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3.1: The Ruins of the Future

Context: Science fictional representations of the highway take a turn from futurism to dystopia.

Published onJun 04, 2021
3.1: The Ruins of the Future

The Ruins of the Future

A Dystopian Turn

The elegant visual beauty of Norman Bel Geddes’ superhighway was one of the most powerful representations of “the future” in the first half of the twentieth century. But what happens when that future has come and gone? In a culture on the verge of embracing alternate (or at least alternatively powered) sources of transportation in the face of the rising environmental and economic costs of individualized auto-mobility, what will become of the “road to the future” that has been so deeply etched into the psyche of Americans by the magnificent sweep of Geddes’ futuristic superhighways?

The highway as we have previously imagined it is now in ruins, at least figuratively. The decaying infrastructure of Futurama’s superhighways have been compellingly preserved as stand-alone sections or falling down bridges in the backgrounds of science fiction films like Mad Max (1979), Akira (1988), and Twelve Monkeys (1995). The ruins of the superhighways appear in novels such as William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy: Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008). In the 1999 film version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), the protagonist’s anarchistic alter-ego Tyler Durden shares his own dream for the future:

In the world I see you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. . . . You will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of the ruins of a superhighway.

In these dystopian accounts, the highway serves as a material remainder of an era of magnificence and corruption, a time when ecological survival took second place to convenience and comfort. Such science fiction accounts of the abandoned infrastructure remind characters of a golden age of travel on the “superhighways of the future,” while warning us, the readers and viewers, that our own time is temporary, a momentary shoring up of the world’s nomadic history against the forces of entropy. Highways are rewritten as pointers to a larger cultural moment: the collapse—whether as a result of urban decay, ecological calamity, or nuclear apocalypse—of individual auto-mobility and all that it has come to signify for American cultural identity.

National Park Service/Historic American Engineering Record. Overview of Highway and setting to north one Mile into study area—Lincoln Highway, 3 mile segment south of Business I-80 & ALT 93 intersection, West Wendover, Elko County, NV. 1998. Photo by Frederick J. Athearn/HAER. Library of Congress.

Left over as a reminder of an imagined golden age, the ruins of the superhighway in science fiction upend the relationship between progress and nostalgia, transforming our future into the past and our own present into a future history. Rather than a symbol of the new age of progress, the decaying highway points to a broken promise: the promise of high-tech speed and safety that can no longer be fulfilled. In the dystopian futures of science fiction, the highway often stands as a monument to an age of infrastructure, even as it is engaged in infrastructural collapse. Paradoxically, this nostalgia for a future that never came to pass reveals a longing not for pastoral but technologically mediated landscapes in which the future might have consisted of air-cars, space-helmets, and radio-controlled traffic patterns. The slowly degrading highways of these futuristic scenarios remind us, inevitably, of our own hopeful vision of a future in which technological progress would save us even as they also reveal that such a vision would never come to be.

Ruins and Roads

Highways have a long history as ruins. Roman Roads are one of the most widely spread and compelling Continental ruins, calling forth the same nostalgia and contemplation afforded to the remnants of other periods. Christopher Woodward comments that the Appian Way was designed expressly for this purpose even in its own time, lined with rich men’s mausoleums: “Siste Viator, the inscriptions command: pause, traveler, and reflect on the virtues of the occupants” (144).  Woodward writes, “[w]hen we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future” (2). Ruins elicit a sense of one’s own personal mortality, just as they have since the Romantic period in which European aristocracy created artificial “ruins” on their estates so that they could ruminate on the meaning of time.

Echoing Woodward, Svetlana Boym points out that the function of the ruin has not remained static throughout the ages, but has rather changed with the more general sensibility of the times:

In the baroque ages the ruins of antiquity were often used didactically, conveying to the beholder “the contrast between ancient greatness and present degradation.” Romantic ruins radiated melancholy, mirroring the shattered soul of the poet and longing for harmonic wholeness. (79)

Yet even as the European aristocracy contemplated these stone-and-plaster memento mori a change in the conception of time was taking place. Starting in the early 1820s, Woodward observes, a movement took place from “monument” to “ruin”—from an optimistic belief that American architects could import classical building designs restored to their original glory to a swelling apocalyptic narrative denouncing the threat of corruption from Old Europe (195). Woodward notes that

