Future Tense

“30-Second Situation”

Read a new short story about how we might remember summer 2020 in a 2071 Smithsonian exhibit.

Black History futuristic poster.
Brian Miller/Smithsonian | Download PDF

How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work. In the story below, Onyebuchi imagines the world of 2071, in which a sensorially immersive Smithsonian exhibit connects visitors to events of Summer 2020 to understand this particular moment of change, creativity, and resilience.

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Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.

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It was a guitar solo that led her there, a languid, almost sorrowful string of blues chords and plucks, faint at first, practically a whisper, leading Alana farther and farther north, practically to Cicero. It grew louder and louder until she could see, in the distance, the Hawthorne Racecourse on Cicero’s South Side.

The place was shuttered, with a “Temporarily Closed” sign hanging askew over the entrance. But it was no problem for Alana to find a space to squeeze through. Even though morning was coming, and with it more cops to enforce the stay-at-home orders and more news reports about overflowing ICUs and images of loved ones on ventilators, she couldn’t turn away from the song. Like someone was looping Jimi Hendrix’s Blues album with no track breaks. Past the racetrack itself was a small clearing with leafless tree branches hovering over snow-dappled ground. Patches of brown grass poked through where mounds of snow had melted. Chairs had been arrayed haphazardly and in one of them, sitting before a small body of water, was a man with a frayed-brim hat pulled low over his face and a guitar on his crossed knee.

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Alana fished her mask out of her pocket, slipped it over her face, and watched the man from behind as he made that guitar sing. If she was going to figure out what was going on, she had to do it quickly, before whoever took care of this place started showing up.

So she stepped out of the shadows and into the growing spread of light that seemed somehow to hold the guitarist in its center. She made sure to step on twigs or to stomp her steps through the watery snow, to make as much noise as possible, announce her arrival, but the man didn’t even raise his head. Just kept playing.

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It wasn’t until she was nearly over his shoulder that she realized the music was coming from somewhere else. The pondwater rippled.

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She stepped past him, now fully in his cone of sight, and waited for something—anything—to tell her that he saw and acknowledged her. When it didn’t come, she drew closer to the water, got down onto her knees and peered into the Pond’s quivering center.

Allan had heard that the new museum exhibit promised a fully immersive, accessible experience, he’d figured it would be something VR. Maybe slip a helmet over your head and plug in somewhere, or maybe get fitted with special glasses. But still set up in some place you had to go to. But the notification that popped up on his retinal display offered access without his even having to get out of bed. He only needed to connect to the museum’s network, submit a DNA sample, and scan the QR code they sent him. Done and done. Still, he was glad he had his leg braces nearby, just in case the museum’s promise of a fully accessible exhibit was a hollow one.

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His bedroom collapsed around him: his closet whisked into the white emptiness, his PS12 and the rest of his gaming consoles scooped up by some invisible hand into an alabaster sky, his bed and gaming chair and lounge cushions dissolving. Then all around him, the museum lobby built itself.

Red-patterned walls rose to flank him. Orbs of light lowered from the ceiling to cast the room in dulcet tones. A woman in a magenta pantsuit materialized beside him, almost like she’d emerged from the wallpaper. She had a stewardess’s cap on her bob and a smile that glowed, and, with one arm spread, said, “right this way.”

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Before Allan could tell whether he was even sitting or standing, the air beneath and around him whooshed him to what appeared to be an endless closet.

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“I’ll leave you to get dressed.”

“Get dressed?”

Nothing about her face or her smile seemed fake or manufactured or programmed. “Should you find choosing an outfit overwhelming, we have some templates to guide you if you’d like.” As she spoke, several outfits spun into existence before him, pants and shirts and bits of jewelry, bracelets, anklets, twirled onto mannequins made of air.

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On the far left, a factory worker’s jumpsuit. Next to that, a pin-striped three-piece getup. Another was leggings, hoop earrings, and a baggy T-shirt with Billie Eilish’s face on the front. At the end of the row, a silken violet ballgown.

“And there is no need to take traditional notions of comfort into consideration. In no way will your movement be impeded.” Which seemed like a cruel thing to say to someone who couldn’t walk.

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But Allan closed his eyes and let his mind wander. When he opened them again, he could feel his new threads on his skin. The rightness of the outfit’s feel was unmistakable, and when he looked up to find the stewardess/hostess/guide smiling back on him, the choice was made.

