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Thursday 10 April 2003

Journey to the Future: Hong Kong 2003

by Gary Westfahl

I have just returned from a nine-day visit to Hong Kong, China, where I helped to coordinate a scholarly conference, sponsored by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of California, Riverside, on the topic of "Technoscience, Material Culture, and Everyday Life." To the disappointment of many, I must report that I did not contract Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and thus remain healthy and capable of writing. I did, however, spend several days in voluntary quarantine to assuage the worries of family members and colleagues.

I actually had three excellent reasons to stay home. First, of course, was the SARS scare. Second was the beginning of the war in Iraq, heightening the prospects of terrorist acts all over the globe. (I was particularly struck by reported plans for a new attack on Pearl Harbor, since trans-Pacific flights like my own might be deemed suitable weapons.) Third, my ticket was on United Airlines, which announced just prior to my departure that it might have to cease operations at any time due to financial difficulties, possibly leaving me stranded in Hong Kong. All things considered, it is hardly surprising that one-fourth of the scheduled conference participants cancelled at the last minute.

Still, I decided to go. Because of the sheer stubbornness long said to characterize the men on my mother's side of the family. Because I could rationally calculate that the odds of something happening to me, while perhaps higher than normal, remained infinitesimally small. Because I am not afraid to live in the twenty-first century.


For, on any list of the conditions that will define the next several decades of life on Earth, three items would have to be virulent disease, warfare, and economic uncertainty.

Because human beings are becoming a larger and larger percentage of Earth's total biomass, with corresponding decreases in the populations of other advanced species, it is inevitable that more and more diseases previously limited to animals will mutate and cross over to people, the most readily available targets. This is what caused the last health crisis in Hong Kong — the so-called "bird flu" of 1997 — and may also explain the origin of SARS, which some speculate was previously a disease in pigs. We can therefore expect sudden outbreaks of unknown illnesses, many of them life-threatening, at regular intervals, and we can count on worldwide travel to rapidly spread them far beyond where they first appear. Further, since viral infections may be untreatable, and since many bacterial infections are developing a resistance to antibiotics, we cannot be sure that medical science will be able to cure these diseases.

So, if you don't want to be someplace where you might catch a mysterious and potentially deadly new disease, you don't want to be anywhere.

In addition, given the persistence of discord among the nations and peoples of this planet, constant warfare will remain a fact of life. Terrorists with a grudge will have the capacity to strike anyone, anywhere, anytime. (The current administration's "War on Terrorism" will surely prove just as ineffectual as previous administrations' wars on poverty, crime, and drugs.) In addition, guerrilla wars will still be waged to overthrow or escape from despised governments, and every so often, such as the present time, we will have good old-fashioned wars between different countries.

So, if you don't want to travel during wartime, you don't want to travel.

Finally, in an increasingly competitive and globalized economy, companies will necessarily operate on the very edge of profitability, constantly taking risks to remain on top and making themselves vulnerable to sudden disaster. If there is just one bad decision, or just one bit of unforeseen bad news, even a mighty corporation like Enron, previously the consort of presidents and kings, can be reduced to humiliating bankruptcy or complete disintegration.

So, if you don't want to do business with a company that might collapse at any time, you don't want to do business.

One might consider, then, my extended sojourn in Hong Kong as an anticipation, or an intensification, of conditions that will increasingly be aspects of our everyday existence. How do you live under such circumstances? My experiences would suggest that only two simple strategies are available: based on others' advice and your own common sense, you take as many precautions as you possibly can; and you stay very attentive to the latest news.


On the first day of the Hong Kong 2003 Conference, the other coordinators, Wong Kin Yuen and Amy Chan, passed out surgical masks and strongly suggested that participants wear them at all times. Most of us did, except when eating or drinking, even though there was little evidence to indicate that they were effective in hindering the spread of the disease. The masks were a bit uncomfortable to wear and seemed to make breathing slightly more difficult, but I got used to them. (While I was in Hong Kong, masks went from being oddities to standard items of dress; towards the end, they were even becoming fashion statements — on my last day there, I saw two children wearing masks that were brightly colored with cartoon figures, and on the flight back, one stewardess used lipstick to paint a welcoming smile on her mask.) Along with wearing masks, I washed my hands at every opportunity with all the care and diligence of a surgeon about to enter the operating room; I endeavored to avoid standing or walking near strangers; and I took no unnecessary trips into the streets or shops of Hong Kong, spending most of my time outside the conference in my hotel room.

While there, I devoted myself to keeping abreast of current events. For news about SARS, the best sources were the Hong Kong newspapers, which offered daily articles filled with both reassuring and disturbing information. When I learned of a theory that the disease might have spread through another hotel's air conditioning, I turned up the heat in my room and undressed to remain comfortable. For news about the war, I watched CNN and BBC News, and I was happy to hear no reports about expected terrorist activities. Every so often, I would switch to the Bloomberg Channel for business news, and I heard that United Airlines had successfully persuaded its pilots to accept huge salary reductions, presumably alleviating its financial problems long enough to ensure my return flight.

