Tuesday, July 5, 2016

50 Years From Today: Two Short Story Ideas from the Brave New World

I'm reading another book about the future in which 60 thinkers share their vision of what life will be like a half century from now. Edited by Mike Wallace in 2008, it's titled The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today. Such books appear to be legion, as I also have another in my reading stack that collects a batch of thinkers' expectations for 100 years into the future.

The more one reads the more variety one perceives in the predictions of our brightest minds. The chapters are short, more snapshots than full-blown panoramic views. The first by Vint Cerf, VP of Google, does indeed cover a vast amount of terrain in his allotted three pages, with commentary on the effects of nanotechnology, interplanetary space travel and real-time language translation so that all can communicate with all, a reversal of the effects of the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel.

I find the range of scenarios stimulating, many of which I'd never even considered. Cognitive enhancement supplements will become more powerful. The bionic man is in our future. The future of food is addressed. The likelihood of space stations on the moon and Mars are pondered. At least two writers see a future in which nation/states have become a thing of the past. The end of privacy may be part of our future. What will happen to the human soul? The end of infectious diseases may be coming in this century, and heart disease. How advanced will Virtual Reality become? Will the virtual Grand Canyon be more spectacular than the real one? Will the travel industry suffer because people can experience the seven wonders of the world from the comfort of their living rooms?

The contributors to this book include important figures in science, politics, technology and ethics. Some sound alarms, others promise hope. The overall effect is an interesting read.

We live in an era of remarkable scientific advances. These visionary writers extrapolate outcomes from today's news but the scenes they anticipate tomorrow depend on which stories they read today.

As I was working in the yard yesterday it seemed that books like this could be a resource for sci-fi writers. That thought came about when a story idea popped into my head after reading one of the chapters. A little later in the day, after reading another chapter, I had a second story idea. Here are their beginnings, setups so to speak.

* * *

EXCEPT FOR THE WINGS

It's the maternity ward here at Essentia Health, 2058. "Push," says one of the nurses as the mother-to-be grunts, groans, husband alongside stroking her back with a wet washcloth to cool her down, anxious and excited, somewhat in awe at what is unfolding.

The young couple qualified for the new program of genome selection in which babies can be "crafted" with modified gene exchanges. If you dislike your own features, you can replace them with better qualities. The process was initially made available to eliminate diseases that passed genetically from one generation to another. Then people began to clamor for other applications. "What if Billy gets his father's nose. Dirk's never liked that nose." This evolved into a whole palette of selection opportunities. The genetic options became increasingly vast. Facial features of famous celebrities, the brains of brilliant mathematicians and other options eventually became available, at first to those who could afford it, and then to everyone because it seemed wrong to permit only "the haves" to have access to such advantages.

"Push," instructed the nurse.

And this time as she pushed a wave of excitement passed through the room. "He's crowning," another nurse exclaimed.

"Deep breath. Now push!" And there it was, that mossy little head pushing through, a little blue face gasping for breath then screaming as he turned pink and was ushered into the world, flailing his little arms and then kicking vigorously as all in the room could see, their mouths agape, stunned into silence.

The father could see it, the mother sensing it. Something was wrong. Confirmed when the doctor involuntarily exclaimed, "Uh oh," and a nurse stammered, "W-w-where did those wings come from?"

* * *

THE LAST HEART ATTACK

"Grandpa Gwynn, what was it like when you were a boy?"

The old man smiled. His grandchildren were grown now. They'd finally begun to take an interest in his life, in his stories. He long noticed how much the young tyke had grown, with his mother's eyes and a keen wit.

They were sitting in the kitchen, Grandpa Gwynn showing the young man photos on a tablet. After a while Toby asked, "Is it true that you used to be an outlaw?"

The old man wore a quizzical expression as he asked, "Who told you that?"

"Mom says everyone knows, but we're not supposed to talk about it. Is it true?"

As it turns out, the old man had indeed been an outlaw. Back in the Thirties. The 2030s. "It was the beginning of prohibition. A constitutional amendment was passed outlawing preservatives and junk food. Around the same time I lost my job due to the increasingly advanced robotics industry. My cousin informed me that there was good money to be made in the black market junk food economy."

"What's junk food?"

Grandpa Gwynn decided that while he has the young man's attention he might as well stretch it out, explaining the history of agriculture, the advances made in farming and the inventive methods of making food, how they could could be preserved forever by jamming them with chemicals. Unfortunately, these new foods made children fat and helped them develop the first vestiges of coronary heart disease.

Toby yawned, his mind wandering. "Did you have to do time? Was this back before prisons were abolished?"

"No, prisons were closed in the Twenties. My arrest took place in 2035. Prisons were expensive and inhumane. House arrest has proven much more effective. You never noticed the pellet drones that hovered around here when you were little, eh?"

Toby shook his head, which made his grandfather laugh.

"As I was saying, science has come a long way, and when the government understood the cost to society of allowing junk food to remain available to the masses..."

"We learned about all that in school," Toby said. "But why did people eat it when they knew it was bad for them?"

"Addiction. The manufacturers inserted chemicals that stimulated our taste buds so as to set off an ecstatic neurological reaction."

"You mean, like zippetol?"

"Something like that."

The youth stared at him. "But zippetol is legal."

Grandpa Gwynn rolled his eyes. "Of course, but today we have full disclosure. Everything is transparent now. Our data-nodes measure everything. Everyone's healthy and happy, and machines do all the work. Back then no one knew what was really going on. Cereal was three-quarters cardboard, which was legal only because of the lawyers. It was strange back then. They put food in our fuel and put tree pulp in our food. Today it's a whole new ball game."

"What's a ball game?"

Grandpa Gwynn rolled his eyes again. "OK, so now that my shady past is transparent, too, I still have one secret left." He stood and led Toby down the hall to the bedroom. In the back of the walk-in closet he pulled aside a curtain to reveal a vault. As he placed his fingertip on the scanner he half-turned his head to wink at Toby who stood there cradling his chin on his palm.

"Did you read about the man who died last week of a heart attack?" old man Gwynn said.

"I heard Mom talking about it."

"According to the news that man will be the last human to ever die that way. Yes, cardiovascular disease was a serious problem at one time," the old buzzard said as he pulled the vault door back, "until they discovered the connection between children, obesity and junk food."

"You mean..."

"Yep, they solved heart disease by eliminating the cause before it started. Didn't they teach you that in school?"

Author Inserts Himself Here: Grandpa Gwynn is about to show his grandson an unopened bag of Fritos. Should he say, "I'll bet you can't eat just one."?

>>> It's only a story. If you want to finish it... take it away.

* * *
THE FUTURE

Think about all the jobs we have today that our grandparents could never have imagined. Imagine a 12 year old boy in 1964 being asked by his dad, "So, Eddie, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to be a webmaster. And on the side I'll be a blogger. And Ronnie is planning a career in I.T."

I suspect that many of tomorrow's jobs are so far from our experience we couldn't make them up if we tried. Career success will be directly proportional to our commitment to lifelong learning. My guess is that we're going to just feel our way through and do our best to stay current with whatever the future throws our way.

What do you think the future will look like in 50 years? Would you like to submit a guest post of 500-800 words?  ennyman(at)northlc(dot)com

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Open your eyes.

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