I spent way too much time tonight staring at a cheap USB drive. It has a famous image of the Peanuts Gang on both sides. Schroeder plays the piano while everyone else smiles and listens. Even Snoopy, who sits on top of the piano instead of dancing his way across the drive.
And I had this thought: Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts, died before this technology was invented.
Of course, then I had to check, because Procrastination R Us, and technically, I was wrong. Schultz died in 2000, and the first USB drives hit the market that same year.
But did he know the tech existed? I have no idea.
Did he think his characters would grace the sides of a USB drive?
Absolutely not. None of us did in those dark days 16 years ago. We had no idea that USB drives would become both ubiquitous and cheap.
I’m having all kinds of issues with technology and passing time. I’m writing two different science fiction series, both set in the future. I started one of those series in the previous century (!) and the other around 2004. Tech has changed so much in those years that I find myself having to explain why these far-flung cultures don’t have things we have now.
In my award-winning Diving universe (Diving into the Wreck, City of Ruins, etc.), explaining why these cultures don’t have the same tech we do is pretty simple: every story in the universe is about lost tech, lost knowledge, and lost cultures. So the fact that some of these cultures have a lot less than we do now—well, that’s part of the storytelling.
I hadn’t planned it that way. I got the idea for the stories while reading a book on deep sea diving, searching for ships and all their lost history. Then I got to thinking about all the shipboard tech that is no longer used or has been updated or seems impossible from a modern perspective.
When I was in London several years ago now, I went to the Imperial War Museum, and toured—if you could call it that—a World War Two submarine. I’d always read that the men who served on submarines had to be small, but wow, did touring the sub bring that home. I’m 5’5″ and at the time I wasn’t exactly thin, but I wasn’t exactly fat either. Getting around in that cramped environment was almost impossible for me. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people who are taller and wider.*
Of course, all of that got me thinking about space and spaceships and lost civilizations and lost ideas and just how impossible it is to recapture every detail of the past.
While those thoughts are useful for the historical fiction that I write, from alternate history to time travel to historical mysteries, and while those thoughts were also useful for the Diving series, they don’t help with the Retrieval Artist series.
That series is older and half the tech I use every day wasn’t even on the horizon yet. Yes, we knew that handheld computers were coming, but who, in 1997, could have foreseen that we would carry our phones around the way that high school kids in Home Ec carry that blasted raw egg for three days to show them how hard it is to care for a baby. Who could have foreseen the raw computing power of those phones or the fact that we would voluntarily give up so much privacy?
I mean, really. Most of us leave our location tracker on and give it up to apps all the time. A lot of us store our credit card information on the phone along with our social security number and our date of birth and our address and everything else that we need for identification. So, steal someone’s phone, steal someone’s life.
I think that surprises me less, though, than the fact that we love to be so accessible and not accessible at the same time. We interrupt our real lives for texts and phone calls in ways we never did in the 20th century. At the same time, getting someone’s cell phone number is like breaking into Fort Knox. You have to be a trusted friend to get the number. The days of phonebooks are as quaint as party lines.
How does that impact my Retrieval Artist universe? I have some wonky tech in that universe on purpose—I use FTL and what someone called “the internet of things” where information can travel on links installed in someone’s brain over light years. And yes, I know, right now, that’s the stuff of fantasy.
But there are other things in that universe that make me decidedly uncomfortable. Self-driving cars—which we did not have in 1997—are underway now, and most of them have safety features—hell, features—that my far-future cars don’t have. I’m going to have to do some major explaining at some point—and I know there’s even more looming.
I plan to write that series until I die—and I don’t plan to die for another fifty years or so. Which means I will be doing a lot of hand-waving to explain the dated or strange tech.
Which brings me back to the USB drive. Because I have no idea what’ll be around ten years from now, let alone fifty years from now. Will my characters grace some device that I can’t even imagine? Will my readers wonder why my characters don’t use that selfsame device in their far-future worlds?
I have no idea. This world is going through such rapid technological change that the world of my birth—the mid-20th century—feels as remote as the 19th century. It didn’t feel that way when Charles Schultz died in the year 2000, although I should have had an inkling.
Because in early 2001—before 9/11—I went to a conference put on by then 91-year-old Jack Williamson. The point was to discuss tech and the future. Jack was always farther ahead than the rest of us on future tech. Back then, I thought it odd that a nonagenarian knew more about the future than the rest of us.
Now it makes sense.
He’d been living in the future for a very long time. To him, the world of his birth—1910—must have seemed even more distant than the world of my birth does right now. His autobiography, Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction, has a very dark section about how discouraged he became with science and science fiction after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
He crossed the country in a covered wagon as a child. Imagine how, some thirty years later, it must have felt to see the possible destruction of the world, through something he loved and believed in.
I thought I could imagine it when I talked about it with Jack. But I couldn’t imagine it then as clearly as I can now.
I live in the future, one I didn’t anticipate. Just like he did.
And tonight, the symbol of that future is a $5 USB drive with Snoopy and the gang grinning at me from it. Some favorite characters from my childhood, on a device that I couldn’t even conceive when I bought all those paperbacks with every single Peanuts cartoon in them—paperbacks that, at the time, seemed dated to me.
Heh. Little did I know what the future would bring. What’s old is new, I guess. And what’s new is often very surprising.
*I have to share: one of my favorite museum memories ever comes from that sub tour. I was going through the submarine with a bunch of ten-year-olds on a school trip. Most exhibits at the War Museum have a smell feature—a smell-the-past kind of thing—and some wag decided to let us all know what a submarine smelled like after several weeks underwater.
I daintily decided not to sniff that part of the exhibit. But the boy in front of me took a gigantic whiff, turned green, and dropped it, shouting “Pee-You!” at the top of his lungs.
What did that mean? It meant that all the other kids had to sniff it too—and get grossed out as well. That’s what living history is all about, folks.