Modern Life Is Lame

Where are the heroes and the adventures now? Not only have all the heroic things been done, but heroism itself has been deconstructed as nothing but toxic masculinity, apparently, and historians have worked grimly and methodically through the allegedly heroic and challenging events of modern history and reduced them all to economic competition or people with character flaws. Biographies these days are about Victims, not Heroes, and biographers are busy critically deconstructing the lives of those we once thought were heroes, and indeed the very idea of heroism itself. 


It must have been around dawn on 21 July 1969 that I finally went to bed. I had to get up a few hours later to go to school, but it was the very end of term, the exams were over, and there was little to do but laze around. I remember dozing off in a deckchair watching a cricket match between the staff and the pupils. But nobody was talking about cricket. There was only one topic of conversation: did you stay up to see Armstrong getting out of the lunar module? Most of us had.

In many ways this is not surprising. If you were born in about the ten years after the War, and especially if you were a boy, you were part of the Space Generation. The promise of space travel had been part of everyday conversation and a running theme in the media for as long as I could remember. And something exciting happened in space more or less every year: the Apollo landings, far from being a surprise, just seemed like the logical next step at the time. (In retrospect, though, it’s perhaps fairer to describe them as the end of the Space Era, albeit not for the rather facile reasons that such judgements are often made.)

Yet in fact the key date in the history of space exploration was probably not that day in July 1969, but rather 12 April 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became “the first man in space:” the first frail human being to be sent outside the protective atmosphere of the Earth—into an environment where, compared to today, almost nothing was known—and moreover to be brought back safely. I still remember very clearly my mother bringing in the morning newspaper and putting it on the breakfast table in front of her space-addled elder son. The world changed at that point: even in a grimy London suburb, things seemed brighter.

Why do I write about these memories now? Well, if you follow the news carefully, you may have noticed that over the last ten days or so the Chinese have sent an unmanned spacecraft, the Chang’e 6, to collect some rocks on the far side of the moon and bring them back to earth, and that at last, and after many delays, the United States has again managed to launch a couple of astronauts into space and deliver them to the International Space Station, with only minor technical problems along the way. Yet compared with 1969, when the BBC essentially broadcast nothing else for a good twelve hours, coverage of both these recent events was drowned in the sea of trivia and froth that largely makes up the online media today. And commentators talked about the Chinese technological threat to the West, and joked about a spacecraft made by Boeing arriving without a door falling off. Nobody spent much time talking about the technical or human achievements involved.

Why the difference? Well it would be easy to say that space flight has become routine, but that’s not wholly true: the Shuttle programme, for example, was terminated as long ago as 2011, after making only 4-5 flights a year for thirty years. Yes, the political heat went out of space exploration decades ago, but pubic enthusiasm and interest was never based on narrow issues of political competition anyway. No, the real story is more interesting, and is in turn part of a larger and longer-term narrative which involves other subjects as well. But all these subjects have two components in common: adventure and technical challenge, neither of which we do any more.

Let’s stick with space travel for a moment, though. The main characteristic of these early missions is that they were insanely dangerous. Gagarin was launched on top of a rocket which had suffered multiple failures in testing, with untried technology to keep him alive. Nobody knew what the human body’s reaction to massive acceleration or sustained weightlessness would actually be. Several things went wrong during the mission, and at the end of it, Gagarin had to parachute out of his capsule and land unaided, because the retro-rockets fitted to the capsule were so underpowered that it would hit the ground with more force than a human was expected to survive. Truly, they don’t make them like that any more. And if technology and knowledge of outer space advanced rapidly, space travel was still incredibly dangerous, as Apollo XIII was to remind us.

So here, I think, it helps to situate the Space Age, which I grew up in, in the larger context of the postwar world and the kind of achievements that were part of it. After all, the Space Age itself was brief: it lasted arguably only from the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, to the end of Apollo programme in 1972. It lasted longer than that in fiction and popular culture, of course, as we’ll discuss later, but even then I would argue that there’s a fundamental difference between what was written and produced before Apollo, and what came after.

