Kage Baker never placed much stock in all the shiny cinematic visions of the future. Those gleaming megaloposes that adorned so many book covers never, ever struck her as valid versions of the future.
“Where did all the old building go?” she would ask scornfully. “There are still streets paved with freaking cobblestones in New York right now. London is still using streets that taxis won’t fit down. Every city in the world is built on the bones of other cities, and most of the bones are still alive!”
“There’s … Brasilia,” I would say: but my riposte was weak and defensive, and I knew it.
“There’s nothing under Brasilia but remains of Atlantean colonies, and no one believes in those,” Kage would say, and dismiss the whole idea out of hand. “This isn’t how cities grow!”
She preferred science fiction where every gleaming, cyber-drenched robotic city had slums, undergrounds and Courts of Miracles beneath its soft, warm, pink sidewalks. She liked the post-nuclear war speakeasies in Bester’s Demolished Man. She liked transient hooches in the air ducts outside star ports, and red-light districts showcasing sputtering neon ads for defunct colas. She absolutely adored the hidden cities of the Underpeople that Cordwainer Smith put beneath all of his glowing, self-obsessed cities of True Men.
While I took Star Trek pretty much on shining-eyed faith, Kage scorned its ultra-hygienic habitats even more than its Foreheads of the Week. The Enterprise was too clean for all those sailing-ship metaphors – where, she wanted to know, was the damned grease? Did no one ever drop a glass? Did no one ever go to a bathroom? The Nostromo and the Millennium Falcon were much more what she thought a star ship would really be like.
If you have read all Kage’s books, Dear Readers, you will recall that her alien habitats, her space ships and stations, were full of grime and eccentric plumbing. That’s how people actually live. The future – at least one in which the protagonists are still recognizably Homo sapiens sapiens – wasn’t going to look much different in a mere 2 or 3 hundred years.
It’s been millennia since slums started forming on the edges of Thebes and Babylon. But they looked pretty much like the ones that fringe Philadelphia and Paris now.
Technology is different. It can evolve and mutate even faster than the best predictions in the worst pulp magazines; gleaming fiendish devices are always found being used in settings of carved stone and ancient wainscotting. The proliferation of wireless chargers, wi-fi hubs and extension cords in America is due to the fact that half of us are still living in houses that had electricity laid on less than a hundred years ago: no one has enough outlets. But our watches and computers and A/V devices and FitBits and sex toys and pet doors are all designed in the last 20 years, for a civilization on its way to the stars.
Which we are not. Just our toys are. The design of the toilet in my bathroom hasn’t changed in 200 years, and the pipes that lead to the City mains are made of baked clay. But the cheap clock in the corner can keep track of 6 timelines, and personalized alarms, and whether or not Daylight Savings Time is happening somewhere in the aether.
However, today in my daily Bargain Notices from Fry’s Electronics – which are waiting with other 100-odd emails on my computer every morning as I squint antiquatedly awake over my coffee – there was an ad for a printer. A 3-dimensional printer. A tiny one, a wee machine that would print things in paper, glass, several kinds of plastic or edible starch and carbohydrates; a machine no bigger than a lunch box, that I could use to make – out of an electronic pattern – a sandwich, a blouse, a fathom of acrylic yarn, a toy ankylosaurus, a heart valve, faux rubies … it costs $249.00 and came with with a 6-month warranty.
I could have ordered it online, and paid for it with electric currency, and had it delivered by a transport I never spoke to or probably even saw before he left the package on my porch sometime in the next 24 hours. Right alongside the farm-fresh nectarines and plums I ordered in a similar fashion, and received in the dark. In fact, I could have sat here, Dear Readers, and printed a spun-sugar skull for dessert as I ate a plum that was growing on a tree 300 miles away 2 days ago …
Almost did it, too, just for the sheer stupefying fun of it.
The point here, Dear Readers, is that the future does not arrive when or where or in the clothes we expect. It makes for no end of entertainment (not to mention a genteelly impoverished living), but the actual fruits of the future sneak up on us and move in like so many cats. We all go everywhere with computers now, and we never even think about it: because we call the things “phones”, which is a technology that was born, peaked and grew obsolete over the last 150 years.
The flying cars are going to be called Fords and Mitsubishis and not-your-father’s Buicks. They’ll be competing with maglev trains made by Lego, probably; at least until the Sony transporter industry takes off … while Micky D’s burgers materialize on your table via half a dozen methods.
And odds are, we will never even notice.