I started writing the title of this piece, a take on the templated titles of the Tom Swift and Tom Swift, Jr. series, and got past the word techno then for the life of me couldn’t think of the word that meant hoping, thinking, or believing that the future is going to be okay. Mentally, I went though acrobatics, even thinking, What’s the opposite of pessimism?
That went on for only a few seconds really—far less than a minute—but even as the word “optimism” finally floated back into my consciousness I realized the damage I was planning to address with this post had clearly affected me more than I was already imagining.
In fact, I was imagining this was happening to other people, even most other people… everyone else…? in America. But not me. I’m the guy who doesn’t “believe,” but recognizes that yes, our technology has caused unmistakable damage to our planet, and it’ll have to be our technology that fixes it. I know that the entire world is a better place right now than it ever was in the past, even if we can point to a bunch of negatives in the news everyday. Like climate change we’re talking about overall effects, not necessarily your local, and definitely not your personal experience.
Read, if you haven’t yet, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and get back to me on that.
But though the democratic socialist utopia dreamed of in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is alive and well in places like Norway and the Netherlands, here in America we’re suffering rather more than we ought to be, and I think we all know why, much as many of us won’t want to admit it.
When I was a kid—and every year that goes by is another year since I was a kid, coming up on what could be fairly categorized as “a long time ago”—America thought differently. I’ll immediately stipulate that a lot of what America thought at the time was crap that we’re right to either have grown out of or are right to continue to struggle to grow out of (Cold War hyper-nationalism, legalized sexism and racism, Imperialism by any other name, and so on) we’ve lost something else along the way, something vital not just to the American Spirit (whatever that is, and opinions seem to vary considerably) or in any case the human spirit.
Hold on, for a second, for some context.
When I was a kid I had a couple copies of books in the old Tom Swift, Jr. series, published by Grosset & Dunlap starting in the mid-1950s, and continuing into the early- to mid-1970s, which is when they got to me. (I mean, I not that old!) These were written and presented in a similar vein as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but instead of solving traditional whodunnits, Tom Swift, boy inventor, invented new airplanes, rocketships, robots… a new gadget every book. He was seventeen years old, son of the original Tom Swift, who thrilled a much earlier generation of readers starting back in the 1910s.
In the Tom Swift, Jr. series, Tom, aided by his best buddy Bud, his sister and her friend who show up just often enough to solidify that science was for boys and that Tom and Bud were straight, and a handful of other minor characters, created some new technology, fought off commies and thieves who wanted his inventions for their own, and in the end succeeded in bringing some good to the world.
At least to America.
I’ve collected most of the series in some sort of weird, fiftysomething guy way of somehow reclaiming or re-experiencing his childhood, and have started to read them. I just finished the fifth book, Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster, and while I was reading it I started to look past the formulaic nature of them—and you can easily see after the third book how rigidly constructed they are—and somehow pulled out of it an unintentional relevance that knocked me back on my heals a bit.
Here is this character, created for and realized in simple middle grade chapter books, who was engaged in the hard sciences and old tech engineering projects, inventing new technologies, materials, vehicles, and so on, with an eye on making the world—at least the Western, Free World—a better, more comfortable place.
This is the era in which I grew up, a childhood largely unaffected by the hippies and all the drugs and sex the Baby Boomers were getting up to, and still entranced in a version of American Exceptionalism that seems to me to have been lost along the way. Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster got me wondering what happened to the concept of American Ingenuity.
I don’t want to write yet another article about how America has fallen into a period of decadence, and what we mean, specifically, when we invoke that word now. I don’t think I have to. It’s here. We’re living in what could be a technological paradise, where most of us walk around all day with a device in our pockets that immediately connects us with the sum total of all human knowledge and endeavor, but most of what they’re used for is teenage girls taking pictures of themselves in bathroom mirrors. And a few of them have become on-paper billionaires in the process. Tom Swift was making far less money inventing a space solartron and an electronic hydrolung.
What are we inventing in America in 2023? What are we actually doing?
We used to dream of a future. Science fiction for kids used to ask us to imagine ourselves in command of our own space station, now it asks kids to imagine being forced to kill each other in a desperate attempt to save what’s left of our family from some hateful fascist regime. And look what that’s done to us. That’s created a generation of young people who never experienced the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear annihilation or invasion from a foreign power but are convinced the world is falling into chaos. A generation that thinks crime is out of control but have no concept of the post-apocalyptic hellscape of cities like New York or Chicago in the seventies. Do we have a whole generation of kids who would rather be a post-modern angry superhero or an orc who opens her own coffee shop than the inventor of something or the explorer of someplace?
I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Every American boy of my generation did, which explains why a couple billionaires around my age are building their own rocketships. At least some of us, those, unlike me, who had some ability with math, went into various engineering fields and did invent stuff like that massively networked supercomputer you’re probably reading this on right now.
Then the next generation switched their majors to finance and squandered that brainpower getting rich by moving someone else’s money from place to place and in the process creating nothing, and all too often destroying what someone else might have been trying to accomplish because… why? He who dies with the most toys wins?
Wins what, exactly, no one ever said. And now we’ve gotten to the point that there are no new toys even, because the people smart enough to invent them are moving money around in circles instead of creating anything.
Who decided it was okay to take the next few generations off from even trying?
When did we give up?
I don’t know, but we did, and we can’t blame Tom Swift.
I think it was Ronald Reagan, but I could be wrong.
Read about the history of the Tom Swift books.
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.
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