What else was going on at the time then? Well, it’s a long list. The first programmable computer appeared in 1945, and a decade later mainframe computers came into widespread use. The first flight to break the Sound Barrier, by Chuck Yeager,  was in 1947. The first ascent of Mt Everest by Hilary and Tensing was in 1953, in the same year that DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick. The first vaccine against Polio was licensed in 1955. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station, in Britain, went online in 1956. The first scheduled jet service across the Atlantic, by the British-designed Comet, was in 1958, the same year as the first undersea transit of the North Pole. In 1962, the first satellite TV programmes were transmitted by the Telstar satellite. The first person to sail around the world single-handed, Francis Chichester, did so in 1966.

More than that, the world was being opened up to westerners as never before. As was said at the time, we knew less about the world of the sea ten fathoms down than it did about the far side of the Moon. This changed radically in the 1950s, with films and then TV broadcasts by pioneering divers like Hans Haas and Jacques Cousteau. Meanwhile, David Attenborough disappeared into the jungles of Borneo and elsewhere with a camera team, making the award-winning Zoo Quest TV series from 1954-63.

In all of this, there was an atmosphere of adventure, excitement, and sometimes danger. Even scientists were individual, named figures, working in small laboratories and making discoveries  through intellectual brilliance and hard work, rather than because they had the resources of governments or drug companies behind them. But that’s not to say that the age worshipped science in itself, or thought that the triumph of technology was inevitable. What’s striking, rather, is how primitive, how risky and how uncertain most of the technology was, and how much it relied on human ingenuity and courage before it actually worked, if indeed it did. As the film of Apollo XIII usefully reminds us, the technology of the day was extraordinarily primitive: really just a development of the technology of the War years, the equivalent of Alcock and Brown crossing the Atlantic in a converted bomber in 1919. But even that was better than the technology used by Gagarin, which was relatively speaking as primitive as that used by Blériot to cross the English Channel in 1909.

And it wasn’t clear that it would even be safe or advisable for humans to go into space: what might they find there? A series of now-forgotten black-and-white BBC TV series of the early 1960s, like A for Andromeda (1961) co-written by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, and The Big Pull, (1962), both of which used the new technology of radio telescopes to chilling effect, suggested that there might be things up there that didn’t like us.

So what was really being celebrated in those years was human bravery, resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of danger and the unknown. President Kennedy’s remark about doing things because they were difficult turned out to have all sorts of unexpected resonances, and contrasts painfully with today’s politics, where the idea is only to announce things you know you can actually do, and preferably have already done. Now of course there’s a structural problem with discovery and invention, which is that once it’s been done for the first time, people lose interest. Who, after all, remembers the name of the second person to reach the summit of Mt Everest? So in a certain sense, what I’m describing is inevitable, and represents the end, after perhaps five hundred years, of our civilisation doing unusual, difficult and heroic things. But why should this extend to today’s culture, which, in this as in so much else, limits itself to strip-mining  the past for financial benefit?

If there is any piece of popular culture that represents the end of the serious Space Age, it is probably Star Wars, which at once ransacks the popular culture of several civilisations for nuggets and clichés which it sticks together with little regard for coherence of character of narrative, and simultaneously adopts a post-modernist attitude of distance and superiority to its material. It’s all one big conceptual joke: not a film about heroism, but a film about films about heroism, themselves made in times when heroism was a real thing. Star Wars is, of course a Vietnam allegory with the sides reversed, but above all, it’s the prototype of the post-Space Age film, that no longer bothers with an attempt at verisimilitude, because the events it describes—galactic civilisations and so forth—are never going to happen now. Why bother to make a convincing back-story and a coherent storyline and characters for a piece of children’s fantasy for grown-ups?

