As a child I found the year 2000…incredible. Yes, I drew pictures of the city of the future: the domes, the flying cars, the automated travel bed (because even then I was ill a lot)—all the usual predictions. But I didn’t really believe it, didn’t deep down viscerally feel that one day I would be forty years old. Nuh-uh. Not possible. Not credible. Yet here we are, well past it. In just two weeks we’ll be starting the third decade of the 21st century. Two weeks. 2020.
I’m starting this new decade with less optimism than I’ve had since, well, ever. For one thing, I begin the new decade as an orphan. Death never entered my thinking as a child or young adult. Sure, my grandparents died but that was sort of what grandparents did, right? Get old and die. Nothing to do with me, not connected at all. I would just get taller and more autonomous; I’d zoom around in a flying car; and I’d still have four sisters, two parents, and a host of aunts and uncles. But today I have no parents, two sisters, and a single aunt.
As a child and then adolescent I also assumed (if I thought about it at all, which I rather doubt) that democracy would be strong and I’d be living in a United Kingdom that was integrated with Europe. Wrong, in a mixed way. Of course I also thought I’d be a white-coated scientist saving the world (brraaap!) or, failing that, a world-famous singer (brraaap!), or—if things went horribly wrong—an entrepreneur (brraaap, brraaap, brraaaaaap!!). Instead, I’m a novelist. So wrong, but in a good way.
Whatever I imagined as my profession, though, I assumed I’d be supremely fit, unconscionably healthy, and wildly good-looking. Well, hey, one out of three isn’t bad…
By the late 90s my thoughts about the future were a bit more complex and rather more specific. At this point I assumed as givens the continued spread of democracy, rule of law, spread of scientific thinking, and reduction in poverty. Wrong—but, again, in a mixed way. Because contrary to what most people think, globally there are fewer violent conflicts. Fewer deaths from disease and poverty. More countries than ever before are democracies. It’s true that many are far from perfect democracies, and that many countries seem to be teetering on the verge of autocracy, but, even so, for much of the world governance is better than it was. The most remarkable change has been to poverty and food security. We have an incredible set of institutions—the World Trade Organisation, the International Court of Law, etc—that actually work, mostly. Again, not perfect, but, again, so much better than anything we had before.
Which makes what is going on now more frightening: rich countries in the best place to encourage continued or, better, accelerated change for the good—such as the UK, where I was born, and the US, where I live—are, instead, beginning to dismantle, brick-by-brick, the legal and cultural institutions that made all this century’s improvements possible: a sense of fairness, the primacy of fact-based argument, the rule of law, social democracy, and a free and fair press. Of course, what led to these institutions possible in the first place was rapacious colonialism, natural resource exploitation, and the ruthless abuse of those who are not white male nondisabled straight Christians, but I had hope that the world was moving in a direction that might enable acknowledgement of and even reparations for those horrors.
I won’t rehash here ideology wars, and the anthropocenic climate change that is exacerbating them, but say only: I was abysmally wrong. And in a very unhappy way.
Another way in which I was wrong, though, is that I thought my achievements (whatever they turned out to be) were entirely my own: done without social support, without even a college degree, and with my back against the wall of a queer-hating universe. Instead, here I am, married, a dual citizen, and with a PhD that I did just because, well, it was interesting. I am delighted to be wrong about these things.
I could go on, but the point I’m trying to get to is that predicting the future is a fool’s game. Sure, there are some things you can predict; you can look at corporate development pipelines (drugs, devices, renewables), demographics (birth and death rates), climate statistics, and federal appointments (young, right-wing, hardline judges) and come up with some notion of how the world might look in ten years. But mostly? Nope.
I’m smart. I read a lot. I think a lot. And I occasionally write science fiction in which I test drive future scenarios. But when people ask me to predict the next decade, I laugh. (On a good day I laugh; on a bad day I opine bitterly that the few who are left will be living in a paper bag under the broken overpass eating scavenged cat food.) Seriously, I am pitifully crap at predicting the future. The most seriously I’ve ever tried was when writing, in 1993 (published 1995), Slow River. Oh, I did get some things right: Bioremediation and the need for it (though today we’re doing much, much less than we could and we need it much, much more than we did). Data ransom. An increasing divide between rich and poor. Charity as fashion. Older people feeling like digital immigrants, strangers in their own culture. But I completely missed social media, the rise of online commerce, and the ubiquity of asomatic (extrasomatic?) connectedness (for good and ill).
So the only thing I’m reasonably sure about in terms of prognostication is that in two weeks we’ll be writing ‘2020’ on our cheques. Except, oh wait, we don’t write cheques anymore. And maybe some deadly pandemic, unexpected asteroid, or nuclear holocaust—or just someone careless tripping the national grid leading to a cascade of devastating effects—could render this notion of money, or even the people who might need it, obsolete.
So, no, I’m not going to offer any predictions for the coming decade. Instead, between now and the end of the year I might write the occasional decade-in-review blog post. Meanwhile, I will tell you that I’m not actually depressed, but I am grieving: grieving the death of people I loved, grieving the dying of social democracy, and grieving the ecosystem that once was.
Helpful people often suggest that the way through grief is acceptance. What they don’t tell you (perhaps because they don’t know) that is that acceptance is usually the result of exhaustion which leads to a fragile—and temporary—peace. Acceptance is only the first stage of recovery. Acceptance is not the place to stop. Yes, first we have to accept what is real, and where we are—we can’t afford to tell ourselves a rosy story, to hide from what’s happening—but we don’t, we do not, have to accept the inevitability of that status quo, or soldier grimly forward without hope.
So after our acceptance that Yes, this is really happening, perhaps the way forward is to be determined to improve this reality. And a vital step in that process? Don’t shut down. Keep feeling. Because if you stop feeling you’re hiding, and if you’re hiding you’ll never change anything. Thinking can come later, and then planning. But first: feel. And in that spirit, here are two of my favourite songs (at least, favourites today): one from the middle of last century, and one from the end of this decade. Enjoy. Seriously, enjoy them.