Does Game of Thrones signal the end of optimism?

For a substantial part of recorded history, various human cultures, when thinking about the Golden Age, the pinnacle of human development, the earthly paradise, had a retrospective view — the “good old days” were in the past, and there was no notion of time’s arrow leading to a time when things would be better. In contrast, the industrialized West, for quite some time now has been living with the expectation and hope that things are getting better: The Best is Yet to Come (as Frank Sinatra sang).

Where did this notion come from?

One might say that it goes all the way back to the messianic expectations of the Jews of two thousand years ago, and those same expectations as transferred to the highly successful splinter group now known as Christianity, which originally believed in an imminent arrival of the End. For quite some time in what we now refer to as the Middle Ages (they didn’t call it that at the time) it was obvious to all that perhaps the only improvement was Christianity and its spread, since every thing else around them was so evidently decayed from the state of things during the Pax Romana. The Norse at this, of course, expected that everything would come to the end in the future with Ragnarök, a cosmic battle leading to the death of Odin, Thor, and various other gods, with the human population regenerated from only two survivors. By the late Middle Ages, when, after the Black Death had passed, it became evident that things were improving, the retrospective mindset was still so strongly planted that the improvement could only be seen as a return to the good old days, a rebirth (or Renaissance) of the days of Rome and Greece.

By several centuries later, when religious war (after several hundred years) was finally eliminated, more or less, the Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution (both strongly centered in England and other English-speaking polities) led many people to believe that wealth, science, education, human development in general, were increasing, life expectancy was improving, and that, finally, the Best was Yet to Come. We, as inheritors of the industrial development of England and the West, have continued to believe this for quite some time, and indeed it seemed to be born out by the radical changes in our physical circumstances and abilities to control nature in the twentieth century, in spite of the fact that these abilities were used in part to kill many millions of other human beings. Science fiction, a highly successful literary genre from almost the beginning of the twentieth century on, portrayed problems in the future, yes, but within the expectation that these problems would come along with faster-than-light travel, the end to starvation and need, the possibilities of changing our sex as we please, interstellar colonization, galactic and intergalactic empires, increased intelligence, telepathy, and even time travel.

The two most successful imaginary visions of the future through science fiction were that of the “Star Wars” universe, as imagined by George Lucas, and the “Star Trek” television shows and films, as originally imagined by Gene Roddenberry, the latter arguably more influential on the American psyche, since it was incarnated in five television series (running between 1966–1969, and 1987–2005) and eleven (soon to be twelve) films.

Star Trek, by and large, showed an optimistic view of the future, in which all of humanity worked together to explore the galaxy, almost all medical problems were solved, the use of currency to exchange value and motivate works was a thing of the distant past or of backwards species like the Ferengi. At the same time, in the real world, the USA (with some less significant assistance from other nations) successfully landed men on the moon, carried on research at orbiting space stations, and at least for a while, the expectation was that this would lead to a Moon colony and manned missions to Mars.

And yet, the first year of the new century and millennium seems now to be pointing in the opposite direction. The last Star Trek series, rather than continuing into the future, as all other such had done, returned to an earlier time period, and was rewarded for this lack of vision by being cancelled without completing its intended run. Likewise, the most recent Star Trek film was a reboot, returning to an alternative version of things happening before the beginning of the original series that aired starting in 1966. In the real world, unlike the future envisioned by the film 2001, the Space Shuttles have been retired after 30 years of flight.

Science fiction is no longer the mythos that sets nerdly blood racing in 2012. No presidential candidate bothers to say anything whatsoever about the US space program (in contrast to JFK, who, in May 1961, committed the USA to a manned landing on the moon before the decade was out). No, the new mythos looks backward, and not even backward to the “good old days”. Presciently, the mythos exciting the readers and viewers of the early third millennium is that of ice and fire, the bloody war of man against man, and religion against religion, represented by the multi-volume “Song of Ice and Fire” of George R.R. Martin, now viewable in two full seasons of episodes on the HBO series, Game of Thrones.

The HBO series starts at the very end of a moment of political stability made possible by the implicit threat of extreme violence posed by dragons and dragon fire. For reasons only partly explained, dragons (a symbol for the nuclear warheads of the modern world?) have diminished and vanished, and the threat of destruction that they represent seems to have been the glue holding the polity together, which decays into a war with at least five pretenders to the throne and the power it represents. Viewers and readers are not at all clear that things will improve over the course of the unfinished narrative, and we are told from the viewpoint of one of the more ethical of the warring parties that “Winter is Coming!”. Indeed it is, within the story.

More importantly, one might well argue that for those of us watching Game of Thrones in the USA in 2012, “Winter is Coming!” as well. Our mythology no longer points to a civilization of increasing fairness, equity and human development, but to our medieval future, one in which we may look back to the halcyon days of the late twentieth century, before that vast die-offs caused by the wars, poverty, and disease of the twenty-first, a future in which feudal relationships and martial ability with lance, sword and spear determine your position in society. All the more reason why we should “Live for Now”, as Pepsi suggests. Eat, drink plenty of Pepsi, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.