Growing Up in the Future

I have been to Chicago only twice, both times to attend the Worldcon. Once was in the early eighties, the other late in the decade. Something had changed between visits. The first time I went, it was still the present; but by the second time, it had become the future.

I first noticed this on the plane. On the back of the seat before me was a cordless phone which could be released with a swipe of my credit card. In O’Hare Airport I took the slidewalk into the terminal and ducked into the men’s room, where I found that the sinks and toilets and urinals no longer had mechanical levers. They were operated by infrared sensors. A friend of mine, who was wearing black, had to hold his handkerchief up to the sink in order to wash his hands. At the hotel a clerk placed a cardboard chit into a machine which imprinted a small magnetic strip with a random code and then directed the door of my room to recognize it. Then she told me I could pay my bill on my television set on channel 11 and also check there to see if I had any e-mail. And she didn’t even bother to explain to me what she was talking about!

She knew she didn’t have to. Because we were all citizens of the future now.

I don’t find myself a particularly interesting subject. But I have lived through some extremely interesting times. Specifically, I grew up at a time unique in history, when "the future" was a living force, something imminent and powerful, and have lived long enough to see it arrive, be swallowed up by the culture, and disappear.

I’m going to give a quick sketch of the future. Where it came from, what it was, and what became of it. It is my thesis that "the future" is a post-World War II phenomenon. Immediately I can hear you object - what about Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and any number of others in our field who were writing before the war? But these were not ordinary men. They were visionaries. And I use that word neither rhetorically nor in a mystical sense. By visionary, I mean simply that they saw something that most people could not. When Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke were young, science fiction was a thoroughly despised genre. The claim that a rocket would someday be put into orbit or travel to the Moon, much less take human beings along with it, was to most people patently untrue. Science fiction writers faced not just skepticism but open scorn. It took a lot more strength of character and independence of thought for them to write about a future that was more than just a degraded form of the present - a little thicker about the waist, a bit grayer around the muzzle - than it later would for, let’s say, me.

World War Two changed everything. It was a time of greatly accelerated technological research and development. A lot of amateurs and theoreticians were moved from the fringes of society, from the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, for example, to the very center of the war effort - to Peenemunde. And when it was over, the surge in research did not end. When Werner von Braun - of whom it has been written, "He aimed for the stars and hit London" - came to the United States he brought with him the entire space program in a stack of notebooks with tables of exhaust velocities and colored diagrams of every space vehicle it would take to proceed step by step to the moon, Mars, and beyond. (I first heard of these fabled notebooks from an engineer who had worked at the White Sands proving grounds as the same time as von Braun; he particularly admired how von Braun marched his engineers out onto the field every morning for military inspection before they were put to work.)

Because of the Cold War, and because of the decisive role new technology had played in the Battle of Britain and places like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Federal government continued to invest heavily in research. The corporations benefitting from this largesse as a matter of course put out their own benign propaganda on what they were up to, and how we could all expect to benefit from it. The future for the first time found committed corporate sponsorship.

I was born in 1950, and my father was an engineer. He worked for General Electric, and I very much regret that I can’t tell you exactly what he did. I can’t tell you because I don’t know. His work required security clearance from the FBI and under the terms of that clearance he was not allowed to say. But by testimony of the unclassified handouts and promotional materials he brought home, he was involved in the space program; and by testimony of things said at company picnics by less scrupulously silent employees, he was probably also involved in nuclear weapon delivery systems - intercontinental ballistic missiles. So that for good and ill he was right at the heart of the two central enterprises of our civilization at mid-century.

As a result, I grew up with the future. At age six I used to go through my father’s stacks of Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated, which along with articles about car repair and hi-fi kits you could build yourself, contained articles by Willey Ley, G. Harry Stein, Eando Binder, and even von Braun himself, all about the wonders I could expect to see in my lifetime: A moon landing in 1975, expeditions to Mars and Venus by 1985. My father and I used to rebuild old radios on Sunday afternoons, and I saved the surplus vacuum tubes for inventions I was going to astound the world with, just as soon as I was old enough to use a soldering iron.

