An (uncertain) Future

I was on the periphery of a group of trad sf/fantasy authors discussing what effect the Covid-19 pandemic would have on authors. You might think ‘none’. After all, with the exceptions of the Hollywood-type authors who write great novels on their laptops in coffee-shops… we’re a precursor of the isolation dress-code.  Sweat-pants may well be the height of sartorial elegance for 2020 (or at least the most worn item of clothing), but we were wearing them to work long before everyone else.

Still, it has fairly well devastated New York Publishing, wrecked bookstore releases and tours and may well be the middle of the end of brick and mortar bookstores, and possibly paper publication – which is the gateway trad publishing still controls. So there is that change.

And of course there is vast change in the readers’ weltanschauung.  (More German-loanwords. That’s English for you, culturally appropriating the concepts of unsuspecting languages.)  Anyway, as I understand it, it’s more just world-view, it’s the world’s worldview.  Which has changed and can never quite go back. The pendulum will swing – but it can’t swing back to the same place, because that place is gone. So many books which resonated with the broader worldview of yesteryear – or at least enough of it to sell to NY editors (who live on another planet) are going to throw readers – even NY editors, right out. A lot of assumptions – a world government, the megalopolis as the natural habitat of choice of humans, the death of ethnicity (or at least certain ethnicities: Europeans, except as throwback villains) – these may have to join the idea of a fax machine and dail-up phone in every home. As these are a given in much ‘nearish-future’ of the darlings of Trad publishing, as well as the issues that these lashed their wagons to… interesting times, for them, anyway.

As a general comment: I don’t think it had dawned on them they are yesterday’s people and ‘inclusive’ was the probably not one of the big buzzwords of the future.

A thing I do see coming out of this is a vast increase in surveillance. Government and those in power have always liked any excuse to spy and pry, and thereby to control and wield power over the general populace. George Orwell, they believe, was writing an instruction manual not a grim warning. Australia just tried – and was knocked back – to install a compulsory tracker on every phone. Of course governments would never stretch that, never get given an inch and take a thousand miles. No, politicians never (well, hardly ever) do that. And of course that data will be secure. Because no government organ has ever lost data or leaked, and if, heaven forbid, this happens the heads of those parts of government are always harshly dealt with and end up rotting in jail.

Okay, I think my sarcometer just broke. Fortunately, this time anyway, here, that inch was withheld. But I believe the post Wu-flu world will constantly pushed towards it. For your own good and safety of course.  It, and evading it, will be a big part of any sf-novel of the near-future. I’m wondering what happens when facial recognition hits masks, who wins and what happens?

Secondly – as an aspect of that – and equally beloved of governments, cash transactions have been very limited during the lockdown. ‘Cash may be a vector.’  Oddly, NO part of any government – not even the party that vehemently oppose anyone having to have ID to vote, object to electronic banking.  Because it makes crime easier to track, (it doesn’t of course. Criminals are experts at evading surveillance.  Joe Sixpack – who, with the statue-books so broad and huge to make Lavrentiy Beria dance with glee – is going to fall foul of them).  It’s never as a way to inescapably tax the sheep… people.  As a reaction to the above – and indeed, quite prevalent during the lockdown, and probably more common after, if we get the hyperinflation which seems likely – barter will play a much bigger role than it did – particularly on the fringes of society – geographically and socially. Guess what: we often draw heavily on those fringes for our writing.

Globalism, the core of just about every near-future sf novel (and certainly a central tenet of faith of the Hugo and Nebula crowd. Inclusive)… if it ain’t dead, it is on life-support in an induced coma.  Like those Just-In-Time networks… the pandemic has cruelly exposed the flaws in that. Maybe just as well – it is – as pandemics and global scale disasters go, relatively mild (not that the economy or those who lost loved ones will agree), but dispassionately viewed it hasn’t been THE LAST CENTURION. But when we needed an attitude of the brotherhood of man – The Chinese Communist Party led the way in showing that there was sadly no such animal, and if they were going to suffer social and economic devastation so would the world.  They covered up and exported the disease, when a citizen of the world would have tried to contain it. And then the reliance on the CCP and India for the world’s pharmaceutical and medical supplies… is certainly going to lead to pressure to bring these at least to one’s own country.  Medical and scientific research in one’s own country are going to become fashionable and a thing of national pride again.

