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We made it to the ‘future’

Posted: December 30, 2011 1:21 p.m.
Updated: January 2, 2012 5:00 a.m.

When I was a little kid, I loved imagining what things would be like when I grew up. I’ve kept right on imagining through today, whether it be through fiction I’ve written or some of these columns of mine you’ve read in years past.

A lot of that imagination has been fueled by other people’s creations, from science fiction stories, TV shows and movies, and comic books. It may sound frivolous, but I believe our collective imagination makes humans what they are: a forward-looking, problem-solving species that’s managed to survive in unexpected ways.

In my early teens, perhaps earlier (this would be the ancient 1970s, folks), I read a really neat Superman comic book that imagined Kal-El came to Earth at that time and grew up from that point forward. It was, appropriately enough, titled “Superman 2000.” An epilogue at the end of the one-shot comic showed an adult Clark Kent in a futuristic, but apparently civilian outfit, in a very futuristic setting Metropolis of 2010.

Now, even I, as a very young person in that disco era, thought the future looked a bit garish. But I liked the idea that cities of the future might have moving sidewalks, different kind of architecture, and that we might be wearing something more “space”-oriented. Hey, I was a kid!

People have been trying to figure out what the future might be like since the dawn of time. More recently (say, the late 1800s), that’s what a lot of science fiction is all about: imagining what the future might be like and creating stories out of that imagination. The best stories are those that are character-oriented with the future as the backdrop.

Classic authors such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clark did so; modern authors do the same. I’m especially a fan of Jack McDevitt, who imagines some pretty fanciful stuff, but does so through some great character studies.

Now, some things imagined in the past have become real. Star Trek imagined the communicator. People inspired by the series created cell phones, smartphones and tablets. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced us to holographic chambers. Well, at least 3D TV is on the rise. The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman imagined super-powered bionic replacement limbs. While not “super-powered,” prosthetics have been getting better and better every year, and we’re closer to true bionics than we’ve ever been.

But where are the flying cars; colonies on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere; and nuclear fusion plants to give us clean, nearly unlimited energy?

(On the other hand, there were a lot of gloom-and-doom predictions in the 1970s that we would all blow ourselves up or succumb to massive climate changes. Aren’t you glad those didn’t come true?)

Yes, we have our smartphones, not to mention music, video and more on-demand from the “cloud,” but I can’t help lamenting that I can’t simply beam myself from my house to work and back again. It would be nice to interview a science expert from her outpost on the giant asteroid Ceres. For that matter, it would be nice to simply dictate my stories into some type of ear piece and have it automatically typeset for editing and distribution...

Oh, we have that, or something like it? Cool! Get me one, stat!

In late 1999 -- at the height of something ridiculously called the Y2K scare -- I wrote a short story called Y10K. I wrote it from the perspective of (and this was before I started writing for the C-I) a reporter working on Dec. 31, 9999, just as the 101st century would dawn. I no longer have a copy of that story, but I think I can recreate it.

The unnamed reporter wore a special suit -- almost a second skin -- that provided oxygen and nutrition, protection from the cold and radiation of space, and allowed him to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the galaxy in real time.

He had been to hundreds of human colonies and non-human worlds. He’d reported on wars, politics, scientific triumphs, the arts -- everything -- to the point where trillions of people relied on him not just for the news, but to be a voice of reason in a vast, complicated galaxy. I imagined him to be not a futuristic version of the print reporter I have become, but more of a young (by futuristic standards) Edward R. Murrow, the Murrow of, of all things, radio.

He hung in space in a lonely solar system, at the edge of the galaxy, visiting Earth to mark the transition from one age to the next. He noted that ancients texts referred to the non-event of Y2K, but also to the tumultuous times leading up to the year 2000 in the long-ago, virtually forgotten past. He helped those listening to his words understand that their time was really no different from our time.

Ultimately, my character made what I thought was a simple, yet profound observation: humans had survived. Despite the events of the previous 8,000 years, humans had managed to survive as a species, colonize space, meet and -- to whatever degree -- get along with other races. They had survived to dream, to build, to fight, to love.

That future reporter would be as alien to us today as we would be to men and women of 8,000 years ago in the year 10,000 B.C. Would they recognize us as human? Would we recognize our descendants as being our progeny?

Perhaps.

I think we all would see ourselves in each other, smiling and nodding in great satisfaction that we had made it.

Yes, 2011 was a pretty tumultuous year, in my opinion. But we made it. Here’s to the future of 2012 and beyond.

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