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Part 2: Slipping into the future

So, as we've seen, in tales of the future near and far, frequently it all falls apart. War, famine, pestilence, and death can all cause society to collapse in strange and interesting ways. But what happens when it doesn't all fall apart, when society manages to cobble something together, and people and places continue into the future in new and different ways?

Writers seem to like extrapolating current trends into the future, assuming that it's going to get darker and meaner because even as things get better for some, life really does get comparatively darker and meaner for many more. The future does not by default make anything better, except technologically—and even that depends on what you consider to be "better." In pretty much any futuristic comic you look at, with the possible exception of space opera (a genre which will not be examined at this time), things seem to get worse for at least a significant number of people. Of course, part of that is that perfection makes for boring fiction. It's much more interesting to put a shiny high-tech outside in contrast to the rotten, damaged insides of the real society in question.

Warren Ellis, in particular, seems to like working with the technological dark future, to see how it gets that way and what, if anything, people can do about or with it. He seems to love the ideas of people incorporating technology into themselves, of said technology going accidentally or deliberately and irretrievably wrong, of unintended consequences, and of one person against everything. In Ocean (with Chris Sprouse and Karl Story), he tells a story of a fight against future greed, in a story that's a hybrid of action/adventure, space opera, and corporate thriller. People are now mining the Moon and exploring out as far as Jupiter's moon Europa, where they discover that the ocean is full of what appear to be coffins. UN inspector Nathan Kane gets sent out to investigate, only to discover the situation complicated by the presence of the Doors corporation, makers of an ubiquitous operating system that "makes my computer turn blue and fall over twice a day." The Doors space station manager has Doors technology incorporated into his very self, allowing the corporation to manage his personality and force him to upgrade as needed—until he goes slightly mad and cuts off signals, at which point everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

City of Silence (with Gary Erskine) covers how technology creates the desire for more technology, more everything, and how that can lead to some very bad places, including "satanic computer abuse." Stealth city authority uses three people called its Silencers to try to stop the worst effects and clean up the mess—or perhaps to cause enough extra mess that nobody notices what caused it in the first place. Kind of hard to tell, really. City of Silence is essentially a police procedural on some really spectacular drugs. In Mek (with Steve Rolston and Al Gordon), he tells us about Sarissa Leon, who invented "mek" in Sky Road, massive technological enhancement of the human body. Some governments, rather predictably, outlawed most enhancements and techniques, leading also rather predicably to people getting illegal enhancements, "bad mek," from shady sources. Military ordnance becomes one of the most popular enhancements, so it's kind of hard not to agree with the government's ban, to be honest. Sarissa comes back to the city to find out who killed her ex-lover. Essentially, a tale of revenge, but also a tale of power. Mek has evolved in ways that Sarissa never envisioned and doesn't really like, and wound into her desire for revenge is a desire to reassert herself as the power behind mek, the one defining it. And if she can't be the one defining Sky Road, maybe it's better if it just doesn't exist any more.

Doktor Sleepless takes that same theme, someone who started a movement that's gone in directions unanticipated, adds a world that's bitterly disappointed that the future hasn't turned out the way it was supposed to, and twists in a slightly different direction. At times, it becomes oddly metatextual, as when the good Doktor muses on his role and says, “People like listening to characters. Characters are safe, because they’re not real. So today I become a character.” So you have a fictional character deciding to make himself a fictional character because fictional characters are safe; this despite the fact that Doktor Sleepless himself is self-evidently not safe . . . well, all-righty, then!

And finally, of course, there's Transmetropolitan, the life and times of Spider Jerusalem, an anti-hero cum involuntary pied piper with a driving urge to make people change their lives, hopefully for the better, whether they want to or not. He investigates, he writes, he exhorts people to change their condition. Sometimes, as when he convinces people to vote out The Beast and vote in The Smiler as president, he makes terrible mistakes that then need to be corrected. The society in Transmetropolitan is anesthetized by media—although Ellis makes the assumption that some part of the media is not only trying to inform the public, but also succeeding; after all, even though having Spider publish is good business—he's controversial, his public persona is bizarrely entertaining, and he writes real good—it's also true that employing him causes several problems for his employer. For the most part, the futuristic setting only serves as a layer of distance—although, even then, in a moment of peculiar prescience, the Smiler presides over the destruction of a major North American city, partially destroyed by a storm and by a combination of malfeasance and deliberate neglect. (The issues of Transmetropolitan collected in "Dirge" were originally published in 2001, four years before Katrina—peculiar prescience indeed.)

Running through all these works is the idea that the future is unsafe, and that maybe the future needs to be unsafe. The one thing the future will require of its people is thought, and that's in short supply, both now and in the future, with a deluge of entertainment media and with big business allying with big politics to hide facts from people who no longer feel connected. In the future, it's going to be easier to go along with those attempts to bludgeon us into sleepy submission, and harder to pay attention to what we need to know.

Many writers seem to think that the differences between haves and havenots will become even more savage than it is now. In Paul Sizer's Moped Army, the havenots get shoved out of sight, out of mind, literally the underclass living in the lower, oldest levels of Rust City, ignored except when the rich kids deign to treat them as prey in their party games. In Stuart Moore's and Christopher Schons' Earthlight, entire nations fall from haves to havenots by being late to the space colonizaton game, and thereby getting knocked off the planetary power grid. In Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele's The Surrogates, the havenots wind up imprisoned as terrorists—which, to be fair, they sort of are—while the haves wind up using technology to pretend to be close to one another while never actually coming into contact with each other. (Earthlight and The Surrogates are discussed briefly in the "2007 in review" piece.) Most of these stories take place in a future United States, and it's clear that they think the class issues in this country are only going to get worse—in part because it's only if they get dramatically worse that we'll finally admit that we even have those issues. After all, the average American's concept of their country is that we have the very rich, the working class—and quite nearly everyone thinks they're working class, no matter how improbable that is—and the poor. The observable fact that there really are more gradations than that is one of those things that just doesn't quite penetrate. And until you can really admit that the differences exist, it's difficult to address them. People would rather ignore problems, thus media becomes a major distraction, and people become more and more disconnected from their societies.