In scary times – the herd bunches. And they kick out or exclude those that ain’t like them.  Nations are back, probably for at least 50 years, if not far longer.

With this comes borders, and the end of easy migration. When your unemployment is high, migrants – not of your herd or tribe, especially visibly different, are going to be as welcome a beefsteak at a vegan dinner.  It’s over. If you can migrate (if you are someone another country needs, for example) then fitting in fast becomes of paramount importance. So the diversity and ‘inclusion’ multiculturalism of yesterday’s books is a sure road to unpopularity.  Not all books have to be in tune with the zeitgeist, but you’re going to have to handle the ‘showpiece’ of another culture/race/ethnicity character very differently.  I will probably – as usual – have these characters, and – as usual – focus on what we have in common. But that’s very different to the focus in recent trad published sf which is on what sets people apart.

The city, particularly the large densely packed city have been core to the view of the future – hell, since way back – Kornbluth’s MARCHING MORONS -1951, was the grim view of it, but many authors assumed humans would concentrate into high-rise dense various megalopolises. And the assumption – especially recently, as more and more trad authors came from megalopolises, was that, generally they were a good thing with the variety and resources that smaller settlements or, heaven forbid, rural peasants, could not enjoy.

And then came a pandemic that showed that dense… is dense.  That a lot of people don’t have to work in big cities. The large cities sort of parasitic autophagous monster, which survive by inertia and leaching the produce of a vast (indeed global) area, and devouring those who are attracted to the supposed advantages. (As far as I am concerned they’re an ecological disaster area, a concentration of toxins which the biome can’t deal with in those concentrations. But that’s just my view). The death toll and infection rates in the ‘dream cities’ of sf, may spread people into a lot of smaller settlements – which, with rare exceptions, can offer 90% of what the megalopolis could, without the disease risk, thanks to technology. And Kornbluth was wrong, BTW. Human Population growth is slowing and may well reverse.

The key feature of the megalopolis is of course… mass transit. It’s been a mantra for environmental activists and big-city supporters for decades. Parking and traffic (and pollution) make individual transport and large cities mutually exclusive.  Individual transport bad, subway good… And as it proved just about perfect for spreading disease. Which individual transport was also bad at.

The easy, fast travel we assumed was the future… may take a long while to get back to where it was.  Air travel was a major vector, and easy border sped it up. And we’re going to lose a lot of airlines. Not that it is likely that the economy will support much for a while.

And that’s another big change coming to sf. A lot of people may find out what real poverty is. It’s not living paycheck to paycheck – but living quite well. It is going to change everything from families to the way we view food and holidays. My depression-era parents were shaped for life by that. Our society and those living it will be too. Prepping will move from ‘weirdos’ to be sneered at to something desirable partners do. So too will having ‘essential’ jobs.  The change in social status is going to be interesting – especially if you weren’t deemed ‘essential’, but were high-status before.

That leads into the death of colleges and universities as we know them today. Firstly, these are funded, in large part, by people seeking social status and the benefits of that (parents what their kids to have it, Kids want it among themselves.)  And that’s before we look at the discovery many are making that the vast debt to attend a tertiary education facility… doesn’t give them a whole lot they can’t do online, barring the partying. And that in itself will take many young impressionable minds out of socio-political indoctrination and enormous peer pressure. Imagine: they might have to think for themselves. And also find a degree in Gender Studies – once a route into being a diversity officer in some government job – isn’t ‘essential’ and ‘diversity’ may become less of magic word when the nation-state wants ‘unity’.

