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January 2007 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

As I write this on the first day of January, 2007, the future is as blank and untrammeled as the fields of Colorado snow I see outside my window. But since it will be a few days before I can post this January message, I’m sure 2007 will be sufficiently trammeled and marred, yellowed and stomped-on before you read this.

I’d like to talk with you about the future in this first week of January 2007. There’s a reason that this month is named after the two-faced god Janus, one set of eyes looking forward, the other set gazing backward.

Speaking as a sometimes science-fiction writer, I can say without any doubt that SF writers make lousy prognosticators. For all of the genre’s bragging about “predicting the future,” science fiction and its creators are batting about 000.000019 in terms of seeing and telling us about any real future.

Some years ago, speculative fiction grand master Harlan Ellison was chosen as a California TV spokesperson for some car company specializing in tiny econoboxes that got 42 miles to the gallon in exchange for no horsepower, safety, room, or quality, and on Harlan’s TV commercial they had some trouble deciding on a “super” – i.e. the superimposed white caption to identify him as he started walking and talking (both of which he did quite well, actually, and on the first take.) They finally decided on HARLAN ELLISON – NOTED FUTURIST.

 

Well . . . ahem. SF writers are SF writers and there’s not a real futurist in our herd. But then, the entire idea of “predicting the future” is a chump’s game. All the Alvin Tofflers and Paul Erlich’s predictions combined add up to “Sorry, but no cigar.” (Erlich, a neo-Malthusian Prophet of Doom for decades, has not just been wrong in his confident and outspoken predictions, but absolutely and totally and ridiculously and absurdly wrong, but that hasn’t stopped him from receiving every possible award and accolade from every possible group that could agree with his political stance. Prophets, it seems, never have to be right to be lionized, only loud and sectarian.)

But after briefly discussing some of my disappointments about this sorry “future” that we do have here on the downward slope of the first decade of the 21st Century, I will end by listing some predictions for 2007 that I guarantee – a full moneyback guarantee – will be accurate.

Calvin & Hobbes:

As I wrote in my 1997 speech titled “Science Fiction: A Window on the Future” presented at Galaxiales ’97 in Nancy, France (and collected in NEGATIVE SPACES: TWO TALKS published in 1999 by Subterrranean Press) –

“My favorite philosophical and epistemological commentary on science fiction and the future appeared in the newspaper on New Year’s Day 1990, but I suspect it will remain just as valid on the first day of the new year of the next millennium. This is from the comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes:’”

There follows four panels from that strip that Subterranean Press and I received permission to reprint for publication – once – so I’ll have to quote the text and allow your imagination to provide the perfect Bill Watterson artwork for the following. (At least in Nancy, I got to stand and act out Calvin’s and Hobbes’s movements, with my translator Jean-Daniel then acting them out after me in French body language . . .)

Panel One: (longshot of Calvin and Hobbes crossing a wide, snowy field, bare trees far in the background . . .)

Hobbes: A new decade is coming up.

Calvin: Yeah. Big deal! Hmph.

Panel Two: (closeup of Calvin, gesticulating angrily, arms outstretched, mittens and stocking cap on, kidney-bean-shaped mouth wide open, little puffs in the cold air as he rants . . .)

Calvin: Where are the flying cars? Where are the moon colonies? Where are the personal robots and the zero gravity boots, huh? You call this a new decade? You call this the future?? HA!

Panel Three: (Medium shot of Hobbes, arms down at his sides, expression blank, scarf around his tiger neck, watching impassively as Calvin pounds his mittened palm and continues, little puffs of warm air rising with the rhetoric . . .)

Calvin: Where are the rocket packs? Where are the disintegration rays? Where are the floating cities?

Panel Four: (slightly longer shot of Calvin and Hobbes walking away through the snow . . .)

Hobbes: Frankly, I’m not sure people have the brains to manage the technology they’ve GOT.

Calvin: (ignoring his friend and still waving his arms and ranting . . .) I mean, LOOK at this! We still have WEATHER?! Give me a break!

