Sci-Fi and the Trans-simian Future

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

By Cynthia G. Wagner and Patrick Tucker

A televised marathon of the Planet of the Apes movies inspired a few thoughts about what science fiction thinks of the future of civilization.

Of Apes and Futurists

After shaking my head over spending nine hours of a perfectly good Saturday watching TV, I have a few thoughts about the Planet of the Apes series. Most interesting to me was that the legendary sci-fi film franchise was born at about the same time as the World Future Society. In fact, the Franklin J. Schaffner-directed original (1968) was probably being filmed when THE FUTURIST newsletter was putting out its first few mimeographed pages.

Never having seen any of the Ape films before, I appreciated the opportunity to watch them in sequence. Following the original were Beneath the Planet of the Apes(1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).

It’s hard not to be charmed by the wit and humanity of chimpanzee protagonists Cornelius and Zira, so they kept me committed to the marathon at least through the end of Escape. At that point, I really wanted to see how the idea of the future as multiple lanes on a highway leading to different destinations would play out. I think the writers really got it right on that particular view of the future.

The idea of proactively changing the future was also strongly present, especially in Escape: The sinister Dr. Otto Hasslein argued for doing something about all the world’s problems, naming war and pollution (always big, but particularly critical in the late 1960s Zeitgeist) as most in need of attendance.

But then his solution went after the wrong problem. He wanted to kill the smart chimps to prevent the future they represented. Nobody thought to address the issue that created the problem in the first place: a global pet pandemic. Chase scenes and warring simians had more plot potential, I suppose, than pharmaceutical R&D to create a vaccine that would save mankind’s beloved (and obedient) puppies and kitties.

Much of science fiction serves as an allegory for the present, so the heavy-handed bomb worship in Beneathcould be expected. Without putting too fine a point on it, all ends well for the planet at the end of Battle,thanks to the accuracy of Hasslein’s theory of lane changing. Species (races) begin to learn to live with diversity and equality, which was the only true hope for the future all along.—CGW

Night of the Living Dead Ape

The year 1968 also saw the birth of another genre of dystopian storytelling, the Night of the Living Deadfranchise. The parallels between the ape apocalypse and the zombie apocalypse are remarkable, and both speak to a sudden and acute fear of the future. But they seem to take very different points of view on the cause of man’s ultimate downfall.

Franklin J. Schaffner’s original Apes classic seems like a condemnation of society as a whole, for the polite way we go about institutionalizing our worst crimes. The apes walk, talk, and consider themselves very refined. But they are still apes capable of violence, brutality, tyranny, and, most importantly, racial oppression. The movie ends with the realization, on the part of the human protagonist, that man’s downfall has been caused not by apes, but by man. When we reached the apogee of human civilization, we destroyed ourselves. Therefore, it is our notion of “civilization” that is flawed. The apes are simply repeating our error. The planet of the apes is the planet of man. They are the same.

George Romero’s zombie classic seems an indictment against human nature itself. Any pretense of civilization is swept away in the first few moments of the film. There is no caste system to revolt against. Before long, the human characters confined to the country house are tearing at one another as viciously as the zombies pawing at the doors and windows. The suggestion is that civilization is a flimsy screen that we employ to hide from ourselves the brutal truth of humanity’s innate villainy.

How should we view these two competing interpretations of man’s demise in the context of the actual events of 1968? This was a year that saw the steady escalation of the Vietnam War beginning with Tet Offensive in January and the infamous My Lai massacre later that year, as well as race riots, police crackdowns against civil-rights marchers, and the suppression of war protests across the United States.

Importantly, 1968 also saw the landmark signing of the Civil Rights Act, suggesting that, in the midst of chaos, man can actually become more sensitive to injustice and brutality, not less. Perhaps these movies are a symptom of that. [For more on this, see David Rosen’s review of The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America by Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles.]—PT

Back to The Futurist

I don’t think any prediction appearing in the pages of THE FUTURIST has made me scratch my head more vigorously than the one authored by Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg in the second issue of the newsletter, April 1967: “Intelligent Apes Become Chauffeurs.”

Seaborg’s prediction was offered as an alternative for housewives who might be uncomfortable with the idea of robot servants. It was based on a forecast from the RAND Corporation that “by the year 2020 it may be possible to breed intelligent species of animals, such as apes, that will be capable of performing manual labor.” The RAND forecast, circa 1965, may have been inspired in part by the 1963 story upon which Planet of the Apes was based, La planète des singes by Pierre Boulle.

But as we approach the year 2020, it seems likely that we will be spared worrying about uprisings (yet) from either simian or robotic chauffeurs, thanks to prospects for self-driving cars and automated highways. In a transhuman (or trans-simian) future, our hope remains that human “advances” will lead to improvements in our own humanity, starting at the least with reductions in road rage.—CGW

About the Authors

Cynthia G. Wagner is editor of THE FUTURIST.

Patrick Tucker is the deputy editor of THE FUTURIST magazine and director of communications for the World Future Society.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2013

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