Thursday, May 28, 2015

A (Very) Quick Look at 2099: Manifest Destiny

Having already peered at X-Men 2099, let's take a quick, a very quick look at Marvel's 2099: Manifest Destiny.

The Marvel 2099 imprint went under in August 1996, and its sole surviving scion, 2099: World of Tomorrow, was unceremoniously put down after only eight months. In 1998, the superheroes of the dark American future get their eulogy and epilogue in the form of a double-size one-off called 2099: Manifest Destiny.  The book was authored by Len Kaminsky, who is probably best known for his work on Iron Man in the 1990s, but he also had a hand in Marvel 2099, writing all 25 issues of Ghost Rider 2099 (in which a dead street hacker's mind is digitized and placed inside a Ghost Rider robot). I read it for the first time a couple of days ago (before last week, I hadn't even known of its existence), and in 48 pages, it's given me more to chew on (and spit out) than sixty-something issues of X-Men 2099, Doom 2099, and the sad six-issue run of X-Nation 2099 (which, interestingly, was Humberto Ramos's first Marvel gig).

Let's start with this: we've established that the mood and public outlook of the early 1990s was a prime determinant of the grim hue with which the Marvel 2099 universe was painted. You had the economic hangover following the Reaganomics coke binge, the entrance of Generation X (whose most impressionable years were defined by the word "malaise") into the spotlight, urban homicides hitting a peak in 1991, AIDS becoming the number one cause of death for American males ages twenty-five to forty-four, and so on. If the 2099 books, with their dire prognostications of a future shaped by violence, corporate greed, natural disasters, and accelerated social decay, were a perfectly apt comic book mirror for the national mood of the early 1990s, 2099: Manifest Destiny sings in the key of the late 1990s, which, like the economy, had bounced back up like a physics-defying UV-reactive beachball.

The late 1990s were a good time to be kicking it in the US of A. A New York Times editorial from last February staidly titled "The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously" makes the case:
Let’s begin with the quantifiable bits. America at large was prospering in the ’90s. The United States economy grew by an average of 4 percent per year between 1992 and 1999. (Since 2001, it’s never grown by as much as 4 percent, and since 2005 not even by 3 percent for a whole year.) An average of 1.7 million jobs a year were added to the American work force, versus around 850,000 a year during this century so far. The unemployment rate dropped from nearly 8 percent in 1992 to 4 percent — that is, effectively zero — at the end of the decade. Plus, if you were a man and worked in an office, starting in the ’90s you could get away with never wearing a necktie.

From 1990 to 1999, the median American household income grew by 10 percent; since 2000 it’s shrunk by nearly 9 percent. The poverty rate peaked at over 15 percent in 1993, then fell to nearly 11 percent in 2000, more or less its postwar low. During the ’90s, stocks quadrupled in value — the Dow Jones industrial average increased by 309 percent. You could still buy a beautiful Brooklyn townhouse for $500,000 or less. And so on.

By the end of the decade, in fact, there was so much good news — a federal budget surplus, dramatic reductions in violent crime (the murder rate in the United States declined by 41 percent) and in deaths from H.I.V./AIDS — that each astounding new achievement didn’t quite register as miraculous. After all, the decade had begun with a fantastically joyful and previously unimaginable development: The Soviet empire collapsed, global nuclear Armageddon ceased to be a thing that worried anyone very much, and the nations of Eastern Europe were mostly unchained.
A tide of progress and good sense seemed to be sweeping the whole world. According to the annual count by Freedom House, the tally of the world’s free countries climbed from 65 at the beginning of the decade to 85 at the end. Since then, the total number of certified-free countries has increased by only four....
THE [sic] digital age, of course, got fully underway in the ’90s. At the beginning of the decade almost none of us had heard of the web, and we didn’t have browsers, search engines, digital cellphone networks, fully 3-D games or affordable and powerful laptops. By the end of the decade we had them all.
Oh, sure. It sounds a little too rosy. What makes the good old days good is often nostalgia and selective memory, after all. But a 1999 Pew poll indicates that, yes, we were generally pleased with ourselves and where things seemed to be headed as the 21st century approached:
Americans anticipate many perils in the next century, but none of them, no matter how grave, can dim the public’s positive view of the future. Despite consensus forecasts of natural disasters, environmental calamities and international terrorism, Americans are near unanimous in their confidence that life will get better for themselves, their families and the country as a whole.

An overwhelming 81% of adults are steadfast in their optimism about what the 21st century holds for them and their families, and 70% believe the country as a whole will do well. Eight-in-ten Americans describe themselves as hopeful about the year 2000, and they anticipate the new millennium will usher in the triumph of science and technology. Majorities predict cancer most likely will be cured, AIDS will be eradicated and ordinary people will travel in space....