Meteor Bumpers:

In 1957 I was nine years old and busy glueing meteor bumpers to the tops of model space stations. I admit that I was curious at first as to why only the top of the space station (which was a torus, of course, meant to spin for simulated gravity, which is the way God meant for space stations to be designed) had to have a meteor bumper, but then I realized that the station always kept its bottom oriented toward the Earth below it, so it was safe from meteor strikes from that direction. In 1957, space evidently still had an up and down.

The 1950’s may have been one of the best decades of American history in which to be a kid (the other being, oddly enough, the turbulent ‘40’s.) Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story has become a classic because it’s that rarest of things, sentimentality without lies and distortion. My memory of the ‘50’s reminds me of a great title John Updike gave to one of his stories (set in the 1950’s, of course) – “The Year When Everyone Was Pregnant.”

The 1950’s were pregnant with the future. At few times before then and certainly at no time since then has this country been so confident about itself and about the future. When Disneyland opened in the mid-50’s, one of the most popular areas was Tomorrowland and one of the most popular rides was its “Trip to the Moon.” (Tomorrowland, after going 50’s retro in recent years, has essentially been abandoned as a concept by the Disney Imagineers . . . it seems that no one is really interested in going to tomorrow any more.)

The future was taller buildings and faster cars, most with glass bubble tops (buildings and cars), but it was also nuclear energy too cheap to meter, atomic power in planes, ships, and maybe those bubble-top cars (and possibly exploding near our schoolyards, but only possibly), and space travel. Lots of space travel. The future in 1957, even before the Russians put up their little Sputnik and scared the everloving aspirations out of all of us, was all about hurling iron into orbit. My model space station and the future in general were designed by Willy Ley out of Wehrner von Braun.

About ten years later, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, the future was still about space travel. The space station torus was a double wheel – cool – and I could find no sign of a meteor bumper (an obvious oversight) – but it was still a space station the way God and Willy and Wehrner meant space stations to be. And a huge moonbase called Clavius that must be home to thousands (and only one big base of many, obviously, since the Soviets had theirs somewhere nearby.) And it was a future – that lost 2001 – where we could send an atomic-powered spacecraft the size of a supertanker, carrying only two crewmen conscious (and they had the requisite personalities of robots), on a several-year mission out to Jupiter Space.

That was the future.

Oh, and one computer. A big honking mainframe AI named HAL 9000 who, at his first opportunity, tried to kill every human being on the ship.

Well, that obviously wasn’t and isn’t our 2001-and-on future.

What do we have in 2007, space-wise?

Instead of a noble torus space station rotating majestically in orbit (with or without the Blue Danube Waltz playing in the background) while a permanent crew of hundreds of civilian scientists carry out experiments (when they’re not dining in the Howard Johnson Earthlight Room), we have an orbiting septic tank with big flappy solar panels that holds, at most, a crew of . . . three. Usually it’s two Americans and one surly Russian eating weird food (and not a real scientist among ‘em), or two happy Russians and a surly American e-mailing his or her family eleven times a day, or maybe a Russian and an American and a European astronaut who looks like he’s in pain all the time because he really wants a smoke and the other two won’t let him and he can’t even step outside to sneak a cigarette.

Or sometimes we have the Russian-American triage joined by some dipshit millionaire or millionairess who’s spent $25 million or so to be sent up by the money-grubbing Russian space corporation and to float around with a big shit-eating grin on his or her face, his or her spacesuited mass infinitely more useless than a replacement valve for the chemical toilet or his/her equivalent weight in peanut butter or borscht, while the real astronauts and cosmonauts grit their teeth and try not to fling the stupid fucker out the airlock.

This is our future in manned spaceflight in the 21st Century?? With Calvin, I have to say “Give me a break!”

“ . . . and it never was!”:

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at a local museum as part of a traveling Smithsonian Exhibition called “Images of the Future.”

