Melchior wrote his renown opus, The Annals of the 21st Century, while travelling to Mars in the company of two other sages in 2099. They arrived just after Christmas. Thanks to a wormhole in space-time, Victor Hill has downloaded one of Melchior’s notebooks…
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year…
Journey of the Magi (1927), TS Eliot (1888-1965)
The food in space these days is pitiful. When I first travelled to Mars as a young man (it was 2063) astronauts ate dinner together and ordered real food served with terrestrial vegetables. Alas, it is all super-nutritious protein shakes these days…
But I digress…
I have reached the chapter in my chronicle on the 2020s…How strange it must have been to be alive then. The viral pandemic of 2020-21 was a huge shock for mankind which accelerated many trends already underway. I remember my grandfather telling me that he was not even allowed to meet his parents for Christmas in the fateful year of 2020.
But the coronavirus pandemic was nothing like as bad as the Great Bacterial Pandemic of 2037, which cut the human population by one tenth…That resulted from the accidental release of an antibiotic-resistant pathogen from a laboratory in the Russian Federation. And nowhere near as bad as the year of Climate Catastrophe, 2043 (which I shall come to in a later chapter) …
As even house robots know, Donald Trump, the 45th and 48th President of the United States, lost the presidential election of 2020 to Joe Biden whose short and ill-fated presidency went unlamented. Most liberal historians dismissThe Donald (as he officially became in his second presidency) as an obnoxious ignoramus (just as they unfairly dismiss his contemporary, the then prime minister of Albion-Caledonia, Boris Johnson, as a hapless buffoon). But it cannot be denied that The Donald was the founder of a dynasty that continued to hold power until well into the second half of the century. If his monolithic memorial in Arlington National Cemetery is a tribute to his famous ego, Trump City, as New York was renamed in 2030, became a symbol of the future…
Mr Biden’s presidency got off to an inauspicious start when he collapsed in a paroxysm of coughing while taking the oath of office at his inauguration ceremony on 20 January 2021. He was never able to shake off rumours about the state of his health throughout his short time in power. Things came to a head when he appeared to forget where he was during the State of the Union address of 2022, repeatedly requesting pizza – much to the distress of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. (Ms Pelosi is remembered these days only as a warning of the dangers of excessive Botox therapy, but at that time was a force to be reckoned with in Washington.)
The 46th president was persuaded to resign shortly thereafter and handed over to the Vice President. The 47th President, Kamala Harris, made history at the time being the first female and indeed black president – race and gender were still regarded as political issues at that time. (America would have to wait another 45 years for a transexual president – though there were many non-binary or non-gendered people in high office well before then.) However, President Harris was widely criticised for being captured by the extreme left of her party. Her decision to make the firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Treasury Secretary was poorly received by the financial markets. As was the attempt to impose a wealth tax on the super-rich, which inevitably ended up mostly harming the middle classes.
It was against the backdrop of a failing economy that The Donald launched his ultimately successful campaign for re-election. His victory in November 2024 was conclusive and, as he constantly reminded anyone who would listen, was a vindication of his first term – one that he still claimed had been stolen from him by electoral malpractice.
Unfortunately, however, the Donald made the primary purpose of his second presidency the pursuit of revenge against those who, in his eyes, had terminated his first. From the impeachment of Ms Pelosi to the hounding of journalists (especially those from Fox News which had turned on him in 2020) his desire to get back at anyone who had crossed him was total. His outbursts on Twitter (a social media platform that was later relaunched as the dream-inducing brain implant Tattle) became increasingly intemperate; and the turnover of cabinet secretaries was even more rapid than in his first presidency.
The so-called palace revolution took place in December 2027 after the president fired his entire cabinet and appointed himself his own Secretary of State, Treasury Secretary and Head of the CIA. The Vice President, his daughter Ivanka, invoked Article 25 of the constitution and had her father confined to a luxury apartment on the 80th floor of the Trump Tower in Washington (built to celebrate the advent of his second presidency). From there, it is recorded, he was able to watch the construction of the monumental ziggurat of pink marble that would become his mausoleum. His final years were unhappy: his lachrymose tantrums became so alarming that President Ivanka and her ubiquitous éminence grise, her husband Jared, had the unfortunate father straitjacketed and muzzled. They even cruelly confiscated his cell phone.
