It’s a Mad, MAD Future

It’s a Mad, MAD Future

I remembered Al Jaffee the Fold-In Genius. I had forgotten Al Jaffee the futurist.

In case you think I’ve gone MAD, let me explain.

You may have seen the obituaries that went around recently proclaiming the death of MAD magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee at the age of 102. The impish Al was a key part of the magazine’s snark and satire, especially after creating the Fold-In … a back cover drawing that would set up a question, only to reveal a new drawing with a punchline answer when folded together. (“What favorite of both kids and parents is guaranteed to be around forever? … Discarded disposable diapers.”)

But as one CBC story reminded me, Jaffee also drew parody ads for the magazine, using a familiar Madison Avenue approach to promote completely outrageous things.

You know, like a phone that remembers what you just dialed even when you don’t.

Or a razor with multiple blades.

Or … well,  you get the idea.

I’m not saying that Jaffee had a pipeline to the future. Plenty of his ad gags turned out to be just that, products that were laughable then and now. But there were just enough hits to be a little scary. And that nails a basic truth: if you want to see what’s coming next, it helps if your glasses are a little cockeyed.

A lot of us live lives that assume tomorrow will be just like today, only with stranger music. From one angle, that doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, we’re learning from experience and building reflexes, so we extrapolate from what we already know.

That works for a while … until it doesn’t. Even on a personal scale, we know this. A healthy life can change without warning. A job can go away or mutate beyond recognition. Yesterday’s friend can be tomorrow’s memory. Those kind of shocks hit hard.

And on a larger scale? Many science fiction authors have warned that they write great stories but poor prophecies. One ironic example: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” a series of stories about experts in reading the future, had a galactic society with practically no computers. (He would eventually rectify that in the 1980s.)

Sure, sometimes something clicked. But the biggest successes have often come from writers who didn’t take the subject too seriously. Who were willing to be outright silly, in fact.

Take “A Logic Named Joe,” a hilariously screwball story from the 1940s that also happened to anticipate personal home computers, linked databases, natural-language queries and parental controls.

Or “The Jetsons,” where videoconferencing was so common that even doctor’s visits were done remotely.

Or of course, Al Jaffee, who thought he was kidding when he mock-advertised a stamp that would save you the trouble of licking it.

What can I say? Sometimes it pays to be weird.

In fact, it can be downright liberating.

It’s not natural for many of us. After all, it’s risky to break with what “everyone knows.” Most of us don’t like the idea of looking silly or taking a step into the unknown.

But the unknown comes whether we’re ready or not. And sometimes yesterday’s conventional thinking proves to be sillier than even the most satirical writer could have dreamed.

We don’t know everything. And when we admit that – when we leave ourselves open to new possibilities, however strange – that’s when we can start to build a future.

Maybe Al taught us well. Look at the picture in front of you, sure … but be willing to fold it up to see the answer you need.

It’s a MAD idea. But it just might work.

An Andy-dote to Dystopia

My tastes in science fiction have gotten extremely Weir-d.

You probably know Andy Weir’s work, even if you don’t recognize his name immediately. It hasn’t been that long since his first novel, “The Martian,” was all over Hollywood. The tale of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet captured movie audiences as surely as it held readers spellbound with his struggle to survive (while keeping his ability to wisecrack intact, naturally).

Well, now Andy’s back in a big way. His latest book, “Project Hail Mary,” pretty much hijacked me for the night –“Sleep? What’s that?” – and left me with no regrets for the extra caffeine in the morning. It’s hard to say too much without giving everything away, since the story reveals its secrets one layer at a time, but suffice to say that waking up on a spaceship without any memory of who you are or why you’re supposed to be there is one of those situations that makes being a Martian castaway look positively comfortable.

Why do I get so into Weir? Part of it is because he’s a “hard” science fiction writer in an age where that’s less common than it used to be, a teller of tales where science and engineering are both key plot points and useful tools. A friend joked that Andy tricks people into reading textbooks by disguising them as novels, which is more complimentary than it might sound. Put simply, he makes science cool.

But there’s more to it than that. For me, what really makes Andy Weir stand out is that his stories are hopeful.

