Our primal endowment—formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct—paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone’s psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original “yes” of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the “no” of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative “no” gave it a distinct voice.

— George Scialabba, The Curse of Modernity:
Philip Rieff’s problem with freedom

Restrictions breed creativity.

Mark Rosewater


— Sebi, age 2


In 1987 both the Internet and the Soviet Union existed. Twenty-five years later, only one of these things exists, and it’s not the one that most people would have predicted in 1987, or even the one that they had heard of.

This comes to mind because I recently came across this set of time capsule predictions from notable SFF authors of 1987. Like all retro-futuristic predictions, this one is a lovely mixture of the wrong and the ridiculous, and it gives us all a chance to smirk at how smart we are for living in the future that those poor schlubs could only guess about. I especially note how pessimistic most of these gentlemen are (and they are all gentlemen). Many of them predicted nuclear war or ecological collapse; economic troubles were widely forecast, and the human population was routinely overestimated. (In fact, nearly every person who mentioned population used the number eight billion, which is so coincidental that I assume the number was the official estimate at the time. It also overshoots the actual world population by about a billion.)

I’m particularly amused by Isaac Asimov’s short prediction, which I quote in its entirety:

Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.

The cause of all our problems

Gregory Benford made this puzzling remark:

The outer-directed, social-issues consciousness of the USA, only nascent in 1987, will have peaked and run its course…leading to a fresh period of inward-directed values, perhaps even indulgence…though there will be less ability to indulge.

1987 was the beginning of a period of social consciousness? And it’s supposed to have run out of steam by now? I can safely say that I have no idea what he’s talking about, not even enough of an idea to say for sure that he was wrong.

Lots of people predicted computers would be important. No one mentioned the Internet. Other technological predictions, about space missions to Mars or the moon, about nanotechnology, and about renewable energy, all failed to come true.

And of course no one guessed that the Soviet Union would break up, especially not in two short years.

But what’s the point of reading about failed predictions of the past if you aren’t willing to make a few predictions of your own? So here are my predictions for the year 2037:

  • The Internet will be ubiquitous in economic and social interactions. It will, in fact, be so omnipresent that no one will think about it much.
  • The US will still have the world’s strongest economy, but not by much. Its main competitors will be the developed economies of China, India, and Brazil.
  • The EU will still exist, but it will have fewer countries in it than it does today.
  • Islamic terrorism will largely be a thing of the past.
  • Humans, but not Americans, will have been back to the moon. Most likely the newest moon visitors will be Chinese. No manned mission to Mars will yet have taken place.
  • The Singularity will not have happened. There will be no strong AI. There will be no contact with extraterrestrials. We will not run out of oil, nor will there be any game-changing renewable energy source. There will be no radical breathroughs in biology, cryogenics, nanotechnology, or robotics. Instead, there will be modest, incremental advances in all of these fields (except the Singularity and extraterrestrials, because those are pure fantasy).
  • Global warming will still be going on, but nothing much will be done about it. It turns out that incrementally adapting to global climate change is easier than radically revamping the entire world economy in an attempt to stop it.
  • There will be wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.

Daniel Polansky has studied the past, and he doesn’t like it one bit:

Occasionally you’ll be with a group of people and they’ll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it’s better not to call them on it.

When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we’re drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90’s were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”

Perhaps it’s my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.

There’s lots of words I could use to describe this, but I’m going to be generous and just say “bullocks”. The past didn’t suck for most of the people who lived there. I know this because I’ve been there, and I know people who lived most of their lives in the past.

Yes, of course, all of us have lived most of our lives in the past. The past is never really that far away. You can travel back in time up to a few decades just by visiting rural areas here in the US. (Conversely, Westerners visiting Japan often get a sense of visiting the future.) But I know time travelers from times more distant than that. My in-laws grew up and lived a significant portion of their lives in rural Romania in the mid 20th century, which was technologically and culturally at least a century behind the modern world, even the modern world of the 1950’s. My wife’s grandmother still lives on the farm where she raised her many children, and her lifestyle and attitudes are, at best, from the 19th century. Good portions of it are quite a bit older than that. Of course the past that one finds in these places is never pure, as modernity reaches its tendrils even to rural Romania in some respects. Still, it is enough to gain a sense of what our poor, pitiful, filthy, ignorant ancestors were like.