President Ivanka Trump fought the 2028 presidential election on a platform of constitutional reform. She argued that the presidential term should be extended from four to six years; that there should be no limit on the number of presidential terms; and that state governors should no longer be elected but rather appointed by the president. Her election victory, and the large Republican majority in its wake, assured the passage of these constitutional amendments. President Ivanka’s tenure in office endured until 2044 when she was succeeded by her brother, Donald II. Her presidency was characterised by antipathy towards regulation of the so-called tech titans. When the Dow Jones Industrial Index hit the psychologically significant 100,000 level in 2030, President Ivanka declared a Day of Joy…
All the principal techniques of modern warfare burst into view in the early 2020s. Light-weight drones (in which Israeli companies were pre-eminent) became more important than heavy tanks; cyber-security became as prominent as intelligence; AI-systems superseded traditional soldiery…
In terms of the development of bionic soldiers, the Chinese were in the vanguard. Early machine-brain interfaces were crude. By the late-2020s, elite Chinese troops contained essentially GPS devices in their heads which also gave them 360-degree vision. In time, these devices offered improved cognitive skills in a form that we take for granted today. Additionally, the Chinese military was the first to apply CRISPR gene-editing technology to enhance their soldiers’ muscularity and athleticism. Many young people (and the not-so-young) volunteered for trials of this advanced therapy, no doubt partly because of its remarkable impact on participants’ sexual prowess. Inevitably, what started as a military technology eventually became mainstream.
In his Secret Speech to the Russian Duma in March 2021, President Vladimir Putin set out clearly the form that a modern war would take. He foretold that a modern war would consist of four key stages – and possibly five. First, there would be a massive cyber-attack which would paralyse the adversary’s arterial computer systems; second, the adversary’s principal communications satellites would be either destroyed or crippled by lasers or by covert attack satellites; third, a drone attack by night would decisively cripple key infrastructure such as nuclear power stations. Only once the adversary was on its knees would, fourth stage, a relatively small number of elite bionic forces enter the adversary’s territory to eliminate key leaders and supporting personnel – essentially, imperturbable assassination squads. The adversary would simply have no alternative but to surrender unconditionally at that point – with relatively little carnage amongst the civilian population. If they still resisted, then there was always the option of a fifth stage – biological warfare, which the crippled state would have no ability to combat or control.
That was almost exactly the pattern that China followed in its merciless conquest of Taiwan in late 2027 during the palace revolution in the USA…And in Russia’s conquest of Georgia the following year…
The general population in the early 2020s had almost no understanding of the looming impact of what was then called artificial intelligence – what we now call augmented intelligence. Nor did citizens truly understand that they were already being profiled to an extraordinary degree by the major data companies of the time.
People who complained about facial recognition technology on the grounds that it was invasive daily uploaded intimate information about themselves into cyberspace. They willingly allowed their movements to be tracked everywhere they went. By 2020, the major data companies of the time (though they might not have described themselves as such back then) such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon knew more about their users than their users knew about themselves.
They knew their financial standing, their political affiliations, their cultural affinities, their sexual orientation, who their friends were – and almost everything else. Genealogy websites even constructed DNA databases which scanned every aspect of a user’s genome. (Hence the precise predictions of who was about to die in the Great Bacterial Pandemic of 2037, when people around the globe were informed of their imminent demise by email and urged to make appropriate arrangements – preferably hygienic suicide.)
This data was monetised initially by so-called pin-point advertising – ads so precisely targeted that they had remarkably high conversion rates. In time, however, this data was used to model, and thus to predict, behaviour. Armed with databases and data mining tools, police forces could solve almost all crimes instantaneously – thus making the judicial process redundant. But in order to do so they would have to engage the data companies’ services in a way that made state agencies increasingly subservient…
To the surprise of many in the rich world, it was several poorer developing countries which decided to dispense with government altogether, and to outsource their governance entirely to data companies. In 2029, after a popular revolution, The Maldives abolished its own government and contracted Google to run every aspect of state administration. In 2032, Madagascar engaged Apple in a similar so-called meta-contract. South Africa, Kenya, and even Bangladesh followed suit, arguing that such contracts would entirely obviate the need for corrupt, self-serving bureaucracies. In the case of Bangladesh, the algorithms that governed the country would have a distinct Muslim flavour…All these nations experienced remarkable increases in their growth rates and quality of life in the 2030s…
It would not be long before the leading data and technology companies would convert themselves from mere corporations into sovereign states. Amazon purchased the Chagos Islands in 2030 after Albion-Caledonia was forced by the United Nations to relinquish its nominal claim to the territory. Rapidly, it created a zero-tax technology hub which attracted investors from all over the world, not least from India. Having domiciled itself there, Amazon was the first titanic corporation to declare itself a sovereign state in 2033. To the surprise of many, Amazon was admitted to the United Nations the following year.
Facebook and Google, for their part, both declared themselves cyber-states in 2034. Since most of the data they controlled resided on satellites in the Earth’s orbit or beyond (one of Google’s data hubs was already in orbit around Venus), they argued convincingly that they could not justly be subject to the laws of any terrestrial state. When Menlo Park, California, seceded from the United States in 2039 to join the Facebook realm, President Ivanka gave it her blessing…Apple rebranded itself as The Republic of the Sky thereafter, declaring that it could no longer be regulated by any terrestrial jurisdiction….