It was the beginning of the American School of Catastrophe, and the seeds of a doubt which bloomed in the fallen Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, a warning of nuclear apocalypse which was the most astonishing image of ruin in the twentieth century. (196)

John Clute similarly notes the role of ruins in early science fiction, “circa 1765–1820 or so, dates which roughly frame the long historical moment when the Modern Age was born” (348). For Clute this is the period during which science fiction truly came into its own:

Suddenly, during this half century, the Past manifests itself in the form of Ruins; suddenly the present is irradiated by Futurity. It is here, where Time has begun to keep the score, that sf begins. The origins of sf lie not in the contemplation of Space, but in the complex interaction between Ruins and Futurity. (348)

The collapsed remains of Lady Liberty in Planet of the Apes exemplifies the way ruins work forward in time as well as backward. In the film, the Statue of Liberty is no longer “tainted” by its European origins; instead, it is a marker of the American-born bomb, and, more generally, the destructive capacity of modern technology. For the film’s protagonist, Ulysses, the ruined Statue of Liberty represents an apocalyptic past, but for the audience, it foreshadows an apocalyptic future. In this way, post-apocalyptic ruins serve as a kind of warning, not so much of individual mortality but of the collective hubris of a technological mankind. Instead of pointing to a gentler, more contemplative time, the ruins of humanity’s former glory serve as an eloquent backdrop to images of savagery and human hopelessness.

In the context of post-apocalyptic science fiction, the optimistic technologies and landscapes of the future look like ruins themselves, both visually and philosophically. Indeed, progress, and with it the whole idea of “the future,” has become “retro-futuristic,” provoking nostalgia for the naïve optimism of the first half of the twentieth century. Boym, reflecting on this movement, observes that the high-tech remnants of the Soviet space age have been supplanted by more traditionally nostalgic architecture:

The dream of cosmic communism did not survive, but the miniature rockets did. For some reason, most likely for lack of an alternative, neighborhood kids still played on these futuristic ruins from another era that seemed remarkably old-fashioned. On the playgrounds of the nouveau-riche, the attractions have been updated in the spirit of the time. Brand-new wooden huts with handsome towers in a Russian folkloric style have supplanted the futuristic rockets of the past. (346)

Similarly in North and South America, Celeste Olalquiaga comments on futuristic ruins as the marker of a more optimistic past. The future exists as an imagined utopia only accessible through nostalgic rememberings elicited by old buildings and artifacts of the thirties, forties, and fifties:

In retrospect, the exhilarated space age was a swan song for the dream of the future. Consistently, what remains of it are decaying structures—the abandoned skeletons of aerial cities and world’s fairs that languished awaiting a future that never arrived. (28-29)

Finally, Boym posits that the ruin is now a multilayered entity reaching forward and backward in time and calling on multiple eras of past, present, and future interpretations. “The ruin,” she writes, “is not merely something that reminds us of the past; it is also a reminder of the future, when our present becomes history” (79).

The Death of the Superhighway

The post-apocalyptic remains of the superhighway feature prominently in dystopian fiction, coupled with stories warning of the destructive potential of automotive technologies. Linear time is upended as the recurring presence of ruined highways in novels and film incites in the protagonists a deeply felt longing, not for a return to a lost pastoral moment, but for a future from the past, a golden age of technological perfection that never really existed. This nostalgia, satirized in William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” (discussed in section 3.3), paradoxically equates progress with the past rather than the future. The figure of the ruined highway, emptied of Geddes’ streamlined cars, thus becomes a marker for both the best and the worst qualities of our nostalgic longings for the future.

Cover. Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. June 1940. Copyright © 2012 by Penny Publications. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Ironically, the end of the superhighway was already being imagined by science fiction author Robert Heinlein even before the Futurama exhibit was ended. In “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), Heinlein describes the breakdown of a moving highway caused by a failure of “temperament” among the road’s maintainers. In the twenty years between the two New York World’s Fairs, the fictional highway would shift from a prominent narrative marker of a perfectly engineered, streamlined future to a broken-down path leading away from the ruins of a once great civilization.

By 1961, in Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” the highway had become a symbol of the unfulfilled promises of 1940s engineers and visionaries, featuring two pilgrims using a broken-down highway-in-the-sky as a walking path for their truth-seeking pilgrimage to a computer oracle. Around this same time, the nuclear age has brought about a shift in focus: from the mechanical/computer breakdown to the post-apocalyptic “road trip.” Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960) takes to the road in a new kind of pilgrimage: a quest for the rebuilding of a civilization destroyed by nuclear war. Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley (1969) features a road trip through an irradiated, post-nuclear landscape ravaged by disease and catastrophic climate change.

