In which we see the 15th century as a Space Age, and imagine the future as history
OK, kids. Let’s begin this history course with interplanetary travel. Paolo, I’ll start with you: Would you like to go to Mars?
Yes, Paolo. You. I’m wondering if you’d like to go to Mars.
—Um. I dunno. I lost my copy of the textbook.
That’s OK, Paolo. We’ll get you another copy of the textbook. But my question wasn’t in the textbook. I’m just wondering if you’d like to go to Mars.
—I don’t know. Why would I be going?
A good question. But one I’m going to avoid answering for the moment. What about you, Sadie? Would you like to go to Mars?
You sound pretty definite. Why not?
—It sounds dangerous. And lonely.
Oh really, Jonah? You’re as definite as Sadie.
—I think it would be cool.
Not dangerous or lonely?
—Well, maybe. But I think it would be exciting. There would probably be lots of other people involved. But you’d be like, you know, a pioneer.
—I’m with Jonah. As long as we can bring good bagels.
Well, Emily, the bagels would never be quite as good. There’s the whole gravity thing to consider. Don’t want bagels floating around the cabin. But maybe we could bring along a few in MRE—that’s “Meals Ready to Eat” —form. A little liquefied, I reckon.
Is that a deal-breaker, then?
—Might be. But I’m wondering why on earth—ha ha—are we talking about Mars? Shouldn’t we be talking about Christopher Columbus or something like that?
Well, Emily, we are talking about “something like that.” I say so because the time is coming—probably not in my lifetime, but very possibly in yours—when travel beyond planet Earth will become routine. We’re on the cusp of that moment now. A series of governments have space programs, and we’re beginning to see private companies offering the thrill of space travel at a price the very wealthy can afford. Presumably the cost will come down and some kinds of journeys will become ordinary. (“Sorry—can’t make it. I’ll be off the planet that weekend.”) There will be space stations relatively close to earth where people will perform tasks that would be hard to do on the ground. Perhaps some kind of colony will be established on the moon.
—But you’re talking about the future. I don’t see what this has to do with the past.
Bear with me, Emily. I’ll get there. But first I’m going to make three predictions. The first is that as its pace accelerates in the twenty-first century, an urge for distance will intensify: better, farther, faster.
The second is that such an urge will be tangled up in others, principal among them political, commercial, and military rivalries. Perhaps at some point there will be contact with other life forms, sparking a complex web of competition and cooperation.
—Like the Indians.
Right. Unless we’re the Indians. Who I’ll get to. But let me get back to the future for prediction number three: I’m guessing that these enterprises, which will be unprecedented in their ambition and scope, will generate a demand for certain kinds of work—some if it highly specialized, most of it dully routine—to be performed on a very large scale. This being the future, I imagine many tasks will be automated, though at least some of this labor will require levels of skill (and consciousness?) that will approach, if not exceed, that of human beings—or, at any rate, require a human touch. In order for such work to get done, those who manage these enterprises will draw sharp lines, real or not, between themselves and those who do the work.
—I think he means slaves.
Now, I don’t expect to see any of this. (You might.) But if I were to live long enough and had any real choice in the matter, I don’t think I’d want any part of it. Not that I wouldn’t find it fascinating. But as a matter of temperament, my class status, and my skill set, it’s unlikely I would leave my earthly perch unless I absolutely had to. Whether or not I was old by the prevailing standards of the time, I would leave such enterprises to those daring enough to leave home and embark on journeys to new worlds. I’m not a Jonah. I’m a Sadie. We already know we’re not ready to give up good bagels, right Sadie?
—Right, Mr. K. Or hot chocolate.
Now, even though this scenario I’m predicting is all pretty plain vanilla (or, in bagel terms, plain cream cheese), I’m confident that in one or more ways I’ll have some things wrong. Maybe space travel won’t really get underway in earnest until the 22nd century, for example, so it will be something for your children or grandchildren. Or maybe there’s something that’s already happened in Russia or the China that is going to be far more decisive than I recognize. Or there will be some factor that I could not anticipate that will be for more important in shaping the future than anything I describe here. Doesn’t matter: it’s not the accuracy of the future I imagine that matters here. I’m not trying to forecast so much as offer you an artifact of what a reasonably thoughtful person of my era imagined the future would be like. I don’t need to be right; I just need to be plausible.
That’s because—drum roll please, Emily—this version of the future is really a version of the past. Space travel is the best comparison I can think of for trying to get my head around the origins of American history, an epoch of exploration, exchange, and conquest that led to the foundation of a nation and the place you now call your homeland. Whenever I try to imagine the western hemisphere in the 284-year period between 1492 (when Christopher Columbus crossed an ocean that was for all intents and purposes a galaxy) and 1776 (the date that typically marks the creation of the United States), I can only begin to grasp the span by resorting to the analogy of a solar system, with the continents and islands of this hemisphere as planets in our galaxy.
Or, I should say, two spans: a vastness of space matched by a vastness of time. Two hundred and eighty-four years is longer than there has been a United States of America, an entire history in its own right. Time moved slower then, in part because the distances were so great. Venetian John Cabot reached North America in 1497, claiming it for his English sponsors, but no permanent English settlement would take root for over a century. Jacques Cartier landed on the St. Lawrence River in 1534 and claimed the territory for France, but it wasn’t until 1608 that Samuel de Champlain made that claim mean anything when he founded Quebec. Maybe it’s not surprising that that the United States hasn’t established a permanent moon colony since the Apollo 13 landing in 1969: empire-building takes time. And the race does not necessarily belong to the swift. Someday, there will be bagels and hot chocolate on the moon. I’m not sure who will be selling them—maybe Canadians or Nigerians—and Sadie and I probably won’t ever like them. But there will be those who swear they’re better than anything better on earth (though maybe not Krypton Nine).
—Where’s Krypton Nine?
It’s a long time ago, Adam. In a galaxy far, far away. Whoever gets there is going to become very rich and powerful.
Next: Who went—and why.