Future Shock

Sci-fi Novelist Samuel R. Delany Imagines New York City Circa 3000

The first scene of "The Graveyard Heart," by the late science-fiction writer Roger Zelazny, takes place at a party on New Year's Eve of the year 2000. It's a tale of fabulous wealth, beautiful women, and tiny ceramic dogs; of people who behave like vampires, and love that spans the centuries. It's a story I plan to reread on the big evening, as I wait to see if the lights stay on past midnight or if my word processor still works the next morning. It's hard to believe that story was written almost 40 years ago. But it's a tale to send the mind ahead to contemplate what science fiction suggests the future might actually hold, once it gets here—as, with or without us, it inevitably does.

My best hope for New York City is that having persisted for a few hundred years into the third millennium, it will be remembered as the greatest city of the last century of the second millennium. In 3000 it may be recalled as rich, romantic, horrifying in many of its aspects, with a rep-utation much like the Athens of classical Greece has today, or possibly Rome; or maybe the medieval Paris of the murderer, thief, and poet Francois Villon. If we're lucky, New York City might survive as an exotic name, like Nineveh or Syberisis; but if the culture continues to change at its present rate, New York's legacy might be more like that of Cambodia's Angkor Wat—a deserted space, forgotten and overgrown, somewhere in the world that foreigners rarely visit.

But what might happen along the way?

Science fiction of the last 25 or so years has a number of standby scenarios that, now and again, one writer or another has brought to bear on the prospects of tomorrow.

When the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, said, so many years ago, "Any truly advanced technology will look to us like magic," he could have had nanotechnology in mind—that "very small" technology where computer science meets microbiology. Imagine tiny, very simple computers, each no larger than a molecule, each of which can perform only the simplest tasks, like turning off and on and letting the molecule next to it know which state it's in. Now imagine billions of these molecular-sized computers working together to solve problems of internal physical chemistry far more complicated than any we can solve alone, including the problem of their own reproduction—that is, imagine computers built on the model of the growing, organic brain, rather than on the model of the fixed and limited electronic diode.

In science fiction, nanotechnology suggests scenarios such as: You spray a mess of properly programmed computer foam over a junked car lot near Coney Island, say, and the whole thing begins to hiss, bubble, and steam. Twenty-four hours later, the hundreds of junked chassis have been transformed into a 50-story office building, standing firm on the site, complete with functioning doors and windows. Or you get a bit of the stuff on your hand; as it enters through the skin, it turns you into a dog or a dolphin or a pig—or into a writhing blob of sentient computer foam yourself. Or ... it kills you.

With or without nanotechnology, I suspect, a new plastic or ceramic, notably cheaper and stronger than steel, will come along to change architecture and the look of urban dwellings and work spaces entirely. (Science fiction writer Joanna Russ once called the stuff "Gleepsite.") Will this result in more people living in smaller spaces or more people being able to spread out? Helped along with a little nanotech, dwellings could easily spread down into the earth the way they once towered into the sky. At any rate, it will create a difference in "urban life" notably greater than the difference between life in, say, 10th-century Paris—a walled island in the middle of the Seine where wolves sometimes broke in and roamed the streets at night—and life in New York now.

Back in 1984 Greg Bear, whose novel Blood Music is still the best introduction to the subject, suggested nanotech was not 300 or 400 years away, but a mere generation or two. Well, the Big Industrial Technology of today often becomes the domestic technology of tomorrow. Imagine, a few decades after the big changes, say, in the 2090s, when ordinary people have access to nanotech (the way today every fourth or fifth homeless guy wears a Walkman with sound quality that would have blasted a 1950s "Hi-Fi" enthusiast right out of his rumpus room). Suppose you could carry in a toothpaste tube the nanotech stuff to build a pretty decent one or two room house out of whatever junk happened to be lying around. And suppose that, after you were finished with it, the stuff went back into the toothpaste tube of its own accord so that you could use it again. Press, squeeze, and you're a little less homeless—at least for the night. As ever, though, I imagine the police will still come by early in the morning with toothpaste tubes of their own, full of foam specially programmed to dissasemble the hastily constructed shelters back into junk; and the again-homeless will be told to move on.

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