I suspect social distancing – to some extent anyway – is here for at least the medium term. It works badly in cities. It also works badly on social animals, like humans. I predict more nutbars going nuts as a result. It’s not good for our mental health.

More suspicion will be a part of our once high trust world (not least because of more surveillance, and as an economic result, more crime) partly because people have been encouraged to snitch. The promulgation of many laws that blind Freddy could see made no biological sense, and the often heavy-handed enforcement of the same has undermined the respect for the law and law-enforcement.  Badly thought out kneejerk and often unenforceable laws tend make people take the falso in uno, falso in omnibus attitude. And once that gets going… that particular omnibus is unstoppable.

And of course – as this pandemic showed us… many more people deciding to arm themselves as a result of this and the fear generated by the media – who are busy trying to capitalize on it… and may end losing what credibility they still have. Wanting to be armed is a natural human reaction to being insecure. Maybe someone should have explained that to the anti-gun media before they started putting the frighteners on people.

But as an eternal optimist I am hoping lots people come out of it reading more.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

39 comments

  1. Re: Over-reach.

    Fauci’s ID card proposal makes no sense when you ask ‘what is the mechanism for making and implementing decisions based on this instrument?’

    If transactions, movements, and activities are limited by armed men, or RFID reading devices checking the ID cards, then the ID card based system still permits too much contact between humans, or exposure which could spread disease.

    You’d need voluntary isolation, and a wirelessly accessible fast updating database.

    There are personality types which would take well to carefully curating their human contacts for purity. Some of the effects of that haven’t been encouraged recently, but we will see more tolerance for that behavior in the future. Unless it becomes so obnoxious that there is a backlash to it.

    In theory, the private sector could put together the aps and the databases. Because you know that a government database, if it functions at all, will be updated much too slowly to do exposure tracing for suspected contagions. There may be mathematical/computer science limits that also prevent this, but government IT seems almost designed for implementations that are lacking.

    Plus, because large bureaucracies have predictable methods of advancement, government run IT projects that are public facing become attractive targets for information operations by agents of foreign influence. So there is another interesting risk for having such a disease tracking database.

    Anyway, privately run databases have medical privacy issues, and have the risk that the self-isolation may include types of self-isolation not currently popular.

    1. > wi-fi

      Perhaps half of the USA doesn’t even have a cellular signal, much less wifi. I suspect coverage in places like Australia or Canada, which are highly urban by comparison, is much less.

      Even among major interstate highways coverage is spotty, and once you go off those, there ain’t no freakin’ towers to be had. And may not be for decades, if ever.

      Of course, herding people into urban prisons is big among the controlling class… but they tend to forget how dependent their gated enclaves are upon bits of flyoverland they couldn’t find on a map.

      1. Yeah, but you don’t need to compare profiles when you don’t have anyone near you. Peer to peer with the smart phone’s radio, or with a radio/computer at places more than one person might visit.

        Absurdly wasteful and paranoid, but now is the time for really bad ideas that you can’t convince people of when times are calm.

      2. I suspect that the social distancing, along with concern about ‘outsiders’ will reinforce Tribal thinking. There will be those you give full trust to (closely related people – actual DNA closeness), those that you give limited trust to (neighbors, people who share a common culture), and those that you will not let get close (non-relatives, those not in your ‘tribe’).

        So, 2nd group:
        – Mormons, at least those vetted by their stake bishop
        – Those people with whom you have/had a history – the equivalent of your high school class (most of them), those with whom you have worked, those who are part of a voluntary society
        – Immigrants – only those of their group
        – Muslims – fellow Muslims in that mosque

        Outside of the family group, singles – particularly women – are screwed. They are less likely to be a part of many of the second group. They will only be fully trusted, as much as they are, by their birth family.

