In his excellent cultural history of sf, simply called Science Fiction (2005) Roger Luckhurst comments at one point on C.P. Snow’s The New Men (1954). This is a novel in which a dying nuclear physicist envisions a sad, decadent future for post-WWII Britain. Two things can happen, according to this Englishman: “the best is that we can fade out and become a slightly superior Spain, the worst is that we can get wiped out like a mob of Zulus” (156; 120 in Luckhurst). Puzzlingly, Luckhurst needs to further elaborate by noting that for this character “the English will become the equivalent of the barely modern peasantry of the Spanish, or the plucky zulus” (121), the second option being clearly far more heroic. I’m left wondering which Englishman thinks that Spain is a ‘barely modern’ peasant country: Snow or Luckhurst?

This hurts. Being called backward is never gratifying and the immediate temptation is to lash out. I’ll end up doing it, but let me try at least to do it moderately.

Yes, Spain was once an immense Empire, ‘where the sun never set,’ whereas we’re just now a corner of South-western Europe and one of the letters in the infamous financial acronym PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Foreigners interested in our culture are usually fascinated by the sense of decadence that pervades our history but I feel that we are not, on the whole; except for a very few recalcitrant Franco supporters I doubt many think of the faded glories of Empire. Good riddance to all that, actually. Mostly, we see ourselves as post-Franco survivors who’ve made a huge effort to leave that ‘barely modern peasantry’ behind to become (second-rate) Europeans. We were indeed a (hungry, post-Civil War) bunch of peasants, barely modern at all, in the 1950s when Snow wrote his novel but not now in the 21st century. Our sad record in the current economic crisis shows the struggle is far from over as we have carried over to post-modernity from that decadent past a tendency to overstretch our resources and think too highly of our possibilities. But, then, this seems to be the fate of all post-imperial nations. Even of the USA, now well on their way to becoming one.

These last days the TV images of angry bands of Afro-Caribbean British teens smashing up public and private property, and people, in their own urban neighbourhoods surely has shown the world that Britain is not managing all that well its post-imperial condition. To be honest, I’m not sure why rioting is not breaking up all over Spain, given the fantastic rates of unemployment among the young. Yet, it seems to me that Snow’s scientist neglected to imagine a future in which Britain would be ‘slightly’ if not ‘much’ inferior to others. I’m thinking of Germany, not Spain. To be totally bitchy about all this, part of the attraction of British culture for the Spanish is how it mirrors in our own lifetime what must have happened in Spain centuries ago. It’s like a huge living lab to test out how decadence grips a culture struggling to ignore the fading out of its prime.

Now imagine a US novel in which an American nuclear physicist would contemplate the post-imperial fate of his or her nation: “the best is that we can fade out and become a slightly superior Britain, the worst is that we can get wiped out like a mob of Native Americans.” Get it?

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