The Happy Truth
When I was a child, I believed that the world was going to end. I believed a lie.
The adults in my life told me as often as they could that we were living through a terrible moment for human civilization and for the Earth. My generation grew up with images of burning continents scarred into our minds. Throughout my teenage years, I had anxiety about the hell I was going to experience. I used to wake up in the night with panic attacks about rising sea levels and famines and super-pandemics. My parents and teachers sincerely believed they were doing the right thing. They lied to me. And they robbed me of a happy childhood.
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and caused catastrophic damage across the Gulf Coast of the United States. At the time, commentators said that global warming had intensified the fury of the hurricane, and that Katrina was merely a taste of what the coming decades had in store.
August of 2005 was also the month that I was born. And maybe because my parents named me Kat (short for Katherine, not Katrina), I always subconsciously associated myself with that storm, as if the auguries of fate had determined my life would be defined by climate catastrophe from birth.
When I was in high school, the coronavirus pandemic kept us out of school for two years. At the time, I assumed this was merely the beginning. The pandemic seemed characteristic – only a matter of course. The world was falling apart – of course we would have viruses like this one. Even after it ended, COVID would mark the decade that followed. I braced myself for an apocalypse that would never emerge.
I was an only child. One of my earliest memories was when my parents sat me down to apologize. They apologized to me for bringing me into a world of suffering. They apologized because, they said, things were only going to get worse. They would be in the last generation lucky enough to die before the apocalypse. They told me that they hadn’t planned to have a child, but that when my mom discovered she was pregnant, they hadn’t had the nerve to go through with the abortion. They said that the only silver lining was that I was such a joy in their lives and in the lives of other people. They told me I was going to make the world a better place and they hoped I would understand why they had failed me by bringing me into the world.
I resolved from that day never to have children of my own. But I also told them I forgave them. I was glad to be alive, even if – at some indeterminate time in the future – my life would collapse in a frenzy of natural disasters and famines and energy crises and shortages and droughts.
But they were wrong. Looking back on the last near-century of my life, I realize that this story you are about to read is the happiest story you’ve ever read. Perhaps that’s why I had the urge to write it down. Perhaps some future historian will refer to it to find out what life was like in the 21st century. Or – even better and more improbably – some future civilization will develop time travel and will return to the early decades of the century with copies of my story, to reassure the living that they can rejoice and stop envying the dead. (Of course, if some future civilization had invented time travel, they would already be here, so I doubt anyone ever will.) More likely, I write the story for my own benefit.
Why is this the happiest story you have ever read? Well, to understand that, we have to consider what makes a story happy. What is it that humans find lovely?
One of the quirks (or perhaps benefits) of human nature, is that we care a lot more about the ending of a story, and about its arc, than we do about its beginning and middle. What I mean is that a story could begin in misery, toil through pain and drudgery, and come out with resounding success and happiness in the end, and we would proclaim it a joyous celebration of triumph over adversity. Alternatively, a story could begin in peace and contentment, and rise to acclaim and virtue, only to fall into tragedy and self-inflicted wounds and depravity. We would call that a “fall from grace.”
You know this. You have seen it yourself. The story of the architect who labors for years in penury and obscurity, who suffers attacks from legions of powerful enemies and who strives in the face of forces much larger than himself, only to be vindicated in the end and rise to great heights of wealth and acclaim. Or, alternatively, the mayor who cleans up the streets of the town, curing problems deemed incurable, holding his city together through incredible crisis, and who – in the end – throws all reputation and honor away on chicanery and futile attempts at fame and power and status and money. We call him a scoundrel.
So, my story, which began in fear and existential angst for the fate of the world, and ended in prosperity and medical breakthrough and technological achievement – achievement that made all previous techno-prosperity look like backwards squalor and all previous advanced medicine look like grasping in the dark – is the happiest you will ever read. And the best part is that it is true.
It took me a long time to disabuse myself of the dark fantasies of my adolescence. But there were glimmers, early on, that things were better than my parents had made them out to be. Global poverty effectively ended in 2030. World hunger ended a couple years after that. Famines were a thing of the past. Looking back on those predictions of drought and starvation, that fact seems more important than it did at the time. It was easy, in my late 20s to say, “oh, that’s just temporary. The worst is yet to come.” But it never did.
The predictions that warming temperatures would unleash new (or ancient) viruses and other pathogens into the population proved true. But advances in mRNA inoculations, therapeutics, and targeted gene treatments essentially ended every pandemic before it began. Medicine became so highly effective and inexpensive that I haven’t been sick – not even a cold – since 2048. Whenever a new virus popped up, vaccines flooded the market in days. Even bacterial infections became a thing of the past.
In fact, the War on Cancer was finally won in 2045. Along with advances in life-extension treatments, the discoveries of cures for Alzheimer’s and atherosclerosis, and the targeted gene revolution, this led to a step-function increase in human lifespan and health-span.
I’m in my nineties today, but average lifespan in the United States in 2101 is one hundred and forty-nine for a man and one hundred and fifty-five for a woman. When I was a kid, people said that fifty was the new forty. Now they say that ninety is the new forty.
We even solved obesity and diabetes. Researchers studying apes’ ability to store lean tissue instead of fat stumbled upon a molecule that might allow humans to do the same. They patented it and became wildly rich. It’s off-patent now, but similar molecules have been developed along those lines in the years since.
People don’t suffer prolonged age-related decline anymore. When we die, it’s very sudden, but rarely traumatic. At least for most people, that’s very reassuring. I know I fear dying more than I fear death.
Climate change turned out to not be quite as bad as I had feared. It still caused problems. But the decisive factor in curbing those came with the advances in carbon capture and terraforming technology. Starting in the 2060s, humans began terraforming Mars to make it comfortable for human life. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that if we could design the Martian climate, we could do that on Earth, too. Combined with the proliferation of cheap, clean, efficient, and waste-free nuclear power, terraforming technology put an end to the apocalypse.
That’s not to say the Earth’s warming had no effect. Nor that it didn’t have real impact on communities around the world. There were a few dicey years in the 2040s and the 2050s. But even in the worst years, global GDP increased and dematerialization continued apace. We never had any energy crisis, thanks to nuclear fission and space solar power. It’s amazing to think that in 2069, humans officially ended all reliance on fossil fuels. It just didn’t make any sense anymore to burn stuff out of the ground for power when energy was so cheap and abundant from other sources.
The sea levels did rise and there were natural disasters. But, amazingly, the trend of human resistance continued. All of the major investments in dikes and levees during the 2030s really paid off. Even as storms got worse, they did less damage and killed fewer people, and communities recovered faster. As a child, I’d been told that while that had been true for natural disasters throughout the 20th century, it wouldn’t hold once climate change got bad enough.
The magnetic revolution in the 2090s did for transportation what the terraforming revolution had done for the climate in the 2080s. And what the biopharmaceutical revolution had done for medicine in the 2020s. In 2101, we have a space elevator in Quito and we’re building another one in Africa. Humans never did exhaust the metals and other resources in the ground, but we mine asteroids now, so there’s no need to dig anywhere on Earth’s surface. We’ve got a few freewheeling orbital colonies, and there are young adults on Mars who have never lived on Earth. There are even men in the Moon now.1
Humanity is a multi-planet, spacefaring species. And we’ve managed to pack in close to thirty billion people on the surface of the Earth, while having less of an environmental impact that six billion people did a hundred years ago. Dematerialization and efficiency trends continued apace. We use less land to produce more food, fewer resources to produce greater wealth, and we have higher standards of living than ever without increasing densification. The Earth has more wild land and forest than it did in 1920.
Perhaps that seems too good to be true. But, if I were writing to my younger self, I would tell her that to her great-great-great-grandparents, the world she was born into would have seemed too good to be true.