One of the difficulties with telling stories of future societies is making sure that the futuristic setting makes a difference. Take a few recent titles: Moped Army, Accelerate, kimmie66, King City and Won Ton Soup. Brandon Graham's King City tells the story of Joe, a master thief, and the criminal activities that he winds up accidentally involved in. James Stokoe's Won Ton Soup tells the story of Johnny Boyo, a master chef, his travels through the galaxy, and how he winds up coming back to the place that made him. Moped Army tells the story of Simone and how she starts to grow up. In all three stories, the futuristic aspects are carefully delineated. In Simone's world of 2277, for example, gasoline is illegal, aircars ply the sky-streets, and yet . . . and yet, while we know that gasoline is illegal, it doesn't really matter, since substitute fuels have been found. There are some serious anachronisms; Simone's glasses are clearly an affectation, and it's almost impossible to believe her parents wouldn't have fixed any eye problems entirely without her consent. Index cards play an important role at one point, and it's kind of difficult to believe she'd even know what they were. Simone's story is basically a story of a young woman learning how very superficial her life has been to date, and discovering friends among people who don't have a fraction of her possessions but who have a more genuine regard for each other. It's not a new story, or one that wouldn't work if you stripped away the future setting. In King City, there's an ongoing zombie war, revolting new drugs, space travel is a reality, aliens pop up hither and yon and get held prisoner in people's bathtubs. And yet . . . and yet, it's basically the story of Joe the master thief, whose thievery involves him in machinations of various criminals and the people fighting them. If you strip away the future, substitute humans for aliens, structurally, the story still mostly works. (To be fair, the climax wouldn't work. Not even a little. Kind of hard to swap in something for a battle between an injectable cat and a giant flying octupus-thing. The rest of the story does, though.) In Won Ton Soup, you have people traveling and shipping goods through the stars, architecturally improbable buildings and ships, foods that don't and couldn't exist here . . . and yet. And yet, at its core, it's the story of a guy who realized that the life he was headed for didn't suit him, that he wasn't yet ready for it, and who decided to travel the world (or galaxy) until he knew what he wanted. To be sure, some parts work better for being set in the future—travelling the world and not speaking to your girlfriend once in a year, on this planet, merely makes someone an asshole, as opposed to being so far away that contact is impossible. If you strip away the future trappings, the story still works; Johnny can still be a master chef who decided to become a trucker because he didn't like what he was doing. (Granted, the bit with the incestuous cannibalism, if done with humans in the here and now instead of with aliens in the there and then, would go from being a bit outre and startling to being completely revolting.)

On the other hand, in Accelerate and in Aaron Alexovich's kimmie66, the future difference matters more. Both stories project a much more comprehensive computer/network experience than we have now, with technology that allows you to seemingly project yourself into the net and interact with others in virtual environments that seem truly real. Both, oddly enough, deal with dead people stuck in the web, voluntarily or otherwise. In Accelerate, near-future Los Angeles has fractured into the terribly rich versus the gangs, now known as tribes, all living under a literal police state—the LAPD is what you might call a bit uncontrolled. People drug themselves with accelerate, which does exactly what the name says, accelerates people so that they think and move much much faster. Marne suddenly starts receiving messages from her apparently deceased lover, whom she watched the LAPD kill after a botched robbery gone bad but who may be actually alive, or may be caught in the web in some impossible post-mortem way. She winds up using accelerate because it's the only way she can move and think fast enough to work with the virtual environments of the web in a way that will give her answers.

kimmie66 takes place in the near future, where Telly, a 14-year-old girl, has just received a suicide note from her best friend, kimmie66. She spends the rest of the book trying to figure out exactly what happened, how, or even if, Kimmie died. It's a more logical extrapolation of online life today than Accelerate's. Think about how many people you may be in contact with online whom you've never met, whose real name you don't even know. Now, if a net person in your life happens to die, they just vanish, right? If you've got enough friends in common in the network, you may know someone who knew that person in real life, who can tell you what really happened. Otherwise, they're just gone, and you may never know what happened. Even so, depending on what sorts of online presence they had, you may run across remnants of that person months or years later, an online journal, posts on a bulletin board, and so on. In kimmie66, those remnants take a very different form; despite being dead, Kimmie is somehow actually stuck in the net, contacting Telly and making her investigate to find out who Kimmie really was and to understand what's going on. In kimmie66, people wind up effectively living on the net—Virtual Reality, using special goggles and nanites, allows people to have experiences there that make staying online as much as possible much more desirable. The story's not perfect; in order to understand what's going on, Telly winds up needing to bounce from one online community to another, in ways that are simply not done, although in that world, you'd think people would have several identities for each community of interest, rather than being restricted to one. With both Accelerate and kimmie66, the technology and the society matter; if you take away the technology, the stories break irretrievably. They're simply better integrated structurally and conceptually.

Overall, the future doesn't look like a particularly enjoyable place, unless you're one of the lucky people with money—and sometimes maybe not even then. To the extent that there's any hope, it comes from people deciding to act, usually against the rules. Sometimes they can make others act, sometimes it's all up to them. But the people seem to be the only thing that makes the future at all bearable.

Not all that different from today, is it?

Iain Jackson is a big ol' comics nerd who lives and writes in Chicago.
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17 Jan 2022

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