America, the future, empire in decline, Byzantium vs. the USSR, and all that

Tom Marcinko @ 13-08-2010

Experience teaches that writing a convincing near-future sf story is not easy–let alone convincing editors that you are not writing satire–but this really struck a writerly nerve: “Most Americans can’t imagine a future that’s not pretty much like the recent past, maybe with a few wind turbines and solar panels added.”

Jon Talton used to write for The Arizona Republic. Now, as Rogue Columnist, he writes stuff his old bosses wouldn’t tolerate. (He’s published a decent series of crime novels set in AZ, too.) His columns sometimes read like jeremiads, but in the spirit of a couple of Paul’s recent posts about the future of the American empire, here are some snippets from Jon’s latest.  What the hell; it’s Friday the Thirteenth.

I can see a few other outcomes:

1. The man on the white horse. When chaos reaches a certain level most people will eagerly embrace, say, Gen. David Petraeus. He’s shown little MacArthurism in him. But if both political parties and most institutions have lost legitimacy, the military might be forced by events to step in. Or the elites, desperate to save their bacon, might draft this universally admired soldier as president. The move might gain further power as thousands of discharged combat veterans drive the streets of America unable to find work. This will be our Rubicon moment….

[Blogger’s rude interruption: I’m reliably informed that Americans love it when John Wayne rides in to save the day, and in fact many believe it happens on a regular basis, perhaps recently.–Desultorily Philippic Tom]

3. Devolution. This would be another orderly way for a bankrupt and hamstrung federal government to accept reality, particularly if faced with ever greater instability and gridlock. Keep control of national defense, foreign policy, the constitutional basics. And leave the rest to the states, including most taxing and regulatory authority. If Arizona wants to be a law-of-the-jungle toxic dump where the devil takes the hindmost, see how that works out….

4. War with China. …China is happy to watch America exhaust itself in the Muslim world, hoping that will do the trick, leaving America to do a sudden global withdrawal as Britain did. But conflict is not impossible to imagine. If it happened, any of the above scenarios might face a losing America. A greater, if fleeting, imperial moment might await a winning America. But it won’t be the America we once knew.

5. Muslim revenge. The longer we intrude in the Middle East and Afghanistan, keeping armies there, depending on oil from dictatorships, allowing an intransigent Israel to do as it wishes, playing with fire in Pakistan and ignoring all those millions of angry, unemployed young men — the closer we get to a horrific reckoning.

None of this may happen. I certainly don’t want it to happen. But these outcomes are no longer out of the question.

Agree or not, Jon raises issues that sf might arguably and legitimately deal with. Hmm, what was the exact date the world began to look towards China, rather than the U.S., for leadership out of the recession? Am I just a jingoistic ignorant might-as-well-be-a-klansman for even asking if that’s a good or bad thing?

Things are changing pretty fast, has anybody noticed? The author of Russian Spring, with its early cover painting of the Lenin statue greening over, might do a William Windom Star Trek turn: “Don’t you think I know that?!?!” How would a book like Stand on Zanzibar, which I read till it fell apart in my turbulent twenties, read today? (I’ll let you know if I ever track down a copy.) It would be interesting to see stories about how some of Talton’s speculations can be avoided.

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5 Responses to “America, the future, empire in decline, Byzantium vs. the USSR, and all that”

  1. Wintermute says:

    War with China? I think that’s a bit of wishful projection of the ghost world of the 20th century onto the massively and irrevocably globalized, post-national present. Besides the fact the world would wind up a molten radioactive post-apocalypticist’s wet dream, China attacking the US would be like the shop owner going to war with his customers. Who’s going to buy all that cheap melamine and asbestos-tainted plastic crap?

    Despite all the economic screwedness repercussing from the 2008 meltdown in the US and attempts by Russia and China to move the monetary spotlight away to a new reserve currency, the rest of the world is still screwed worse by the debt-nukes, and the US remains the consumer of first and last resort at 1/4 the grand total.

    That’s not to say the US is the same superpower it was in the 20th century, its power has diminished and has been recontextualized in a new world that consists more of moguls and masses than distinct nations, but it certainly isn’t off the stage yet.

  2. Leadhyena says:

    The Religion War by Scott Adams talks about the possibility of a Middle East caliphate rising up to battle a Christian alliance. I consider it to be science fiction, albeit not the best, but it definitely addresses 5. above.

  3. Sjef says:

    I’m in my (late) 20’s and read Stand on Zanzibar a few months back (the ’99 reprint is easy to find by the way). My impression is that while the tech is obviously wrong if you can read past that the feel of his projection of 2010 is pretty good.

    The information overload style feels kind of natural now. It’s not unthinkable that a guy strolling through the wrong street on the wrong day could spark riots, corporations can command nation states, the tranks & loose women… well if you’re lucky.

    I am very glad though that we have managed to avoid the codpiece as a fashion statement. Now that would have been some dystopic shit.

  4. jon says:

    Most of those outcomes still look like extensions of the recent past to me. Whatever happens in the next 50 years, it will involve something that none of us has even considered yet.

  5. Tom Marcinko says:

    Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments.

    Wintermute: “debt-nukes”: I like that.

    Sjef: In the 70s, Ian Anderson made the codpiece seem *inevitable*. So that was close.

    Leadhyena: Wow, I thought the name was a coincidence, but that is a novel by the creator of Dilbert.

    jon: I suspect you’re right. A lot of Jon’s scenarios strike me as grist for technothrillers. All those Arab- or Japan-dominated futures of 70s or 80s sf are starting to feel a bit dated.