        Those that hooked up freely, pre-Coronavirus, will likely fall into the 3rd classification. Not trusted by any group. Their own Tinder group, eh. Not all that trustworthy.

        It will not matter how sexy a woman is; a large part of her value will be, can she successfully provide home education/nursing/cooking for her family? Can she keep them alive and nourished? Can she be trusted to not open the pathway to infection by having spontaneous hookups with strangers?

        For men: can they provide? Are they willing to switch fields, if necessary? Can they? Do they have skills that reduce the need to pay for outsiders to make repairs or otherwise keep a roof over their head?

        I think it’s safe to say, 20th century feminism is dead. As is inclusion, diversity, and mooching off others.

        People MIGHT provide for a close family member. They MIGHT give a couple of days’ food for a family who’s experienced a setback. But, don’t bother coming back for more when that’s gone – you will be turned away.

    2. Today’s wildassed idea: Tie testing to voting. That would put a serious crimp in ballot fraud, since you’d need to present a properly-identified warm body every time.

      1. I was going to reply that the fastest and easiest way to kill his ID was to make it the ID voters must show, but the lefoids might make it so the ID was an instant registration to vote, legal or not.

  2. I’ve quit taking my phone with me when I leave the house, because I don’t know who has decided to track it (Google, quit that!). My most escapist fiction has been selling briskly, more so than in the past. I don’t know if that will continue (I put that series on sale until May 2), but it might be a sign that people are now willing to hunt down fun reads that “take them away”. If so, it means that those of us who have the time to write need to be doing more of it, if we can.

      1. probably not, unfortunately. Now its going to be “we’re all gopnna die because of poorly-camouflaged-copy-of-orange-man screwing up the response to the next pandemic”

        1. But perhaps more people will tell their friends about “This great book by this other author that I read, here’s the title.” (My “Could-Be-YA-but-Not-Sold-As” is moving off the shelves at a steady pace.)

          We need to crack into Scholastic’s marketing pool, but I don’t see that happening soon. Human Wave is just too wild and wooly, and too hard to jam into the tidy boxes of “is appropriate for this curriculum because it contains the following Essential Elements.”

        2. I was going to say, “because, yeah, that’ll get the kids reading”, but they aren’t selling to kids, but teachers and school librarians so those will sell “well” for some definition of well.

    1. You start saying stuff like that, and people start wonderinfg when you’re going to get a natty new jacket with sleeves that tie in the back and a prescription for Thorazine.

      Every layer of the service stack *can* spy on you; at the top of the stack, at the provider level, it’s how they track when the phone moves between towers. But Android and IOS tattle back to their motherships, and (at least on Android) apps are free to ignore the “no, you can’t access GPS coordinates” setting. And nobody really knows what goes on in the closed-source parts of the Android binaries, or in the hardware of the phone itself.

      They don’t even turn off, really. The power switch just sends them to a low-power state; everything still works, just slowly. That’s why they can put a nice “charging” graphic on the screen when you plug the power cord in when the phone is “off.” The only way you can be sure it’s off is if you remove the battery, which is one of the reasons most modern phones have the battery soldered in place.

      I probably lead one of the most boring lives in the country. That doesn’t mean I want to be tracked like a cow with an ear tag.

      1. Day Job requires that we have the phone. I do my best to forget and leave it at home whenever I’m not on call for Day Job. It’s partly a lingering habit from when I wore a pager and phone and was on call 24/7/14.

        1. Transport it in a nice metal cookie tin and only take out when truly necessary? Sure, it can record/reveal Point A and Point B… but not how it got from one to the other, or if it was Point M between times.

          1. Orvan, does that work if not grounded? As I understood it, a Faraday cage had to have some charge or be earthed to work?

            1. There are Faraday bags for computer forensics that can prevent signal transmission. Probably varying levels of effectiveness depending on the brand. Mission Darkness brand tested well before I went to a hacker conference, but I’m no expert.