The disillusion with actual manned space travel was rapid and complete. It all turned out to be much harder, more complex and more expensive than anyone had expected. Well, I say “anyone,” but the engineers and scientists, the doctors and the mathematicians working on manned spaceflight didn’t need convincing; they knew that already. It was the pundits in the media, the kind of people who now believe “Artificial Intelligence” will save the world, just as they once believed that Genetically-modified food and a dozen other things would. Now there were, of course, real options for going further into space. Even before Gagarin flew, there was the mad Project Orion, which would have sent spaceships powered by nuclear explosions around the Solar System. And even while Star Wars was being filmed, the venerable British Interplanetary Society was conducting its Project Daedalus, which showed, fairly convincingly, that limited interstellar travel was actually feasible using the technology of the time. But of course such journeys were going to be unimaginably expensive and complex to plan and conduct, and we don’t do that kind of thing any more. Indeed, we don’t do much of anything any more. The baroque and highly complex conception of Project Artemis, designed to return US astronauts to the moon in 2026, is as it is because today’s available rockets are less powerful than the Saturn V used by Apollo, thus requiring a refuelling stop in space, and using technologies which in some cases haven’t been developed yet.

And of course we don’t do heroes these days. Not only have all the heroic things been done, heroism itself has been deconstructed as nothing but toxic masculinity, apparently, and historians have worked grimly and methodically through the allegedly heroic and challenging events of modern history and reduced them all to economic competition or people with character flaws. Biographies these days are about Victims, not Heroes, and biographers are busy critically deconstructing the lives of those we once thought were heroes, and indeed the very idea of heroism itself. (Almost all writing on conflict today focuses on real or alleged victims, by the way.) This doesn’t mean that the need for heroes to identify with has gone away, but rather that it’s been sublimated into heroic fantasy and video games which are not, for the moment, victim-dominated.

We don’t do adventures either, and risk is something to be avoided or managed, not embraced. We demand that we, and especially our children, be protected not just from risk, but from any feeling of being somehow unsafe. Yet human beings do actually crave risk, and a degree of mild risk, or at least discomfort, has been a part the ritual of growing up since the earliest civilisations. These days, though, it’s been sublimated into our consumer choices: I am eternally surprised by the number of shops selling “outdoor” and “adventure” and “mountaineering” clothing and equipment, and the number of people I see in the streets who are dressed as if to go on an expedition, but are actually just on the way to the local supermarket. (True story: many years ago I was in a plane to Arusha in Tanzania, and quite a few of the passengers were German tourists. Without exception, they were dressed in full tropical kit, shorts, long socks, mountain boots, hats. If knives had been allowed they would have been carrying them. They seemed a little surprised to disembark at a conventional airport, and not in the middle of the African savannah.) And let’s not even discuss  the dark-coloured Toyotas you see sometimes, with drivers playing out fantasies of being taken around Baghdad or Sana’a with an armed escort.

As I said, it’s easy to over-stress the extent to which we were promised a technological future paradise in those days. Flying cars, holidays on the Moon and so forth did feature in popular culture, but they were either publicity for companies trying to make money, ignorant blathering by the kind of journalist who now blathers ignorantly about AI saving the world, or boosting by scientists and engineers a little unmoored from reality. Much of what I remember was cautiously presented as “possible one day” rather than about to arrive next Wednesday.

But there were also quite logical reasons to suppose that technology would continue to make peoples’ lives easier, as it had been doing for decades. And here, we’re not talking about vacations on the Moon, but actual everyday life. The lives of ordinary families were transformed by  inventions as simple as the washing machine and the refrigerator, freeing mothers, in particular, from a lot of drudgery. The first telephones simplified life enormously. Radio and later television put ordinary people in touch with a reality that had never before imagined. The Underground railway enabled me as a child to go to the centre of London in half an hour (children were allowed to do such things then.) There seemed every reason to suppose that simple, pragmatic examples of the intelligent use of technology would continue to improve the lives of ordinary people.

It didn’t happen, of course. I’m not talking about complaints of “where’s my flying car?” Promises like that were always boosting by marginal enthusiasts. The basic complaint is that technology, far from facilitating ordinary life, has made it more difficult. You need a computer at home, and increasingly a smartphone with you, to live at all. And whereas telephones were provided free and the technology changed only slowly, and even the French Minitel prototype internet computer was given away free in the 1980s, modern technology is expensive, exploitative and has to be updated all the time. You can no longer walk into your local bank and talk to someone. Doctor’s appointments have to be made online with special software. it’s common to speak to people in the public service who explain that they can’t help you because the system doesn’t allow it. Parking a car now requires you to download an application, create an account and pay money into it, which is great fun if it happens to be raining at the time. But most of all, instead of using technology to help their customers, private companies have used it to replace human beings, loading a great deal of the effort onto the customer, all to increase profits. I think that, if fifty years ago people had been told that the widespread use of technology would make their lives more difficult, frustrating and expensive, they would have laughed in disbelief.