Although I had done everything I could, and found out everything I could, the other conference participants and I still felt an ongoing, unavoidable sense of anxiety. We generally felt safe at the conference locale, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, because only one student of the university had contracted the disease, a medical student who probably caught it while working at a local hospital. But one day, while walking with some graduate students to a restaurant on campus, one of them informed me that we would be passing very close to the Medical Sciences Building, the place where that afflicted student had surely spent a lot of time. We all walked a little more quickly past that building; however irrational our fears might have been, I felt nervous, and those students felt nervous as well.

Even with no definite threats in view, the very fact that we were wearing surgical masks made the SARS epidemic a constant topic of conversation. As several people commented, for example, the very day after we had been assured the disease was not an epidemic, the headline in one Hong Kong newspaper screamed "Outbreak an Epidemic." We worried not only about catching the disease, but also about whether the spread of the disease might interfere with our coming departures from Hong Kong. (A few guests attempted to switch to earlier flights but found, understandably enough, that empty seats on flights out of Hong Kong were hard to come by.) And the war with Iraq was never far from our minds; at the opening reception, the usual atmosphere of cheerful camaraderie was briefly disrupted by a heated argument about the merits of American intervention, though everyone parted amicably.


If these experiences of nervous precautions and undercurrents of anxiety will increasingly characterize our lives in the future, one question for long-time readers of science fiction might be: is this a future world that science fiction has prepared us for? And to a certain extent, one would have to say yes. I have recently found myself thinking a great deal about John Brunner's extraordinary series of novels in the 1960s and 1970s — Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider — which provide illuminating glimpses of the crowded, chaotic lives of people in the twenty-first century. One might also locate useful lessons about surviving today's stressful society in works such as J.G. Ballard's Memories of the Space Age, Norman Spinrad's Journals of the Plague Years, and Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net.

Still, it would be fair to say that, for the most part, science fiction has focused on different sorts of future scenarios: stories about a medical science devoted to improving the human body through genetic engineering or cyborgization, not to combating new varieties of ancient diseases; stories about wars between worlds, not between the cultures of Earth; stories about technological advances that eliminate economic concerns, not about the continuation of such concerns. And this is probably as it should be. Science fiction is best suited to imagine, explore, and prepare us for new things, not to obsess about and rub our noses in persistent old problems. Even if it diminishes the predictive power of science fiction, this preference for describing what has never existed before is precisely what makes science fiction especially entertaining, and especially provocative.

The Hong Kong 2003 Conference, despite its trying circumstances, similarly proved rewarding because speakers paid attention to the emerging novelties, not the enduring infelicities, of twenty-first-century life. True, some speakers looked backward in search of insights into the future: Veronica Hollinger analyzed cyborg stories by Cordwainer Smith and C.L. Moore, while I examined the contents of an old fanzine, The Rhodomagnetic Digest. But most presentations solidly focused on the cutting edges of the present and the future. Gregory Benford pondered the implications of potential hologrammatic advertisers that could hector us by name wherever we walked. Dmitry Bulatov, a Russian artist, described the creation of new lifeforms bioengineered primarily to function as works of art, like the white rabbit imbued with a jellyfish's ability to give off a green glow in the dark. A Chinese scholar, Lo-Kwai Cheung, discussed the fascinating popularity of virtual "Internet marriages" in mainland China. Finnish scholar Martti Lahti talked about the evolution of video games, Swedish scholar Lena Karlsson considered blogs as a new form of literary autobiography, Australian scholar Darrell Davis talked about the impact of the VCD on Asian culture, and Chinese scholar Luk Yun-Tong explored the blurring lines between theatre and film in contemporary Hong Kong.

Other speakers explored the growing interconnectedness of our globalized societies: American scholars Lisa Raphals and Ronald Inden contrasted Indian and Chinese films, Irish-born scholar Aine O'Healy related American video games to Italian films, and French-born scholar Veronique Flambard-Weisbart discovered links between the French New Wave and Hong Kong cinema. Employing the latest technologies, several speakers offered presentations that were imaginative mixed-media events in their own right, and the diverse national and cultural backgrounds of the participants further brought to life the process of globalization frequently under discussion. When the conference was in session, participants could forget the worries of the moment and fully appreciate that the future was definitely going to be a most interesting place to live.

Thus, thanks to science fiction writers and others dedicated to examining the future, we can add a fourth item to the list of conditions that will define the decades to come: a constant stream of engaging innovations and novelties to accompany and alleviate our constant tensions. Even in places where the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are especially loud, like Hong Kong in the year 2003, we can listen to the futuristic Music of the Spheres and be thankful to be alive during these simultaneously troubling and exhilarating times.

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books about science fiction and fantasy, most recently Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy and Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. He writes a bimonthly column for the science fiction magazine Interzone, and is the 2003 recipient of the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship.

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