Alien Americas

Each generation of Americans dies in a country alien to that into which it was born.

Every fifty years, to arbitrarily pick a round figure, sees a new America.

1968: The nation is defined by the Cold War. All political activity exists against the backdrop of rivalry with the Communist Bloc. For the moment, the domestic disruptions of the late Sixties have taken centerstage, but whether in the foreground or the background, the nuclear standoff between east and west is always present. The draft is universal, touching every household in the country. Service in the armed forces is a touchstone among men. A immense American military apparatus spans the globe. It is difficult to envision an endgame apart from nuclear annihilation.

African-Americans have been marching in determined movement for years. No longer willing to bow down, they rise up. The rhetoric gets more and more forceful every year. The formerly leading-edge Black Muslims have now been replaced by the Black Panther Party. Moderates like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr have been regulated to the side. Every summer the ghettos go up in flames. It is difficult to envision an endgame apart from revolution.

On a cheerier note, the United States has found the secret to eternal prosperity. Growth is strong. Personal income has doubled since World War II. America is the world’s greatest manufacturing power. Her auto, steel and electronics industries reign supreme. Labor unions and management negotiate regular increases in wages and benefits. Industrial workers have seen massive gains in their living standards since the Depression.

The dollars they spend are no longer backed by gold, strictly speaking. The nation went off the gold standard in 1933, under extreme duress. However, the dollar is still convertible into gold, and the currencies of the developed nations are convertible into dollars, as was established in 1944 under the Bretton Woods Agreement. This has been a great boon to world trade, and will never change. As a consequence of this policy, it is a federal crime for individuals to own gold coins.

Oil flows continuously. The United States is the world’s leading producer of petroleum, but still cannot meet its own needs. Imports are increasing every year. Fortunately, the oil-producing nations do not have much leverage over prices. Nuclear power promises to be the source of the future. Practically all U.S. homes have electricity, and the wiring supports not just lights, but televisions, radios and appliances.

Despite the loud counterculture, most Americans hold to the same social mores as they did during the Eisenhower Administration. Women are expected to become housewives. This is the normal state of affairs, and will be so forever. Divorce rates are low, but rising. Abortion is illegal and scandalous. Contraception has become common and mostly accepted. Homosexuals are a tiny, despised fringe element. The idea of same-sex marriage is unthinkable. Tobacco use is common; about half the adult population smokes. Offices, restaurants, and trains are filled with fetid haze.

Mass immigration is a distant memory. Though there have been some waves of refugees—after World War II, after the Hungarian Revolution—for the most part the gates of America have been sealed since 1924. Legislation in 1965 changed the law, but the change has had little effect, and likely will continue that way. Outside Hawaii, the tiny Asian-American community is mostly Chinese families who have been in the country for generations. There is no substantial South Asian population in the United States, and never will be.

Movies are released once, spend a few months in single-screen theaters, then are rarely seen again. Television programs are similarly shown by the three networks once during the regular season, rerun an additional time during the summer, and then disappear–except for those programs that make it into syndication. Cable television is rare, generally used only in those communities that, for geographic reasons, are blocked from regular broadcast service. Quality of television reception is a major concern. Telephones have dials, and must be rented from the omnipresent monopoly of the AT&T corporation. Installing a black-market phone is a crime. The principal music format is the LP record, although 8-track and reel-to-reel tape decks are also used. Microwaves ovens are available, but, due to their expense, are considered a luxury item.

 

That was the world. But now let us jump another fifty years…

 

1918: Prior to the short-lived war, America had one of the smallest militaries among the developed nations; within two years, it will return to having one of the smallest militaries among the developed nations. The idea of a globe-girdling military establishment is unthinkable. Some hope that the war will lead to international co-operation for world peace, but many expect to simply return to traditional American isolationism.

Race is no longer an issue. After the difficulties of Reconstruction, Northern and Southern whites agreed to put blacks down and keep them down. The great majority of blacks still live in the rigidly segregated South, but those that do migrate elsewhere find the climate little friendlier. Any attempt at change is met with brutal repression. This is the normal state of affairs, and will be so forever.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement, at the apex of its power, is on the verge of installing both its major policy goals in the Constitution: alcohol prohibition and women’s suffrage.

