The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


JG Ballard is the only writer we have who can effectively apply the techniques of science fiction to dull modern-day familiar practices like flying through the air:
The space age died with the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, and now seems to belong to another century, along with the Detroit gas-guzzler, the Manhattan psychoanalyst and the king-size cigarette. These phenomena still exist, but they are part of a more needy and impetuous era.

Even flying feels all too 20th century, though millions of us take to the air as casually as we board a bus or train. We wait in nondescript boarding lounges, walk down metal tunnels and lever ourselves into the narrow seats of a small cinema, where we watch Hollywood films on a low-definition screen while unsmiling staff push trays on to our laps bearing an assortment of inedible foods that we are not expected to eat.

Before take-off the cabin crew perform a strange folkloric rite that involves synchronised arm movements and warnings of fire and our possible immersion in water, all presumably part of an appeasement ritual whose origins lie back in the pre-history of the propeller age. The ceremony, like the transubstantiation of the host, has no meaning for us but is kept alive by the airlines to foster a sense of tradition.

After a few hours we leave the cinema and make our way through another steel tunnel into an identical airport in the suburb of a more or less identical city. We may have flown thousands of miles but none of us has seen the outside of the aircraft, and could not even say it if had two, three or four engines. All this is called air travel.

The miracle and wonder of flight, which has inspired poets, philosophers and madmen, has dwindled into a workaday procedure that we anticipate with the same enthusiasm we feel when we visit the dentist. At least the space age ended on a note of mystery that still surrounds the Moon flights. We know what happened inside the Apollo spacecraft, but what went on in the astronauts' minds, and did they ever recover from their strange journeys? Nasa still holds their secret, perhaps the first stage of its evolution into a religious organisation, something that British Airways is never likely to achieve.
It's the Martian Chronicles, minus the Martians and minus the Mars.