Editor’s note: This introduction, and Mary Ann Gwinn’s fictional story that follows it, appeared in the Jan. 1, 1984, issue of Pacific magazine.
THE HISTORY PROFESSOR laughed and laughed when asked what Seattle in the year 2020 would look like.
“Go back 30 years, and look at the predictions for our time and see how silly they are,” he said. “Look at ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ On one level, it’s got some profound insights. But it simply isn’t what the world is today.
“No matter how hard you try,” he said, “when you predict the future, all you really do is extrapolate the present.”
Writer Mary Ann Gwinn’s assignment for Pacific was to construct a fictional vision of what Seattle would be like 36 years after 1984. George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 1948, 36 years before 1984. (It was published in 1949.) So went the logic for selecting the year 2020.
She talked to experts in many fields. Some of her sources are listed below. She read science fiction and other futurist literature. She came up with a few operative assumptions: We will not have blown ourselves to smithereens, although the prospect is much with us. Almost without exception, when asked about the future, people began speculating with a caveat: “Well, assuming we’re still here …”
● Seattle will be a center for the computing and aerospace industry. Most of the new growth will occur in the county.
● There will be many, many more people over 50 years of age. The state estimates Puget Sound’s over-55 population will increase 46 percent by the year 2000, the area’s fastest-growing population segment.
● The combined population of the Latin American nations, which is expected to increase from 150 million in the early 1950s to 845 million by the year 2525, will continue to spill over into the United States.
● The greenhouse effect will indeed come to pass.
● The management of the water resource will be among the environmental crisis flash points of the coming decade, though the Northwest, having plenty of water, will escape the worst of it.
● People will still believe in God, though only sects with strong dogma are likely to survive in an age of flux.
● People will still fall in love, get married, have children.
● Some people — the highly educated, the computer literate, the middle and upper classes — will work at home or neighborhood work centers, manage their money out at home, shop out of their home and entertain themselves at home, thanks to computers.
The rest is fiction. Amelia does not exist, nor Jacob, nor David, who, if he did, would not have been born yet.
These are some of the people to be thanked for their contributions:
● Howard Schwartz of the local World Future Society.
● Jonathan Post, author of an upcoming book, “Computer Futures.” Post works for Boeing and NASA, and designs computers that will drive the cameras for the first Galileo space mission.
● Dee Dickenson, head of New Horizons for Learning.
● The King County Office of Planning and Community Development.
● The Puget Sound Council of Governments.
● Various University of Washington professors of history, sociology and civil engineering.
● Stephen Rabow, KYYX disc jockey.
● Alexander Ginzburg, the Russian dissident, once said he started a poetry journal in that country (and later got jailed for it) because poets are the cutting edge of society, Some ideas in this story are taken from these poets of popular music: Joni Mitchell — “Amelia,” Jackson Browne — “Lawyers in Love,” Talking Heads — “Heaven,” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).”
IT HAD HAPPENED that day — April 4, 2020 — that Amelia had stood over a display terminal at Metzker’s Geographics, watching a video program on Sierra Nevada expeditions, idly murmuring instructions into the voice box as her fevered brain ran into overload.
Why, she asked herself, was a 68-year-old Seattle woman seeking descent into California, the hellbox of the 21st century?
Pure untrammeled orneriness. More than that, she thought. Unexpurgated anger at a life too soft, too planned, too devoid of challenges.
In an emotional interchange over the videophone last night, her son David had tried to dissuade her. She had never been much good with phone conversations. This one had gone badly.
“Mama, you are too, uh, frail to take care of yourself down there. There is so much you could do here,” he added, “that you haven’t tried.”
Refused to try, he might have said, but her son had cultivated quiet diplomacy in matters of maternal persuasion. She knew that. It infuriated her.
“David, there is nothing left for me here. You have your work. You have your friends.
“I, on the other hand, have a cubicle at our friendly local Montlake Education Center, where I answer polite queries from kids who already know it all.”
Amelia’s cubicle contained a computer. She had a close personal relationship with her computer, perhaps the closest she could boast of any sentient being in Seattle.
She talked softly to it. In turn, it programmed world history and geography for a group of exceptionally bright 10- to 13-year-olds, strung out at their own glowing consoles from Bellingham to Olympia. When they completed their vidunits, she stayed on call for clarification. She had some great students. It was a pity she’d never met them.
“Mama, you have many, many vital friends who mean a great deal to you. You mean a lot to them.”