If titanic corporations were becoming sovereign states, at the same time, paradoxically, sovereign states were turning themselves into corporations. As early as 2024, the Pacific microstate of Niue was the first sovereign territory to float itself on the New York Stock Exchange. Private investors would gain automatic citizenship (though not automatic residency) and would be subject to zero tax in return for a modest reverse dividend paid from stockholders to the corporation. Many American investors, alarmed by the wealth taxes of the Harris presidency, invested avidly.
For some time, Niue claimed to be both a sovereign state and a corporation, but this was challenged in a famous UN General Assembly meeting in 2027. To the consternation of most members of the Security Council, an arbitration committee of the UN ruled the following year that there was no inconsistency between the two. Thereafter, a swathe of nations, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, incorporated themselves. Panama became a corporation in 2028, and Belize in late 2029…
It was precisely this legal evolution – the blurring of the boundary between state and corporation – that made the colonisation of Mars achievable thereafter. It was only a question of technology: and that was, despite pandemics, climate crises and the incompetence of traditional political elites, advancing rapidly…The climate crisis would at last be solved – though much more by population decline than by eco-austerity.
It is confirmed that Caspar, Balthazar and I are to be granted an audience with His Serene Highness, The Prince of Mars. This is a rare honour. I have always been fascinated by the story of his extraordinary life, 129 years long so far.
Back in the 2020s, of course, he was still known by his Earth-name: Elon Musk. Then he was principally associated with his electric vehicle company, Tesla and his space transport company, SpaceX – these being, as we know, two of the most successful and dominant corporations in history. Tesla started off making cars – an inherently inefficient form of transport – but by the end of the 2020s was the global leader in electric VTOL flying vehicles. (Bizarrely, there were still politicians such as the aforementioned Mr Johnson, advocating road-building programmes in the early 2020s – oblivious that vehicular transport was about to change utterly.)
Only later was His Serene Highness recognised as the pioneer of human-machine interface technology, being amongst the first human beings to have an implant in his brain which was connected to a quantum computer. This rendered him both the most intelligent human being on the planet and conferred upon him that ultimate power sought by the ancients – the gift of prophecy. His successful colonisation of Mars in the 2050s and 60s went almost unchallenged by the terrestrial powers. By the time the USA and China came to understand that Mars had become a separate state – one which commanded the total loyalty of its inhabitants – it was too late to act.
China, of course, attempted to annex the Moon in 2045 – an act that brought the two superpowers precipitously close to all-out war; but it was never able to halt the mass human migration – including many of its own citizens – from Earth to Mars.
It is often said that His Serene Highness was the first post-human; but, strictly, that is not correct. There were many less prominent people by the 2050s who had taken the path towards cyborgation – turning themselves into human machines. This was partly in order to obtain remarkable improvements in their mental and physical abilities, and partly to forestall the effects of old age. Nowadays, super-centenarians are common: Mark Zuckerberg is a mere 116; Sergey Brin is 127; and Jeff Bezos is still working at 136. All three, like many others, have maintained extraordinary health thanks to limb enhancements, bionic eyes and synthetic hearts.
Indeed, it is debatable whether there are any 100 percent natural (i.e. non-enhanced) humans left in the more advanced countries – and certainly not on Mars.
One reason why the colonisation of Mars became economically imperative was the Great Deflation that first became apparent in the late 2040s. Interest rates had remained at near-zero levels since the financial crisis at the beginning of the second decade of the century; although there was a short period of sharp inflation in the mid-2020s when China revalued the renminbi by launching the first digital-only state fiat currency. Cash was entirely proscribed throughout China and its client states. That set off a financial chain reaction resulting in the default of the European Union – together with many governments beyond…
What really caused interest rates to go materially negative and asset prices to plunge by 2050 was the realisation that the human population had peaked much earlier than demographers had expected – and that it would decline dramatically in the second half of the 21st century. In a country like Albion-Caledonia, many childless couples inherited houses from deceased parents and relatives which of course they sold off at reduced prices…
Praise be! We are now in orbit around the Red Planet. Distant stars are twinkling, and I can almost hear (is it my avatar?) celestial music – the music of the spheres – as if to alert us of great tidings. There is a bright spot on the surface as we begin the slow descent. The Martian border guards, ascending and descending with their jet packs, look like angels. I hear the sound of distant trumpets.
A makeshift space-hovel appears, occupied, it seems, by inter-stellar refugees. And a small baby is murmuring, and the parents smiling.
It is as well that we have brought propitious gifts.