of the future on human beings because they live *in* it. The Tracy lads afterwards never sat around reminiscing about the days *before* it was possible to move the Empire State Building. They took it as a given and just saved the lives. (That sort of given *was* a given back in the 1960s — the future just “happens”.) Here, for instance, is a satirical video that simply CANNOT be explained to anyone who hasn’t experienced the Internet: Hmmm… I guess I’m also saying the future is as much a *culture* as it is a place in *time*.

  4. If you’re educated as an engineer and you spent the first half of your life inhaling hard SF, you get a particular world view…such as positing the entire human race should spend all its effort right now to find a cheap source of huge amounts of power. This is cos you know as a science fiction reader that with enough energy, you can do just about anything, including growing crops in Antarctica or making new petroleum out of recycled diapers, if that’s what seems like a good idea. There’s an optimism (or positivism) combined with a certain impatience with less advanced thinking that can make it hard to find a girlfriend, but I digress.

  5. The issue is making the fiction more conducive to fact. Perhaps the next generation of sci-fi will actually be manuals for constructing the periphery in which to enjoy the fiction. Actually, that only seems inevitable. The fiction and its lesson will conform to a society gradually ascending to the rather absurd techonological dreams laid out in early 20th century science fiction. We really are *there* in terms of technology when you consider science, but industry has yet to guide us out of the petroleum and uranium age into spectuarly more interesting areas.
    Why can’t we build time machines or space ships? We can, but the capital isn’t there.
    But this century, the capital will be there.
    So science fiction faces a dilemma of choice: Do writers become “contemporary” and subsequently write about the emerging world of greater industrialization and technology, or do writers take on a more esoteric science in terms of the mind, transcendence and metaphysics?
    In the interim, try out both (choices) and see which one makes you the most money.

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