And they were neither pitiful, filthy, nor ignorant. That’s just modern condescension speaking. (It is hard to argue with poor, however.)

This is the most striking thing about visiting the past. The people who live there certainly lack many of our modern luxuries, and their lives are less pleasant than ours in some ways. But they don’t think that their lives suck. They are happy at roughly the same levels that we are happy. Many of them are distinctly uncomfortable with the modern world when it inevitably forces itself on them. Sometimes they look down on us for our laziness, loss of virtue, and alienation. To say “the past sucked” is to ignore the happiness of those who lived there, and in many cases continue to live there.

I’m also reminded of another famous group of time-travelers, the Hmong, who were caught up in a war from centuries in the future and then had to be relocated from their traditional homes into the heart of the modern world. You should not be surprised to hear that most of them found this transition to be painful, and that many of them wished to return to the filthy, disease-ridden, hard-laboring past that we had “rescued” them from. But you may be surprised that Western medicine—one of the few things that I would have mentioned as an unambiguous benefit of the modern world—was a source of special distress to many of them. Time-travelers don’t necessarily see our best points as good points at all.

One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.

This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.

Polansky says that he doesn’t understand fantasy, in particular its fascination with the past. But there is really an obvious alliance between the genre of fantasy, which abjected both by mainstream literary fiction and by its older sister science fiction, and the abjected past. The outcast genre and the outcast history have to make an alliance together. It is no coincidence that fantasy literature emerges as a distinct genre at the same time that the modern world starts onto its feet and begins to persecute history.

Or like my banner quote says: Realism is for those whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

Like all good genre writers, I love me some zombies. I even included some in my book. So when one of my favorite online magazines prints an essay of social analysis combined with zombies I am all over that:

And it is often so that popular culture, guided only by its intuitive and communal wisdom, sees what can’t be seen, but is nevertheless real. But having gained some trust in that, I was still confused by the rather odd phenomenon of the zombies. Why did this rather obscure Caribbean cult of people in a drug-induced catatonic state get so easily transformed into such an elaborate metaphor of the post-apocalyptic world? And why did they think that the world after the collapse would be filled with people stripped of their souls, stripped of all feelings, whether of pain or pleasure, anger or joy, who spent their time relentlessly pursuing one product?

And then it struck me: they aren’t looking into the future, they are looking at the present moment; and they aren’t looking at what will be done to others; they are looking at what has already been done to themselves. The image, so silly on its face, resonates with the young because they know, at some intuitive level, that we are already in the midst of the apocalypse, that the world wishes to strip them of their minds and their hearts and make them pure consumers, and relentless consumers of one product, the advertiser’s dream. They know, in their heart of hearts, that the world is out to get them, and means them no good. They have seen a deeper truth than anyone cares to admit.

The author is both more pessimistic and more optimistic than me. He thinks that we’re in imminent danger of social collapse (I don’t), but that some good things will appear in its immediate aftermath (I think it’ll take a lot longer than that). And the essay is adapted from an address given to a Catholic audience, but since I’m not a Catholic there are a few parts of it that I won’t wholly endorse. Nonetheless, it was a cracking good read.

We cannot have a world without structures of power, though we might wish for it. But if we must have power, what sort of power should we have? How should power present itself?

We go looking for one kind of powerful man, and we find a king wearing sumptuous robes and carrying a glittering staff. He blasts trumpets and pounds drums at his approach and wafts incense in his wake. When we come to supplicate him, he demands our prostration and does not forget for a moment that he is powerful, and we are not.

This is the best kind of power. First, because it is easy to find. We only have to follow the sound of drums and the smell of incense, and when we arrive in the gold-littered court there is little question that we’ve come to the right place. More importantly, the king himself knows that he is powerful. If we come to complain about his rule, he will admit that he is responsible even if he ignores our pleas. And because he knows he is responsible, he may even remember to do justice, may be persuaded to be good. And if not, because his power is a visible, sharp-edged thing, we can at least get out of his way.