So it’s not only, or even mainly, about flying cars: it’s about political changes that have taken place since roughly the end of the Apollo programme, turning technology from a public good into the pursuit of private profit. It didn’t have to be like that, and if we look around the world, we can see examples of states where technology is to some extent still considered a tool and not a master: in the construction of high-speed railways, environmentally-friendly buildings and cities, the use of technology and the Internet to simplify daily life, and many many other things. But we don’t do that any more in the West..

There’s no doubt that, in spite of the massive technical and financial challenges, western governments could have done more to advance space exploration if they had really wanted to, rather than handing over the money to banks so that they could play roulette with it, and then baling them out when, they went broke because of their own stupidity. Instead, it very quickly became clear that technological development, adventure and discovery had been cancelled, in favour of the cannibalisation of what had already been done, and the development of new and exploitative technologies. This produced an almost immediate effect in popular culture, as technology started to be rebranded as something sinister and frightening, more geared to repression than to liberation. As early as the 1979 film The China Syndrome, technology in the hands of the private sector began to lose its lustre. In the Cyberpunk works of authors like William Gibson, notably his first novel Neuromancer (1984) we see a fully-worked out version of near future-technological dystopia, with technology used only for repressive and money-making purposes: much the same as Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 film Blade Runner. This has been the dominant mood in adult popular culture ever since. (I implicitly exclude the Star Wars, Star Trek and superhero films from such a judgement. They are for children.)

Space travel, as I’ve indicated, was always primarily a symbol of adventure and ingenuity, rather than just a collection of clever technologies, and the abandonment of serious space programmes was in turn a symbol of the move away from adventure and ingenuity towards the kind of parasitic, exploitative world and its associated technologies that we have today. Critics at the time said that “we should solve our problems on Earth before going to the stars,” which was disingenuous, since there was actually no prospect of those problems being solved, anyway. But I don’t think anyone actually ever dared to say “let’s stop looking at the stars, but let’s not bother with the problems of the world either. Let’s give all the money to the rich.”

My generation was fascinated by space travel less for technological reasons, since much of the technology was simply beyond our understanding, but more for the narrative, mythical, and even philosophical possibilities opened up by the future of our own planet, or contact with others. It’s this, I think, that popular culture has largely lost. I don’t follow new science fiction with the assiduity that I used to, and so younger readers may feel I’m being unfair to some of their favourite authors. In which case, say so in comments: it’s always nice to discover new writers. But the cliché about science fiction producing a “sense of wonder,” which was still around at the time of the time of Apollo, has essentially gone today: a sense of dread, perhaps, has replaced it.

Popular culture even as recently as fifty years ago had no difficulty imagining futures substantially different from ours, and playing interestingly with the consequences. For example, Alexander Korda’s film of Things to Come (1936) was perhaps the epitome of the future as parable, a didactic drama about the rise of a technological World State. It joined a long tradition of utopian stories of a better future, most notably, perhaps, William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890.) Such authors had no difficulty imagining a world better than our own, not because they saw technology as an unstoppable force for good (Wells, after all, wrote about atom bombs and destructive wars), but because they retained a belief in the possibility that humans could actually construct a better world if they put their minds to it. They were not necessarily wrong: for someone reading Morris’s novel in 1890, the world of 1969, with its sanitation, its vaccines, its indoor toilets, its free education and healthcare would have seemed a literal utopia.

