This isn't likely to come as a massive surprise to anyone, but if I didn't feel before like I was living in a science fiction novel, this year sure clinched that feeling. Not merely because of the pandemic, but because of all the things the pandemic force-multiplied -- the corrosive effects of capital on public spaces; the way we've blithely swapped technology for human potential and come up immeasureably poorer as a result; the way we have all these toys and so few things that actually work. 2020 didn't so much throw us into a dystopian SF novel as it revealed we'd been living in one for quite some time, and only now could we no longer ignore it.
What really got me, though, was the exposure of the distance between the life we were supposed to be leading, and the life we are leading. And with that, I took a good hard look at that feeling: where was it written that things in 2020 were supposed to have been better than this? Who promised us that?
Constant readers probably know by now of my love for Patrick Farley's one-shot comic The Guy I Almost Was, where this issue first got waved under my nose. In that comic, Farley's semi-autobiographical protagonist grows up reading OMNI Magazine in the early 1980s and daydreaming about how great the future's gonna be, provided he survives long enough to inhabit it. He doesn't have to do anything; it'll be provided to him automatically along with his citizen number. It's all Buckminster Fuller and Star Trek. (Oh, the babe! Oh, the sweet innocent child!)
Nothing of the kind happens, of course. By the time he's grown in the late Nineties, he's working a grotty minimum-wage job and barely avoiding being thrown out of the house he shares with others. He can't even afford a basic computer. It takes bad experiences with a few of the self-identified luminaries of the cyber-future for him to realize the future he was promised was nothing but a chimera -- a marketing blitz, not a forecast, let alone any kind of substantial promise.
The danger of seeing it all as science fiction is seeing any of it as inevitable, good or bad. Just because we read about something like it once, and something like it starts to come true, doesn't mean it will continue to unfold in that fashion. SF is often seen as predictive of events or outcomes, but I've long felt it's better seen as predictive of attitudes or mindsets -- not what happens, but how we feel about it and what we do about it.
Nobody promised us anything. That's a story we told ourselves, and that we chose to believe, perhaps because the alternative was unpalatable. The alternative was that any of that would require work on our part -- not simply to bring the technical parts of it into existence, but create the social environment where it would flourish. So now we know better. There are no promises, implied or otherwise. Whatever future we have has to come from our own hands.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind