Albert Brooks on America

This was my introduction to Albert Brooks. (Fun fact: His real surname is Einstein.) My parents had his LP, Comedy Minus One, and the part I remember best is the skit about the national anthem.

America seems to be a theme running throughout his work from the beginning, America from a showbiz perspective.  Some of his movies, like Real Life and Modern Romance, reflect this to varying degrees. They also show him to be rather whiny and self-obsessed.

I had pretty much forgotten about Brooks over the years. I didn’t even recognize him in Out of Sight. So when I saw his name on the list of potential titles for Bryan Alexander’s book club, my interest was piqued. His novel, 2030, was originally intended to be a screenplay, but they thought it would be too expensive to film. This seems a little silly to me. It’s a people story, not a special effects story. It’s unfortunate too, because it would have been interesting to see him take a Peter Sellers approach and play multiple roles – the president, the guy who loses his home in the earthquake, the guy who cured cancer, and perhaps even the Kevorkian character.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The story is set in the US in 2030. Medical science has cured cancer and arrested aging, so people are living into their 90s, essentially as 40 year olds. The younger generation is going broke footing the bill, and leading some to consider violent revolt and terrorism. A major earthquake flattens Los Angeles. Given the country’s financial state, rebuilding means borrowing, and China is the only country in a position to help. They refuse to make the loan, and instead offer to rebuild the city in exchange for a half ownership in it. Chinese entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to make even more inroads into the US. The book ends with one of them getting elected president.

There’s very little implausibility here. I can accept the medical advances as a sci-fi premise. I think the lives of the olds would be just as precarious as those of the younger generation, because I can’t imagine a political will to rebuild and maintain the social safety net. The idea that the Constitution could be changed that quickly, and that the public would accept an immigrant as a presidential candidate, is the part that strains the suspension of disbelief. Still, much of it sounds contemporary. I read it several months ago, and I’ve seen many of the issues reflected in headlines.

For example,  this USA Today article, Is Cruise ship living a cheaper option for seniors than assisted living? talks about a situation right out of the book, where people and families find it more economical to warehouse the elderly on massive boats than to keep them in homes. I might have put it alongside the implausible ideas before I saw the article, Betteridge’s Law aside.

I don’t see any movement against the older generation as a whole, but there are those who feel we could use fewer of them in public office:

The rise of China has been covered heavily, but this article names 2030 as as inflection point: “A new book by the famed historian Alfred McCoy predicts that China is set to surpass the influence of the U.S. globally, both militarily and economically, by the year 2030.”

I saw a whole thread on special economic zones. SEZs are analogous to what happens with LA in the novel, as it is shared with China and special privileges are granted to their people. As the thread points out, an SEZ is coming to Wisconsin. Both the thread and the book suggest Detroit as a good candidate for one. Once upon a time, the vision was that an American company could fix it. Now that isn’t even considered plausible enough for sci-fi. I wonder how Brooks might rewrite the anthem today?

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One Response to Albert Brooks on America

  1. Thank you for reflecting on the book, as it’s one I haven’t read yet. Sounds like a good example of using the future to comment on present-day politics.

    The lack of a political movement by younger generations against older ones has mystified some in the futures community.

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