That is not the dominant mode of writing about the future today, where not only is it hard to imagine a better future, it’s hard even to imagine a different one. Most science-fiction novels and films pander to currently fashionable tastes, and describe worlds that are very closely related to our own, even if they are notionally in the future. Either they are, broadly, a slight extension of modern, progressive western societies, or they are dystopias which feature everything that such societies are afraid of. Part of the attraction of science fiction in the past, however, was that it was prepared to consider at least the possibility of societies very different from our own, albeit often based on an extrapolation of existing trends. Sometimes this was for satiric purposes, as in the novels of Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbluth, sometimes more seriously, as when Robert Heinlein set out to ask what a future society based, like ancient Athens, on citizenship in return for military service would actually be like, and how it would function. It would be unusual to find anything as adventurous today.

Indeed, the adventurousness of the ideas in classic science fiction was often a stronger point than the characterisation: not unusual for an art-form which is itself a kind of mythology. Thus, the early SF magazines deliberately chose titles like Astounding and Thrilling Wonder Stories to emphasise their difference from everyday fiction. It’s probably not a coincidence that the boom in SF began just as Africa—about which little was really known in the West until the 1880s—began to lose its traditional status as the location for marvellous imaginary adventures.

Unsurprisingly, some early, gifted writers used the trappings of science fiction purely as a framework for stories involving symbolism and philosophy. The “science” in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus is nothing more than a cursory plot device, and the solar system of CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy owes much more to medieval cosmology than to modern discoveries, although to be fair he does attempt to show the effects of lower gravity on Mars, for example. In each case, the “science” is secondary to the extraordinarily adventurous and imaginative mythological story, which is not something we would expect to see today.

But both books demonstrate the fundamental virtue of science fiction as a genre: that, unlike fantasy, it can present us with plausible worlds very different from our own, and make us think about the political, moral and even spiritual consequences. Neither Lindsay nor Lewis was a scientist, but James Blish (1921-75) was. As a writer Blish was nothing if not adventurous: his “Okie” stories about whole cities wandering the Galaxy, and heavily influenced by the theories of Oswald Spengler, end with nothing less than the creation of a new universe. He had a keen interest in metaphysics and religion, and his masterpiece, A Case of Conscience (1959) concerns a Jesuit priest, member of a scientific expedition to a planet which appears to be a Utopia, yet whose inhabitants apparently have no religion. (This is pre-Vatican II, by the way.) In turn, the book was part of a loose trilogy After Such Knowledge which, inspired by the quotation from TS Eliot, asked whether the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake could not lead to disaster. (The other two  books were Doctor Mirabilis, about the life of Roger Bacon, and a novel in two parts about a modern demonologist and forbidden knowledge. Nothing if not ambitious.)

Which brings us, through a number of other interesting stories and novels for which there is no space here, to the figure of Philip K Dick (1928-82) who used the conventional props of pulp science fiction (space ships, ray guns) to worry away for decades at questions of epistemology and ontology, before turning, in his last years, to writing novels drenched in Gnostic theology. His best-known, if not most typical novel, The Man in the High Castle (1962) takes the conventional trope of an Axis victory in World War II, but then imagines, in hallucinatory detail, a Japanese-dominated California, where the I Ching is consulted by everyone, and becomes, indeed, a character in the novel itself, if not its explanation.

The extent to which the end of the Apollo programme, and the consequent end of the Space Age helped to dry up inspiration and the sense of adventure in western culture generally is something that is difficult to prove empirically, since it involves value-judgements, but it seems to me to be broadly the case. It was the end of the final frontier, and it coincided with, and perhaps helped to produce, the triumph of the inward-looking, post-modernist, deconstructionist approach to culture, where art was increasingly “about” art, or “interrogated” art, or any other of the tiresome clichés which still turn up in programme notes fifty years later, as though there was something new and daring about them. Of course, there are outstanding practitioners of genre as its own subject in mainstream fiction (Pynchon, Wallace, Calvino, Nabokov, Eco), and in the cinema (Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, even Monty Python and Woody Allen), but too often it’s just an excuse for warming up old stereotypes for the umpteenth time, because nobody can come up with anything new.

