Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020 vision

So here we are in a year that's long been a favorite destination of science-fiction writers seeking a near-future setting, probably because its name sounds like the results of an eye test. In fact there was once an anthology titled 2020 Vision consisting of stories with that premise. If I'd been thinking, I could have gone looking for a copy so that I could spend this auspicious day evaluating the future-forecasting ability of the stories. Since I didn't, what I could do was use that fabulous tool of the future, the internet, to conveniently look up the anthology and then the individual stories to see which ones I had reprinted somewhere else. And I have four of the eight stories, a pretty good reprint rate. Like most SF stories, they're unknowingly more focused on the time they were written, which in this case was the early 1970s, than the future.

"Cloak of Anarchy" by Larry Niven explains its future setting in one paragraph of expository lump, because this is a Larry Niven story. "The freeways served America for almost fifty years. Then modern transportation systems cleaned the air and made traffic jams archaic and left the nation with an embarrassing problem. What to do with ten thousand miles of unsightly abandoned freeways?" So they turn them into anarchist parks. What? Actually, one phrase of this prediction is true, "cleaned the air." Bad as pollution may seem to us today, urban air is far cleaner than it was in the 1970s. LA, whence Niven hails, was a particular nightmare: I got sick every time I went there in those days. So I understand that part of his dream. The rest, though, is pure libertarian fancy. Traffic jams archaic? Oh, if only Niven could see ... wait a minute, he can.

"Silent in Gehenna" by Harlan Ellison I found hard to follow, but I did find an interview in which the author explains it. It's about a revolutionary who blows up college campuses - a very early 70s thing - who finds himself in a regimented future where the people he's trying to liberate don't care. By the greatest of efforts this might be seen as parallel to working-class people who've been persuaded to vote for the Republicans who are busy fleecing them and destroying their economy, but I don't think it really fits. It's really the nightmare of the mid-60s revolutionaries who were trying to persuade the students they were cogs in the machine and were afraid nobody would listen, and that's probably the era Ellison was stuck in.

"Future Perfect" by A.E. van Vogt reads as if it's trying to lecture the reader, but what exactly the point was is not clear. It's another regimented future, but this one designed for utopian purposes: everybody gets exactly the same amount of money, and a computer chooses your ideal mate. (Van Vogt's idea of this last is a horrifying combination of naive and offensive: "What old-style thinking would have called beauty was not a factor in computer mating. Height was. Weight was. Age was. ... All over the world fatties married fatties, thinnies thinnies, and intermediates other middlings.") And the story concerns, no surprise, a revolutionary who's trying to destroy the system. But aside from persuading all his followers to give him a lot of money, by checks (!), I couldn't quite figure out his goals.

"A Thing of Beauty" by Norman Spinrad is a thin satire in which American civilization has collapsed. The United Nations has disbanded, revolutionaries blew the head off the Statue of Liberty, and so on. Now all our cultural treasures are for sale to rich Japanese businessmen who want to transport them to Japan to impress their in-laws. (This was probably inspired by the rich American businessman who bought the obsolete London Bridge in 1967 and transported it to Arizona.) The one in this story decides that the American cultural treasure he wants to buy is the Brooklyn Bridge. Get it, get it? The story concludes when he pays for the bridge with an actual gold brick. Get it, get it?

Are there any stories about looming climate catastrophes, about civilization not collapsing or becoming hyper-controlled but reverting to the populist fascism of the 1920s and 30s, or the revolutionary effects of computerization, especially the disruption of society imposed, by means of technological innovation, by the mob mentality on itself? Actually, in other stories Larry Niven did write a form of this, though his technology wasn't Facebook and Twitter but teleportation. But nothing like that in any of these stories. I give Niven a bronze star in perspicacity, and the other three authors each get a small clay statuette of a backwards-headed person.

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