Notes from The Buffer Zone: Exciting Times

I sat down to write this column about a week after I taught a class for professional writers covering history, time travel, and alternate history. One of the biggest lessons I felt I needed to impart was that just because something “new” hit in a certain year didn’t mean that everyone adapted to that thing that year. Bits and pieces of the past lie cheek to jowl with bits and pieces of the future.

I cited the Netflix streaming show, Stranger Things, as my example. The show, set in 1983, got most of its historical (!) details right, but missed on a few things—all communications-related. For example, at one point, a character dials 911.

All well and good, except 911 wasn’t the go-to number for emergencies in 1983 outside of some of the major cities. I looked up the information on 911 just to write this paragraph and found this statistic: by 1987, 50% of the population had access to 911 as an emergency number.

Seems simple, right? It’s not. Because I was a reporter in the early 1980s in a minor city in the Midwest, and we didn’t have 911. We had discussions about 911. Most people thought it was a bad thing. The main problem was cost. Implementing the system was darn expensive.

When I moved to the Oregon Coast in 1995, the community I was in was just investing in its 911 call center—and not happily because of the expense.

So when this character, in rural Indiana, dialed 911, I popped right out of the show. That was a (minor) failure of research—and that assumption we writers (and readers) all make. 911 was first discussed in the late 1950s and took more than a decade to get through all the legislative hurdles on the national level. And so, we readers/writers figure, every place should have had it by the 1980s.

We would have been wrong. Some places get things immediately, and others take years—even decades—to acquire.

People are the same way about their technology or any other development. As if to prove my point, Apple released another iPhone upgrade in the middle of that workshop. The upgrade hit about a week after the meltdown of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7—y’know: the phone that was exploding and starting fires (which is not a sentence I ever expected to write, particularly in the 1980s).

The update led everyone at the workshop to discuss our cell phones. I don’t think anyone had a Galaxy Note 7 (thank heavens), but a number of folks were delaying their iPhone update until they got home. (Always sensible when traveling.) Of course, the conversation veered off course to discuss how hard life used to be without cell phones.

And then one of the writers lifted up her phone, and proudly declared that she had a flip-phone, and wasn’t going to get a “smartphone” until technology forced her into it.

No one in the room was particularly tech-savvy that I know of. Everyone was a mainstream consumer of cell phone technology. Everyone had laptops (something that wasn’t true when we first started teaching these courses), and everyone had self-published at least one thing, but not everyone had adopted the latest phone tech.

History isn’t one thing, and neither is science. In the past few weeks, major storms have hit across the globe. The storms’ devastation on the ground is awful. Entire communities are flooded or torn away, and hundreds of people die, some horribly.

But from space—those storms are a marvel.

It has become common to see, on the evening news or the latest news app or on NASA’s website, a view of these massive storms from space. The storms don’t look chaotic and terrifying from above. In fact, they seem organized and well-formed, sometimes a perfect spiral with a little round hole in the middle—the aptly named eye.

When you’re in the middle of one of those storms, though, there is nothing perfect about it. The storm is violent and terrifying and so very destructive.

But from space—quietly beautiful.

Science fiction doesn’t always discuss these complexities, any more than historical fiction does. Because we forget that nothing in the universe is just one thing. A storm is terrifying and beautiful, destructive and stunning.

Just like the future is. Because we’re in the future right now. I don’t think I ever imagined 2016. 2020, yes, and 2000, yes, and 2050, yes, but not 2016. The number is just too weird.

I would have told you, though, that we would have had flying cars by now and video phones and cities in the sky. Spaceships leaving on a regular basis for the Moon, and maybe even the colonization of Mars.

The thing is—we have video phones (we don’t use them much), and people are talking about flying cars. But some things we never imagined—like exploding phones—and others have already become routine.

Like viewing photographs of the Earth from space. The photos I’m referring to came from the International Space Station. I saw many of them retweeted on Twitter (something sf never imagined), and shared on various social media platforms (also never imagined).

We’ve become accustomed to looking at our planet from the outside. But I remember those first photographs of the Earth, taken by the astronauts in those tiny tin cans we called spaceships. The Earth, like the storms she generates, seems so calm and peaceful from above.

And organized, and beautiful.

The chaos that exists down here, the fights and the dramas and the crises, not usually visible from above.

And to think we didn’t really know that when I was born. But we did by the time my niece was born ten years later. By then, we had gone to the Moon.

Because history, current events—the world—nothing is just one thing. And while time marches forward, we get used to the trappings we would have called science fiction in the past and we only see what we don’t have.

We don’t have flying cars—yet. We aren’t living on the Moon—yet. We are talking about missions to Mars, so I expect they’ll happen soon enough.

But we have an International Space Station. We have more computer power at our fingertips than NASA had when it sent astronauts into space.

I am writing a column, which is something I have done since my first column forty years ago. Only back then I used a cheap typewriter, and now I’m working on an (out of date) computer.

I’ll email this to my editor, and the column will go on a website, and that would be counted as “in print.” Even though nothing will be printed on any paper at all.

Old-fashioned behavior in newfangled ways. These dichotomies fascinate me. I hope I communicated some of that fascination to the writers I was teaching. Writers with updated phones and flip-phones, who have as many opinions about the past as I do, and who have no more idea about what faces us in the future than any of us do.

They’re exciting, the times we live in.

But I’ll wager human beings have said that off and on since time immemorial. And—the thing is—every time that phrase has gotten repeated over the centuries, it’s been right.

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