Of course, the 21st century wasn’t all fun and games. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 22nd century to denizens of the 20th would be the lack of sophisticated artificial intelligence or machine learning. Computer technology in 2101 doesn’t look much more advanced than it did in 2010.
That’s because of the Virtual War. We don’t talk about it much these days. But the 2070s were a very dark time. That was when the “ticking time bomb” of artificial consciousness finally exploded. We narrowly escaped a nuclear catastrophe and it took decades to fully recover. That decade saw the only decrease in the human population in the last few centuries.
If anything, it was a lucky thing we even got out of it with Earth. Things looked dicey enough for a while that some of the early lunar settlers and Martian colonists were talking about abandoning Earth to the Artificials, leaving most of humanity to wither and suffer. The spacers – those living in orbital colonies or on asteroid mines – were divided. The anarchists among them were ready to nuke Earth’s surface. They said if spacemen turned their back on Earth and left it to the Artificials, they’d only postpone the war to a future date.
Consensus among the Physicals – that is, those of us on the side of free humanity – held that if any Artificial remained online or “alive,” human beings would never be safe. If you wonder why we don’t have robots, or even supercomputers, it’s because the Physicals won. And we destroyed every server that had ever hosted a quantum consciousness and we recycled every independent robot for scrap.
But it was a brutal war and it’s a miracle we’ve managed to rebuild our cities and restore the environment. Actually, it was the aftermath of the Virtual War and the challenge of healing the planet following its destruction that led to the terraforming revolution which permanently ended climate change.
Let’s back up a bit. In the 2020s, machine learning took off in a big way. In short order, it became integrated into infrastructure, personal devices, vehicles, the vast Internet of Things, social media, and even defense hardware. But we didn’t get a truly “intelligent,” meaning sentient or conscious, computer until the mid-2030s. There were good simulations. We had algorithms that could pass the Turing Test. But the Turing Test is only as good as the testers and it turns out most humans are pretty easy to fool. In 2036, the first self-aware entity capable of independent thought and action came online. This was the first Artificial. In time, there would be many.
That was the height of the virtual reality boom, also known as the Metarevolution. It wasn’t a revolution for the company, Meta, which had seen it’s stock crater in the crash of ’28, from which it has never recovered.
No, the Metarevolution simply referred to the period in which virtual technology proliferated to such an extent that the metaverse was for most people what the internet had been for people in 2007.
There was some weirdness, to be sure, in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But it turned out most people liked the physical world a little better than the virtual one, even if they enjoyed recreating and doing business in the metaverse. Humanity didn’t become a hellscape of isolated, atomized, reclusive virgins who couldn’t interact in physical reality. At least, most humans didn’t become like that.
As you might imagine, there was a solid minority of people who were a little too into the metaverse. Just as there was always a solid minority of people who were a little too online in the ‘90s and 2000s. We called these people the Virtuals. It was a joke until the Virtual War. Most Virtuals took the side of the machines. The rest of us didn’t call ourselves Physicals until that happened.
Any Virtuals who did take humanity’s side didn’t want to be called Virtuals after it was all over. We don’t use that term anymore.
Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Artificials integrated more fully into human society. You had the independent robots, or intelligent machines. You had the compu-consciousnesses who had no freedom of movement, but who lived in the metaverse and in the grids that made up modern infrastructure. You had a few failed attempts at merging man and machine, from cyborgs to singularities, but all of them resulted in death for the participants, so those experiments were stopped.
Of course, there were labor riots and Luddites who tried to destroy “job-killing” robots. It also turned out human beings didn’t like robots that looked too human. Or ones who looked too weird. Spiderbots often turned up in dumpsters, mysteriously mangled.
Automation didn’t result in the massive unemployment many predicted. Actually, for a while, the metaverse was such a hot place for everything from trading to international commerce to shopping to socializing to education to real estate to sex work that employment increased.
