What predictions could I reverse? One general assumption at the time I set to work was that overpopulation would soon create a future of scarcity and desperate struggles for resources everywhere, including the rich First World, all earth filling with humans as with lemmings. So reverse that: perhaps as an unintended result of attempts to limit growth, numbers will cease to rise and start downward, and in the far future populations will be not large but small, maybe vanishingly small. Pollution, smog, river fires, acid rain spoiling the natural environment and making the built environment uninhabitable? No; smokestack industry, even all industry, will in time cease to grow, tumorlike and poisonous, and instead shrink away. The near-certain chance that eventually, by accident or on purpose, thermonuclear weapons would destroy even the possibility of civilization? No, no nuclear war—somehow it will be obviated. But if vastation by the bomb were escaped, it looked certain that the peoples and nations would be knit ever more closely together by interlocking technologies, skiving off human differences and reducing us to robot cogs in a single ever-growing world machine; or, conversely, that technology would vastly increase wealth and scope for the fortunate in a groomed and gratifying One World with an opening to the stars. No, neither of those: no technology in the future, no space travel, even our current technology forgotten or voluntarily given up, becoming a wonderful dream of long ago, as we dream of knights in armor. So then, brutish neoprimitives squatting in the remains of a self-destroyed technoworld? No, no, that’s what you’d guess, and it will therefore be different from that. Self-conscious minicivilizations, I thought, highly cultivated yet without reading or writing, unknown to one another, with concerns we can’t imagine, walking humbly on a wounded but living earth.
This vision was enthralling to me, convincing because so unforeseen: its roots in the present firm and deep yet so occult that they will only be able to be perceived after centuries. Above all it seemed to me to be a future that had no lesson for the present, gave no warning or hope, made no particular sense of history or the passage of time. Its unknowable origins lifted from the present the burden of needing to do the right thing now in order not to be punished in the time to come. There was no right thing that could be done; we would just have to do our best. The future would be strange, but all right.
Though I had not conceived it so, this pleasant obsession eventually generated a book, a novel, a science fiction, in which all the eons-to-come details impossible to know were given form, though of course not the form they would or will really have. And when read now, forty years from when I first began to write it, what is immediately evident about my future is that it could have been thought up at no time except the time in which I did think it up, and has gone away as that time has gone. No matter its contents, no matter how it is imagined, any future lies not ahead in the stream of time but at an angle to it, a right angle probably. When we have moved on down the stream, that future stays anchored to where it was produced, spinning out infinitely and perpendicularly from there. The process I engaged in is still viable, maybe, or as viable as it was then, but it must forever be redone. The future, as always, is now.
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