Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Polishing the Golden Ages

Though the last man alive, whenever he lives, will be justified in believing times were better in the past, that belief is a common thread that winds through the labyrinth of history. Today everything - comic books, the CBC, hats - seem to have experienced Golden Ages. The idea of the "golden age" as a purer, more enlightened, yet departed time was expressed in mythologies around the ancient world. The science fiction field alone has two of them (c. 1939 to 1959, and twelve).

The idea of social golden ages have their own haunting power, the more so because by their very nature they can't be recognized as such until they're gone. The mere definition of the recent past as a golden age implies that things have gone downhill since then. Science fiction has run with this concept very well in the past.

Last week I picked up a 1974 anthology entitled 2020 Vision, or possibly 20/20 Vision, edited by Jerry Pournelle and including stories by such luminaries as Poul Anderson, Norman Spinrad, Larry Niven and A.E. van Vogt. In his preface, Pournelle writes that while 2020 Vision originally began as a collection of stories which the author of each "truly believed" might take place in the year 2020, there emerged a unifying theme of "do we now, or will we soon, live in a Golden Age?"

From behind his typewriter in 1974, Pournelle did put forth a plausible argument that events could drive much of the world into poverty and despair well before 2009, let alone 2020. Sure, so far we've stood out of the long shadow of nuclear war - and the recent news from Moscow is even more encouraging on that front - but the global problems of pollution and overpopulation, and in the West a shrinking workforce supporting a massive pool of retirees, are with us still. In 1974 the free world was still riding high thanks to the boom years after the Second World War, tensions with the Soviet Union were relatively low, and the United States had yet to learn the lessons of Vietnam.

From behind my laptop in 2009, though, I have to wonder if the 1970s really were a golden age, and whether future generations might look back to them as such now that the history of those years has been written. Personally, though, when I think of the 1970s, I don't think of a golden age. I think of years of malaise, of years when the world stopped reaching for the stars, of bad polyester leisure suits and orange shag carpeting.

If I had to point to some point of recent history as a golden age, I'd go to the 1990s - specifically, 1991-2001. The Cold War was over, the early 1990s recession had effectively lifted, the international system was sufficiently peaceful and stable for Francis Fukuyama to declare that liberal democracy had won forever, new technologies were making more people more prosperous, and the future seemed bright. It wasn't until after September 11 that North America's "vacation from history" ended and the gold was put away. This represents, however, a very Western golden age; things were not nearly so rosy in places like Russia, Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Globalization or no, the world system is far too fragmented for things to be good and rosy everywhere.

Then again, I was born in 1982, and am a child of the 1990s. My entire experience with the 1970s is by necessity filtered through the opinions of others. Whether or not the 70s were a golden age, this is the sort of argument you can't have without knowing what a golden age is in the first place. Seeing as how that's an intensely subjective issue, I asked around.

Tesseract, of Screaming through Static: "When the greatest number of people are happy. Definitely not 2009."

Alex, roommate: "It's a society in which everyone respects the rights of everyone else, there's full egalitarianism, and the lowest possible percentage of homelessness and lack of education, and prosperity. Where everything is as close to perfect, in terms of general happiness and niceness, as you can get with human beings."

Acts of Minor Treason reader Professor S, harvesting brains in South Korea: "I would say that it is a point of significant power (political, military, cultural, economic, not necessarily all, but likely more than one) which includes a period of increasing rise in power, refinement, and complexity resulting in rising prosperity for a large segment of the population."

Similar in outline, different in the details. From my perspective, I doubt they explain the 1970s any better than they describe 2009.

A social golden age being "a time where everything was awesome" is something that pretty much everyone can agree on, but the details of what constitutes awesome always vary. An extreme social conservative might think of the 1950s as a golden age, because it was when women and minorities Knew Their Place. Others might think of it as when beer was cheap and music was good. For a few, it doesn't even have to happened yet. As David Brin wrote in his 2002 article "J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress," modern Western society is rare in that it has, "with its impudent notion of progress, brashly relocated any 'golden age' to the future, something we might work toward, a human construct for our grandchildren to achieve... assuming that we manage to prepare them."

People will only ever agree on the broad strokes of what constitutes a golden age. I don't know whether Jerry Pournelle today thinks the 1970s were a golden age after all, or whether future generations will come to think of them that way, but in the end that's not my decision to make. It may yet be that despite dark clouds and rumors of war, David Brin is right, and the great golden age is yet to come.

All I know is that if you're looking forward to a golden age, just make sure your base has plenty of Talents and no Drones, and you can't go wrong.

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