It's the Fourth of July, and I'm 'Murrican, so today's theme is sort of a gimme. The United States of America is 231 years old today. This is young as countries go, or so we feel, though if uninterrupted independence is the measure the US is one of the oldest countries in the world. If political continuity is the measure, the two-century-plus club is even smaller. The UK is the only other major power I can think of that has suffered neither occupation nor revolution since 1776. Among mid-rank powers, Sweden and Switzerland, I believe, but few European countries escaped both Napoleon and Hitler, and avoided revolution to boot. Outside of Europe, even fewer escaped both colonialism and revolution. Thailand, perhaps?
Still, 231 years is only about 5 percent of recorded history. In SF we deal routinely with eras reaching that far into the future, and much further.
2238: Roll it around in you mind and taste it. In what may be called the loose consensus future of SF, it is probably the early age of star travel. The solar colonies are long-established by now, and their limitations clear (canned air is expensive). Yet the starships have been heading out for a generation or two, maybe a century, and the first raw young colonies have been founded.
Closer to home (at least my home), the 2238 off-year Congressional election should be looming, plus local details like the governor of California. (Will she be a VR star? Not the first actor elected here.) Jockeying for the 2240 presidential nominations should be well under way. We won't worry about the frontrunners' names - by then the Bushes and Kennedys have perhaps gone the way of the Adamses, and more than 200 years after Barack Obama*, Americans are long inured to names that would once have seemed exotic. But what party labels are they running under?
This is the first place where I feel the niggle of futurity. (Yes, there is another whole set of SF futures where Murica by 2238 has gone the way of Mycenae, leaving only crumbling ruins and growing legends. I am dealing here with "classical" futures, not the post-apocalyptic ones.)
The Democratic and Republican parties have themselves been around a long time, 150 years - in fact, the Democrats since the first recognizable American presidential election, that of 1800. (Just to confuse junior high school students, however, they were then called "Republicans.") Still, the parties are not integral to to my sense of continuity the way the basic political order is.
In just over a hundred years they have reversed their geographical bases; today's blue states mostly voted for McKinley in 1896, and today's red states for William Jennings Bryan. So I would more than half expect the US political parties of 2238 to have different names; even if the names have persisted, what they stand for may have changed. (God forbid, but in 2238 I might have to be a Republican.)
All this, to be sure, is very linear, and I can think of any number of variations. Some are the obvious disagreeable ones - no one in 2238 wonders who will win in 2040, because it will be a 99 percent landslide as all elections have been for generations. Other variations are interesting rather than merely nasty. Perhaps the 2238 presidential election will be uncontested because it has been a ceremonial office for 150 years: What matters, as in any parliamentary republic, is who becomes Speaker of the House. (The US could be converted to an effectively parliamentary system without amending a word of the Constitution.)
Still more interesting, in the spirit of this post, is a 2238 in which who becomes the next US president is no more important, and less immediate, than who is elected Governor of California this fall - the prospect of a colony on Ramona hangs on the balance. To the general public it may be less interesting and perhaps no more consequential than whom Princess Margaret, future Queen of the Anglosphere, is dating.
Broadening the scope of speculation just a bit, are the
Saxe-Coburgs Windsors still on the throne? 231 years is fairly long in dynastic terms, long enough for the Royal Family to have changed in course of nature - no need for archaic stuff like princes buried under a stairwell. Or has the monarchy gone the way of the House of Lords and become elective? Or did it cease to draw tourists and get quietly abolished by the Post Office Act of 2103?
The point is that in 2238 we can still imagine a sort of half-recognizable world. There might even be baseball. (No doubt there will also be some back-and-forth ball game or other, but only sports historians would care about its past.) We can imagine the US to still be here in some form - even, from time to time, standing in its haphazard way for the things we want it to stand for on the 4th.
In the conventions of July 4th rhetoric we say the Stars and Stripes will wave forever free. I imagine other countries have their equivalent. But history takes a longer view, and so does SF. Let's take another jump, this time twice as far, 462 years, which happens to land us on the nice round number of 2700.
It feels a lot further from home. This is not a matter of technical change, because an unspoken convention of most mid-future SF is that postindustrial technology reaches a mature level in a couple of hundred years, after which further progress is mostly gradual refinement, like the evolution from the galleon of Drake's day to the frigate of John Paul Jones's. This is historically plausible. Airliners went from box kites to the Boeing 707 in 40 years; 40 years later they are essentially just refined variations. Most air passengers would not know an early model 707 from a present-day jet - till it spooled up its engines; the scream of bare turbojets would sound like something was terribly wrong.
What is unnerving about 2700 is not that the starships are faster and safer than the my-God-were-they-brave ships of 2238. What is unnerving is that it is hard to imagine the Presidential election of 2700. Six hundred and ninety-three years are too much history under the bridge. Even if there is still a United States, someone called its president, and something called an election, the content will surely have been changed out of recognition.
Go 693 years in the other direction and you are in 1314 - you just missed the Battle of Bannockburn by a day or two.** Aye, here's to the Cross of St. Andrew, and all that. And you're three months late to save Jacques de Molay from the stake. Technology changed far less between 1314 and 1776 (except in warfare) than between 1776 and this morning, but that didn't keep everything else from changing. 1314 is a far, far place, as 2700 surely will be.
Yet even so there are continuities. There is, quite emphatically, no UK in 1314, but there is an English monarch, from whom Elizabeth II/I claims descent - I imagine she's descended from Robert the Bruce, as well. Magna Carta is over a century old, and it has been twelve years since Edward I summoned the Model Parliament: What touches all, should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.
So even in the year 2700, all is not lost for the Fourth of July. I can plausibly imagine that, 693 years from now, the United States or its lineal descendents thrive. I can even plausibly imagine that, however much its institutions have changed, they have remained true to the principle that government belongs in the public square, not behind palace walls.
* Neither prediction nor endorsement - but the whole idea that a black man with a Middle Eastern sounding name is a leading contender is way cool.
** The date of Bannockburn is June 24, but that is by the Julian calendar - the back-projected Gregorian date would be about July 2-3.