We made a big deal out of New Year's Eve 2000. I don't want to hear any fiddling with the technicalities of it -- I'm the kind of person who got out of my car to do a little dance when the odometer rolled over to 100,000. You celebrate when the zeroes come up. We had a big party, hung aluminum foil and Christmas-tree lights on the walls, told everyone to dress in either shiny clothing or formal wear, and rung that year out but good. We also spent most of our party-prep time during the day watching the new year come around world-wide on CNN, and secretly being disappointed when nothing broke. One of the housemates had stocked her bedroom with bottled water and flashlight batteries, and we mocked her every hour or so.
It was a good party, overall -- about what you'd expect from a bunch of disaffected twentysomethings. A lot of drinking, a lot of dancing, some semi-random hooking up, one person crying on the back porch, one couple having a shouting fight in the stairwell, two or three people who stopped speaking to each other over slights real and imagined. And the next day, after everyone had slept and woke and reconciled and had enormous amounts of coffee, a group of us went out to Castle Island and walked along the harbor's edge, trying to convince ourselves that it was actually the year 2000. That felt like the future, and we didn't actually feel like we were in the future.
That was a conversation that kept going through the afternoon and evening, kept up through dinner and as we went to hang out at our favorite bar. Sitting around the big round table in the corner (one of only three tables left in the ever-shrinking smoking section), we tried to figure out why it didn't feel like the future. The best we could come up with was that the technology wasn't right -- this wasn't the shiny future we'd been promised. We didn't have ray guns or phasers or hovercars, and we damn sure didn't have Trek-style transporters or replicators. The standard objection raised was that we had a lot of cool stuff, email and cell phones and the internet, but it was halfhearted at best. Yeah, you could get on the internet and have someone bring groceries to your house, but you still had to cook the food yourself. Online personals just don't compare to being able to download your brain in to a virtual world for an afternoon, and the actual internet wasn't anywhere near as cool as Neuromancer had led us to believe it would be.
Somewhere after the inevitable conclusion that science fiction had ruined us for the future, the conversation trailed off. That was when we heard what the punk-rock kids at the next table were talking about -- when the spiky-haired girl with the striped tights and the safety pin through her cheek smacked her hands down on the table and shouted, "It's the new goddamn millennium! Where the hell is my fucking hovercar?"
It's pretty clear that the future isn't shaping up to be as futuristic as we expected. It's not so bad -- we have good computer games, wireless internet, and robot vacuums. (Although the robot vacuum, to be honest, is kind of a letdown in terms of coolness.) Medical technology is more sophisticated than could even have been imagined fifty or sixty years ago, the still-missing cures for cancer and the common cold notwithstanding. I'm even willing to concede that the new millenium has earned its keep simply by virtue of giving us TiVo. It's all kind of workaday, though. Kind of prosaic.
You know what's not prosaic? Permanent human settlements on the moon. Actual astronauts on the actual surface of Mars.
It's not that I don't understand the problems. I recognize that the Bush space initiative is at least as much campaign-year grandstanding as anything else. I understand that it's difficult, counter-intuitive at best, to set aside so much money for space exploration in the current economic climate. How can you justify spending twelve billion dollars on a moon base when there are such pressing social problems right here on earth? The way I see it, though, how can you turn down the chance to have a permanent human settlement on the moon? We should be able, both as a society and as a government, to multi-task. There is never going to be a point where we can declare the social problems solved and move on to the grander vision; if we wait for that point to come, we'll be waiting forever.
My goal here is not to start a political debate, though. I'm just interested in rekindling my own sense of wonder, and this new space initiative is pretty effective. It's 2004 and I still don't have a hovercar, but I do live in a world where we can talk seriously about the possibility of astronauts walking the surface of Mars and people actually living on the moon. Maybe we are living in the future after all.
Copyright © 2004 Susan Marie Groppi
Susan Marie Groppi is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.