There’s another component we have lost as well. There has always been a type of science fiction (“hard” is the usual terminology) which is based on known physical laws and realistic technology. At its best, such work has a kind of classicist feel to it: a great deal of ingenuity in the little room available for manoeuvre. (As compared to series like Star Trek where, according to those who worked on it, every time a plot hole required a new technology, it was simply written into the script.) Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1954) is a classic example: the story its about exploring a planet where gravity varies enormously between the equator and the poles, and the challenges the expedition has to solve. It’s not an adventure story as such, still less a metaphysical one, but it’s a sober presentation of skilled professionals using their training and ingenuity to overcome dangerous problems: another cultural form that has largely disappeared today, but was common in the mainstream novels of authors like Neville Shute and Nigel Balchin for example. This was the dominant mode in hard SF as well—often written by scientists and engineers at a time when these professions were valued more than they are now. Arthur C Clarke’s Earthlight (1955) is not only a realistic presentation of political tensions between a future Earth and its planetary colonies, it also contains a rigorously scientific (and very vivid) description of a space battle, with not a laser cannon in sight. But of course Clarke, who had already written the transcendent Childhood’s End (1953)  went on to co-write 2001 with Stanley Kubrick. There seems to be something in science fiction that aches to talk about Really Big Ideas, in a way that mainstream fiction stopped doing decades ago.

But how does popular culture deal with a situation where there isn’t going to be any deep-space exploration any more, and where we have turned in on ourselves, and against each other, rather than being interested in adventures and heroes? Let me conclude by mentioning three writers with different approaches (you may well have more.) One is Iain M. Banks, (1954-2013), who effectively cheated by making his protagonists humanoid, but not from Earth, and so not subject to the same cultural (sic) limitations. His protagonists—significantly, they are not really heroes—come from a post-scarcity Culture (sic) in which Artificial Intelligences make most of the decisions, and resources for interstellar travel are freely available. But in spite of Banks’s best efforts, as I have suggested elsewhere, the Culture comes across as a rather boring place, somewhat like a safe playground for children, and its citizens have to go outside to find adventure and even meaning in their lives. (In essence, the Culture books, fun as they are to read, and much as I like them, are updated versions of the children’s adventure stories of CS Lewis, or even Enid Blyton.)

Meanwhile, Neal Asher (1961—), purveyor of exuberant crash-bang-wallop space opera, chose to set his breathless stories in a universe also run by AIs, and therefore free of irritating considerations of scarcity and conflict. Again, you get the impression that life of Earth must be pretty boring, but fortunately there are some xenocidal species on hand to liven things up a bit. Finally, Alastair Reynolds (1966-) has made a speciality of stories limited to known physical principles, including slower-than-light drives, with complex and often character-driven plots, showing, once again, resourceful people meeting and in most cases overcoming, danger and challenges.

None of the last three mentioned authors could be described as “new:” all started publishing more than thirty years ago, and all know (knew in Banks’s case) and respect the conventions of the past. Their stories involved heroes, adventures ) and Really Big Ideas, as well as problems solved by intelligence and often courage. (I’m trying to think of any modern mainstream novelist of recent years about whom that could be said.)

Does it matter? Aren’t we just at a stage of social evolution where we have left heroes, adventures and Big Ideas safely behind us? Perhaps, but the problem is that the world itself has something to say here. Compared to the comfortable 1950s and early 1960s, when the majority of the books discussed above were written, today’s world is full of unprecedented dangers; environmental, health, political, economic and military. But as a society, we have become enclosed and autophagic: the main activity throughout the Covid crisis was finding others to blame. We are no longer interested in Big Questions, except through transient best-sellers, we have deconstructed heroism and seek only the antiseptic facsimile of adventure. We no longer prize knowledge and expertise, only cunning. The end of the Space Age, in culture as well as in reality, marked the beginning of this turning inward. Had we used that energy so released to solve the problems of this world it would be a reasonable exchange, but in practice we only made the problems worse, and now we have to deal with them, without being culturally equipped to do so. Insofar as one can judge from bookstores, our only heroes today are businessmen and bankers, all other candidates having been deconstructed to death. I don’t think they are going to save us. “Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,” lamented Kahil Gibran. What he would have made of billionaires as heroes, I can’t even imagine.