Thursday, April 03, 2008

200 Years in the Future, 200 Years in the Past

My assumption, thinking about Jack McDevitt's novels, is that the world is going to be a lot different 200 years in the future. But then I started thinking.

If we went back to 1800, to the early U.S., how hard would it be to understand people and their lives? And if we brought a bright American here from 1800, how hard would it be for him or her to understand us?

There's a lot more machinery now, but there were steam engines in 1800, and natural philosophers were studying electricity. The programming of textile looms, the first step in the long journey that led to modern computers, was an 18th century invention, if I am remembering correctly. We kept using cards like the cards that programmed Jacquard looms until the 1960s or 70s. When did IBM cards vanish?

People like Ben Franklin would have known about Jacquard looms.

Biotechnology is new, but people in the past knew about animal breeding; and paleontology -- which would lead to evolutionary science -- was coming into existence. Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to look for mammoths and mastodons on their western journey.

Worldwide environmental collapse is new, but environmental damage is not. It's been with humanity as long as we have been fully human. Where are the mammoths and mastodons?

I can imagine Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson being fascinated by our science and technology. Abigail Adams would understand feminism; and moral people were already deeply troubled by slavery, so civil rights might make sense. I'm not sure about gay rights.

As far as multiculturalism goes, I just did some checking. There were 5,300,000 people in the U.S. per the 1800 census, and one million (19%) of them were black. The Native American population of North American had been 8 to 19 million before contact. After contact, disease had brought it down to around a million in 1800. (These are estimates. No one was counting the Indian nations in 1800.) Still, white Americans would have been acutely aware of their non-white neighbors, especially if they lived in the south or traveled west.

California and the Southwest were Spanish; the center of the continent was claimed by France. America had already signed a treaty with a North African nation; and American ships were traveling the world. Moby Dick, set somewhat later, reminds us that not everyone on those American ships was a white American.

The current culture wars remind us that many of the Founding Fathers were Deist; and the New World had been a refuge of religious sects not welcome in Europe, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, all kinds of nonconformists in New England.

The Native Americans and the African slaves had their own religions.

So, the country two hundred years ago was multicultural, with a mixture of opinions about religion. There were people interested in education, science and technology; and there were people who dealt commercially and scientifically with the rest of the world.

There were also self-righteous bigots and people utterly beaten down by poverty and ignorance.

When I write a story set 200 years in the future, how different does that future have to be? And in what ways?


Blogger Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this! Never thought about it quite this in-depth, though I have thought about it.
Thanks for the post!

7:59 AM  

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