The pictorial exhibition was wonderful, showing more than a century and a half of Americans’ optimistic illustrations of the future they were so eager to get to. I brought dozens of my own examples as well, showing how certain iconic imagery -- such as Chesley Bonestell’s fantastic paintings for the 1949 book The Conquest of Space and his background matte paintings for the 1950 movie “Destination Moon” showing lunar mountains, craters, and ridges razor sharp since “scientists point out that there’s obviously no erosion on the moon, no wind or water” (they didn’t think of the erosive power of billions of micrometeorites over billions of years, or even of the effects of the solar wind in vacuum) -- prejudiced our views of things for decades.

But the center of my talk amidst the Smithsonian images of the glorious future was the quote often attributed to Will Rogers (and sometimes to others) – “The future ain’t what it used to be. And it never was.”

My focus was on not just wondrous sci-fi technologies that never caught on, but also on existing technologies and trends that once seemed to be the wave of the future but which, for various reasons, disappeared. Here are a few of those along with the reasons they never quite made it . . .

  • Corfam shoes: reason they disappeared – don’t ask.
     
  • Airships!: The most comfortable and luxurious and elegant form of air travel ever devised, the equivalent of the QE2 versus the cattle trucks that are modern coach travel via airlines. The reason they failed – May 16, 1937: “Oh, the humanity!”
     
  • Slidewalks: Our beloved sci-fi moving sidewalks, predicted for American cities since the late 1800’s. Elaborately described in novels by such writers as Isaac Asimov (he had multiple bands of slidewalks in parallel, all moving at different speeds, so stepping from one to the other became an urban skill of the far future, such as 1980.) Reason they never caught on in real life – they’re a stupid idea. We need more exercise, not less, and moving bands of slidewalks would create stupid obstacles to most travel. Being a pedestrian in New York is already an art form. (Caveat – we have slidewalks, still clumsily called “moving walkways,” at most major airports, especially in those concourses that are several miles long, but most also have a recorded voice near the end – “Warning! The moving walkway is coming to an end! Warning!” Perhaps Hobbes is right . . . we don’t have the brains to manage the technology we’ve already got.)
     
  • Nuclear power everywhere: Well, it seemed like a good idea once and it may again, in a much more sober era. But we can express what killed it for 30 years in four words – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island.
     
  • Flying Cars: Get serious. Besides technology letting us down – I mean, airplanes are still airplanes and require everything that airplanes 50 or 90 years ago needed, including runways – Hobbes’s Law applies here: we barely have the brains to manage the ground-based transportation technology we have now. Can you imagine all those idiots you see during your morning commute in the air? The woman putting on her makeup while eating a Big Mac while talking on her cellphone? The backwards-baseball cap yahoo in the rusty pickup truck just looking for his daily catharsis of road rage . . . in the air? Give me a break.
     
  • Moon bases: Here the “failure” of the future is not so much a failure as common sense. We went to the moon, we planted a flag, we brought home rocks . . . why go back permanently? At least while our chemical space transportation systems are so primitive and expensive? Here I wasn’t disappointed because I always suspected, even as a young person enthralled with manned . . .er . . . humaned spaceflight, that the exploration of the moon would most resemble the exploration of Antarctica – i.e. an “Heroic Age” of initial exploration that amounted to little more than planting a flag and showing we could get there much as the great Antarctic explorers did circa 1900-1914, followed by 40 years or so of no one going back. (The permanent Antarctic bases were set up during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58.) But even by that timetable, we’re a bit behind schedule on setting up a permanent base on the moon.
     
  • You’ll note that these are all mid (or earlier)-20th Century dreams of the future. We’ve not only abandoned most of those, just as Disney abandoned Tomorrowland, but we’ve abandoned many more recent “predictions” – telecommuting (few people want to be left out of actual human interaction on the job), electronic commons (too many people have a vested interest in copyrights), abandoned city centers ala Toffler (communications technology may “free us” from having to live and work in cities, but it turns out we like working in urban environments), flight from the lilly-white suburbs to more “real” communities (it turns out that the suburbs are the real, and preferred, place to live, even for minorities that now make up more than 50% of the population in suburbs) . . . you name it.

As soon as noted futurists confidently predict something, it starts becoming a falsehood.

