David and Amanda are writers. Amanda is 20 years old. David is 55. Does this mean Amanda has more future than David, or the same amount? How do you measure quantities of ‘future’? When is the future? Are we there yet?
Amanda and David do not know the answers to these questions.
David: How often do you find your thoughts are dwelling already in the (near or distant) future?
Amanda: My thoughts love the near future. They love to buzz around there and tidy it up, dust off the mantelpiece and put the kettle on so it’s perfect by the time I waltz in and make it the present.
The distant future however, makes me uneasy, and so of course my thoughts like to sit there, park their butts on topics that shouldn’t worry me for at least another two years and stay there—just twiddling their thumbs—until I’ve cried enough stress-tears to lubricate them off.
Amanda: Do you think we will one day live in a world where we can prevent aging?
David: A world where we could prevent ageing! Sounds attractive for a moment. Then you think. A student wrote to me from her home in Manila this morning. She is running behind with her latest PhD deadline. Not because she’s sick; not because she’s got too much on, not because her life’s too busy. Maybe all of that is true. But this week she has a more immediate problem. Metro Manila’s running water is no longing running. Tens of thousands of households have no fresh water. It’s been ten days already. No rain. Dams dangerously low. El Nino. Privatisation. Mismanagement. The big one: climate change. Many fingers are pointed. You turn the tap on in your house. Literally nothing comes out. Can you imagine that? The system has broken down. This is a middle class household in the middle of the nation’s capital. It takes Sandra and her husband four hours each day to gather enough water to drink and cook and wash and flush the toilet. Supermarkets are running out of bottled water. One hour a day the tap runs with water you can’t drink. You never know which hour it will be. It could be 4am. Metro Manila has 13 million people. Now wave a wand. All 13 million people no longer age. They begin to live forever. That’s good. But what will they be drinking?
David: What colour is the future?
Amanda: Every sci-fi movie has taught me that the future is the colour blue. The holograms of our digitally preserved loved ones will be blue, the LED lights that line our identical futuristic jumpsuits will be blue, and the eyes we give our passive-aggressive robot assistants will be blue. For as long as I can remember, blue has been associated with technology. The Windows XP operating system I typed my very first stories on was blue. The ‘on’ light on my monitor is blue, shining in the corner of my eye as I type now.
It contrasts with the warm yellow of my desk lamp.
When the collective future of humanity enters my mind, it is always blue. But when my own personal future walks inside, I like to think it’s yellow.
The creamy yellow of my lemon-scented soy wax. The tulip yellow of my first bedroom walls. The mustard yellow of the handbag, eye shadow and nail polish I started wearing as statements—symbols of my new identity as an AdultTM.
Yellow reminds me of home. I guess I just want the future to look like home.
David (continues): Fantasies of immortality and eternal youth must have been around for as long as humans have been aware that each of us individually will die. Which when one is alive seems both unthinkable and shocking, maybe terrifying. We are conscious of the way our bodies weather over time, become fragile, brittle, knotted, gnarled. A younger person looks at an older person, someone a generation or two ahead, and cannot imagine that are looking at a version of themselves. I remember when I was young that older people were of a different species. They came from a foreign country, the unimaginable future of one’s own bodily experience, and the differently but equally unimaginable past when they, as if allegedly, implausibly, once were young.
David: How far into the future do you like to imagine?
Amanda: My vision is horrendous. Without my glasses, I can’t make out words unless they’re 20cm from my face.
My next week, the 20cm I can see, will be plotted out in to-do lists—
Avocado toast. Literature’s ethics readings. Order moisturiser ebay $25. TUTORING 4:30-8. Ask mum where calico is. Purple lipstick and tetris leggings.
—but beyond that, it’s blurry and I can’t see and I’m panicking.
The end of my degree looks like tomorrow and it’s basically already tomorrow because it’s midnight and I don’t have a to-do list ready.
Being thirty years old looks like Saturday and I’m still lonely and living at home so I should probably invest my entire bank account and then buy some cereal to cheer me up.
So no, I do not want laser eye surgery.
David (continues) : Becoming older is not something you do. Becoming older is what happens to you while you are doing other things. Becoming older is what happens to me in the time it takes to finish off this sentence. The dream of ending ageing is a dream of decoupling the processes of physical wear and tear from the flow of time in which, inevitably so far as we can tell, we move. But if we are going to be of this Earth, grounded in the experience of dwelling within this thin sliver of air and water and land on this small, remarkably interesting planet, it is precisely ageing that provides this grounding. For better or worse. Mountains age. Trees age. Whales age. Flowers bloom and wither. Flies have their brief take-offs and landings. What doesn’t age? Only something monstrous and uncanny. The half-life of plutonium244 is 88 million years. Plutonium was first produced on Earth as part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, which made possible the bombs the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing up to 250,000 people. Human-made radio-active particles are the closest thing we have, outside of divinities, to immortal. A plastic coffee cup, meanwhile, which usually has a use-life of a few minutes, will live on in its Earthly after-life for 400 years. Plastics resist ageing beautifully. Which is a sentence that can be read in two ways.
David: In what way, if any, is the future part of your everyday life?
Amanda: I find my future in my Maggi chicken noodles and poached egg simmering on the stove. I find my future in my bathroom, waiting for me in a five-step skincare routine. I find my future in the piled-up laundry basket and the fact I have no bras for the next week. Sometimes, my future sneaks up on me after I get out of the shower, when I’m warm on the inside but cold on the outside, and it sneaks its arms around me and makes me cry.
My future lives in every notification on my phone, whether it’s an email about creative writing opportunities or a message from a friend asking what time I’m coming over later today.
I press the keyboard and enter the future, my words spiralling out behind me into the past like a smoke trail.
I write my pieces to present in the future. I wash my socks to wear in the future. I turn on my candle to make my room smell nice in the future.
In my everyday life, the future, be it near or far, is like a dog treat dangling from the end of a treadmill, and I am the dog, running and running and running. I know the treat is a lie, an illusion, a trick to keep me running, but I don’t mind. It gives me something to run towards.
This story is part of the Future Stories project with RMIT’s non/fictionLab and creative writing program, which paired writing students with academics to produce creative responses to themes explored during Melbourne Knowledge Week 2019. Come along to Chorus of voices on Thursday 23 May, 10am to 11am to hear from the students and staff involved in the project