Oh, the future was everywhere in those days! The New York World’s Fair had mechanized dioramas by all the major corporations showing what it would be like: microwave ovens and undersea cities, giant road-building machines slicing through thousand-year-old trees to bring civilization to the jungle, real working videophones, vacation pleasure-domes dug out of the Antarctic ice.

These promises were all most specific. They were on the drawing boards. General Electric’s Schenectady plant pumped out inventions at a fabulous rate. One of our neighbors was the co-inventor of the artificial diamond. Artificial diamonds! Could there be a better symbol of the wealth and technologically-based glamour that was headed straight our way? Atomic power plants were going to generate limitless power at a rate too cheap to bother metering. "Clean" nuclear bombs would dig transcontinental canals and enormous new harbors, fusing useless wetlands into neovolcanic bedrock upon which we could build skyscrapers a mile high! Icebergs with robotic rigging would be sailed into these harbors to provide fresh water and cooling breezes in the summer.

All of which, among other things, made it very easy to grow up into a science fiction writer. I remember a picture my father brought home from work, an artist’s rendering of a lunar colony based on General Electric technology. It showed stiff, ‘50s-type people strolling within a domed crater, the sides of which had been contoured in a series of gardened terraces. A quarter century later, I used that image as a starting point for my own lunar colony in a novella called "Griffin’s Egg." And though I worked some radical changes on that vision, it still had the core power of being a real place that I could believe in existing. It was something I had been promised as a child.

There were dark aspects to the future back then. World War Three was expected, and soon. And I will never forget how I felt in 1957, crouching in the dark of my attic bedroom with my ear against the console radio that my father and I had salvaged and repaired - I had the sound as low as it would go because I was supposed to be asleep - listening to the news that the Russians had put an artificial satellite into orbit ahead of us. That it was up there now. That they could now put bombs into orbit and there was nothing we could do to defend ourselves against them.

But those were aberrations. They weren’t what the future was really about. The future was more like an incident that happened the very next summer.

I was reading a book in my room when I heard a world-shaking throb of motors from outside. I ran out and looked up and there above me, flying low over the neighborhood, was a dirigible. It was enormous! It filled the sky - huge, detailed and shadowless, incredible, looking like the inside of Hugo Gernsback’s head. It slid overhead so slowly it seemed you could almost keep up with it just by walking.

I ran down the street after it.

And as I ran, all over the neighborhood, doors slammed open and people came out into their yards to gawk. The adults stood there, staring up. But the children - all of them - ran out into the street and after it. Waves of children all running as hard and fast as we could, trying desperately to catch up with it. Slowly the dirigible pulled away, growing smaller, dwindling in the sky. While down below in its shadow, wave after wave of children poured out of their houses and ran until they could run no more, and staggered to a stop, and stood staring up while new children ran out after it.

Nobody ran harder than me. Nobody ran faster. When the others fell behind, I kept on running.

In a sense, I am still chasing after that dirigible.

That future is gone now. It disappeared at about the same time as the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was seen as being, like the space program that was so much a part of it, a tool of the Cold War. Which it was. It was a Consumer Utopia that could be pitted against the Communist future of a Worker’s Paradise. Disposable paper clothing! Rocket packs! Robots that would clear the table and wash the dishes for you! A lot of explicit promises - I’m thinking specifically of the twenty-hour work week which (you could look it up) we were expected to achieve by the year 2000 - were broken. The enemy was defeated and the future was swept back into the box.

Why did we give up on it so easily? Two reasons, I think, both the result of the future being too successfully absorbed by the culture.

For a time in the ’Seventies, I held a number of low-paying jobs as information analyst for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In one of these I shared an office with Sandy Meschkow, who had possession of America’s Energy Future and occasionally let me play with it.

America’s Energy Future was a teaching device which the Department of Energy had devised. It was a box containing a handful of transistors (this was before personal computers), a few potentiometers, and several simple readouts, and it represented civilization. With one set of dials you could set the society’s energy demands - so much for transportation, so much for heating, for research, and so on. With another, you set the mix of energy resources - hydroelectric, oil, coal, nuclear, solar. Each had advantages and disadvantages. Oil, coal, nuclear were all convenient but they polluted. Hydroelectric was clean, but could only grow until all the major rivers had been dammed. Solar was clean but it came on line slowly. You set your mix of uses and sources and flipped a switch. Readouts showed demand compared to supply and consequences. A big flickering readout gave the year. The game was to see how long you could keep society going in the face of an energy demand that grew asymptotically.

