Welcome to the Future
by Steven Utley
At our century’s
end, its marvels and horrors
vied for pride of place.
In December 1999, the editor of The Nashville Tennessean invited readers to share their thoughts, in the form of short essays, about the century and the millennium to come; the best contributions would appear in a special New Year’s Day 2000 edition. After calculating the odds against a deluge of essays by other science–fiction writers living in the area, I responded as follows.
For the past quarter–century and more, I have been an occasional writer of science–fiction stories; earlier, I read other writers’ science–fiction stories by the truckload. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that I have waited most of my life to behold what future–boosters once grandly called The World of Tomorrow, a world that, because of my proximity in time to the twenty–first century and the coming millennium, has always seemed almost at hand.
During the technophilic, sex–starved 1950s, The World of Tomorrow ran to rocket backpacks, atom–powered automobiles, and girls in vinyl miniskirts; nowadays, when future–boosterism is suspect, it had become a grimmer, grimier place populated by cyberpunks, cyberbikers, and girls in leather miniskirts; in another fifty years, it will reflect and refract the society of fifty years from now. I imagine that there will still be girls in miniskirts, but as to the rest, who knows? Science fiction’s reputation as predictive literature is grossly inflated. Even H. G. Wells, who cast science fiction in its modern form a hundred years ago, was usually wrong about the details. He did, however, understand the essential thing: the future brings change, and if we neglect to prepare for it, we are going to find ourselves overwhelmed by it.
If certain conditions are met — if, for starters, our civilization, with its great many moving parts, is not shaken to pieces by internal stresses or demolished outright by a natural disaster on the order of an asteroid impact — the coming millennium will surely witness our traveling throughout the solar system. Perhaps we will even venture into interstellar space to visit planets circling other stars. This latter phase of dispersion will be excruciatingly slow by human standards, because interstellar distances are so vast that light fairly crawls from star to star, even traveling at an unexceedable (and, for us, unattainable) speed of 186,000 miles per second. These distances militate against any galactic empire with our world at its hub; once they have set out for the stars, our descendants will perforce be on their own.
Before life can “stand upon earth as upon a footstool,” as Wells wrote at the end of his monumental Outline of History, “and stretch its realm amidst the stars,” those conditions to which I alluded absolutely have to be met, and probably by no later than the end of the twenty–first century. They are inextricably bound up with one another. We must:
Accept ourselves as natural creatures dependent upon the natural order of things. The idea has been slowly but generally catching on, perhaps even in Nashville, that the environment is not something simply to be bulldozed to make room for new shopping malls. Our planet’s resources and resilience are finite.
Check population growth. A civilization burdened with the care of its geometrically multiplying population will never be able to muster the resources necessary to mount and sustain a program of interstellar voyaging. Hungry people cannot be blamed for lacking interest in space travel.
Accept one another. The twentieth century abounds with horrific examples of what comes of focusing too sharply on our differences. We all belong to the same species, and for now we all inhabit the only planet in the universe known to harbor life. Achieving these ends will require us both to learn new things and to unlearn old ones. Can we clever, fecund, rapacious, quarrelsome apes get our act together in time? I hope so. As Wells noted in his Outline, the race is between education and catastrophe.
Well, I thought I had done a pretty decent job. Imagine my chagrin at not even placing among the also–rans. In fact, I lost out to someone who wrote that it would be a wonderful thing if an American Mars probe that had just then failed to reach the red planet were to land instead in Heaven, so that God could use it to communicate with us.
Copyright © 2004 by Steven Utley