October 1, 2014
Coming Home will be released at the end of the month. I can't recall that writing any novel ever provided more sheer pleasure and, simultaneously, more of a challenge. Alex and Chase live 10,000 years in the future. This time out, they return to Earth in an effort to learn what happened to a collection of early space age artifacts, dating from the first manned orbital flights to the development of an interstellar drive, that were lost during a dark age. The challenge derived from making some reasonable guesses about how the future might develop.
Alex lives in a universe in which humanity has developed a culture that allows people to pursue their dreams, to engage in professional careers if they wish, or to lead lives of leisure if that is their preference. If you want to just hang out for a lifetime, read, watch TV, and take naps, it's okay. War is effectively abolished. People get along. Crime is almost nonexistent. We've learned to tolerate whatever political, cultural, and religious differences exist among us. There is no racial disparity because there are no races. Thousands of years of intermarriage have taken care of that. So the issue became, what does Earth look like when Alex and Chase return to it?
To begin with, did climate change really occur and did it disrupt things? I couldn't find any climatologist who was willing to predict how long the conditions we are setting the stage for would continue. Would it be just mild temperature changes and higher tides for a few centuries? Or would rising seas submerge Moscow, London, Washington, and half the other major cities on the planet? There's apparently no way to know. But anything's possible.
What remains from our own age? Have any films survived? My first thought was "The Great Dictator," with Charlie Chaplin. But it didn't survive the cut. Chase is surprised to discover that a song she grew up with, and in fact still loves, is a product of the 20th century.
Taking on the future can be a sobering experience. I first became conscious in 1939 or thereabouts, and lived the next six years in a world torn by war. When I was in the first grade, I can recall being at a family event when everyone suddenly got quiet. I asked what had happened, and an aunt told me the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I'd never heard of Pearl Harbor and I certainly had no idea who the Japanese were. But during the years that followed, war seemed the natural state of things.
I discovered Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder shortly after all the shooting ended, and realized that stories about flights to Mars and Moonbase seemed to be placed in the '60s and '70s. (In 1948, that was the distant future.) In 1957, when the Russians put the first satellite in orbit, and a year later a newly-formed NASA was looking for astronauts, it looked briefly as if it might all come together. Of course, we all know how that turned out.
What happened? What went wrong? I won't pretend to be able to answer that question, but I can't resist admitting that, in 1945, I assumed that there would be no more combat for the U.S. in my lifetime. Now, I can't help wondering how things might have gone had we sidestepped the Cold War. (That might actually have been possible.) Follow that by declining to get into Korea and Vietnam. And stay out of the Middle East. George Washington advised us to "lead by example."
Most of us assumed for a long time that the United States would go on indefinitely, that western civilization was the future, and that we would continue to improve technology in various fields. And maybe, eventually, we'd even get to Mars. But there's a fair amount of pessimism in the air now, as we embark on another Middle East struggle. We don't need to worry about our military. But nobody's talking much about the real problem: how we pay for still another war. And that is where we are probably most vulnerable. We're already trillions of dollars in debt. If we're serious about taking out ISIL, I hope the President will raise taxes to pay for it, and not just "kick the can down the road," if I may borrow an expression that became too familiar ten years ago.