We go looking for another kind of power, and we find a quiet woman sitting behind a plain wooden desk covered with papers. She looks up from her writing and offers us a cup of tea. We’re confused, because this does not look like a seat of power. The woman is confused as well. There is no power here, she tells us, clearly hoping that we will leave. She says she is a writer, a businesswoman, a minor bureaucrat. Why would we come to her looking for a seat of power?

This is a good question. We do notice there is a subversive book, or a foreclosure notice, or maybe just form 27b-6 lying on her desk. Is not this a kind of power? She shakes her head. This is just social justice, the free market, the will of the people, she assures us. There is no power here. Yes, some people will always go to extremes, get into too much debt, or vote for foolish policies. But this is not her fault. She is certainly not responsible.

Too bad about that. We had some questions about the exercise of this power, but we can’t find anyone who will answer for it.

[What follows is a conjecture, not something I’m absolutely convinced of.]

An alternate history in which Hitler survived and Stalin was defeated would be less bad than the history that we actually got, in which Stalin survived and Hitler was defeated.

Consider: Hitler consigned roughly 6 million people to death in his concentration camps. Stalin killed over 20 million people. On this basis alone, Stalin is a greater monster than Hitler. Hitler’s Holocaust is generally regarded as a greater crime than Stalin’s gulags because Hitler was targeting the extermination of a specific race, a genocide, while Stalin’s enemies were a much broader group. But now that I think of it, I’m not sure that “killed a wider variety of people” is really a point in Stalin’s favor.

Consider also that Stalinist Marxism was a deliberately international creed, which was successfully exported all over the globe, bringing mayhem, misery, and murder wherever it went. Many nations were turned from mildly disfunctional to horrific hellholes by the infection of Stalinism. (The dysfunction is necessary for Stalinism to get a foothold, but once it arrives Stalinism invariably makes things worse, not better.) Nazi Aryanism was a much more local form of insanity, which couldn’t really be replicated in other places or times. Fascism was never successfully exported outside of Europe, and it’s quite plausible that a Nazi Empire that occupied Eastern Europe would have been more benign than the Soviet Union.

The price of leaving Stalin in power was nuclear proliferation, the Cold War, and the long series of nasty conflicts all over the globe in which both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. committed atrocities. We are still dealing with the echoes of those conflicts in the form of the interminable Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Islamist terrorism, and various Third World dictators, which were favored by the U.S. in earlier times as a stopgap against Communist expansion.

We have developed a national mythology that identifies Nazi Germany as a manifestation of Pure Evil which had to be eradicated at all costs, and we constantly remind ourselves of this fact by building monuments to the Nazi atrocities and killing the Nazis over and over again in movies and video games. Meanwhile Stalin’s Russia is regarded as an enemy, but an enemy that could be temporarily regarded as an ally, and who we could afford to oppose slowly over the next fify years rather than demolishing all at once in a hail of bombs. It is possible that this valuation has it backwards.

(Counterarguments: if Hitler had been allowed to live, it’s possible that he would eventually have racked up a body count as great as Stalin’s. And it’s very plausible that the U.S. would have fallen into a Cold War with Germany that was as costly and destructive as the actual Cold War.)

Economic inequality is created by the very same things that most make life enjoyable: family and friendship. Therefore, a radical egalitarian ethic is necessarily inimical to family and friendship.

Well-off parents make their children better off even if they don’t give them money (though money certainly doesn’t hurt), by teaching and modeling behaviors that allow their children to thrive. Well-off friends make their acquaintances better off even if they don’t directly give them money or influence, by providing networks of information and access. Think: do you want to prevent parents from teaching their kids to sit up straight, shake hands, and dress nice for an interview? Do you want to prevent people from mentioning to their friends that there’s a job opening at the bank they work at? A parent who failed to teach his kids how to behave would be a bad parent, and a friend who failed to pass a tip along to an acquaintance would be a bad friend. Yet these very actions create the systemic, inter-generational inequalities that we all observe around us. The aristocracy and the old boys’ network are merely the fully-grown, mature forms of the systems of inequality that we all participate in.

There is a certain amount of systemic inequality that we may have to live with. The cure would be worse than the disease.

(Inspired by Megan McArdle’s provocative, tongue-in-cheek defense of a 100% estate tax.)