True enough. The graying of Seattle had reached absurd proportions. She and her contemporaries were still jogging around Green Lake, though she despaired of the encroachments of age: Her time had slowed to a wigeon’s waddle. They gathered mostly to keep company among the ducks and the milfoil harvesters ever busy fighting the lake’s fate as a gooey bog. Programmed in their formative years to commute, to seek friends in the city, to find new turf, they still sought a gathering place, squawking ravens looking for a perch.
“You bet, David. We’re a real community asset. I hear the governmental council is going to tear up the concrete sidewalks and replace them with rubber. So our bones don’t break when we bounce.”
It had gone on and on, with neither side taking prisoners.
They were going to meet tonight to talk it out. Hah.
Metzker’s had been Amelia’s first stop in Seattle, 36 years before. Lost in Pioneer Square, she had veered toward the neon sign like a June bug toward a flame.
She had slipped on the doorstep, recovered, smoothed down her flyaway hair. She bought a Kroll map of the city and then sat in her car for a full hour staring at its geography-book colors, then at the sky, then at the Sound, wondering what in hell she had done. The city made no sense, amoebic strings spreading north and south, swimming in ubiquitous watery blue.
There was more now.
After the first 10 years, the cloud cover began to build up, and heating bills began to go down. The greenhouse effect. No one had taken it seriously, except survivalists and newspaper graphic artists. But after the western Antarctic polar ice cap melted, Elliott Bay lapped Alaskan Way and eased up over First Avenue.
In point of fact, Metzker’s, still known by old-timers as Metzker’s Maps, wasn’t in Pioneer Square any more. Pioneer Square was a perpetual puddle. At high tide, Second Street was a landing pad for homesick crawly creatures looking for sand.
The giant oil drums of Harbor Island were now guano-laden seagull perches. Most of the heavy industry had shut down, so even the dam-happy Corps of Engineers had let it go to its watery grave.
Market-area landowners had sponsored construction of a seawall for the market area. It was holding, barely.
The waterfront real estate speculators had gone berserk — no one could predict where the port terminals might ultimately be relocated, and rumors and bad guesses had driven the values of potential waterfront property wild.
She stood at the terminal screen in the new Metzker’s on Capitol Hill, as men — San Francisco expatriates — strolled hand in hand down Broadway. The computer flashed a photographic image of the California mountains, with the all-important water supply points glowing in red.
“State your goal destination, please,” murmured the computer. An unaccustomed shaft of late-afternoon sunlight beamed in and blanched the image on the screen. Amelia felt the skin on the back of her neck crawl. She turned.
There stood a man who was a dead ringer for Jacob, her dead-for-15-years husband.
His hair, his height, the slight hunch of his shoulders, his smile. She experienced a wave of longing and nausea that left her breathless, her body kicking in adrenaline to reclaim what she knew rationally had been lost.
The man passed. But the image remained, backlit in a trace of that long-ago Pacific sunlight.
Amelia chased it. Down the carpeted stairs, toward the door, freed by the prison of time, the years that slowed her like frost on a cricket. She caught her image in the mirror. Time caught up with her. If that wild-haired woman with creases and canyons around her eyes, salt-and-pepper hair streaming from an ill-gotten bun, was herself … well, that sure wasn’t Jacob.
“Lord,” Amelia half-prayed, clutching her St. Christopher’s medal, wheezing a bit.
“You need some help, ma’am?” ventured the clerk, a black-haired, golden-skinned young man who looked a bit like Phillip, a beloved, long-ago geology student who was long-gone on the Galileo XX mineral exploration mission. Her last scholarship student, she thought, grimacing.
Was it Phillip, or was the past again doubling back on itself? Never mind. She made for the door.
It was time to go.
AMELIA HAD COME to Seattle in search of the remotest corner of the continental United States, seeking the serenity she imagined must lie in ecotopia.
She found it serene, to a fault. The winters made her claustrophobic; the Scandinavian-style reserve of the populace drove her mad. She had filled her house with Victoriana and declaimed at length about the straight talk and pure motives of her native Midwest.
“Back home,” she told Jacob, “if someone is a real estate developer, or a college professor, or a cop, you can tell by the way they dress, what they drink, by what they say. They mean what they say, and to hell with you. Out here, everybody is swathed in regulation-issue down. No one speaks their mind.”
“You’re in love with the past, Amelia,” Jacob had replied.
Indeed, Amelia clung to the notion that life was a tapestry whose strands reached back into the past — if you traced them back far enough, a pattern would emerge, and everything would be explained.
It was a reassuring stance. It was not an optimistic or forward-thinking one.
Amelia finally had found her home with the city’s new wave of children: the crazy mix of Southeast Asians, Blacks, Hispanics in Rainier Valley, the last enclave of the poor. Until they had drifted away, she had been as content as her irascible nature would permit. In the early years of the new immigrant wave, Amelia’s skills as a natural linguist had been much in demand.
