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Look on my works, ye Mighty, and feel crummy!

“The future’s got me worried, such awful thoughts.
My head’s a carousel of pictures. The spinning never stops.”

– “Nothing Gets Crossed Out,” Bright Eyes

We went to see Interstellar on Monday, and it’s gotten me thinking about where we come from and where we’re going.

The movie itself was kind of bad. I liked it more than I didn’t, but they could have cut an hour of weepy-face out and lost nothing. I can only watch so much mawkish gawking at TV screens as loved ones pine and rage before my eyes roll back and I experience a little time dilation of my own (in the form of a nap). Or maybe that kind of moon-facery is required in a space epic. After all, Armageddon and Deep Impact both did it. In any case, the pace was awfully slow, and I found myself hoping somewhere in act two that one of those aliens that gave Ellen Ripley such trouble would show up and start eating people. The movie takes place over 80 years, and it felt like it.

You take the bad with the good, though. I loved the actual exploration of the planets. We had Planet Dog Years, where for every hour spent on the surface, seven years pass on Earth. And after that came Hoth (or Delta Vega or Rura Penthe or whatever ice planet floats your boat. And by the way, I thought single-biome planets had fallen out of fashion in science fiction?). Besides the heavy-handed symbolism of calling it Mann’s Planet, inhabited by one Dr. Mann, whom the other characters make sure to call “the best of us” again and again, and who embraces that very human quality of being totally and obviously a villain as soon as we meet him, the planet itself is visually interesting, the 10th-grade intellectualism spouted by the good doctor is at least semi-gripping, there’s a bit of ice-wrestling action with jet packs, and the chase back to the ship actually had me on the edge of my seat. I especially loved Dr. Mann’s whedonesque speech as he spends five minutes pressing buttons and moving a joystick around.

I have a lot more to say about the movie, but let’s leave it at that (don’t get me started on the blight).

Sometimes I wonder where we’re going as a species and a society. In 1817, Percy Shelley wrote Ozymandias. The poem is about inevitability and the slippage of time, about how what’s great now will one day be forgotten. And it’s true. We know little of the ancient kingdoms of Africa, the Mediterranean, Asia, et al. Even what we know about the Roman Empire, whose fragments still litter three continents, is minimal. Are we going to forget again? I only just learned this, but Shelley wrote Ozymandias in competition with a friend named Horace Smith, who penned a poem on the same subject and at the same time. It ends like this:

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

– “On A Stupendous Leg of Granite…”, Horace Smith

I like the optimism of science fiction. Especially of New Wave science fiction like Asimov and Heinlein and all those others writing in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. There’ll be flying cars and talking robots and aliens to fight and love. Quests to follow, the ends of which hold treasures and knowledge (and women, if you’re R. A. Heinlein). Next there’ll be progress, and after that more progress, until humanity has unturned every stone, learned every fact, covered every square inch of every planet in the universe, until the rough edge of existence fades and heat death turns every iota of space-time cold. It’s the same optimism in a movie like Interstellar, where Cooper and Murphy are tiny stepping stones in the great chain of progress leading us ever outward. I wonder if one day humankind will look upon their worlds and forget a time when we were bound to one alone–like how even now we forget what corner of the Earth cradled us, before we spread to cover its face.

Maybe there’s something good in forgetting. Maybe it means we’re ready for what comes next–whether it be good or bad.

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