Writers of the 1960s and 1970s used the highway and automobile to express growing concerns about environmental and economic collapse. Fuel shortages have become a new worry, and the imaginary automobile has “woken up” and begun to bite back, demanding both feeding and care: In “Vampire Ltd.” (1964), for example, Josef Nesvadba’s oil-hungry cars are refitted to run on human blood. Automobiles became the site for a number of “revenge” stories: Leonard Tushnet’s “A Plague of Cars” (1971) rewrote the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, this time with a stranger who comes to town offering to remove broken-down cars from the sidewalks. When the stranger is not paid, he coats the roads with a silicone substance that causes cars to slide off the streets. In “Waves of Ecology” (1974), Tushnet plots nature’s revenge against cars: a tree whose fruit rots automobile tires.

Stephen King’s horror fiction, like “Trucks” (1978) and Christine (1983), entertained some of our worst fears about the revenge of the machines themselves when they begin to dominate their owners and emerge, in these frightening scenarios, as the “master race.” At the end of “Trucks” (adapted to film as Maximum Overdrive in 1986), as the exhausted narrator nears collapse after having been made to refuel truck after monstrous truck, he describes an apocalyptic vision of a future in which enslaved humans are forced onto assembly lines to manufacture ever more machines while the surface of the earth is flattened and paved, made over into a vast highway as a perfected ecosystem for a thoroughly mechanized world.

J.G. Ballard’s uncomfortably intimate couplings of cars, highways, and humans on the motorways and interchanges surrounding Heathrow Airport point to another dimension to a postapocalyptic future. Nuclear and environmental calamit give way to the psychological consequences of urban highways. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973) explicitly use the automobile to signal a world sped up toward its inevitable entropic outcome; his answer to Robinson Crusoe (Concrete Island, 1974) takes place in the ultimate wilderness, the no-man’s-land of the highway traffic island.

In the 1990s, these wired-up highways of the future find their way into cyberpunk: Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), in which the traffic system, GridLid, helps to propagate a computer virus; Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), set in a skater-punk future where skateboards and pizza-delivery vehicles populate the roadways, gated “burbclaves” become sovereign nations, and Winnebagos stuck in traffic create a strung-out city expanding north; and William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy (1993, 1996, 1999), featuring the San Francisco Bay Bridge as a piece of appropriated living-space, another no-man’s land formed from the ruins of the superhighway.

Walking the Highway

One of the more persistent highway tropes, that of the car being replaced by foot traffic, points to how highways are repurposed in science fiction as ruins. The image of the Interstate (rationalized during its building as a means of rapid evacuation for city dwellers in the event of a nuclear war) being used as a walking route in the post-apocalypse has been used repeatedly as a rhetorical trope in science fiction.  In a retelling of the Mormon Trail, Orson Scott Card’s The Folk of the Fringe (1989) tells of a group of persecuted Mormons who use the highway as a path to escape bombed-out Washington, D.C. As they head on foot to seek refuge in Utah, the group is reluctant to leave the safety of the highway, believing that any other path will lead them to become lost in the wilds of a post-apocalyptic America. In this case, though, pedestrians on the highway are easy targets for looters and robbers, the on and off ramps providing shelter for “mobbers” as well as refugees. As one character warns,

“Every overpass on the interstate is taken by one group of mobbers or another,” said Jamie.  “It’s a shelter for them, and easy to find their way back after raping and killing their way through the countryside. . . . Anybody who knows that stuff and still uses the freeway must want to die.” (9)

In The Folk of the Fringe it is not the automobile that is deadly on the highway but the lack of one. On foot, travelers become vulnerable to the monsters that haunt the highway overpasses. The Interstate, built as a safety device, has become a place of death without the protection provided by the metal carapace of the car.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) similarly portrays an exodus of refugees from a violent near-future Los Angeles via U.S. 101 and Interstate route I-5. Butler rewrites the highway as a poignant specter of more affluent times; as people flee Los Angeles on foot (gasoline being more or less impossible to afford), they wax nostalgic for the days of fast cars but also unconsciously trace a more distant path of historical riches “on that portion of 101 that was once El Camino Real, the Royal Highway of California’s Spanish past. Now it’s a highway, a river of the poor.  A river flooding north” (200). Butler’s heroine, Lauren Olamina, describes their planned route using the same language we would use to plan a road trip but with the knowledge that the highways no longer carry her to a safe destination:

From 156 to 152 to Interstate 5.  We’ll use I-5 to circle around the Bay Area.  For a time we’ll walk up the center of the state instead of along the coast.  We might have to bypass I-5 and go farther east to State 33 or 99.  I like the emptiness around I-5.  Cities are dangerous.  Even small towns can be deadly. (221-22)

Lauren’s “road trip,” in this case, is not a means of self-discovery but a desperate attempt to escape the chaos of the collapsing inner city. The highway has turned “getting away from it all” from a quaint expression into a quest for survival, a quest enabled by the same engineered infrastructure responsible for at least part of the urban decay she seeks to avoid.

One of the most substantial meditations on a road trip among the ruins, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), takes this journey to its logical conclusion. Fleeing south with no real destination beyond the need to escape the rapid onset of a lethal and possibly permanent winter, the unnamed “man” and “boy” travel the road through a blasted and burned over landscape, encountering the horrors of a humanity reduced to scavenging, killing, and cannibalism. In one of many nightmarish scenes on the road, the man and boy come upon a group of travelers incinerated in their tracks during the course of the unnamed holocaust:

Everything melted and black. Old plastic suitcases curled shapeless in the heat. Here and there the imprint of things wrested out of the tar by scavengers. A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling. (187)

This image of humans finally and terminally merged into the physical stuff of the highway itself is the ultimate horror: there is no terminus to this highway trip. The man tries, and fails, to visualize what the world will look like without him:

He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle. (271)

This passage, so reminiscent of Benjamin’s Angel of History, suggests that it is only a matter of time until the future is reduced to a “glowing waste.” The Road, even though it is, narratively speaking, a journey through space and time in Bakhtin’s sense, reveals a peculiarity of the new nomadism in which we wander through a ruined and toxic landscape. There is no chronotope because there is no future—no happy resolution, and certainly no return home. As an old man they meet on the road observes, “[w]hen we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road with nothing to do and nobody to do it to” (170). No longer a symbol of freedom and opportunity, the highway in many of these texts has become a terminus, a final route of the damned headed toward a future that no longer holds any promise.

Is There a Place for Ruins?

Balanced against such brutal depictions of the future road in ruins, we romanticize the “future roads” of the past. The old motor hotels and gas stations of Route 66 owe much of their charm to the streamlined aesthetic of their design, eliciting fond memories of the retro-futuristic “Jetsons” world of the 1950s.  These visions tap into a deeply felt nostalgia for an optimistic technological futurism. Nostalgia in this context is, like kitsch, at least partly ironic and certainly distanced from its object. The wish is not for a return to the past but for the preservation of fetishized objects. Consumer retro is fed by the rehabilitation of old styles; the popularity of the PT Cruiser and the new T-Bird, and the ghost of Harley Earl who claims he’s “come back to design a new line of cars,” carry the message that material products were better back then—higher quality, more fun, created for the future.  Thus, rather than embodying a longing for a return to an Edenic state, the current craze for artifacts and styles of the retro-future era reflects a backward-looking desire for a technologically perfected future that never came to pass. Sometimes offered up as a kind of quick fix “cure” for nostalgia, consumer kitsch instead provokes further manifestations of our longing for a better future conjured up from the past.

Meanwhile, our fascination with the increasingly degraded cultural sites along Route 66 reflects a fundamental struggle between our impulse to fetishize the ruin and our impulse to preserve and restore. The eighteenth-century practice of building “false” ruins for the purpose of reflecting on the nature of time suggests that perhaps we need a sense of duration in some fundamental way even if only to assure ourselves that life does indeed go on. Conversely, the preservationist attempt to save and restore structures in the face of change and decay implies a longing to make time stand still, another attempt at immortality, even while preservation itself is predicated upon the notion of decay. Such ideas represent either a fundamentally pessimistic view of our own ability to look after our environment or a realistic acknowledgment that, if not ourselves, then certainly the inevitable forces of physical wear and tear will create the ruins for us. In some eery space between the two poles of ruination and preservation lies Hitler’s dreams of the thousand-year Reich, which included the building of monumental structures designed to weather over time, so that future generations would regard the works of the Reich with the same awe that dictators of the twentieth century looked upon the works of ancient Rome (Woodward 29).