But the Laotians, the Vietnamese, the Filipinos had all learned too quickly, and now labored happily in the computer hives that had sprung up in King County, the Silicon Valley of the 21st century.
The space exploration programs had followed. The Northwest corridor, the Great White Way from the border to the capitol, had become the technocratic Kingdom of Camelot.
Everyone knew computers. Everyone made great money. Everyone kept a sharp eye on their investments through compu-monitoring of the stock market.
Moreover, you could work at home, or at a neighborhood work center. You could make your own movie — at home. You could make your own music — at home, get home delivery from Nordie’s neighborhood distribution center, get serviced at home by a prostitute you chose from a home-based classified ad system, featuring great visual representations of what awaited you.
In the gray [neighborhoods] of Wallingford and Queen Anne, people still met at corner taverns, nodding about the old times into their beer, which the health-conscious young eschewed.
She tapped “home” into the control console of her autopod — a jalopy, by modern standards — and pushed “execute.” She, the semantics freak, wondered at the morbidity of that word and why computer programmers had used it to designate action. Perverse, Amelia, she said to herself. You have a perverse mind. “Mama,” David had said. “All your silver linings have clouds.”
After her days of English teaching were done, Amelia had turned to her second love — geography. She taught at the educational center after Garfield shut down from lack of students.
All the major employers — Boeing, NASA, Seafirst — had their work units sited in the suburbs. Only the high-level executives worked in the central units downtown. Cable lines transmitted work from Redmond to Fourth and Spring faster than you could take an elevator from Floor 1 to 76. Columbia Center still cast a long shadow, but it was a dinosaur.
Which left a lot of open road.
The pod, even the old one, was superfluous to such a lifestyle, but Amelia hung on to it. She liked her solitary spin around the city, running on music and mood enhancers. The pod ascended the old freeway ramp. A console light blinked, and David’s voice filled the cab. “Hello, Mama,” he said. “I’ll be over in 30 minutes.”
“What?” she said, as she spotted a moving dog weaving back and forth over the freeway. “David, I see a dog.”
“Mama, are you on MEs again? Is your seat belt fastened? David nagged her about the mood enhancers, as had Jacob before David, but she had successfully evaded the issue with her son for almost 20 years. She ascribed her predilection for mind-altering substances to the trace of Plains Indian in her blood. She switched the speaker off.
By God, it was a dog. A real mutt, not robotic. She looked close for the telltale nose moisture that would certify it as the genuine article.
She braked and walked through the rain across the long, empty slab, recalling a time 30 years before when she had watched, terrified for a toy collie trapped on the freeway. The dog had run blindly against three lanes of rush-hour traffic. With that quaint Seattle respect for the pedestrian, man or beast, the wave of cars had slowed all the way to Spokane Street.
She pulled a bit of sandwich from her pocket. The dog, a colliesque mutt, sprang toward her. “Gotcha, sweetie,” she whispered. She hooked a finger into its collar — I’m snatching it, she thought, looking around with guilt. She guided the dog into the back seat, pushed a button and spun out through the downpour. She felt the ground rumble slightly under her, as another launch from the Bremerton spaceport departed.
She leaned back, smoothing the wet dog’s fur. It returned the favor and licked her hand. She thought of David. She thought of years before — life with a dog, a family, with all the things she’d tried so hard for 10 years or more to live without. She watched a neon sign glow pink in the mist, at a corner tavern where she once had graded papers, shared a beer with her husband, watched the rain.
“Heaven … Heaven … Heaven,” blinked the sign.
AMELIA PRESSED HER card key into the slot of her Lake Union houseboat, and a light glowed on the panel. She put her finger up to the light; it scanned her fingerprint, and she entered a marvelous dwelling that resembled a giant white mushroom bobbing on the water. On the deck, California poppies cupped the rain.
Inside, insulated walls formed a kind of cave, with curving lines in the doorways and alcoves. Choices with the new plastics were constrained only by the imagination. Amelia had requested, via computer design, the natural sloping lines, but had windows hollowed out to catch the watery light.
The dwelling was anchored to a giant pylon set into a block at the bottom of the lake. In a storm, she felt like she lived inside a water lily pod. The yellow-tinged solar panels on the top were sunny stamens pushing up through white petals.
Moorage space on the lakes had opened up as the shoreline disintegrated. The fishing industry had moved, bit by bit, to Alaska. The big salmon runs now lay entirely to the north — what had remained of Washington state runs had been decimated by the warmer weather.
The floating homes glut had forced the city to ban any kind of commercial lake traffic, though there was not much left to ban. Water lilies and sailboats. Like a French impressionist run amok.
