"2020 Vision"
Jim Blair

2020 Vision: at the Midway
Avon Books #380-18390-095. 192 pages.

In 1970, science fiction writer, editor and professional future- forecaster Jerry Pournelle commissioned 8 science fiction writers to each produce a short story set 50 years into the future, in the year 2020. Those stories plus an introduction by Pournelle were published as 2020 Vision, in 1974. Since we are now about half way there, this is a good time to check on how the predictions are doing.

The authors will meet at the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention and buy a drink for anyone who brings a copy of the book and points out just where a prediction went wrong. I will be 84 years old then, but hope to be there with my copy. Maybe I will see you there?

INTRODUCTION: Do We Live in a Golden Age?

Since many of the stories project a dismal future, the question arose: was the world of 1970 a "Golden Age" that future generations would look back on with envy? There have been such in the past; how do people know at the time that the present will be a peak? There were already many predictions that "quality of life" had peaked, and that the future would be down hill.

Pournelle does make some specific predictions about the future. He predicts that the population of the US will rise only until about the year 2000 and will than drop, so that by 2020 it will be about the same as in 1970. Clearly, he missed the implication of the Immigration Reform bill passed 5 years earlier, in 1965. Before that change, his projection might have been realistic: see for example my web page graph of US population in the Immigration section at the bottom of the Political section, and my explanation of it.

He also claims that there is not "a ghost of a chance" that the capital investment can be found to raise the living standards of the developing nations: they will remain poor in 2020. But he is thinking only in terms of government foreign aid, or the prospect of the poor countries using military force to gain wealth. He never considered the possibility of NAFTA or GATT, expanded trade and a "global economy". And he could not be expected to have predicted that Congress would pass the "fast track" provision for trade treaties in 1974; this may have played a key role in creating the "global economy".

The jury is still out on whether or not 3rd World living standards will have risen much by 2020, but looking at the various Asian Tigers, and developments in Brazil, India, Indonesia and China, it is a least possible. In his essay "The East is (in the) Red", Paul Krugman points out that in 1975, workers in South Korea and Taiwan received only 6% of the wages of their US counterparts. But by 1995 this had grown to 43% and 34%. (The essay is on Krugman's web page, linked to mine).

He concludes that 2020 may look a lot like 1970, except more so. A rich Western Europe, Japan, US and USSR, with famine in the rest of the world.

BUILD ME A MOUNTAIN by Ben Bova

The first story has a theme that Bova has used before: a future USA that has the technical ability to explore space, but that has lost the political will to do so. When he first used this in a story published in the late 1960's (during the enthusiasm generated by the Apollo moon landings), I thought it a more fantastic idea than time travel. But events have unfortunately proven Bova to be a prophet. In his story, there are still men alive in 2020 who have walked on the moon, and some of them are lobbying a reluctant Congress for a permanent moon base. At the rate our space program is going, will there be anyone alive in 2020 who has been to the moon?

CLOAK OF ANARCHY by Larry Niven

This is also a world that could still happen in 2020, but some things would have to happen pretty fast. The car has vanished from the scene, and abandon freeways in California have become Free Parks, where all kinds of people frolic. There are floating mechanical "copseyes" that enforce a libertarian's utopia by stunning anyone who attempts to use force against another; but anything else is OK. But of course there is always someone who will rebel against even that level of restriction on their freedom.

SILENT IN GEHENNA by Harlan Ellison

A strangely prophetic story about a rebel against a US government that he views as oppressive. So he blows up buildings- a sort of Timothy McVeigh come 24 years early. There are references to computer data banks and Paolo Soleri's arcologies.

THE PUGILIST by Poul Anderson

This is the most complete miss in the book. The USSR has conquered the US in a war and has installed the Peoples Republic of the United States. (It helps to remember that in 1970 it was not at all clear that the Cold War would not continue indefinitely, or that the USSR would lose. In fact none of the stories predicts the collapse of the USSR). This is the story of a rebel organization, the Stephen Decator Society, that is attempting to restore American democracy, and how they fail.

And a note aside: Stephen Decator was an American Navy officer who commanded the raid to recover the USS Philadelphia from the Barbary Pirates, and is probably best known for his "out of context quote". What he actually said, in a toast to a graduating class of midshipmen was:

"To our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right. But, to our country; right or wrong!"

EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY by Dian Girand

A short, lighthearted tale of a future with electronically enforced health and dieting. It could yet happen by 2020.

PROGNOSIS: TERMINAL by David McDaniel

This is a future that hints at a lot of technology. People watch a lot of holo, talk on cellular phones, have jewels in their teeth, and have a kind of internet (but not as good as the 1997 one). There is much jargon that sounds strange to us today, but that will (it is assumed) sound perfectly normal to the people of 2020. People work at computer terminals and movements are video taped. There are 10 billion people on earth. Signals have been detected from an alien race that has been destroyed when their sun exploded.

FUTURE PERFECT by A. E. van Vogt

This is a very different world from 1970. Or 1997. The physical appearance has not changed much, but young men, when they become 18 are given a Life Credit of one million dollars :-), BUT there is also... Well as the story says "When biology solved the problem of locking up the male sex organ, and later opening it up so that it could function only with one woman-his wife- the entire course of family relations and in fact human history was altered it a positive fashion." This is the story of a rebel against that system.

A THING OF BEAUTY by Norman Spinrad

I found this to be the most entertaining story in the book, and it could still happen. The US has suffered a serious decline and Japan is now the leading world power. Recall that in 1970 this seemed a likely future; since then Japan has had a serious long recession while the US has prospered during the 1980's and 90's thus far. But things could still change.

At any rate Mr. Ito, a rich Japanese business man is shopping for an American artifact to decorate is estate and impress the in laws. Should he buy Yankee Stadium or the Statue of Liberty? They are all for sale by a desperate Bureau of National Antiquities. At any rate he finds the Perfect gift, and also the perfect way to pay for it. Great fun.

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