Looking Ahead to 2012 by Bidisha
looking ahead to 2012 by Bidisha
Radiotelegraphy. What queer magic. A captain of a ship, in the midst of the seas, may project his location to a fellow in another ship, or at port. Thereby all sea-fellows shall know where their fellows are. Though I am only an under-clerk here at the International Radiotelegraphy Conference, it is a privilege to breathe the smoke of the 45 superior gentlemen discussing such matters.
There are also 10 private companies present. Observing them, I anticipate a future – I have sketched it in my ledger as a sort of web-work or lace – in which all striving men are interconnected via our trades. Perhaps, like ships at sea, the man of the world will continually broadcast his whereabouts and observations. The air will be jolly with radiotelegraphic messages relayed in every public place, uniting and enriching the Commonwealth in the wholesome exchange of vital rational discourse.
Yet just as we construct our messages, we build the ships from which we transmit them, despite the unfortunate and hopefully unique subsidence of the Titanic. Perhaps we will instead one day be able to walk from here to America on sturdy bridges made of English metal, and should we tire we need merely embrace an angelic automaton: a smiling clockwork woman whose wings bear us where we choose. The air will glint with such things, and the ground scuttle with mechanical conveniences. Our city’s heart will be built of wheels, cogs and cranks, its centre housing a computational machine as large as a Roman temple. There will be no need of bankers, alas.
The miners, dockers, merchandisers’ and tradesmen’s strikes are merely a schism, a symptom of transition. When progress is attained, I would live only with like-minded personages in a safe place, with guards and gates, and I would like the smoke to be sucked from the air and a mother of pearl lid placed about my home, that I may breathe cleanly.
All the degenerates and urchins may mill about outside, but I will not have to look at them. It should be permissible for any gentleman to carry some small piece he may use to defend himself from them. No judge would condemn a man for showing some dignity of the firing sort.
I would take an oath never to use it against a lady unless provoked – but perhaps these days the ladies should take an oath never to use them against us! I have been disgusted by the suffragettes, and long for the embrace of my angel automaton, who may serve and support me without any hysterical demonstrations and petty hunger strikes Although that ungodly devil Darwin would say otherwise, we all know that women’s brains are in their stomachs and will shrink even smaller if denied food.
It is but a short unmaidenly step from wanting to vote to wanting to rule. Hopefully there will never be a female so untoward that she does anything more with the cloak of political power than darn it for her husband. A woman in public life is as offputting as a child with a lizard’s head. Although that time may soon be upon us: should we wish for the cunning of the fox we need merely place his brain inside our own head; and should we covet the sleekness of the Bengal tiger’s skin a man of science will make it possible for us to grow one atop our own.
In such a world all deviations, hybrids and monstrosities will be permissible: animalistic women and flowerlike men, flashy copies and unnatural mutations roaming the streets. I wonder, if our sciences could generate so much... could they also be used for clearance? For the annulment of those unwanted?
Such is man’s terrifying genius – and woman’s too, they would say, but I must stop joking about that, it’s unkind – and the ambition of our age so great that we may one day perhaps touch the very surface of the moon. But how silly of me. I mustn’t speculate about things that will never be. At such times of peace amongst the Great Powers, the mind has liberty to roam..
Mark Mason's piece
Science fiction may be fiction, but it’s rooted in science. So what happens when a proper scientist does what the fiction writers do, namely make his predictions for a time unimaginably far in the future? This is what Thomas Edison did in 1911. (Strictly speaking he was an inventor rather than a scientist, but his groundbreaking discoveries surely give him honorary membership of the white-coat brigade.) The Miami Metropolis newspaper asked Edison for his predictions of how the world would look in 2011. How did the great man do?
‘Already,’ Edison stated, ‘the steam engine is emitting its last gasps. A century hence it will be as remote an antiquity as the lumbering coach of Tudor days, which took a week to travel from Yorkshire to London. In the year 2011 such railway trains as survive will be driven at incredible speed by electricity.’ So far so good.
Then Edison turned to domestic matters. ‘The house of the next century,’ he said, ‘will be furnished from basement to attic with steel, at a sixth of the present cost - steel so light that it will be as easy to move a sideboard as it is today to lift a drawing room chair.’