A really good player - which is to say one with a total disregard for the civil liberties of his subject population - could get the numbers up a hundred years into the future before civilization seized up and collapsed into a state of depleted and thoroughly polluted barbarism. Liberal democracies fared less well.

After a while it became obvious to me that not only was there no way to win this depressing game but that it was an accurate model for DOE’s energy policies. They were all based on an irreversible demand for energy that would grow at a steadily increasing rate until everything collapsed and everyone died. You couldn’t win. But if you used up all your resources without a thought for tomorrow, they wouldn’t run out until just shortly after the last middle-aged decision maker died.

What had begun as a tool was now calling the shots. The future with its limitless vistas of technological freedoms had become an oppressive argument of futility and despair.

That’s one reason.

The second reason we gave up on the future was far stranger:

Sometime during the eighties, about the time of my second visit to Chicago, the future became a colonized precinct of the present. People came to believe in the predictions and technologies of the future in a way that previously not even science fiction did. They accepted them as having a literal rather than provisional existence.

Virtual reality is a particularly good example of this process. You can go into any schoolyard in the world and ask the fourth-graders there to explain how it works and what it does, and they’ll do it! In numbing detail. This in spite of the fact that nothing currently available to them comes anywhere close to living up to the sort of thing they describe.

Virtual is an anticipatory technology. It doesn’t exist yet. But so pervasive a part of the culture has it become that we’re all secretly convinced that somewhere, somehow, it must. That down some sleazy back alley in Hong Kong, if you knock on the right door and offer enough money, you can get the real thing.

The same process applies to nanotechnology, genetic engineering, any number of technologies that are living on accomplishments borrowed from future research. How many people have bought into the Web in order to obtain services and benefits that are surely out there somewhere, if you could only get the address for them? (*) All these things have become the stuff not of science fiction but of the speculative present.

At the same time, inevitably much of what was predicted forty years ago, for good and ill, has come true, and inevitably it isn’t quite as entertaining as it was supposed to be. We still suffer heartache and disappointment. We’re still human.

The future is easy to see when it’s large and off in the distance, like a dirigible filling the sky. Not so easy when it’s upon you. You stop paying attention, and it disappears.

There’s a trick I like to pull on my friends. Standing in a large city on an overcast night, I’ll ask them to look down at the sidewalk and tell me what color the sky is. They invariably will say black or, sometimes, dark blue. Look up, I’ll say. And to their astonishment the sky is neither black nor blue, but a dull, smoky red - reflecting the orange glow of all those sodium and mercury vapor streetlights.

I’ve never seen this fact mentioned in present-fiction, despite its being fiction’s job to bring us news of the world as it is.

Alas, most science fiction does not fare much better.

We’ve overrun the future, and yet many of us don’t seem to have noticed this fact. You’ll see stories containing astronauts and laser guns, pocket satellite uplinks, and casual genetic engineering which present themselves as being science fiction when really all they are is inaccurate present-fiction.

Simultaneous with our overtaking the future, we as a society have lost all belief in it. All the bright and clever toys the future was going to bring - we’re too smart for that now. The space program is a perfect example of this. A quarter-century ago men walked on the moon. Now the closest thing to a space program we have is a Tom Hanks movie.

Or rather, that’s what we like to tell each other. My wife has an office job and she reports that time and time again the dead white males get together to grouse about how the space program was a failure. Which is when Marianne will point out that there are astronauts - or, more often, cosmonauts - in orbit right now.

They simply look at her. They don’t understand what she’s getting at.

But her point - and this is my point as well - is that just because we’re done with it, doesn’t mean the future is done with us. Because what we call the future is not a place or a thing. Rather, it is a visionary take on the present. It is a projection of what we are currently working to make happen.

So when people stop believing in the future, we are not merely losing a set of brightly colored conceptual toys. We are refusing to look at the consequences of our present. And when we cease to look and plan, we fall back on the default settings, on our unspoken and largely unconscious expectations of what the future will be.

