Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Long May She Wave

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.


Bernita said...

And why, I suppose, the term "speculative fiction" is charmingly attractive and perhaps should replace science fiction.

Carla said...

"I imagine she's descended from Robert the Bruce, as well"

Via the Stewart/Stuart line, which began with Robert Bruce's daughter Marjory, yes, she is.

Dynasties are odd because their longevity depends how relaxed you are about the rules of tracing descent - 231 years is a long time to last for a royal dynasty traced in the conventional way from father to son, but if you trace through the female line as well the current royal family can reasonably claim descent from Alfred the Great, which is well over a thousand years. (I think it was the blue-blooded Alec Douglas-Hume who, when accused of being a toff because he was the 13th holder of his title, commented wryly, "When you come to think of it, I suppose Mr Wilson is the 13th Mr Wilson).

Anita said...

QE II is also a descendent of Robert Bruce thanks to the Queen Mum. The founder of the Bowes-Lyon line married one of Bruce's great great granddaughters, Jean.

That's Princess Diana-Elizabeth, by the way, heir-apparent to the Anglosphere throne. By this time, succession throughout the EU is first come, first serve.

Kedamono said...

Well, one way to make the next 700 years look really different is to posit one of the many different natural disasters:

A super volcano goes boom.

One of the many islands have a major landslide, like one of the Canaries or the Big Island of Hawaii's Big Crack goes pop and a mega tsunami wipes a coastline clear of civilization.

What rebuilds after a global catastrophe won't be recognizable with what we have today. Heck you might even see another book added to the Bible, the Book of Trials perhaps?

Would there be an USA or the North American Collective?

Or maybe nothing happens, we dodge that bullet, and just grind away over time. The face of the USA will change, it will get a little darker, a little less Euro and a bit more everyone else.

One SF trope is that everyone is dark haired and olive skinned. I doubt that. We'll mix and match and there will always be the "pure" strains, if such a thing can exist in our mongrel race. :-)

I'm in the camp that seriously doubts that we'll have a USA 200 years from now, let alone 700 years. We may have a "one world government" but it will a collection of diverse peoples and beliefs. And if we're lucky, they will let us vote. :-)

Bernita said...

You have been tagged - again.

Rick said...

Bernita - I've never quite liked "speculative fiction," even though it is a more accurate term. I associate it with New Wave era authors in the 60s and 70s who were whoring after respectability and didn't want their works mistaken for that phallic-rocket stuff.

What's my tag???

Rick said...

Carla - yep, dynasty can be a slippery term. By rules of an earlier time, once E II R makes her last trip to Westminister Abby, wouldn't it be the House of Mountbatten, or whatever string of last names Prince Philip brought along?

Anita - agree; all remaining Euromonarchies will likely do so this century. The issue would probably have arisen in the UK already if the new crop had started with a daughter.

Rick said...

Kedamono - traditionally catastrophe scenarios don't wear well - nukes in the 50s and 60s, nuclear or ecocatastrophic winter in the 70s and 80s. But you're talking about something rather different - stuff happens, and sometimes it is big.

Global warming is pretty much also in a different class now - even in a non-catastrophic future you pretty much have to assume the planet is considerably warmer in a couple of hundred years.

I was just thinking a day or two ago about the fallacy that we'll all end up looking vaguely Mediterranean. Probably over a long period of intermixing it will all be sort of like hair and air color - it wouldn't be usual for a brother and sister to be one sunburn-pink and the other chocolate brown, but it wouldn't be all that unusual, either.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: Global Warming.

It does seem most likely that the trend of increased CO2 & so increased temperature will continue.

A serious campaign to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources (mostly nuclear) would make the CO2 concentrations level off, but not decline much for millennia. For a significant decline that would prevent most future warming we would also need some way to remove CO2 from the air, almost as fast as we've been putting it in over the last century.

I recently ran across something that just might do that. Some people are promoting the idea of agrichar
The short version is that, if you heat biomass without air you get charcoal & some flammable gases & liquids that can be used as fuel. If the charcoal is worked into soil it helps the fertility remains there for at least centuries, so this is a way to pull CO2 out of the air.

So just *maybe* the CO2 concentrations can be brought back down to pre-industrial levels over about the next century or two.

Carla said...

"Probably over a long period of intermixing it will all be sort of like hair and air color - it wouldn't be usual for a brother and sister to be one sunburn-pink and the other chocolate brown, but it wouldn't be all that unusual, either."
Interesting question. It would depend on how many genes there are controlling skin colour, relative frequency in the mixed population and which ones are dominant or recessive. None of which I know, although I should think it could be modelled. What you certainly get in a mixed population is 'hybrid vigour', as there's less chance of inheriting the same two copies of the same defective gene. So an increased amount of genetic mixing ought to, on the whole, produce a stronger, healthier and longer-lived population than the 'pure' (insofar as there is any such thing) populations you started with. I would guess that the idea of future, mixed, populations having brown eyes and olive skins is derived from knowing that fair hair and blue eyes are both recessive traits, i.e. on the whole you have to inherit a fair hair/blue-eye gene from BOTH parents for the child to have fair hair and blue eyes, whereas if you get one fair-hair gene and one dark-hair gene the child has dark or brown hair. (I say 'on the whole' because there are something like 40 genes controlling hair colour so it's a lot more complicated than that).

Rick said...

Jim - interesting. There may be some natural scrubbing mechanism that will remove CO2 faster than now anticipated ... but that is nothing to bet on.

Carla - is "hybrid vigor" the root of the belief that mutts make the best dogs?

Carla said...


Rick said...

Not that it has much to do with vigor, as such, but I'm also reminded of the perception - which I share - that women of mixed ethnic background tend to be particularly striking and attractive.

(Women, or gay men, are more qualified to say whether this applies to men as well!)

Carla said...

Rick - I've heard that, but can't answer your query as to whether it applies to men - I've never really thought about it! Sorry. There's some research showing that perceived attractiveness (men and women) is correlated with the symmetry of the face, more symmetrical being more attractive. The theory is that symmetry is a marker for good health - unhealthy individuals with duff genes and/or poor nutrition are more likely to have experienced some distortion in their development than healthy individuals. So if that's true, there could be a connection with hybrid vigour.

mw said...

Found you from the Kos "Best of 2007" list, so a bit late to the party. Great post. But reading it I could not get this one-hit wonder from 1969 out of my head:

ARTIST: Zager and Evans
TITLE: In the Year 2525

In the year 2525
If man is still alive.
If woman can survive, they may find.
In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies.
Everything you think, do and say, is in the pill you took today.

In the year 4545
Ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes.
You won't find a thing to chew.
Nobody's gonna look at you.

In the year 5555
Your arms hanging limp at your sides.
Your legs got nothing to do.
Some machine doing that for you.

In the year 6565
Ain't gonna need no husband, won't need no wife.
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too.
From the bottom of a long glass tube. Whoa-oh

In the year 7510
If God's a-comin, he oughta make it by then.
Maybe he'll look around himself and say.
Guess it's time for the judgment day.

In the year 8510
God is gonna shake his mighty head.
He'll either say.I'm pleased where man has been.
Or tear it down and start again. Whoa-oh

In the year 9595
I'm kinda wonderin if man is gonna be alive.
He's taken everything this old Earth can give.
And he ain't put back nothing.

Now it's been ten thousand years
Man has cried a billion tears.
For what he never knew,
now man's reign is through.

But through eternal night.
The twinkling of starlight.
So very far away.
Maybe it's only yesterday.

Rick said...

"In the year 2525 ..."

The awful thing is that I remember it!