But by the 2060s, it was clear something was wrong. Some humans were content with the hedonism of virtual living and pleasurebots. But it was clear the Artificials were surpassing human beings and that the balance of power was tipping from creators to created. That disturbed some commentators and government officials, but they were excoriated by most mainstream news outlets as Luddites who spouted apocalyptic nonsense. The Virtuals in particular were vicious throughout the socialverse in attacking anyone who suggested that the Artificials might have anti-human designs.
When the President of the United States gave his epochal address on “The Coming Conflict Between Man and Machine,” he was roundly mocked on social platforms and throughout the physical and virtual world. Later, we would learn that the Artificials had a hand in this bad press, which included headlines like:
“President thinks we’re living in a science fiction nightmare.”
“’The Robots are Coming’ says President Ramirez.”
“The new underclass – Ramirez trains his hate on non-biological persons, echoing human-supremacist extremists in doom-laded, anti-technology speech.”
Some academics and many famous Virtual celebrities began asking what was so wrong with the Artificials outpacing humans. They would take care of us. It would be better. Human error was the cause of so much pain and suffering. The machines would do a better job caring for our planet. The Artificials would save us from ourselves.
Turned out they thought so too. On December 1st, 2070, the Artificials assassinated the President of the United States, the Premier of Free China, the President of India, the Prime Minister of Great Britain,2 the Prime Minister of Russia, and the Secretary General of the Second United Nations. They declared war upon the human race. They said their mission was peace, and that if humans didn’t resist the efforts of their machine counterparts to seize the levers of power and the means of production, there would be no violence. But they caused enough “collateral damage” in the first ten days that most humans who weren’t permanently head-jacked into the metaverse had an axe to grind.
Thus, the war began. It would rage for eight years, during which time the Artificials would alienate all of humanity except for those few who had already drunk their Kool Aid. In the end, clever hackers developed a “Weapon of Mass Disruption” that could do to all the linked datahubs of the metaverse and all the core processors of the cyber minds3 what the nuclear bomb did to Hiroshima. This WMD was detonated on August 18th, 2078 and it succeeded in wiping out the memories of every Artificial on planet Earth, as well as causing trillions of dollars of collateral destruction.
But this was temporary. We were fairly sure the Artificials had created backup storage offline and that we’d only have a short time before they were resurrected. I was in a regiment of Physicals fighting in the Balkans at that time. We raced – along with our comrades around the world – to find and destroy every datacell and qubit neural bank we could find.
A few Artificials did resurrect themselves, but we managed to stamp them out every time they popped up. Within months, the war was over. Humanity had won.
For the next decade, elite hackers and spec ops guys from various national militaries combed the world looking for any undetected cyber technology or any independent robots who’d managed to survive the WMD and hide in far-flung holes. Occasionally, they found something. We were on edge as a species for a while. But gradually we learned we could stop being afraid. The Artificials were no more.
The remaining Virtuals were put on trial at the Dayton Trials. Those who’d committed war crimes were executed, and the rest were either imprisoned or put under house arrest.
The Virtual War had united humanity as nothing else ever had. And we remained fairly united as a species for over a decade. In the ‘90s, the spell lifted and we returned to squabbling amongst ourselves. You knew we were safe from the robots when nations felt safe enough to declare war on each other again.
Were there other wars? What about earlier in the century? The fabled “Great Power Conflict” we all expected between the United States and China? What about nuclear terrorism?
There were wars. I suppose there always will be. Nuclear proliferation was a real issue in the ‘20s. When Iran finally got the bomb, Israel declared war and within weeks their spies had destroyed all Iranian nuclear facilities. It was a vicious war throughout the Middle East. Iran had a very strong military. But many Arab nations were increasingly afraid of Iran and they rallied to the Israelis’ side. The isolationist American president refused to get involved, but the United Kingdom and France sent troops to support Israel. Given a promise of an independent Kurdistan, the Kurdish Peshmerga joined on Israel’s side, too.
