A Long Long Time Ago, A Galaxy Far Away
I’ve spent more of 2016 thinking about the eighties than I have thinking about 2016.
This started at the end of last year. A new Star Wars film; the first in more than thirty years to take the story forward, and the first in thirty to really look back.
Of course that’s partly true, and partly not. The Star Wars films have always messed with our sense of time, haven’t they? It’s right there in the opening moments of the first – also the fourth – movie; a long time ago, in a galaxy that looks like it’s far, far in our future.
So this isn’t the first time Star Wars has looked back and forward. Lucas has done that twice already – first he revisited the original trilogy and applied a veneer of state-of-the-art future-facing technology to the special effects, and then he doubled-down – dipped further back into the chronology of that universe, but pushed the technology used into the future of film-making.
Arguably further into the future than we’d reached at that point: he was trying to make a film with minimal live-action acting and very few physical sets, and make it all feel real, and we probably weren’t quite there yet, back then.
But looking back and moving forward; looking forward but moving back. Star Wars is like that. In the Star Wars present, everything looks old. In the Star Wars past, everything is shiny.
I’ve been looking at this week’s Elephant Image since last year. What immediately struck me about it was that these planes, instantly recalling cinema memories of World War, looked impossibly futuristic. I’ve never seen them look so polished and metallic on screen, always tarnished by the grit of battle. And I’m already primed to see old metal birds like these as simultaneously of the past and the future. I grew up reading Dan Dare – already an historic artefact by the eighties, but going through a revival in the weeklies – and watching old pulpy science fiction serials – films from the fifties which imagined worlds distant and futuristic, being shown on TV after school was done.
Star Wars itself borrowed so heavily from the same old pulps – Lucas taking a Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers aesthetic, and applying it to borrowed John Carter world-building.
But I didn’t realise til much later – because I was a kid with his head in very specific clouds, and much preferred space fantasy to war movies and history books – that whole sections of A New Hope are really a heavy-handed homage to old World War Two flicks like the Dambusters. I didn’t know anything about aviation of the period, but the turrets and the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon meant that when I did start watching those old war movies, the bombers were instantly familiar to me.
Earlier today I was talking to someone I used to know really well, but now only ever bump into on the bus, and we were talking about Shadowrun. We used to play that game back in the early nineties, but people are revisiting it a lot right now.
The conceit of the world of Shadowrun is that it’s a cyberpunk world, borrowing heavily from among other things the early novels of William Gibson, but with a magic twist. It’s a little more overblown than Gibson’s work; a little more campy. But at heart that world is what speculative writers in the eighties thought things would be like today. Going back to that world now has a peculiar doppler effect – you see that imagined future through your younger eyes, and simultaneously see it as a nostalgic artefact of the past.
Gibson himself wrote about a similar phenomenon in “The Gernsback Continuum” – visions of the future from the 1950s overlaying themselves onto his protagonist’s present. Our aspirations and inspirations catching up to our reality. Twisting them.
Me, in the eighties. Such a sad kid that I spent my days and nights terrified of nuclear war, but so spacey that when I heard the OMD song – an irritating, repetitive piece of the wallpaper of the decade – I had no idea what Enola Gay actually was.
I’m such a spacey adult that when I found and posted this image – even when I copy/pasted the name of it, and all the weeks since – I just didn’t register that it was Enola Gay. My head was too full of space battles.
And then, of course, Bowie.
When I first heard of Bowie, he was a dumb old pop star, dancing in the street with another dumb old pop star. I wasn’t interested – he was old music, and I considered myself forward looking at that point, because I was a dumb fucking teenager and we all do.
And then he was the creepy old sexy guy in Labyrinth, and that cemented him as a piece of the past for me.
(He was 39 when he made that film. As I write this I’m 42. And a half. Teenagers are idiots.)
But Bowie was a man from the future before I’d ever heard from him. And we’re only just catching up to what he was then, now. As we caught up, he shifted into something else. A weird, beautiful, oldyoung doppler man.
2016 so far. The past car-crashing into the present, and the future dying on the horizon.
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