            2. A grounded ‘cage’ is the ideal, but non-ideal will suffice. The metal will block signals both ways quite well – and I’d suggest having the phone ‘off’ or at least in ‘airplane mode’ so the various radios in are not trying to transmit though the box and running the battery down.

              1. In an online discussion of whether a microwave would stop a signal, a woman said she had just tried putting her cell phone in hers and having her daughter call it. The microwave was enough.

      2. There are non-tracking alternatives in the works.

        Look up Pureism phone… unfortunately reviews say not ready for prime time, and the hardware is pricey, but there ya go.

        There’s also Plasma Mobile, running on KDE-Neon, totally free if you’re bold enough to do a wholesale replacement of your phone’s current OS. I like KDE on the desktop, so when I come across an otherwise-useless phone, I’m going to try this’un.

        Me, for everyday I use a retard flipphone (it’s so braindead it’s not even a proper dumbphone; whaddya want for $12… not a typo) and seldom remember to take it along (lived with no phone at all for enough years that my brain doesn’t regard it as ‘necessary’). But here’s the one I really want!

        http://justine-haupt.com/rotarycellphone/index.html

    2. My mobile is switched off most of the time anyway, and since the Telecom gave data to the Robert Koch Institue to track Corona in early March, I haven’t switched it on at all. I’ve lived without one for 50 years and can live without again. 😛

    3. I still take my phone, but take off location tracking. No, not a great solution – they can still find you – but slightly better.
      If I didn’t need access to it for emergencies, I’d dump it at home.

  3. “The problem with fore-telling the future is that the future is always changing”. 😉

    Dave, I like that you called this “an uncertain future”. 😀

  4. And of course there is vast change in the readers’ weltanschauung. (More German-loanwords. That’s English for you, culturally appropriating the concepts of unsuspecting languages.)

    Nay, we’re sneakily taking over other languages by inventing such fun concepts and words you can’t but integrate into your language: Weltanschauung, Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, Morgenmuffel ….. 😀

  5. My telephones are attached to the wall with wires, as God intended. I have regularly said that the cell phone and its developments are the stupidest invention since the pet rock, and remain convinced that I am right. I expect that, as many people are short of money or motivated to save more, that public interest in owning an expensive cell phone rather than a cheap wall phone is going to fall a great deal.

    1. The trouble is, with taxes and fees, even for the minimum service, it’s not cheap – over $25, where I live.

  6. It’s going to do interesting things to the dating scene, as the Daughter Unit is discovering. Can’t go out to eat, no dinner-anna-movie, unless it’s fix dinner at home and curl up on the sofa to watch something on DVD or streaming video.
    No going out to the icehouse in Cibolo to watch a live band with friends. About all she and the various dates can do is go for a long hike in the park.

    1. How do you check if your kid’s date has WuFlu before they go? That’s what I’m thinking about. Suddenly two sets of Mom and Dad and little brothers and sisters have a vested interest in who their sib is going out with.

      That could get complicated in a hurry.

  7. I will say that I’m a little worried about the modern fantasy books I’m about to put out. I’m worried that by the time they hit the (metaphorical) shelves, Emma’s world will be completely unrecognizable from the world that most people know. Currently, she’s part of a destination wedding at the Stanley Hotel and considering a weekend in Vegas after she finishes. I wonder if, a year from now when the book is ready, all of the above will be part of the past.

    In terms of the significant things you’ve mentioned:

    1) Yeah, this is going to be bad for trad publishing, but it seems like trad publishing has put itself in a position where just about everything is bad for it.

    2) Globalism was always a non-starter. It’s obvious that when it comes down to it, even those who think of themselves as “transnational elites” don’t really believe in it. As an example, I always point to the various crises in the E.U. (financial, migrants, and now coronavirus) where it’s obvious that no one thinks of these things as “Europeans” and everyone is thinking about the interests of their own countries.