Industry has replaced agriculture as the mainstay of the economy. Growth is steady, but repeated recessions throw many out of work—usually factory workers who can least afford it. The proletariat suffers. Even in the best of times, those manning the steel foundries and textile mills make barely enough to feed their families. Labor unions are rogue operations, and public power is heavily on the side of management. Radical organizations like the International Workers of the World, though excoriated by mainstream opinion, find ready recruits among the desperate. A large percentage of the population still farm. The war has brought high agricultural prices, leading many families to expand their capacity.

A strong economy requires a strong currency. The dollar is founded on gold, the civilized metal. This is the only way it could be. Anything else would be savage. On that gold, the Federal Reserve—only five years old—issues safe and secure paper money. The average American is now used to thinking of cash as bills rather than coins.

America leads the world in the use of modern energy sources. Coal propels trains. Natural gas heats homes. Gasoline fuels automobiles. The petroleum fields of the United States have spread to Oklahoma and California, and in Texas, curious rigs have begin appearing waters just offshore. Most urban homes have electric light, but rural areas still fall back on wood stoves and kerosene lamps.

The rules of courting are looser than they were, but taboos against premarital sex are still strong—yet those taboos are often ignored. The automobile has given new access to “petting,” as the phrase will go, but no doubt prohibition and lack of access to alcohol will inhibit that. Contraception is generally frowned upon, and in many areas forbidden by law. Smoking is common among adult men; cigarettes are replacing pipes and cigars.

Ellis Island processes hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year, from every nation in Europe. Communities from Italy, Poland, Russia, Norway, Austria-Hungary, China, and Japan dot the country. Two million Jewish people entered the United States from the late 19th century. But with the inflow has come rising and virulent hatred of the newcomers. Anti-Semitism is common.

The main communication technologies are the telegraph, the telephone, the postal service, and the newspaper. Radio technology exists, but is generally confined to marine use; no broadcast programming exists. Air mail service starts this year. Airplanes are not used for civilian travel. Antibiotics are unknown. Insulin is not available for diabetes. Live performance is the principal way to enjoy music, as records are short and low-fidelity. Automobiles are getting steadily more common, but horses are still the main personal mode of transportation, and nothing exists to rival the train for long-distance hauls.

 

Another jump…

 

1868: In the wake of the Civil War, North and South are trapped in brotherly hate. Most of the former Confederate states are still under Federal control and occupied by Federal troops. Southern whites must learn, at bayonet point if necessary, to accept the new reality of black congressmen and senators.

The United States had no overseas alliances, nor will it ever, having been warned away from foreign entanglements in George Washington’s farewell address. The principal opponents of the once-again-tiny army are the Indian nations within the national borders.

The economy surged during the war, and shows no signs of slowing down. Joint stock companies multiply. People cannot invest in railroads fast enough, and no scheme seems too fantastic. The dollar stands strong on both gold and silver. Marxist agitation has found few takers among Americans so far, but as the number of industrial workers grows, the ideas gain more purchase.

Desperation forced Union and Confederacy alike to resort to paper currency during the war, but now the war is over and it’s time to return to real money. The Treasury has been ordered to buy back the “greenback” paper notes issued during the war in return for gold and silver coins. This will end the dangerous experiment in pretend money. Americans will never have again have to worry about the worth of their dollar.

Energy means coal and wood. In rail firebox and marine boiler alike, the latter—hotter and stronger—replaces the former. But the real transformation is in the nation’s household lamps. Whale oil is dwindling, pushed aside by the new tide of kerosene coming out of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Although it could never be produced in sufficient quantities to propel transportation, petroleum has proved its use to the regular household, and promises to return great wealth to those who pump and refine it. Gaslight is found in cities, but takes a toll on clothes, wallpaper, and noses.

