I have walked over to the library just to stretch my legs at work. It is close enough that I can drop in and check out a book and be back at my desk in less time than it takes a smoker to finish their cigarette in the tiny gazebo outside. Browsing through the fiction, I notice how cool and relaxing it is here among the shelves, in contrast to the stickiness of the humid day outside. Here in the library, no matter how old I get or how chaotic life seems outside, I still feel safe. I can trace this feeling back to the summer I turned 12 years old. That year I discovered Isaac Asimov. That year I discovered the future.

"Safe" might be one of the least frequent words I would use to describe my current concept of the future. In the past year I have watched dystopia become reality. Across the globe civil liberties have retreated as demagogues and oligarchs have seized and consolidated power. In Turkey, traditionally one of the most progressive Islamic countries, Erdogan has mercilessly pursued opposition and stifled expression. Under Putin the promise of the early 1990s is a dim memory. In the United States, the Jacksonian legacy of anti-intellectualism produced such an abundance of fruit that a television reality star not only won the presidency, but was also able to dismantle several science based initiatives and offices as soon as possible. In France and England nationalist candidates hold more sway than they have in decades. A future where humanity has escaped the tribalism of millennia to reach for the stars now seems at best naïve, and at worst dangerously childish.

This isn't the future that science fiction promised, is it? I ask myself as I scan the shelves. 27 years ago my younger self scanned book titles at another library just like I am today. Stuck in an unfamiliar apartment in an unfamiliar town while visiting my mom for summer break, I was encouraged to find something to occupy myself. In the previous school year, our class reader contained a short story by Isaac Asimov. It was about a boy who looked to the gas giants with a homemade telescope only to grow up and live on one of the moons of those same planets as an adult. I enjoyed it enough that, in need of something to read that summer day so many years ago, I walked over to the wooden card catalog and started flipping through the Author Am-Az drawer until I found the Asimovs. The number of cards there was significant.

That small walk of my fingers along the tops of those dry, coarse catalog cards began a journey that continues to this day as I slide Cibola Burn off the shelf. For good measure I step around the end of the row and pick up Dune as well.


In quick order that summer I devoured the Foundation series, the Robot series, and finally Asimov's autobiography. I read about the Encyclopedia Galactica, and I daydreamed about being a psychohistorian. A decade later I even thought I had found the infant Encyclopedia, this website of ours, and imagined that our admittedly chaotic and haphazard efforts would one day coalesce into a repository of human knowledge. Not for the last time, I marveled that the future was happening, and not just any future, but the future of my childhood escapes. And with each writeup I submitted, I became a slightly more integral part of that future.

Back at my desk, Daniel Silver's The Signal and The Noise reproachfully glares out of my backpack. I see it and I can almost hear its sardonic voice asking, Is this what you hoped for, what you dreamed? The computational power to predict and to forecast available at mankind's feet, only to be ignored and derided?

Soon after that summer of Asimov, I found my way to Arthur C. Clarke. The more precise nature of his stories contrasted with Asimov, and Clarke convinced me that in my lifetime mankind would venture beyond the asteroid belt. The sense of wonder he planted is still there in the unconscious grin I wear as I study each new high-resolution photograph from the JUNO mission. But I no longer believe human eyes will view these same clouds from an orbiting spacecraft; I don't even believe a man will walk on Mars before I take my last breath. As I read about discovery after discovery of the weather system on Titan or the tidal geysers of Enceladus, I know that the people around me could care less. Somewhere between that distant summer and the present we lost our way, or more likely, I came to realize that my daydream future was the future of a dwindling minority.


Still, sometimes the world surprises me. Finland has experimented with a universal basic income. Much like the future-Earth of the Expanse series, their trial hints at the possibility of a post-consumer world, a world where pursuing an idea without fear of hunger or sickness is possible. My phone dings, and a message from my wife appears out of the aether. This, this is science fiction made fact! I scream inside my head. The small, dark glass rectangle fades back to inactivity, more computational power than we used to reach the Moon now quiescent again, waiting to deliver some mundane piece of information. Out of the corner of my eye it sits on my desk in silent judgment, as if to say, You! You tamed a river, but only for a passing drink? You tamed the sun, but only to read your fashion magazine?

In a way, Orson Scott Card was right. Children can sway the world with the persistence of a continuous message and an ambivalent public. Even now, one of the most powerful men on the planet disabuses the ability to doubt and question. I think of Stephenson's cloistered communities and I wonder, Would that work? One day will my child be Ita? Too valuable to discard but too skeptical to be trusted in the general population? And I wonder, where did we go wrong?

At home we have finished dinner and the house is quiet because each of the three of us is absorbed in their own reading. And I feel proud. I feel a moment of success, even if miniscule, in the peace and contentment of a reading family. But I also worry how long can this last? How long before we can no longer protect our daughter from the external assault of peer pressure and vapid consumerism and the pull-and-push of the herd? In my nightmares she comes home, older and further from our influence than Sedna herself. I ask her, how was her day, how was work? And she says, "It was a pleasure to burn."


But then again, there is still hope. As long as there are places like this site, and people willing to contribute to them, the idea of a future of wonder does not seem so impossible. If our every action builds the possibilities of our future, like some Bayesian network of existence, then perhaps recording my doubt here will create the possibility of a future reader to respond with a better world. A more hopeful future. The future science fiction promised me all those years ago.

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