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October 21st, 2015 was Back to the Future Day.  In the 1989 film Back to the Future Part 2, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Loyd traveled from their present in the 1980s into the future landing in a 2015 that was a prosperous, high-tech version of Leave it to Beaver. Decades passed, and the real 2015 came and went, and on October 21st, fanboys and fangirls noted with wry amusement how that future of hovering skateboards and self-tying shoes did not pan out like the filmmakers imagined.


The setting of Ridley Scott's 1982 noir classic, Blade Runner, is Los Angeles in November of 2019. The city is marked by impressively tall buildings, including an enormous ziggurat that is the home of the Tyrell corporation. The building is so large, and important people occupy places so far above street level, that the police land on the roof in flying cars and proceed down into the building to conduct their business rather than enter at street level and head upstairs.

In the world of Blade Runner, most humans who are mentally and physically intact reside on the off world colonies and are served by humanoid replicants so lifelike that only a trained specialist with exotic equipment can tell human from android. Twenty nineteen is now just two years away, and the Blade Runner future is looking decidedly unlikely.

In 1968, science fiction grandmaster, Arthur C. Clark, and cinematic wunderkind, Stanley Kubrick, put their heads together and conjured a vision of the future year of 2001. They populated it with orbital hotels, moon bases, strong AI, and manned missions to the outer planets. The film was released the year before Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. In December of 1972, astronaut Gene Cernan climbed from the lunar surface up into the lunar service module and in the four and half decades since then, no other human has returned to Earth's moon.
And then there's Star Trek. In the 1967 episode Space Seed, we learn that humans experimented with genetic engineering in the late 20th Century and that the genetically augmented humans seized power. This lead to the Eugenics War which raged from 1992 to 1996, after which, the last of the Augmented despots, Khan Noonian Singh, departed Earth with a few dozen followers. They entered suspended animation and slept for centuries on a ship headed away from Earth.

Now the 1990s recede in the rear-view mirror, and we're nowhere close to creating genetic superhumans or developing suspended animation or crewed spaceships that can leave the solar system. I love science fiction, and because I love it I have to believe that its value does not derive from its predictive accuracy because it has consistently promised way more than real life has delivered.

I can at least take comfort in the fact that dystopian SF has consistently overshot the actual future as badly as its grandiose cousin has overestimated how far and how quickly technology would thrust us into space and give us robot companions to abuse, battle, and love.

Just as both grandiose and pessimistic SF visions diverge wildly from real life, if in opposite directions, so too do the techno-utopians and doomers see very different futures from a common present. Ray Kurzweil still thinks the singularity is near and raving climate doomers are still forecasting human extinction by mid-century.

Off-world colonies are still in the works, they're just a little behind schedule. So too is the total destruction of the biosphere, as depicted in the 1972 ecological fairy tale, Silent Running, still headed our way. It may be running behind schedule, but it surely has a good excuse and will make up for its tardiness with soul-crushing brutality.

The future never arrives. It hovers just out of reach and provides us with a screen onto which we project our anxieties and our hubris. Knowing that all such projections are, at best, distorted by our obsessions and delusions and, at worst, baseless fantasy, I understand the importance of looking away from it from time to time to focus on the present, the tangible, the immediate, but my eyes always gravitate back to the horizon. I have no intention or desire to keep them from doing so.

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