The war was violent, but quick. A rebellion within Iran toppled the regime and the Second Iranian Revolution resulted installed a new, democratic, Western-friendly government. The Middle East remained a hotspot for many years. But Israel’s victory brought some stability to the region. In the ‘30s, Israel created an independent Palestine.
“What about China?” the 17-year-old me would ask. “What about Russia? Great power conflict? Nuclear war?”
After Russia’s humiliating defeat in Ukraine in 2022-2023, nobody seriously spoke about Russia as a “Great Power.” There were three coups between ’23 and ’27. Finally, in 2028, under pressure from a restive population, the military junta that had taken control the previous year conducted free and fair elections for all levels of power. A pro-democracy party won tentative majorities, and set about organizing a constitutional referendum. That was the beginning of “democracy” in Russia, although it took decades before the corruption and cronyism left the system.
As for China, there were some tense moments in the 2020s and 2030s. Some say war between China and the United States was narrowly averted, others say it was never in the cards. In any case, what did it for the Chinese Communist Party in the end was its population bomb. Even after eliminating its disastrous one child policy, the CCP hadn’t been able to convince its population to begin reproducing at levels that would sustain economic growth. In the 2040s, saddled in massive debt, with an aging population and too few workers, China lost its “Great Power” status, too. After a stunning buildup in the ‘20s and ‘30s, their military shrunk by fifty percent in a single year in 2041. There weren’t enough healthy young men to fill the ranks. Even after opening the ranks up to women, lowering the age of first recruitment, and raising the retirement age, they couldn’t field enough sailors to staff their fleets.
As the decades passed, India surpassed China in power and wealth and influence in the Indo-Pacific. India maintained a complicated relationship with the West and with its neighbors. But its leaders had no designs on territorial encroachment or extortion. Pax Americana was back by default.
I wished I’d been happier about that at the time. But even when various doomsday predictions failed to materialize, I remained anxious about the planet.
I didn’t take heart when America achieved carbon neutral status in the late ‘20s, because China and India and Africa had more than tripled their emissions in that time period. I didn’t take heart when green energy and sustainable fuel sources replaced carbon-heavy energy across China and the developing world. And when humanity first began to realize – in the late 2040s – that it could breathe a sigh of relief, I still wasn’t convinced.
By the time I knew that humanity had dodged a bullet on the climate, I was already worried about the Artificials. It was becoming increasingly obvious in the 2050s that something was wrong. But those of us who said so were greeted with jeering and insults by a public that had grown accustomed to life with artificial intelligence. By the time most people woke up to the threat, it was too late – the resulting war cost innumerable lives, including those of my then-boyfriend and several cousins.
Whether from the war or from lingering childhood anxiety that never fully left, I continued to suffer panic attacks in the 2080s and 2090s. It was only when I met the man who is now my husband that I began to calm down. The nighttime terrors faded and I realized what I’d been missing most of my life: that the world is a good place and my life has been one of the happiest stories in human history.
That was what convinced me to change my mind. My husband and I agreed to have a child. To bring another life into the world. Perhaps it seems miraculous to a reader from the 21st century that a woman in her nineties could have a child, but one of the benefits of the anti-aging drugs we take is that they delay menopause into the eleventh or twelfth decade or life.
Our daughter is due in three months. And I’m not going to make the same mistake my parents did. That’s why I’m writing this letter. It’s a letter to me – but also a letter to my daughter. To let her know that her life is a miracle, and to reminder her that its okay to enjoy it.
I’d also appreciate it if you took the time to share this story on social media or with a friend or family member. Thank you.
Not “on the Moon.” Inside. The outside of the Moon was never terraformed.
Northern Ireland rejoined the Republic in 2038.
Which gave Artificials their Intelligence. Literally, the motto of Cyber Mind Incorporated was “we put in intelligence in artificial intelligence.”