    3) Ironically, “Medical and scientific research in one’s own country are going to become fashionable and a thing of national pride” may be one of the things that got us into this. There’s a lot of speculation that the virus came from a Wuhan lab that wasn’t necessarily looking for bioweapons but just trying to prove that China could research infectious diseases as well as or better than the U.S. and Europe.

    3a) I will add to that point that there’s going to be a lot of suspicion attached to foreign, particularly Chinese, students who want to participate in that research. It’s not fair, and it may not be right, but there were enough interesting stories about Chinese students in the months before the pandemic that I doubt they will be welcome back any time soon, no matter how much the universities scream about discrimination.

  8. Dave said: “And then came a pandemic that showed that dense… is dense.”

    It occurred to me a while ago that suburbia and the private automobile are looking pretty damn good right now. Space between houses, some land to grow vegetables on at need, no points of direct transmission between households, like common water source or common ventilation, etc. And a car is the perfect isolation unit for traveling and errands.

    Let’s think back in history a little bit and recall that Levittown, the first mass-produced suburb, was built right after WWII to house thousands of returning Vets and their newly started families. It was an emergency for New York State and the city because there was nowhere to put all those new families.

    Why a suburb? Because of the experience of NYC in the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920. After that fun experience, people wanted some space around them. The Bronx, Queens, the rail lines and the northern suburbs all grew after the Spanish Flu experience. Anyone who had money left the city, and you can tell when it happened by the relative ages of the train lines and highway network.

    Suburbs are consistently labeled “sterile” by the liberal cognoscenti who have consistently envisioned holding the working classes in glorified dormitories, high-density apartment buildings with “efficient” public transit systems so they can schlep to the job and back to their bee hive. No one who’s ever left the beehive culture wants to go back to being 300 people in the same building with one elevator. Sometimes they have to, but they can hear the green lawns of Scarsdale calling to them.

    No one who has experience the NYC subway during Wuhan Flu is going to want to stay living there, stuck riding in a cigar tin full of contagious assholes who don’t bathe properly. They want to go live in the nice, safe, sterile open suburbs, where there’s more than a thin wall between them and the neighbors who are cooking cabbage.

    1. You’re assuming that New Yorkers are rational, as opposed to rationalizing.
      Note that the NYC-based media has spent much of the week criticizing the policies of other states like Florida (well, ok) and South Dakota (WTF?), rather than talking about how NYC’s population density and policies have magnified the impact of WuFlu.
      People whose sense of self-worth is based on living near a Center of Power (NYC, DC, etc) are NOT going to rationally discuss the pros and cons of urban-vs-suburban-vs-rural.
      This means, sadly, that I shall remain … a Deplorable in their eyes.

      1. I lived in the NY suburbs for a few years, and I met some if the finest people I’ve ever met in my life there. Also some of the biggest idiots its ever been my misfortune to come across. More rude assholes than I’ve ever seen anywhere else.

        Most people are (obviously) reasonable and moral. Otherwise the place would be Detroit already. But a sizable minority make their living from corruption. Those are the ones trying to pretend that the NY subway isn’t the single largest vector for the WuFlu.

        The NY media has two faces. One for each other, and one for The Public. Privately, all the ones with money hate blacks, Jews, Muslims, women (even the women hate other women) Hispanics and Flyover Country. They all own guns and have bolt-holes outside the city for when it all inevitably hits the fan.

        They are all in those bolt-holes right now, frantically virtue signaling as hard as they can on Twitter to keep their sweet cushy jobs.

  9. Back to the brave new future of…
    Cyberpunk?
    (Only partially tongue in cheek. Alphabet is pretty much an evil megacorp from central casting. Themes of alienation, unaccountable power bases, corruption, disease, loss of privacy, etc. are spot on.)

    I question the applicability of the metaphor about vegans and beefsteak to immigration.
    The vegans all desire steak (and hate themselves for it). Receptivity to immigrants is a much more case-by-case sort of thing.

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