If you look at what we collectively expect nowadays, it's all ecological collapse, the inevitable extinction of species, and the slow degradation of the environment leading inexorably to the painful death of the human race. That's the message I see playing over and over again on television, and hear being taught in the schools. The current implicit future is a tedious thing indeed. The only bright spot in which appears to be that with teledildonics we'll be able to access virtual prostitution without fear of disease or human contact. But mostly it's going to be just a degraded version of the present - a little grayer around the muzzle, a few more pounds around the waist.

Almost nobody believes in the future today, any more than they believe in the space program. It's not the sixties anymore, they say, we're broke, and it's been decades since anyone was in orbit. But meanwhile the human race has more real wealth than ever before. Epidemics are so rare in this country that when a relatively minor one comes along and kills a few tens of thousands of people, we think something's wrong. India, which was once synonymous with famine, is now a food-exporting nation. Our space probes are smaller and smarter than ever before. There are men and women in orbit at this very moment.

So where does that leave us?

Oddly enough, it leaves us in pretty much the same situation that Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke found themselves fifty-some years ago. Privy to a secret that most people don't want to hear: That there is a future. It's coming and it's not going to be at all like today. It's going to be better than you can imagine. It's going to be unspeakably worse.

Over the years I've sold a number of stories to Omni, both in its print and electronic incarnations. As a result, people working on non-fiction articles about the future of shoes, offices, pets, whatever, will occasionally call up looking for a few free predictions. I try to accommodate them. I tell them that in the future everybody will go barefoot, that our offices will be a set of interactive sunglasses which we'll be more likely to misplace on Mondays than any other day, and that internal microscopic interfaces will allow us to maintain colonies of harmless and colorful bacteria and even viruses as pets within our bloodstreams. Whatever I happen to have been thinking about lately. But it usually turns out that what they're really looking for is new money-making ideas: wine spritzers and Post-It notes are the most common examples they give me. And here I can't help them. Because the only money-making ideas I'm interested in are ideas for new stories.

But in that one limited sense I can tell you exactly where the money is. And that is, in new futures. Futures that are not derived from earlier science fiction. That are not disguised versions of the present. That are not literary metaphors for anything, but real and honest projections.

This is not all that science fiction does, or ought to do - far from it. Indeed, I could argue that accurate predictions are the least interesting product we put out. The late Will Jenkins, who wrote under the name of Murray Leinster, was also an inventor. He told me once that he'd get an idea for something new and then think about it for a long time, puzzling it over, until either he could make it work or he understood why it never would. If it worked, he'd patent it. If he didn't, he'd write a science fiction story in which it did.

Murray Leinster once wrote a story about a device that puts matter out of phase with the surrounding world, so that it can slip through the spaces between atoms undisturbed. Criminals steal the device and rig it into a submarine. The matter-phaser is tunable, so that the submarine's propellers can push against bedrock with the same force as they would water. They then proceed to travel undetectably under the ground, emerging inside bank vaults to plunder and loot. This was a clear example of an unpatentable idea.

Robert Heinlein, in contrast, made any number of predictions that were spot-on. In The Door into Summer he predicted computer banking, Ticketron, and computer-assisted design, among other things. But ironically enough his descriptions of these are tedious to read now that they've come true - I know how Ticketron works, thank you - where Leinster's description of the criminals in their submarine, its matter-phaser sabotaged, falling helplessly through the Earth, down, down, down toward the molten core as the air runs out and the heat inexorably builds is still riveting.

Nonsense, but riveting.

I think that science fiction is like that submarine: just a little out of phase with reality, but enough in touch with it to have something to push against. And that which we push against, react to and oppose, journey away from and return home to, is the future. It's our bedrock. It's our home port. Sometimes in our imaginations we travel far, far afield. But it's always there, waiting for us.

So long as we keep our faith in it, we'll do just fine.

(*) When I delivered this speech, this line got a big laugh of recognition. Two years later, in an interview at a human-computer interface conference, I said much the same thing and somebody asked, "Well, what kind of sites are you looking for?" And in that instant, everyone in the room leaned forward, eager to discover an uncapitalized niche. The future comes barreling down on us fast - at a rate of sixty minutes per hour. Back

© 1996 by Michael Swanwick; this was my guest of honor speech for Disclave in that year; it was first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction. Reprinted in Moon Dogs, (2000, NESFA).

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