Er, well, sort of, Thomas. Except this cheap, light thing is actually called ‘plastic’, not steel. While we’re on the subject of metals, though: ‘Gold,’ predicted Edison, ‘has even now but a few years to live. The day is near when bars of it will be as common and as cheap as bars of iron or blocks of steel. We are already on the verge of discovering the secret of transmuting metals. Before long it will be an easy matter to convert a truck load of iron bars into as many bars of virgin gold.’ I’m afraid this time not only do you not get the cigar, Thomas, you’re not even close. Gold is still only mined, not made. You could fit all of it, every bit that’s ever been mined anywhere, into three Olympic-sized swimming pools.
So did Edison get anything right? Well, yes, he did predict that ‘books of the coming century will be so light that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume. A book two inches thick will contain forty thousand pages, the equivalent of a hundred volumes; six inches in thickness would suffice for the Encyclopedia Britannica.’ Did he foresee the Kindle? Er – no. Edison was imagining conventional books, but with pages made of ultra-thin nickel. ‘Already Mr. Edison can produce a pound weight of these nickel leaves, more flexible than paper and ten times as durable, at a cost of five shillings.’ It would seem that Edison was the original metal-head, obsessed with the stuff so much he yearned for the whole world to be made of it.
And perhaps that’s the danger with predictions? If you’re obsessive enough to want to forecast how things will be in a century’s time, your forecasts are bound to reflect your obsessions. So the exercise can be valuable – but in telling us about how we are now, not how we’re going to be.
Mark Newton's piece
It was an interesting way to spend my 93rd birthday, a lady of my age steering her ship into illegal waters. Dangerous, too, with all those low rooftops underneath us. I’d discovered, too late in life, that things like this made me happy. Not how many chemicals I could flood my body with to roll back the years, nor my designer heart or lungs.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. November in the City of London. The middle of the monsoon season, thirty five degrees today. It felt as hot as those summers I remembered as a little girl, when I’d walk over Blackfriar’s Bridge trying to finish my ice cream before reaching the other side. Back then the waters had risen only a metre. Now the City was a full water resort, a replacement for Venice. Advertising agencies had been quick to establish the selling points: a Mediterranean climate and warm waters, secure from the war-zone across the border. Just the thing for an up-and-coming independent city-state.
I felt a sharp pain in my head as a message arrived from one of the crew. It was David, the technician I was sleeping with, a man seventy years my junior. He came from a poor family so everything about him was so beautifully unaltered. I can’t even remember what that was like, but I often wondered if he viewed me as some fetish figure. His message scrolled across my vision – he’d hacked a satellite so I could see around the ship. I thought back a quick thanks. He replied, What, no kiss? I humoured him, then mentally swiped through the images.
Wealthy tourists drank cocktails on the roof terraces. AirPubs drifted between buildings, playing their terrible music. Partygoers on pleasure cruises waved at a skyTube that rattled along the old monorail towards St. Paul’s. But something seemed so soulless about the City. I think it was because there wasn’t a single vertical park or garden in sight.
Above the waterline, the Shard skymall’s sides opened up; sleek trading ships emerged and vanished skyward in the blink of an eye. By our ship, advertising boards shimmered underwater like schools of phosphorescent fish, selling sex to the submersibles that drove along the old roads. I was alarmed as I saw a vehicle belonging to the Corporation military, but it didn’t stop - our light and acoustic cloaks held up.
I kept the boat well away from unpiloted vessels which, like the skycraft, followed each other at computed distances. I just didn’t trust them. So I took us past the Walkie-Talkie building on Fenchurch Street, now a casino bulging with money. Tourists enjoyed the Bishopgate Helter Skelter Tower and its namesake adventure ride. It was dwarfed by fashionable latticework buildings: the Jenga, the Spinning-Plate, the Mine’s-Bigger-Than-Yours. The greatest city in the world was very much a playground for the rich.
The banks were all up there, dotted about the skyline. Untouchable. I once worked for one, shifting vast numbers across screens. Then Richard had died and I had reassessed my life.
Our destination loomed. The Gherkin storage facility contained items that people desired: thorium fuel, cloned embryos, and our ultimate prize – one hundred-thousand tons of grain folded by physics into something the size of a shoebox. Under aegis from the Corporation army, the banks stockpiled grain to inflate its price on the markets, while beyond the border people starved in refugee camps.
Onboard, the order came to commence our operation, to liberate that grain, and our team assembled in their diving armour.
I leaned overboard and watched them plunge into the water, one by one, until the surroundings became very still.