In an age where dystopia sells, that’s no small thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in cotton-candy visions of the future where life is perfect and everyone has their own jet pack. (Well, maybe the jet pack.) In a world that’s gone through crisis after crisis – biological, ecological, political, social – stories of utopia sound hollow or even a little desperate. The trouble is that most dystopias are just upside-down utopias … which to me, makes them about as interesting.

I’m not alone in this. Isaac Asimov once wrote that the two were flip sides of the same coin: that the chorus of “everything is bad, bad, bad” was just as monotonous as the chorus of “everything is good, good, good.” Stories are about change, while utopias and dystopias are a sign of paralysis. An ideal society has no way to change except for the worse, while a dystopia has frequently lost the ability to change. (Indeed, the few in the genre that I do care for, such as “The Hunger Games,” are stories where the possibility of change and improvement are re-awakened.)

Dystopias have a use as tools – the alarm bell in the night of dangers that await if action isn’t taken. But a steady diet of them steals hope, implanting the idea that there is no action to be taken, simply pain to be endured.

And if that’s truly the case, what’s the point of a warning?

Especially when a story has the power to do so much more.

Stories are an evocation of who we are. They let us struggle with our fears and reach for our dreams. And yes, at their best, they teach hope … not that good stuff will always happen to those who deserve it, but that with work and effort, it’s possible to make things different.

That’s not the same as a guaranteed “happy ever after.” Some heroes fail. Some tales are tragedies. Some victories are won at a cost, for either the people involved or the world around them.  But the struggle is there. The possibility is there. In our stories and in ourselves.

In an often dark time, I’ll take that glimmer of light offered by Weir and others like him. It just may lead somewhere worth going.

And that’s an Andy thing to have.

The Doctor and the Professor

In some ways, the Doctor and the Professor couldn’t seem more different.

The Doctor looked toward a fantastic future, built among the stars and shared with a race of mechanical men. The Professor looked toward a mythical past, sheltered amidst the trees and hills and shared with beings older than mankind.

One wrote at high speed in a utilitarian style that kept the stories coming and coming. The other labored over each word, considering the history of every drop of color and whisper of wind.

And for fans of the fantastic like myself, the New Year hasn’t really started without them. Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the biggest names in science fiction, born January 2. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the godfather of modern fantasy, born January 3.

Am I geeking out here? Maybe just a little. But it really is just that cool.

Part of it, of course, is memory. My love for Tolkien was born in elementary school, reinforced by many hobbit-filled reading nights with my dad where we delighted in every new character and voice. (I still envy Dad’s booming Treebeard, just as I think he always appreciated my attempts at the hardworking Sam Gamgee’s accent.) Asimov’s work I met a little later, encouraged in part by a science teacher who felt that no robotics club was complete without the Good Doctor.

Obviously, I’ve got a lot of company – including the Doctor and the Professor themselves, as it turned out. Asimov was one of the few “modern” writers that Tolkien genuinely enjoyed reading; Asimov, for his part, once mentioned that he’d read The Lord of the Rings five times and was genuinely surprised when his own Foundation series beat it out for a Hugo award. But it’s more than pleasure and nostalgia.

The truth is, there couldn’t be a better way to start the year. Because in doing so, we look toward the truly human.

I know that sounds strange. Asimov solidified robots in the modern imagination, while Tolkien introduced us to hobbits and all their kin. But both writers, even in their most epic tales, built everything on the most simple and basic of human qualities.

In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the problems of the world aren’t solved by mighty armies and powerful leaders. Instead, it comes from the compassion and determination of simple folk, knowing they’re not up to the job, but doing their best for as long as they can.

In Asimov’s worlds of the future, the answers don’t come from vast armadas and epic battles – in fact, violence is mocked by one character as “the last resort of the incompetent.” Instead, the key is to use your reason to understand the world and the people around you, knowing that if you can see what the problem actually is, the solution may be simpler than you think.

Heart. Mind. An awareness that other people matter – whatever their origin –  and a disdain for the pride and hatred that often sets them apart.

We still need all of that today. Maybe now more than ever.

And if we let it be nothing more than a fantasy, then we’re writing ourselves a very dark tale, indeed.

So go ahead. Look to the promise of the future. Take heart in the legends of the past. And use the tales of both to see our present moment more clearly. That’s what will give us the humanity to reach beyond the threats and fear that haunt our times – to build a world together rather than destroy it apart.

It’s a vital lesson.

And it’s one the Doctor and the Professor are still waiting to teach.