It begins with imagination.
We're a big world with big challenges. If our future world is going to be anything much worth looking forward to, we need confidence to be bold enough to do big things and solve big problems. That effort requires inspiration to believe that the future can be better than today.
And all that is even before the budget cycle.
In his excellent book, "Space and the American Imagination", Howard McCurdy points out that any sort of project that's never been done before first requires a leap of imagination that the goal itself is possible. That's especially true for great challenges — solving our energy/climate conundrum, sending a man to the moon before 1970, instantaneous global communication, the Trans-Continental Railroad, feeding 10 billion people...pick your example. Doing things that have never been done before takes resources. Getting resources requires political support, and if people don't believe in the possibility of success, they won't support it or provide those resources no matter how desirable it might be in principle.
I was surfing around Kickstarter and ran across a 1950s sci-fi inspired film project called "Space Command". It's described as being "a series of new and original feature films written, produced, directed by and starring some of the top science-fiction visionaries working today." Usually this sort of thing doesn't impress me so much, but the endorsements from Neil Gaiman, Damon Lindelof, Guillermo del Toro, and others piqued my interest. The filmmakers have resumes with street cred: they've worked as writers/directors/production for Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek–TNG, Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 and Sliders.
So I watched their promo video:
Despite the 50s Chesley Bonestell-inspired, Buck Rogers sort of whiz-bang approach, the filmmakers say they are keen to NOT approach the project as ironic or cynical, but rather to try to entertain, genuinely inspire peoples' imaginations and depict "humanity at its best". How refreshing. It immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Hieroglyph Project, which is aimed at
rally[ing] writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, “get big stuff done.”
There's a reason that 1950s science fiction was important beyond its simple escapism (and regardless how unrealistic from a physics or economics point of view). The sci-fi genre films, books, and TV shows of that era — Space Patrol, Star Trek, Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury et al. — inspired a generation to enter science and engineering, and thus underpinned American technological competence, innovation, and economic growth for the next couple of decades. We're currently so cynical and dystopia-minded that we're at serious risk of losing that dynamism and sense of efficacy — and with it, a future worth living in.
I can ironize, cynicize, and pessimize with the best of them: my professional work is focused on climate change and biodiversity, so I'm well aware of how scary the future often looks. But — and I'm pretty sure I'm not merely projecting — too much realism and cynicism would spell our doom. The inspiration provided by art (which nowadays is transmitted mostly through TV and movies) is critical if we're to be bold enough to do big things and solve big problems. If we don't believe we can shape our future in positive ways... We. Are. Screwed.
It's not that I think we're going to colonize space next week or twenty years from now. (It depends on what you mean by "colonization"!) But we need optimistic visions that inspire people to become better versions of themselves, solve daunting problems, and create a future that's better than today.
Space Command and projects like it are important. Grand civilizational challenges are not merely technical. Or political, or economic. They're also cultural. People have to be inspired to believe they can do them.
But hey, no pressure or anything. I don't know if these films will be great, good, or barely above sucking, but I kicked in some bucks just because this seems like a healthy step in the right direction. They won't save the world. But I imagine they might be good.
So I encourage readers to support it too. They filmmakers have already raised far more than their original goal but are still taking support until July 14.
P.S. A note to the filmmakers. It's not about the hardware. It's about the humans, who despite their flaws strive for excellence and pull together to do something good. Not sure who your Klingons will be but I'm sure you'll find a suitable dramatic device. I'm sure you already get all this but... jus' sayin'.