As I mentioned in a recent column, I’m currently working from home at our kitchen table (see Working from Home? Are you Cybersecure? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). This is, of course, due to the current coronavirus pandemic, without which I would be happy ensconced in my office surrounded by my files, my books, and my weird-and-wonderful flashing hobby projects. Even though it’s a one-person office, I don’t get lonely because time races by as soon as I start working. Also, I’m accompanied by my faithful Geiger counter, which sits on one of the shelves occasionally chirping away to alert me of a random radiation event. Until a few days ago, everyone in Alabama was living under a shelter-in-place order. Even though this is now in the process of being eased, I think it’s prudent to keep on working from home for a few more weeks until we see how the (coronavirus-laden) wind is blowing. Fortunately, I have my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) and my 25-year-old son (Joseph the Common-Sense Challenged) to keep me company. I really feel for those people who live on their own. Even when living with loved ones, existing in a form of self-imposed isolation does cause you to see things and think about things in a different way. Just the other day, for example, I ran across a cartoon drawing of a middle-aged man kneeling on his sofa next to a large dog. They were both staring intently out of the window watching a passing jogger. The dog’s tail was wagging furiously, while the caption of the man talking said something along the lines, “Until now I never realized why you got so excited when people passed by.” Why do I mention this here? Well, when I saw this cartoon, it struck me that it wouldn’t actually have made any sense just a few short months ago.
“The Caves of Steel” features human detective Elijah Baley and his robotic partner Daneel Olivaw (Click image to see a larger version)
I’ve also been re-reading some old science fiction favorites. Two, in particular, come to mind with regard to our present state of affairs. Both of these tales were written by the amazingly prolific American science and science fiction author, Isaac Asimov. The first is The Caves of Steel, which is set around 3,000 years in our future. The background to the story is that humans have discovered a faster-than-light space drive and colonized fifty planets known as the “Spacer Worlds” in remote solar systems. These Spacer Worlds are rich, have a low population density (their average population is around 100 million people each), and make heavy use of humanoid robots. By comparison, Earth is heavily overpopulated, with its billions of people living inside vast city complexes covered by huge metal domes; essentially “caves of steel.” Resources on Earth are extremely limited, so those lucky people with jobs work in claustrophobic cubicles in busy offices. Furthermore, everyone lives in small apartment dwellings, with multiple residences sharing restroom, washroom, and canteen facilities. Can you imagine how this sort of population would respond to a pandemic like the coronavirus? The second book is The Naked Sun, which forms the sequel to The Caves of Steel. In this case, a key protagonist from the first book — a police detective from Earth called Elijah Bailey — travels to Solaria, which is the least populated of the Spacer Worlds. Elijah’s job is to solve a murder, but he quickly runs into problems when he discovers that only 20,000 people live on the planet, each on his or her own estate, where these estates are located as far as possible from each other. The Solarians are taught from birth to avoid personal contact, so all of their interactions are performed using holographic communication systems that make it appear as though they are in the same place. The issue is that the Solarians cannot abide to be in close proximity to each other to the extent that, when a respected scientist mistakenly believes another human has entered the same room, he suffers a heart attack and dies, so who can have committed the murder? The reason this second story gave me pause for thought is that, when I occasionally visit a local supermarket or hardware store in our new coronavirus world, I’ve been observing the interactions between people. Almost everyone around here wears masks, with the ones who don’t being somewhat shunned. Everyone keeps what they believe to be a safe difference from everyone else, the cashiers are protected by plastic screens, and people go out of their way to avoid coming too close to anyone else. It struck me that we are currently sampling a tiny taste of the Solarian lifestyle. Even when the time comes that official social distancing restrictions are completely disbanded, I think a lot of us are going to change the way in which we interact with each other. This goes far beyond using fist bumps or elbow bumps instead of handshakes — how long will it be before you feel comfortable sitting in a crowded waiting room or riding a packed metro or squeezing into a full elevator, for example?