“Very nice,” she said, like a proud parent.

She then led him to a lounge area. No paintings or photos or sculptures here. Nothing to commemorate the 2020 United States Pandemic exhibit. A door slid open ahead of them, and they walked into the portal of light to find themselves standing at a railing. Countless meters below them, when Allan looked over, was a shimmering pool of the bluest water he’d ever seen in his life. A jet shot up and paused before his face, morphing to take the shape of a mirror.

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“What do I do now?” he asked the guide.

“Think of a song.”

It was the cessation of music that took Alana out of the vision.

Hurled out of a dream, she came back to her body all at once. The world was all sharp lines and edges, the sky a clearer morning-blue, the grass crisper under her knees, the wind harsher on her cheeks. The quiet more total.

Even before turning around, she knew that the guitarist—so real a moment ago—was gone.

It felt wrong to call it a beeping. Rather, the countdown was something Allan felt in his bones, thrumming through tendons to hit muscle. A tingling. But no amount of warning could have prepared him for waking. The sojourn into the past had felt so tactile. He could see his breath make clouds before him. He’d gone into the 2020 United States Pandemic exhibit expecting to see carnage and breadlines and derelict opera houses; empty, dilapidated schools; unmarked potter’s fields for the countless victims of the respiratory virus that had swept across the country during that period in its history. But the chill of the snow on the ground, the tweeting of the birds, the smell of winter, it all spoke of life, not death. The internet memes in his avatar’s head, the scramble of images and sounds with a blue-yellow coat of humor draped over it all like mist, the intentional scramble-dances on black ice and rudimentary, grainy videoconferences with what he knew immediately to be loved ones: it had all felt like life, not death.

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“How long was I … her?” he asked the guide.

“Thirty seconds is the limit of each visit. Please do come back.”

And with that, he was logged out and back in his bed.

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He called up the museum’s help page and zoomed over to the frequently asked questions so that they appeared in a holographic waterfall of text before his eyes.

It said each visit was restricted to 30 Earth seconds, but that often the visits feel like much longer. The rest was lost to Allan in a sea of jargon about time dilation, gravitational potential, Fourier synthesis, and particle deterioration.

Another question further down stopped him: “Can I touch the exhibit?”

He knew what they were asking. They were asking if you could interact with the past, if you could save someone you saw dying, if you could whisper a stock tip into an ancestor’s ear, if you could have a meal, however incognito, with your great-grandparents. The long answer involved the Novikov self-consistency principle, epigenetics, and legal disclaimers that this was not time-travel technology, no matter how much it looked and felt like it, as well as a mini-dissertation on the ethical regulations that the maintenance of such an exhibit entailed. The short answer was “no.” It was metaphysically impossible.

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Still. There’d been a moment when she’d raised her hand and, linked, he’d come so close to touching his own face.

The Pond was all Alana could think about until that morning hour came again. Soon as she could sneak out, she headed straight for the racetrack, squeezing through the opening under the “Temporarily Closed” sign only to find a whole crowd, all wearing their facemasks, surrounding the water. Despite their diversity—their age differences, the class distinctions their clothes signaled, their able-bodiedness—they hovered over the Pond, gazes transfixed. Smaller crowds had formed, pockets of people, off to the sides, heads bowed, brows furrowed with question-asking. They looked like they were comparing notes, trying to figure out what had happened to them, what was happening to the people at the water now. “Someone goin’ to town on a trumpet.” “Sounded like Doja Cat.” “Nah, more like that old-school Detroit House music we used to play at them dance parties.” Beneath each face by the water was its own individual set of ripples. A couple dozen different visions of what must be the future. All the Black folk at that racetrack asking, “do we survive this,” all of them hearing their own intimate version of “yes.”

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And behind her, that music. She turned to see the familiar guitarist, brim low over his head. Making that guitar cry. No, not cry, sing.

The image flickered, like a hologram wavering, to reveal a woman in a pantsuit, still strumming a guitar over her knee. Then the guitarist was back.

He lifted his head, looked her in the eye, and said, “Hey.”

This story is a piece of near-future science fiction but is inspired by the real-life work being conducted today by Michael Duncan, Fatima Elgarch, and Jessica Johnson at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Read the rest of the AIB-inspired stories on Future Tense here, and download the poster here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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