The World As We Know it
& Those Not Meant to Be
‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’ When Yogi Berra uttered his now often repeated axiom years ago, he was uncannily signaling the age of under-achievement and malaise that followed the great promises of the Atomic Era. Sadly, for a generation geared up to dream big, there would be no flying cars floating around anytime soon.
Nevertheless, many ventured into the risky business of divining what’s coming, some with insight, some spectacularly off, and others with a bit of both. Fortunately Berra, whose outstanding performance at his day job has eclipsed his talent to turn a simple interjection into a treatise of wit and charm, never did anything of the sort.
Back in 1900, when John Elfreth Watkins Jr. imagined ‘rays of invisible light’ allowing us to peek inside the body without having to cut it open, he was making an educated assumption. After all, science had just developed tools that did uncover a miniature world, previously invisible to the naked eye.
In comparison, George Hoyle‘s prediction, made some 70 years later, that everybody would be wearing jumpsuits by 2010, was almost embarrassingly wrong. But in all fairness, he did get lots of things right. And so did Bill Gates in 1995, when he envisioned people carrying computers in their pockets a mere 20 years ahead.
I IMAGINE, THEREFORE, I’M NOT BORED
What these no doubt visionaries were doing, though, was engaging in futurology, a rather guessing game, when one’s chances of catching lucky breaks are as likely as piling on a bunch of misses. Not without some irony, science fiction writers by far have always been the group with the better accuracy record than anybody else.
But even though Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and so many others got so much stuff right, many of which being already part of our daily lives, they’ve spoiled us all rot. That’s where our startlingly misguided resentment (more)
* The Illustrated Man
* The Long Good Friday
* Not Human
comes from, simply for not being able to spend the weekend in Mars, for example, or travel back in time.
We’ll get to them soon enough, thanks to The Awl’s Jane Hu, who’s compiled a brilliant and massive Timeline of Future Events. It traces what would or should be happening, from 2012 to the near future, just as if the world existed according to those genius of the literature formerly known as ‘of anticipation.’
Purpose. That’s the clear distinction between one person trying to envision the future with whatever is available in the surrounding environment, and another having to invent a whole reality, where people like us would live. That’s why artists usually fare better than guessers; because they need to create a world, not just imagine one.
As for the rest of us, we’ll always be bored to death, and hard to please, and eternally unsatisfied with our lot. In fact, an argument that has had some mileage over time is that the artist’s compelled to create something out of fear of boredom. But that reductionist view of creativity is, of course, profoundly flawed.
WHAT? CITY STREETS WITH NO TRAFFIC
You can’t blame Watkins Jr. for having attempted, in a lengthy article in The Ladies’ Home Journal, to describe the world a century away, even if conditioned solely to the U.S. And given the gap in time, it’s admirable that he predicted the widespread use of electricity, heating and air conditioned, ‘home screens,’ and even wireless phones.
In matters requiring a deeper scientific knowledge, though, such as demographics, car engines and train speeds, his were not the most trustworthy assumptions, any Monday quarterback would say. But for a truly 18th century person, it may have taken some wishful thinking to imagine that in the future there would be no roaches and bugs.
And then, surprisingly, he speaks of a progressive time that those living in America, circa 2015, somehow seem to be missing: no traffic congestion in city streets, no coal being used as an energy source, and ‘every man and woman (…) able to get a free university education.’ Again, can you blame him for not having got the GOP memo?
MICROWAVES, WEBCAMS & JUMPSUITS
In 1972, Hoyle who, among other things, is also a sci-fi writer, wrote 2011: Living in the Future, a children’s book that, hardly he knew then, became a minor sensation of the time. As with many similar works, some things are astoundingly accurate, while others sound deeply odd, almost as if he was talking about an alternate, parallel reality.
In many ways, he was. The son of Sir Fred Hoyle, a noted astronomer and also sci-fi writer, Geoffrey was somehow taken aback by the fierce criticism his book attracted, specially for its completely social disconnect with our contemporary social mores. What? three-day workweek? communities? electric cars? But why there’s no black people around?
It was an unfair charge, of course, for someone who, at least on a technological level, anticipated a lot of what we take for granted these days, such as the omnipresence of computers, several electronic gadgets, online ordering, the list is long. It’s only our current social realities that proved to be too much for him to predict.
Hoyle reemerged, when his book was republished in 2011, still sounding a bit defensive. But lucid, nevertheless, about our age: ‘I grew up at a time when people put money into original thinking,’ he told The Independent. ‘Now it’s all about viable commercial ideas. But the jet engine and penicillin were not born out of that culture.’
TIMELINE FOR A PARALLEL FUTURE
For the fantasy and sci-fi aficionado, there are many ways to arrange the evolution of mankind, but none is completely coincident with the timeline of our real, concrete world. So what Jane Hu‘s tour de force manages to accomplish is no small feat: she cramped pretty much every storyline of the genre into a coherent evolutionary progression.
She takes 2012 as a starting point for its resonance in some sci-fi classics (not because some deranged cult leader had made yet another end-of-the-world prediction for that December). But alas, just as hell doesn’t break loose simply because fanatics wish it to, even Clarke produced a dud for the year.
In Ghost From the Grant Banks, the Titanic was supposed to be pulled out of the depths of the Atlantic 100 years after it went down. It did not. Also, he, L. Ron Hubbard and many others, had predicted that there would be plenty of space colonies throughout the solar system. Not happening either, and yes, Hubbard’s the same nut who found Scientology, but that was before he went overboard (or Tom Cruise was born).
Not wanting to republish Jane’s work here, let’s jump to some of its highlights, and then let you follow the link. So, in 2020, if Geoff Ryman and Kim Stanley Robinson are right, we’ll be accessing the Internet with our brains, and an American will walk on Mars. There’s still time for that to happen, and a sensible demand for it too.
One year after, we reach the world of androids and blade runners, described by Philip K. Dick, and of the last human baby, as told by P.D. James. Cure for autism? Elizabeth Moon expects it for 2035, while 15 years later, according to Clarke again, you’re able to leave the planet inside a whale. After all, human technology has just been destroyed, as per John Varley.
WHAT A STRANGE TRIP IT’S BEEN
And this is just the beginning of a saga that, for as much as it’s incredibly fascinating and disturbing, will probably pale in comparison with the real thing. Or at least one of the realities you, or a relative of ours, may happen to be living in, when the time comes. You’d be also happy to know that for H.G. Wells, in the year 302701, the world will still be around.
It’s a comforting thought that lasts exactly a few seconds, or until you realize that no one you even remotely know of will be around to witness it, of course. Despite of that, most of everyone of us has lived through the lives of those who came before, and will certainly be part of those who’re still to come.
On the other hand, this ‘when the time comes’ is an effective device only for works of fiction. Our long and winding road may end abruptly tomorrow, the day after, or many years from now, but we’d be probably the last to know it. That’s why it’s so hard to avoid the cliche of saying that imagining the future informs us as much about the present as it does about the past.
It takes no doubt a lot of guts, as a writer, a futurologist, and even the most narrow-minded politician, to put it on writing what we should all expect from what’s coming. Nostradamus? We’ll believe his predictions the day someone uncovers a hand-written version by the man himself, and in plain English. Otherwise, each generation has the version that fits it best.
Also, a simple inventory of all the complicated apparatus we require to live a ‘normal’ life shows that most of everything was the fruit of someone’s vision, albeit there were kinks and quirks that had to be worked out along the way. Just like building one’s future; nothing is pre-fab, everything needs assembling, and like Ikea products, we need to make up for the missing parts.
After all, going back to the man who the world sadly has just lost, Yogi Berra, ‘predictions are hard to make, specially about the future.‘
(*) Originally published on Aug.16, 2012.