Bill Gibson’s Cute Little Turntable Disk Drive:

Some of you may have noted that I’m not being fair to science fiction and speculative fiction in saying that it never really “predicts” the future, and while I’ll stand by my opinion that SF and writings by “noted futurists” have a miserable record – as in always missing the most important aspects of the real future when it arrives – it’s true that SF has prepared the general populace to new ideas in some important ways.

Star Trek was, in my opinion (and I watched all three seasons of the original series with my college pals) a silly program – with a few notable exceptions – but there’s no doubt that it popularized the idea of spaceflight for several generations, just as the silly 1950 Destination Moon with its far-off-the-mark Bonestell matte paintings did for the first generation of NASA engineers.

But our genre has to confess that throughout the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and – incredibly – the 1970’s, computers were, except for the usual Frankenstein tale of the thinking machine turning on its creators, a minor theme in SF. There were almost no computers in the classics of the ‘50’s – such odd masterpieces as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy – and those few mentions of computers reeked of huge mainframes and vacuum tubes. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that SF really began to speculate about the transformative possibilities of networked computers, but to our credit, SF writers made the paradigm breakthrough of thinking of cyberspace as a place long before such technogurus as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs ever did.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Heywood Floyd, up in the double-torus space station, steps into a Bell Telephone phonebooth (they had the old Bell logo on the telephone videoscreen . . . even Arthur C. Clarke couldn’t predict that Ma Bell would be broken up into smaller companies long before the year 2001 . . . but then again, the spaceplane that carried Floyd up to orbit belonged to Pan Am!) . . .

Where was I before I parenthesized my thoughts?

Oh, yes . . . Haywood Floyd calling home from orbit on a videophone was right in the mainstream of predictive SF, but neither Clarke nor Kubrick nor any SF writer of the day (and this was the late ‘60’s!) imagined that our astronauts in orbit in the real 2001 (or 2007) would be sending e-mails home via a planetary proto-datasphere called the Internet.

[Author’s note here – I saw some reference to me being the first SF writer to use the term “World Wide Web,” the reference referring to my 1989 Hyperion novel, written from 1987 on, but actually that was just “World Web” and referred to the silly idea of a web of teleportation devices called farcasters – an old (and almost certainly impossible) SF idea. What I may have contributed to the lexicon (and any writer is lucky if he or she contributes one new word or idea to the language – Catch-22 is a great example) is the word “datasphere.” In Hyperion I wanted to convey the idea of an Internet that had grown so pervasive that it became a planetary information environment analogous to the term “biosphere.” I have seen at least one citation crediting my 1989 novel as the source of that term now in wider use. I suggested that interplanetary datasphere connections would be a megasphere and a near-galactic amalgam of dataspheres and megadataspheres, an information environment that would take on a life and purpose of its own, might be called a metasphere.]

Not too long ago, I had to smile when reading a synopsis of a NASA study suggesting that it would be useful to create an Internet on Mars long before human beings landed there.

I’m honored to have made the acquaintance of such writers as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, some of our earliest cyberspace prognosticators. I remember about 1984 – I’d just begun publishing in earnest – when my friend Ed Bryant came back from some convention and told me about these radical new writers who were calling themselves cyberpunks and who rattled on about a virtual computer environment called cyberspace. Ed said that these guys dressed in black leather, wore dark shades even in dim rooms, and that their attitudes tended to arrive twenty minutes before they did. He also said that they were cool – an adjective I’d never before heard used to modify an SF writer – and they called their cyberpunky predilections The Movement.

“If they’re cyberpunks, who are we?” I asked Ed. As I mentioned, I’d only been publishing short fiction for a year or two and even though I was in my 30’s, some reviewers (who obviously hadn’t met me) were referring to me as a “hot, young writer.”

“We’re BOFs,” said Ed.

“BOF?”

“Boring Old Farts,” said Ed in his usual flat-affect Martin-Mull delivery. And so we’ve been ever since.

