Monday, June 06, 2016

June 6, 2016: Predictions and Predilections [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

On Valentine's Day of this year we had a weird moment when some smarty pointed out that the replicant Pris from Bladerunner (played by Darryl Hannah) had the incept date February 14, 2016. Science fiction is plagued with titles and references to dates. Which, of course, come to pass and are completely wrong. The classic example is 1984. I remember that year. Prince sang "Purple Rain," Ghostbusters and The Terminator were on the big screen, and I probably had a mullet. Not exactly George Orwell. He got the title by reversing the date he wrote the book, 1948. He wasn't really trying to predict what 1984 would be like. But again, with science fiction, we have this idea that SF is supposed to predict what is to come. Blame HG Wells with his Things to Come!. Today's writers insist that SF tells more about when it was written than what will be.

A good example of all this is the story "June 6, 2016" by George Allan England. The story appeared in Colliers on April 22, 1916, a little over a hundred years before the titular date. And as with titles of this sort, it is a prediction of what the world will be like in a century. Was it truly predictive or did it tell us more about what people were worried about in 1916? Things that concerned them included World War I grinding away in Europe, though the US wouldn't enter for another year. Women's suffrage was four years away in the US. Marconi's radio broadcasted about the maritime rescues of the Titanic in October 1912 and again with the Lusitania in May of 1915. Despite these obvious topical elements in the story, England also proposes some new ideas. How accurate is his guess? We'll see.

The plot of the story is pretty banal. Ellsworth Stanton has been asked to marry by his fiancée, Alice Haynes, who plies him with flowers and candy. Since the coming of equality, women can do the wooing. Ellsworth's father is repelled by this since he is old fashioned. Ellsworth takes a job with another firm to get out from under daddy's finger, and goes to meet his wife-to-be. The father pursues in the hopes of talking some sense into the boy, and finally meets Alice. To his surprise, she is perfectly lovely, so he recants his objection and the two will marry. Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke this ain't! England did write a number of early SF classics including the post apocalyptic trilogy collectively known as Darkness and Dawn. In fact, the author that England is most often compared to is his contemporary, Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I think of some of the jungle-bound love stories old ERB wrote, I can see it. Burroughs wrote his own predictive novel in 1916 called Beyond Thirty, in which he visits a Europe destroyed by war. There is plenty of kissing amongst the cavemen and lions as usual.

What is more interesting than the plot is certainly the gadgets and predictions England suggests. As with all early SF the characters point these innovations out with plenty of pokes at the silly people a hundred years ago. These include disposable clothes, dishes, and bedding. All clothing, blankets, and bedding are made of papersilk. "No stupid, unsanitary, costly laundry work now hampered the daily changing of linen. These papersilks, despite their elegance, were now so cheap that everybody threw them into the municipal incinerating tubes, after one wearing..." All the incinerated items are converted into a gas, which fuels the lighting and heating. The dishes, which also go into the tubes, remind me of our disposable society with its paper plates and cups and the wrappers on fast food. In Ellsworth's time, there is no kitchen at home, but large, public cafeterias suggesting a mild form of socialism that would not have been alarming before the Russian Revolution. (England works in two mentions of Fletcherizing, a popular health idea of the time, requiring the eater to chew 33 times for every bite, including liquids!) Perhaps this lack of a home kitchen lends itself to the use of disposable dishes.

There are a number of new inventions such as a washing gel that eats away your beard, walls that provide perfect ventilation and comfort, electric tooth brushes and hair clippers, a new beverage called krava to replace coffee, holographic photos, self-lighting cigars, age-rejuvenating baths, neometric measurements, controlled weather (with the resulting rain tax), 210-story buildings, and irradiation of disease and environmental noise. But the biggest developments seem to be in transportation and communications. Ground vehicles have not been replaced entirely, but travelers can also use pneumatic subway tubes and trains that allow you to switch without stopping. There are also slidewalks, public use of submarines, and flying cars. Stick-in-the-mud daddy still owns a ground car, of course. In the world of communications, the newspapers have all died out because people can get their information instantly with television (England doesn't use this word, but "telelectric.") There is also the "audiphone" (something like Skype) though it doesn't have a portable cell phone version and a "telemitic dispatch" that sounds more like a telegram than an email.

So how close was George Allan England to predicting the world of today? What strikes me as most interesting is how the correct predictions don't feel correct. Even though the women have equal rights we still see the paradigm of male boss and female employee at daddy's business, though there is a female police officer and it is woman who offers the son a new job. The wife-to-be offers and pursues marriage, but at the end Ellsworth mediates this to "they asked each other." England isn't quite modern enough to leave it alone. He mentions that Ellsworth and Alice have passed the Eugenics Board requirements for having children, but doesn't tell us who will raise the children. Do they have daycare? Will Alice give up her career to do it? Eugenics was another turn-of-the-century idea that would have seen governments selectively breeding away crime, political dissidence, and the mentally and physically handicapped. Scary as it was, it did have supporters, including Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Venus novels!

England's prediction of the death of newspapers is still in progress and anyone working in that industry can tell you how real this is. I think England was actually predicting that TV would kill the newspaper industry, but we all know this did not happen. TV and newsprint existed together for over fifty years. It is in fact the Internet and digital technology that are the cause of today's media upheavals. England's version of TV has live coverage of a sinking ship, something similar to watching the Lusitania go down. When you consider how we watched the fall of the Twin Towers you can glean how close England was. What he couldn't imagine is the impact of the Internet and forty million cat videos. But to be fair, neither did Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke or anyone else.

In the end, this story is a quaint look at how a turn of the century writer might see the future. The entire plot and feel, despite the cool new gadgets, is still mentally and spiritually stuck in 1916. It feels Edwardian despite its attempts to be futuristic, just as watching old Star Trek episodes will make you laugh at the Space Hippies, an obvious late 1960s fad. If you truly want to read a story of the future that doesn't suffer from present day influences, I'd recommend Frederick Pohl's "Day Million." It, too, is a love story of the future, but doesn't feel like 1966. It feels like nothing you could have imagined. And as for England's version of June 6, 2016? I want a flying car, dammit!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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