Obsessed with the Future

Let’s face it. We are all obsessed with the future. Everyone. Live for the moment? Bah!

Whether we read science fiction or not, there is not an hour that goes by that we don’t dwell in some way on the future. Maybe it is our survival gene. My stomach is growling. What will I have for lunch? What should I have for lunch? Do I want to fit into that skirt for the reunion in two weeks? Will the doctor be able to see that I had a BLT when she checks my cholesterol in three days? Will the cottage cheese that I really should eat be good beyond its expiration date?

Or maybe our sights project a little farther. I could save money if I ate in and put that money away for a vacation or retirement. What the heck, I might get hit by a car in five years and then will it really matter that I had one little BLT?

Or maybe still farther out.  Someday someone will invent a BLT that is good for you.

Bingo.

Like anyone else, I have my daily moments of wondering about the future. But one day . . .

I wondered about WAY in the future. At least by the above stomach-growling standards standards. Fifty years.   I’ve already talked about it in plenty of other venues so I won’t go into detail here, but several years ago I was hit with the zinger that my daughter had cancer. Immersed in the big “C” world I quickly learned that there was a very good treatment for her kind of cancer, but just forty or fifty years earlier she would have died from it. It was natural to wonder and I did—I thought about the future. How far would medicine advance in another fifty years? Would children of the future be able to avoid chemotherapy and radiation by taking a simple pill or having a cancer vaccination? The future.  Look how far we’ve come. How much farther will we go? It wasn’t the question for a book, but a self-involved question hoping my grandchildren would never have to face the treatment my child was facing.

The question about where the near future might take us simmered for a few years, and finally a book idea was born, a story set approximately fifty years from now  and I began researching a future that many of us will actually see, and one that certainly the teens who might read my book will see. Writing about such a near future posed some problems. The present put constraints on what I could write. I could only let my imagination fly so far.  I mean, we still don’t have that projected hover craft of my childhood, so I felt I could count on that not appearing in another fifty years. But what would we be able to count on? So what I did was begin researching what cutting edge scientists were actually in doing in labs and then I tried to bump it up a notch or two past that. I was amazed at what I found. Turns out I immediately had to start bumping up my near future several notches. The scientists were way ahead of my imagination. A few of the things I discovered that were already being developed:

• Limb prosthetics that respond to brain signals
• An MRI that can map human thoughts
• Organic computer chips
• Microchips that mimic human neurons by using chemical messengers to communicate
• An artificial hippocampus which is essentially a partial brain replacement
• Micro-circuits in artificial hands that can detect sensation
• Artificial skin made from human tissue

Remember, this is what I found back in 2004 when I was researching. Much of this is probably old news by now—the snowball effect of technology is mind-boggling. Shortly after I finished the book we heard of the world’s first whole face transplant. That sounds like the stuff of fiction, but no, it is the here and now. I saw a news piece the other day about a professor who is unable to move or speak due to the advancement of Lou Gehrig’s disease (I’m pretty sure that’s what the disease was) but by connecting his brain to electrodes, he is visually able to choose letters on a computer screen to spell out words which is converted to electronic speech. Now, a man who was once a silent prisoner inside his body, is able to speak and lecture again. Thank God for researchers who ponder what the future could be and then make it happen.

The possibilities of the future can be staggering and wonderful, but they can also be frightening. All possibilities are not necessarily good. In my research I also read about virulent strains of bacteria that have become resistant to vancomycin which is considered the last antibiotic defense in battling particularly difficult infections. Even now, every year millions of people die worldwide of virus- and bacteria-related illness, while our defenses against them are becoming weaker and weaker. Could MRSA be the Bubonic Plague of the future?

So the negative aspects of possibility played into my futuristic world too. The story was neither utopia or dystopia but probably a balance of both, although that I suppose, depends a lot on your own perspective.  And believe me, I’ve heard from a lot of readers with varied perspectives, some who are frightened by the possibilities in the story, others who are hopeful, and early on, one reader who was furious with me. I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but he really caught me by surprise, angry that I didn’t make Jenna’s “path” in the story, a path that would be available to everyone. He said I should have made everyone entitled to the future she had. I felt there was a lot more going on in his angry letter than my book—maybe his own obsession with the future.

But, what the heck, even Benjamin Franklin was obsessed with the future, so I guess he and the rest of us are in good company. Wasn’t it old Ben himself who said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Never leave that for tomorrow what you can do today? By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail? All advice about keeping an eye out for tomorrow.

I’d better pass on that BLT.


Mary E. Pearson is the author of five novels for teens, most recently, The Miles Between just out in September, and newly out in paperback, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a major motion picture and translated into thirteen languages, both from Henry Holt Books.

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