In later years, I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of most of the original cyberpunks and found most of them to be thoughtful, quiet people – although “talking to” (i.e. listening to) Bruce Sterling in an hour’s conversation gives one precisely the kind of expanding-brain migraine that interlocutors used to report after listening to Buckminster Fuller.

Bill Gibson (Neuromancer) was actively shy and I doubt if I’ll ever forget the first time I heard him talking about his early stories and cyberspace novels. He wrote Neuromancer, almost certainly the great breakthrough cyberspace novel, on a typewriter. Quite a bit later, when some admirers – I believe they were in Japan, where they revere Bill as a minor god, much as they did the stolidly ineffable Herman Kahn a generation earlier – gave Gibson his first computer, he did what any of us BOFs would have done. He took it home and then took it apart.

“I was surprised to find that it was mostly empty space in the case,” said Bill. “But I liked the disk drive. It reminded me of my record turntable.”

Of such stuff are our cyber-prophets made.

Dan’s Ten Absolutely Infallible Predictions for 2007:

I promised you these, so here goes . . .

  1. Microsoft’s new operating system, VISTA, will become available in January. Hackers will have already found weaknesses in it and are licking their chops to show you their new tricks. Patches will be forthcoming from Microsoft in the spring.
     
  2. Flatscreen TVs and high-definition will continue to be the buying craze in 2007, forcing a lot more fuzzy long shots in TV shows with older actors and actresses, causing directors to abandon the entrenched TV tradition of close-ups and medium shots. Several current network news anchors will get too fuzzy-filtered to be visible and will be replaced by younger, HD-tolerant faces who will have reading difficulties and will say “like” a lot.
     
  3. Iraq and Iraqis will continue to redefine the word “obscenity” but Americans will not become hardened to it. Rather, our national gorge will finally become buoyant.
     
  4. Democratic candidates for president will work hard to appear centrist even while appeasing their party’s militant left wing, which has veto power over their nomination. Republican candidates for president will work hard to appear centrist even while appeasing their party’s militant right wing, which has veto power over their nomination. The he or she who simultaneously appears and appeases most successfully will win the nomination and probably the 2008 election.
     
  5. Hollywood and theater chains, with their shoddy films, $8 popcorn, and cheesy commercials will continue treating movie-goers as if they were captives in the Middle Passage whom they can pee on without fear of consequence. When high-def widescreen TVs and home theater systems reach 68% saturation in the States, there will be an L.A.-aimed raspberry that will be heard round the world.
     
  6. Cell phones will continue to absorb more features and duties from every other medium and technology around them, giving us our first indication that computers, at least as we know them, may be a museum curiosity within not so many years.
     
  7. Internecine Muslim wars will continue and metastasize in 2007, making the idea of “nation state” obsolete in at least three places that are now foolishly considered countries.
     
  8. After a blizzard of legislation in their first few months of power, House and Senate Democrats will remember that they can do more damage to Republican hopes through investigation and interrogation than through legislation. The next blizzard – and one that will continue through 2008 – will be a blizzard of subpoenaes.
     
  9. The 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature will go to someone who uses the occasion to excoriate the United States and its policies.
     
  10. The most important event of 2007, as is true of the most important event most years, will be one that no puny punditing pseudo-prophet could begin to foresee.

As I mentioned above, I did once seek and receive permission from Bill Watterson's people to reprint the quoted Calvin & Hobbes strip for a Subterranean Press publication of my Galaxiales '97 speech about the future, but I'm not sure if that copyright reprint permission still applies. I'm one of those Luddite BOFs who still respects copyright and I respect Bill Watterson even more (especially after he's passed up so many opportunities to cash in on Calvin & Hobbes merchandising.)

But for all of us who loved Calvin and Hobbes and who daily (especially when perusing the sad, cynical doodles that too often pass for comic strips nowadays) mourn their leaving us, I can't think of a better gift for the New Year than a final glimpse of this disappointed, grouchy kid who's still waiting for the same unreachable future we are, and of his Stoic philosopher of a tiger-friend. Sometimes I think that they were our only true prophets.

The future ain't what it used to be. But then again, it never was.

 

Sincerely,

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