Saipan — In the late 1890s, one of the most urgent concerns in the world’s major urban centers was horse crap. “American cities,” Eric Morris wrote, “were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant by-products of the era's predominant mode of transportation: urine, flies, congestion, carcasses and traffic accidents. Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.”
“The situation,” Morris added, “seemed dire. In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan's third-story windows. A public health and sanitation crisis of almost unimaginable dimensions loomed.”
There was no possible solution. “After all, the horse had been the dominant mode of transportation for thousands of years. Horses were absolutely essential for the functioning of the 19th century city — for personal transportation, freight haulage and even mechanical power. Without horses, cities would quite literally starve.”
Then the car was invented.
Horse poopoo is no longer an issue for most of us, but dire predictions about our future remain, well, as dire as ever.
However, as author Dan Gardner has noted, a now-defunct magazine, Brill’s Content, once compared the predictions of famous American experts with a chimpanzee called Chippy who made his guesses by choosing flash cards. “Chippy consistently matched or beat the best in the business.”
I prefer reading science fiction to the experts’ latest terrifying predictions about the future. And today, amid the seemingly never ending and worsening Covid-19 crisis, and the lockdowns now in effect, again, in so many jurisdictions and countries around the world, I am amazed that an American writer born in 1904 published a work of fiction in 1944 that appears to be increasingly relevant in our internet era.
I first read Clifford Simak’s “Huddling Place” in high school. Set in 2117, it is about a world where not a lot of people leave their homes.
“For what need was there to go anywhere? It all was here. By simply twirling a dial one could talk face to face with anyone one wished, could go, by sense, if not in body, anywhere one wished. Could attend the theatre or hear a concert or browse in a library half-way around the world. Could transact any business one might need to transact without rising from one's chair.”
People have forsaken the cities, “the huddling places,” and now live in country homes where they “get fresh air and elbow room and a graciousness in life that communal existence, in its strictest sense, never had given them. And here was the end result. A quiet living. A peace that could only come with good things. The sort of life that men had yearned for years to have. A manorial existence, based on old family homes and leisurely acres, with atomics [nuclear energy] supplying power and robots in place of serfs.”
Our hero is a famous brain surgeon. One of his best friends is Mars’ greatest philosopher. Yes. Life exists in Mars. And earthlings and Martians are buddies.
Our hero’s philosopher-friend is on the verge of discovering a new concept of philosophy. “A concept…that we cannot do without. A concept that will remake the solar system, that will put
mankind ahead a hundred thousand years in the space of two generations. A new direction of purpose that will aim toward a goal we heretofore had not suspected, had not even known existed. A brand new truth…. One that never before had occurred to anyone.”
But the Martian philosopher has to undergo brain surgery, and our hero, an expert in the Martian brain, is the only one who can perform the operation — in Mars. This means that he has to leave his house where has lived and worked for the past 30 years. There’s only one “problem.” Travel terrifies him. He has agoraphobia. “The morbid dread of being in the midst of open spaces.”
The best science fiction stories don’t make “predictions” about the future. But they can make us think of our current situation.
Today, an increasingly growing number of people can do a lot of things — shop, study, work, workout, consult a doctor or even socialize — in the comfort of their homes. All we need is an internet connection and a laptop/smart phone, and life can pretty much go on.
“Man had forsaken the teeming cities, the huddling places…. He had done with the old foes and the ancient fears that kept him around the common camp fire, had left behind the hobgoblins that had walked with him from the caves. And yet — and yet —
“Here was another huddling place. Not a huddling place for one's body, but one's mind. A psychological campfire that still held a man within the circle of its light.”
Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety, and author of three books available on amazon.com