Men wear vests and jackets, even in summer. Women go about in yards of fabric. Even bathing costumes are woolen all-body affairs. Anything less would be savagely indecent. The hierarchy of the sexes stands unthreatened. Some few speak of “women’s suffrage,” but they are all crackpots. Consumption of alcohol and tobacco are common. Despite a large segment of Temperance advocates, it seems implausible they could ever achieve true prohibition.

Immigration has become a tangible element in American society, mostly from the United Kingdom and Germany. The Irish are enough of a problem; fortunately, there are no similar influxes of Italians, Ashkenazi Jewish, or Poles, and never could be.

Coast-to-coast rail travel will not be established until the following year. Air travel is limited to balloons. The germ theory of disease has recently been developed, although it is still in its early stages. Photography is very popular, but there are no personal cameras. Negatives have to be developed on glass plates. Ether is used as an anesthetic.

 

Once more…

 

1818: Who could object to our beloved President Monroe—so beloved that one would not be surprised if he runs unopposed in 1820 and is re-elected unanimously? The Era of Good Feelings is upon us. After the strains of the recent war, which almost rent the Union, North and South stand undivided.

Slavery is a fact of life, and always will be. The elite in both North and South have no interest in abolition. The problem is that the Southern whites observe the increasing population of the North, and that, despite Northern assurances, many Northern states have banned slavery. Northern states that formerly had substantial slave populations, such as New York, now have few to none. The Southerners find this unsettling. In the end, however, the great majority of whites, North and South alike, find those calling for abolition to be crackpots and fanatics.

Americans rarely think of Europe. The nation may look askance at Spain, which still holds Florida and all their vast empire in the hemisphere, but the main focus of the United States armed forces is the spidery machinations of Great Britain. The northern border remains unstable and troublesome.

The economy is mercantile and agricultural. The ships of New England range out to China and back. Real estate is a major factor, as the audacious buy up grid squares of “congress land” in the Northwest. In the South, cotton has become a restless addiction. With the new cotton gin, fortunes can be made anywhere a man can rustle up a hundred acres and a few slaves. The planter aristocracy of colonial days has metastasized across the new states of the Deep South, and is determined to expand further.

The dollar is solid, resting on a foundation of gold and silver coins minted by the Federal Government. The problem is there’s too few of them. The limited amount of specie is a hindrance in an expanding economy. To this end, banks issue paper money—but watch out. These private currencies are worth only as much as the institutions that back them. Accept bills from a shaky issuer, and you may find yourself with a wallet full of worthless paper.

Energy? Energy is what is has been since time out of mind: wood and mammalian muscle. Coal is in some use, but the truly intriguing trend is the increasing use of whale oil. Brilliance previously unknown fills parlors. Fresh whaling grounds in the South Pacific auger a new age of light. On the same front, the ultramodern technology of natural gas has been imported to Baltimore from Europe, but the complex infrastructure requirements mean it will be limited to the few dense urban areas.

There is little immigration. The idea does not factor in politics or society. Those who do come over are still mostly English and German. The vast interior of the continent will surely be filled by the natural increase of large American families.

Steam engines are in occasional use, but if a person of the Sixteenth century were set down in the landscape of 1818, there is little they would not recognize. Communication and transportation technologies mean the horse and the ship. Medicine embraces bleeding and emetics. The cutting edge is canals. Plans are even on the boards to link Albany with Buffalo by canal!

 

1768: And here we must stop. In five short hops we have run out of United States. In 1768, 13 random colonies clung to the eastern seaboard, still loyal to Mother England despite some strains. Those few who spoke of independence were considered crackpots and traitors. The situation was what it was, and could never be anything else.

 

What will 2068 bring us? We can’t imagine. If we were told what will be, it would seem from our standpoint to be wildly implausible—but when it arrives, it will seem inevitable. The one thing we can be sure of is that it will seem alien to us as we are. The sureties of our age will turn out to be morning mist. New ones will spring up in their place. We shall go on assured as ever, convinced that change means nothing, and what we are is what will be.

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