Looking to the Future to Find the Past

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Regular readers of this blog know that I participate in the SCA, a historical re-enactment society that focuses primarily on pre-17th century European culture. I’m also a pretty big fan of science fiction, and one of my favorite dystopian stories is a graphic novel called Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson. Set in a distant future America, the story’s protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, is a chain-smoking (it’s okay, though, he has the anti-cancer trait and it won’t hurt his health), booze-swilling, drug-using journalist whose political writing has made him a celebrity, something he desperately doesn’t want. After a five-year sabbatical, his book contracts pull him back into the City, a sprawling megatropolis located somewhere in the United States (the story never says where in the country this place is located or what its inspiration is supposed to be). While there, he gets a job writing a weekly column for the Word, one of the major transmetropolitan newspapers, and quickly regains his celebrity status. Eventually the storyline delves into the corruption of the political machine of the day, and pits Spider against the President in a thrilling search for the Truth. Put Hunter S. Thompson in the city from Blade Runner and give him the plot to All the President’s Men, and you’ve got an idea. The story is alternately dramatic, darkly hilarious, bizarre, poignant, and thought provoking, and always profanity laced. This is not a child’s comic book. This is one for the adults.

Now, the reason that I prefaced that paragraph with my historical interest is because one of the side stories in this work, originally published as a 66-issue comic book series, deals with the various Reservations that exist within the City. In these Reservations, various cultures are preserved completely intact. Those wishing to dedicate their lives to living in a Reservation are given suppressants that permanently dial their immune system back to what was biologically appropriate for the culture, given a language pack that automatically makes them fluent in the culture’s language, and their memories of ever living in the City are blocked for the rest of their lives. When they enter the Reservation, there is no turning back; they will live the rest of their considerably shortened lives (humans in the City very commonly live to be well over 100 years old) in their chosen culture and die there, oftentimes horribly from diseases that are appropriate to the culture or the violence that the culture supports. They literally give their lives to keep history alive.

Which is very true, because the Reservations are all open for visitors, who have to be given similar immunosuppressants and immunizations and language packs, as well as a way to communicate with the Reservation’s coordinators that you’re ready to leave. The residents’ memories of you being there will be suppressed; once you leave, they will have no recollection of you ever being there. The subplot here is that history is being preserved by a select community of individuals within the City, and no one is taking advantage of the educational opportunity this presents. Spider gets a 24 hour pass to visit as many Reservations as he can to cover the story.

I was watching The Last Samurai last night with my wife and afterward reviewed the bonus features on the Blu-ray. A couple of them noted how the crew behind the scenes took special care to keep the details of the movie historically accurate. I noted the irony of this in a story that essentially glamorizes the life of the Samurai, who historically were as honor-bound as the price that could afford their services. We both noted how peaceful it would be to live in a self-sufficient village off the grid, and she mentioned that it would have to have wi-fi, and I responded with something along the lines of “well, then it wouldn’t be off the grid, would it?” That got me thinking about the Reservations from Transmetropolitan and how effectively off the grid they are.

Then I realized that my historical re-enactment group is the beginning of what may one day become something akin to the Reservations. Where we dabble in the combat and dress and vocational skills of the time periods and civilizations we cover, the future re-enactors may one day literally live their entire life as an Elizabethan haberdasher, or a Norse Viking, or a Burgundian warrior.

My ten year old self has gone from playing an ASCII game on my therapist’s TRS-80 into a future that he could only dream of. Hoverboards are a reality. (Thanks for the head’s up on that, Marty McFly.) Virtual reality goggles and environments are available, if not yet common, and physical locations are being built to provide a three dimensional interactive experience that multiple applications can utilize and customize for their own purposes within the goggles. More common are artificial joints and lab-grown organs and prosthetics custom designed and created from a printer. Billions of computers are connected in a vast, incalculable network of information and distraction.

Who knows what our future selves are still in store for? Who can accurately imagine our distant future anymore? And who’s to say that the technology won’t one day be there to allow people to live their entire lives in the past of their own making?

Only time will tell.

I have no wish to become immortal. I never have. I want to live a good, long, fruitful life and die peacefully in my sleep of old age and not some debilitating disease. But there is a part of me that would really like to see just how incredible our future will be, and whether we’re going to remember our past within it.

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