In the face of the tension between the romanticization of ruins on the one hand and the imagination of a glorious (yet ruined) future history on the other, one question emerges: can ruins be useful? Linda Hutcheon suggests that both nostalgia for the past and dreams for an impossible future serve to preclude meaningful action, arguing that “[i]f the present is considered irredeemable, you can look either back or forward. The nostalgic and utopian impulses share a common rejection of the here and now” (“Irony”). Similarly, Christopher Lasch observes that nostalgia consigns any meaningful action permanently to the past:

Just as we should reject the thoughtless equation of progress and hope, so we need to distinguish between nostalgia and the reassuring memory of happy times, which serves to link the present to the past and to provide a sense of continuity. . . . Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irretrievably lost and for that reason timeless and unchanging. (The True and Only Heaven, 82-83)

The challenge we face in any productive reformulation of the ruin, then, is to conserve Lasch’s “continuity” with the past while still allowing us to move forward in a way that is responsible to future generations. This reconception, though, is very hard to imagine without the techno-scientific narratives laid out so compellingly in the 1940s and 1950s. These narratives of progress, so uniquely American in their optimism, favor expansionism and a break with the past rather than sustainability and continuity. Indeed, it is sometimes increasingly difficult to imagine what the dreams would be of an America that prized instead the notion of “treading lightly on the earth,” unless it were yet again indicative of the nostalgia for a return to Eden.

And yet in such a time of crisis, the role of science fiction occupies a potentially productive role. Rather than bearing witness to the cultural shifts in our understanding of past and future, the subgenre that Carol McGuirk formulates as “humanist SF” offers us a call to action:

In this subgenre, soft SF’s typical ruminations on human nature are focused specifically on human capacity; that is, on the issue of heroic possibility. These writers stress that human beings—not, as in hard science fiction, advancing technologies—are the major catalysts for change in the world. The resulting fiction may be utopian or dystopian in focus; heroes may try but fail. But whether optimistic or pessimistic or a mixture of the two . . . this humanist subgenre uses extrapolation to examine our collective human capacity for greatness, as focused by individual heroic action. (117)

The humanist SF hero, as we will see in Chapter Three’s Chronotope section (3.2) in our discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, is not immune to nostalgia. But the function of nostalgia carries a very different set of connotations to the retro-driven consumer nostalgia we see in advertising, “antique” malls, and kitsch-driven design.  In both of these cases nostalgia is attached to the material object rather than to some abstract notion of times past. In the case of dystopian fiction, however, the stakes are higher—in a world of scarcity, material objects from “before the fall” are valued not only for their nostalgic value but also for their practical uses. Science fictional manifestations of nostalgia for the past-future, thus, tend toward pragmatism. Attention turns from the fetishizing of the objects themselves to their integration into a larger narrative of survival and recovery.

Another notable example of Humanist SF is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), set in a far-future, post-highway, post-California, post-America. Drawing on the visual metaphor of the spiral or hub meant to signal both sustainability and balance, Le Guin casts aside the forward-ho expansionist sentiment expressed by the expressway and offers, as an alternative, a future version of humanity that has returned to a pre-modern state.

Humanist SF attempts to tackle some of our most pressing current issues—the loss of biodiversity, the dehumanizing effects of drone strikes, the looming specter, present since the 1970s, of peak oil. It is in this context that science fiction is vitally important, and within this genre the ruined highway provides us with a key framework for understanding what is at stake in the battle between progress and nostalgia. Representations of ruined highways reflect the best and worst of our current attempts at technological immortality, framed as they are in the aftermath of the end.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Future history

First coined in 1941 by John W. Campbell to refer to a chart by Robert Heinlein outlining a timeline of his short stories, “future history” has come to refer to a narrative trope used in works of speculative and science fiction. A future history is a narrative or timeline of fictional events, taking place in the characters’ past but in the author’s and readers’ future, to account for a fictional world yet to come. Future histories operate in a mode of what Darko Suvin refers to as “cognitive estrangement” (12), and in this respect often reflect the anxieties of the author’s cultural moment rather than offering an accurate prediction of the future.

Further Reading

Heinlein, Robert A. “Future History Chart.” Astounding Stories. May 1941.

Saler, Michael. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT.: Yale UP, 1979. 3-15.