She sank onto an enormous dark red Victorian couch; tugged at the chain of a fringed lamp; and opened up the newsgram on the screen, which hummed up from the coffee table console.
Amelia was the only person she knew who took much interest in national news. She chose the elections mode.
Nillson’s presidential race was gathering steam, said The Washington Post news service, but he was vulnerable to the charge of Northwest isolationism. In its editorials, the Post had attacked his record on the Marshall Plan for the Industrial Midwest.
He had voted against the massive public education, nutrition and public assistance program proposed for the children in the industrial corridor from St. Louis to Boston. The political pressure on Nillson was immense — the taxes Northwest residents paid went mostly to reclamation projects in other parts of the country — and, of course, to the space program.
The Post took a parochial view. The East Coast burned almost as brightly as Detroit in the riots of the turn of the century.
She was tired, and skipped the crime news. It was all white-collar computer scams, anyway, beyond her feeble understanding of high finance.
She called up the video of a trip she made with Jacob to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. It was a wasteland of active volcanoes, hordes of reindeer and hot springs.
The tape was made in 2003, seven years after the South African nuclear accident scared the bejesus out of the major superpowers. Black nationalists had captured a government missile installation and demanded an end to all traces of apartheid. The embattled whites had refused, believing they had called their bluff.
The detonation had blown a sizable hole, killed several hundred thousand people and contaminated a major source of the world’s most strategic metals. Most of the fallout had blown out to sea, where scientists were still studying its lingering effects on the food chain. But the devastation had galvanized the peace movement worldwide.
World leaders who had played for decades with the unthinkable as a bargaining chip now had to reckon with horrid reality.
There were still more than enough bombs to blow everyone to hell and back, but tensions were easing. Surprisingly, the tragedy had most affected the Third World countries — South Africa’s neighboring countries were post-blast wastelands. No one wanted their bit of turf so poisoned. The explosion had accelerated space exploration and mining of the asteroid belt.
The Russia trip was a warm-up adventure. They had reservations for the space shuttle. They had never made it — Jacob had died in 2005, the year of their reservations.
He had never been one to think on what he ate, of what shape his stomach was in. They had both been born well before the time genetic postnatal testing could target those susceptible to heart disease. He had died in the most mundane manner for a man whose dreams were lodged in space — while mowing the lawn.
Amelia murmured instructions into the food prep, and the oven began to heat. “C’mere, mutt,” she said. Mutt bounded toward her, its tail upending a pot of orchids and scattering humus all over the floor. Amelia swore, and walked over to the home computer input speaker. She spoke, the panel glowed and a small robot scurried out of the utility closet. Amelia spoke “northwest” into the speaker, and the robot’s vacuum attachment sucked up the mess.
Bristol Bay salmon and the artichokes. Amelia thought of the abundance before her. The rich get richer, she thought. The Yakima Valley had been given over to California style vegetables, like the succulent artichoke. Eastern Washington was a garden: With the water shortages in the Southwest and Midwest, irrigated farming became highly profitable.
Another unwanted memory: a trip, 20 years before, to see the first solar-powered farm. At the lake, she and her students had taken off their jumpsuits and gone for a dip. Amelia, the benevolent eccentric of Garfield High.
Amelia felt her mood spiraling downward, and glared at the little vacuum attachment. That was her problem. She felt useless.
Amelia had been raised to believe that existence was a pitched battle, a series of challenges to be brooked. In Seattle, life was just not that problematic anymore. No adversity to unify against. All the folks who couldn’t hack the technocratic high life had gone south; the malcontents and do-gooders had followed.
Like most waves of social change, the technocrats would have come slowly, but for that great leveling agent, Mother Nature. The end had come, not with a bang, but a trickle of faucets running on empty.
L.A. ran dry.
The most vicious battle of the new century had been waged between Northern and Southern California for water: first in the courts, then in the closest thing to civil war in 150 years.
The warming trend decreased the rainfall in the Colorado River watershed significantly, and the sheer proportion of Southern California’s water needs could not be met. Washington and Oregon met a proposal to divert water from the Columbia River with threats of force.
People moved away, and in their place came an ever-building wave of immigrants from Central and South America, who more or less made the place their own.
BEFORE DAVID WAS born, Amelia and Jacob had taken workshops at the university in infant stimulation. They took turns staying home with him. His nursery was a kaleidoscope of bright colors; Jacob prepared a soundtrack of rock, African folk, the classics for the child’s ears.
