Monday, October 08, 2007

Last Contact: 1900

Last Contact: 1900

The world changed in 1900, which isn't anything special. History, I heard once (in one of those pop culture moments of accidental wisdom), is replete with turning points, changing more here, less there, now for the better and there, often enough, for the worse. Even if civilizations seem to grow through periods of relative stasis and rapid change rather than gradually, every moment is still in flux, every tradition is already dying by the time it's recognized. Nostalgia, by definition, is clutching at the customs that the times have outgrown, grabbing at some imagined better past, dully remembered from childhood. The habits of our grandparents are changed even in our desperate attempt to preserve them.

For all that, it's comfortable for me to pin 1900 from my own point in history as a transformative moment. On one side of the century, I see all the strong associations with my modern life--automobiles, electronics, and global war--while on the other side there is another world, teeming with subsistence farmers, tuberculosis, and verbose novelists. One thing that intrigues me is the role of technology in that cultural shift, how much of those beloved traditions were based on the constraints of the times? How many of them were lost only because the alternatives were easier? (Pretty much all of them, I think.)

Reading some of Chekhov's short stories this past week (that'd be Anton, not, um, Pavel), I found myself puzzling about the Russian economy. It's one that enabled sloth, drunkenness and other gluttonies, which would seem, at a glance, to be unsopported by an unforgiving climate and a large dependent population. But there was a lot of real estate, for one thing, and the backs of innumerable serfs (even if they were liberated years before Chekhov's time) for another. One gets the feeling that life was cheap in Russia. The industrial revolution made it better for the peasant class, offering factory work as a slight elevation from abject poverty, still at a station well below the professionals, and distant as ever from the landowners. Chekhov painted many vignettes of the tension between the new technology and the old traditions. His rich decorated their estates with baubles: a concertina, a telephone, electric lights. Telegraph lines buzz through his pastoral landscapes, and rail touches the provinces to the heart of Moscow. The flicker of progress in his Russia is inevitable, irrepressible, changing everything and yet changing nothing. It makes lives better, but fails to cure society's ills--people are still people after all, and progress is much too slow for that, and too ingrained in the present. Is it any wonder that the Russians revolted? Freedom from bondage, economic growth, and the lives of 98% of them still managed to be total shit.

First contact stories tend to be bad (with exceptions), because of the focus, the icky exceptionalism, the false promises. The unquestioning love of progress is about as tedious as being stuck in the past. The better versions of this tale, and I'll call them "last contact" stories for want of a better distinction, carry a more complete sense of what's lost, what's gained, and how the transition comes both from the past and from the alien ideas. Geoff Ryman, one of the better authors you've never read, grabbed it in 2004. He opens his novel Air with "Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that, everyone else went on air." It seems odd to have life in the 1900 Moscow 'burbs to resonate so strongly with the science fictional central Asia of the 21st century, but it positively hummed. Ryman takes the future and the past with equal love and with equal reprobation and, like Chekhov, focuses narrowly on the characters living in their context. It's a sign of honest writing, good perceptions, and a sense of subtlety. More of an observer, Chekhov wasn't given to the same sort of moralizing harangues of the earlier 19th century Russian novelists. Still, he had his moments. Near the turn of the century, here's a quote from A Doctor's Visit (1898):

"Looking at the factory buildings and the barracks, where the workpeople were asleep, he thought again what he always thought when he saw a factory. They may have performances for the workpeople, magic lanterns, factory doctors, and improvemens of all sorts, but, all the same, the workpeople he had met that day on his way from the station did not look in any way different from those he had known long ago in his childhood, before there were factory performances and improvements....[He] looked upon factories as something baffling, the cause of which was obscure and not removable, and all the improvements in the life of the factory hands he looked upon not as superfluous, but as comparable with the treatment of incurable illnesses."

Progress comes, and it changes everything. But as brilliantly as we may advance, and as much as I enjoy tapping away at my magic lantern here, the drama still repeats itself, and the end is always the same.

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