Here's an excellent response to it:
Media scholar Henry Jenkins recently published an article about residual media–outmoded views of the future from a point in the past. Think of the ceramic spires of the 1939 World’s Fair, or the relentless utopias of 1950’s pulp SF. These futures are now generally viewed as overly silly or optimistic, given our wildly divergent present.
Jenkins also draws a parallel between the accelerating rate of change in our society and the “time compression” found in genre fiction. SF from the 1930s and 40s was set thousands of years in the future; authors had to look that far ahead before they could envision a world significantly different from their own. SF from the 50s and 60s was set maybe a hundred years hence. Current SF is often week-from-Thursday; Pattern Recognition, probably Gibson’s best work, is set entirely in the modern day.
This recent, growing interest in the paleofuture is hardly surprising. As our unimagined future compresses to a single point, the weight of our memories grows ever more dominant. It’s so hard to create new dreams; how much nicer to relive the warmth of old ones! Subgenres like steampunk and alternative history play to this sense of inverted sensibilities; instead of optimism about what will be, we’re now nostalgic about what wasn’t; with a future devoid of promise, we take refuge in the past.
Such is the paradox that gives the SciFi Channel’s surprisingly excellent Lost Room miniseries its resonance. Despite the title, the series is hardly about the “room” at all–an ordinary motel room, just outside Gallup, New Mexico, that vanished from our universe in 1961. It’s somewhat more about the Objects–the ordinary detritus in the room when it disappeared, each piece now imbued with supernatural qualities. For example: the Comb stops time for a few seconds; the Pen emits deadly microwaves; the Key turns any tumbler-lock door into a portal to the Lost Room. Some Objects are useful and others are useless, but all are greatly coveted.
That’s what the series is really about: obsession and loss. Despite their differing goals, each of the characters and factions wants the Objects for the same core reason: they’ve lost something important and pray that the Objects can somehow refill this hole. (In this sense, the series also comments on our lower-case-object obsessed culture; ours is a society that believes everything will be all right again, if only we can get an iPhone on launch day.)
So why do they–and we–believe in the power of these Objects? Because they’re not from our world–they’re from 1961. Other Objects highlights this discontinuity explicitly: the Bus Ticket, the Cufflinks, the Polaroid, the Shoe Polish. Who still rides the bus cross-country? Who shines their own leather shoes? There may not have been a break in reality, but these objects–and the world that needed and permitted them–are still gone from our universe forever. At this point, how much of a leap is it to imbue them with talismanic powers?
Our world is awash in mundane wonders. Cloning and genetic engineering are real. Space travel is real–soon at the consumer level. Remember the Internet revolution? Me neither; it’s over, and the Internet won. Completely unfettered, our fiction can only posit that we might one day regain the innocence and optimism of an earlier age. This is the new impossible dream.
Thanks to chronovore for the tip.