Greetings, fellow 'bots.
This essay was brought to my attention by Kelloggs2066, in relation to my "Remedial SF 101" lecture. I found it to be so well-written and interesting that I felt I should share it with you. So I contacted the author, received his permission to reprint it here--although he asked me to use his pseudonym, which I respect--and I hope you find it to be as fascinating as I did.
This New Age of Power and Wonder by MadRocketSci
Back in the mid 1800’s through the 1960’s, especially during the turn of the century, during the Belle Époque in continental Europe, the Victorian era in the British colonies, and the so-called “Gilded Age” in the United States, people believed in the future. This was more than just believing that the trend of one day following another would continue as time advanced. Back then, a large portion of society was aware of and believed in progress – the idea that with education, effort, and discipline, technology and society could be improved and that the future would be better.
This was a rather radical idea. Most societies throughout the history of the world were Romantic and backwards looking. They believed in lost golden ages or paradise in the distant past, and could only look with loathing and fear towards a degenerate future. In the tradition of the Romantic authors, mankind’s attempts to harness nature and improve his condition were sacrilege and blasphemy, and could only end in horror.
I am reluctant to call the former attitude Progressive to avoid conflating it with the modern political ideology that crudely attempts to own the future through its naming convention. (By and large, the Progressives aren’t Progressive in this sense at all: the Green subset of the movement fears and opposes a technological and abundant future. In the past, before the 70’s era neo-Malthusianism, there seemed to be a group of truly progressive leftists, and their loss is a loss for the movement IMO.) For the scope of the article, I’ll adopt the naming convention of Futurist – Romanticist axis.
These attitudes have been with mankind in varying degrees among people with varying temperaments since at least the ancient Greeks, probably since the dawn of speech. The classical Greeks, being scarily intelligent people (at least the ones who took the time to write), were probably some of the first to seriously toy with the Futurist attitude. Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t recall many other ancient cultures generating legends where their heroes defeat their foes through cunning (metis) and technology, rather than brute strength and divine magic. Who else would have Archimedes and his mirrors burning the enemy fleets of Rome against Syracuse?
But aside from the few comparative “bright spots” in ancient human history, the Romantic mode was the dominant mode of human thought. That began to change in the 1500s, until by the mid 1800s it was a dominant social force. In some respects, the characteristics of the era drove the Futurist mode of thinking to the forefront. If you were a peasant in one of the Prussian kingdoms in the mid 1800’s you could, within a single lifetime, witness the transformation of your world from one of primeval forests and cruel feudal principalities to one where industrial city states and walled merchant cities forced back the boundaries of untamed nature, where vibrant universities worked through all the mysteries of classical physics, and where innovation gave rise to factories, clocks, trains, electrification, flight, and the fumbling beginnings of scientific medicine. In America and the European colonies, the more familiar situation was the same: Edison, Westinghouse and Marconi tamed electricity and put it in the service of mankind. Mass production brought what was once fabulous wealth (not just cars, but *gasp* metal silverware and tools, large amounts of clothes, food and toiletries and cleaning supplies, pianos and sewing machines – this list of radical improvements is endless) into the reach of the average man. Horrifying plagues that previous civilizations cowered before were eradicated. These people were literally living in “the world of tomorrow” (at least until, in continental Europe, WWI tore that world apart). The literature of this era was the Jules Verne scientific romance (in continental Europe), and the Edisonade (in America).
There is a sort of retro-futurist fantasy literary movement called “steam-punk” (Think Wild-Wild-West) these days which attempts to embellish this era by giving them more technology and making it more ubiquitous than it actually