He was a verbal child, but Amelia spotted the tip of the iceberg one day when she sat on their piano, banging out tunes from an ancient Baptist hymnal. David, 3, had sat beside her and watched her hands. She leaned back — “It’s been too long, David,” she sighed. He began to tap out “Abide With Me” with one finger. She sang along: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide … the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.”
She had ever after envied him his pure pleasure in his creations. He had mastered a brace of conventional instruments, then embarked on a search for obscure folk instruments. He incorporated them into synthesizer compositions, coaxing sounds from electronics indiscernible from the real thing. His following, first among the elite, had broadened immensely after the introduction of video-aural-touch music.
David, a physicist and a bio-technologist, had developed music that touched the nervous system — not unlike the “feelies” of “Brave New World,” though for benign purposes.
Amelia had gone to his lab one day and “watched” a video-aural-touch composition. She was too emotional for the sensory overload, she told him later. It had made her cry and cry. The breakthrough had come at a cost to their relationship.
David taught music theory at the university, but spent most of his time now in an enclosed acoustically perfect chamber with panel stacked upon panel of electronic gear, video screens, readouts that registered nerve impulses, setting out for some inner frontier.
Amelia thought that they should have raised him with a few insecurities. His love of solitude, and her need to be needed, were the interface where they always fell short of understanding one another.
The chimes rang. Amelia let David in. The dog, which had curled itself into a ball between Amelia’s feet while she made a sauce for the salmon, bounded to him.
“Good God, Mama,” he said, “it looks just like Boone.” Boone had lived with them for most of David’s childhood.
“I think he belongs to someone, David, but I couldn’t just leave him on the freeway.”
“Sure you couldn’t,” David said.
He leaned against the counter and regarded her with his slate-blue eyes, a gift from his father. “So, how go plans for the L.A. expedition to save the poor people from themselves?” he asked.
She regarded him in surprise. He was not given to sarcasm.
They had made a trip south together last year. She had wanted to get out of the rain and try out her Spanish. He insisted on going along.
He had been appalled. Downtown Los Angeles was a wasteland out of the opening scenes of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Some buildings had been toppled by an earthquake 10 years before, and no one had bothered to clean up the devastation.
Gray, gritty tumbleweeds spun down the concrete canyons. Some refugees camped out in the vacant buildings. The police force was almost nonexistent: There was no tax base to speak of.
But Amelia had been cheered by the sense of a new society building atop the old. Children ran in the streets in profusion — in Seattle, almost no one had more than one or two. Murals in bright colors were splashed on the walls.
On her return to Seattle, she heard that the government had resurrected the old VISTA program — for the third time. Some of Amelia’s old friends had joined the second wave, after the turn-of-the-century riots. Now they were at it again.
The numbers of senior citizens signing up had astounded the program directors, and much had been made of the phenomenon by the media. Amelia had been among the old-new wave. But he was trying to make her stay.
“David, you know I’ll be happier down there. I’ll have something to do with myself.”
He said nothing for a moment.
“I don’t know how you can say there’s nothing for you to do here. You’ve done great things for your students. You’re respected in your field. My friends tell me they can’t believe you’re … ”
“As old as I am,” she said, finishing the sentence.
That was it. She felt she had lived too long. Too long-gone from the things that had given life its zest. Human beings. She had adjusted to the new world as well as she could, to the fact that the city did not really exist anymore. Downtown was defunct, eliminated by computer shopping and the neighborhood distribution center. Little routines that studded life with possibilities of human contact — like depositing her Social Security check, like paying bills — were now accomplished for her at home. Amelia’s mode was to keep moving. She was drowning in ease.
She was leaving because she felt he no longer needed her, and David was the only one left to need her in Seattle. She wanted for him to say otherwise, to call her bluff.
He bent down and smoothed whorls into the dog’s long fur.
“Mama, if I say something to make you stay, and you do stay, I’ll never hear the end of it,” he said. “I’ll stay in Seattle; you’ll stay in Seattle. We’ll both suffer. If you don’t, you’ll go, and I’ll miss you. More than you know. But when you get to L.A., Seattle will become your past, and you’ll long for it. You’ll be back. You’ll come home.”
Amelia looked at the rain and thought of the sun. “Maybe,” she said.
Amelia stood on the air shuttle platform. A very glum dog peered through the bars of the air transport container at her feet. The jet, silver sleek, slid silently into the covered gate. David kissed her, and then kissed the St. Christopher’s medal he, a devout Catholic, had given her, a devout agnostic, so long ago.
“Vaya con Dios,” he said, laughing. She sat by the window as the jet made an almost vertical takeoff, watched the necklace of lights around the Sound, watched the red hydrofoil markers bob like Christmas lights from the port to Bremerton. “God, they’re beautiful in the rain,” Amelia said to no one in particular.