Among men, 41% would like to live an additional 100 years, a number that drops 10 percentage points among women. Similarly, 41% of Americans under age 30 want to add a century to their lives but only 20% of senior citizens desire to do so. And 46% of those in the highest income bracket — $75,000 and over — would also prefer to live a 100 more years, compared to 31% of those making less than $20,000....

When asked to predict the future, public confidence in science and technology is again evident. Eight-in-ten people say that cancer and AIDS will probably be cured; 23% and 19%, respectively, think that cures will definitely be found. Half of the public says scientists may be able to clone humans by the mid-21st century.

Those who are optimistic about the future of the U.S. place more faith in the power of science than do those who are pessimistic about America’s future. Better than eight-in-ten optimists say that cancer and AIDS will be cured in the next 50 years, compared to 68% and 70% of pessimists, respectively.

Thirty years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Americans are hopeful that we will soon take the next step. Three-quarters say a manned spacecraft could land on Mars in the next 50 years; 18% say it will definitely happen. Just over half of the public thinks that space travel may soon become a feature of everyday life — 57% say it’s likely that ordinary people will travel in space by 2050.
Given all this, it shouldn't be much a surprise to find Manifest Destiny narrates the transformation of the dystopic world of 2099 into a utopia.

The story opens at some indistinct point after the year 2099. The global flooding, wars against the Phalanx, and hostilities with a bellicose Atlantis have all taken their toll on human civilization, and the global population has been reduced by about one-half. Society is beginning to rebuild, and the megacorporations and unscrupulous strongman are, for the moment, displaced or off-balance. Miguel O'Hara (2099's Spider-Man) is now at the helm of the rebuilt Alchemax conglomerate, thanks to some falsified company records, courtesy of Zero Cochrane (2099's Ghost Rider), who has completely abandoned the ghostbot and exists exclusively within cyberspace. Two relics from the Age of Heroes suddenly resurface: the first is Captain America himself, who had been secretly put back on ice and saved from the violent backlash against mutants and superheroes fomented by the obscure boardroom illuminati of 1999:

Wait. Is that Hillary Clinton in the middle?

The second is Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. O'Hara persuades Cap to take up the hammer and become the new incarnation of the long-missed and longed-for thunder god, inspiring and bringing hope to the battered survivors of 2099's myriad disasters.

And then some other stuff happens; you can read a more thorough synopsis (complete with a list of plot holes) here. But then, with O'Hara at the helm of Alchemax and in possession of Mjolnir himself, the reshaping of the world begins. A brief timeline of the next millennium follows:

And then we come to 3099, where humanity has build a massive space station: a "monument, habitat, port of call; center of commerce, diplomacy, and scientific exploration:"

Since Kaminsky's main contribution to Marvel 2099 was Ghost Rider 2099, you can bet he's going to let his Cochrane get the last word in. As he completes his transformation from a former human being into a galaxy-spanning cyberintelligence, the erstwhile Ghost Rider monologues:
From Earth to the farthest reaches of the frontier, every sensor probe, every hyperware transmission; I am information spanning light-years.

No photonic trail warps space without my detecting it; not a gossamer cape flutters in the solar wind that I don't see.

And I wouldn't miss the rest of this story for anything...
The whole thing reads like a transhumanist's wet dream, which might be why it inspires me much less than it gets on my nerves.

Manifest Destiny is a product of late-1990s optimism, but it's rather ahead of its time: it could easily be exhumed and reprinted today as a propaganda piece for Silicon Valley. Technology (and the leadership of ambitious, visionary capitalists), will solve all the world's problems. Allow it to develop unfettered for long enough, and it will lead humanity to a new Golden Age. There's no downside. We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. Et cetera, et cetera.

Moreover, it's inevitable.

There are a couple of interesting lines exchanged during the conference call between O'Hara and Xi'an Chi Xan (the one X-Men 2099 character to make a real appearance). O'Hara wants to revive the Mutant Genome Project—a mapping of the Homo Superior genome, previously pursued by multinational corporations by way of biopsy—and Xi'an isn't exactly comfortable with this.

You remember the old apology for A-bomb: if we hadn't build and detonated one, the Nazis or the Soviets would have beaten us to it. The science already existed; it had to be built, and it's a good thing it was built by us, and not them.

In his conversations with O'Hara, Xi'an assumes the posture of the straw-man luddite, stupidly resisting progress because of a fixation with the past.

It is telling that this is the last word in the debate. The assumption that the benefits always outweigh the problems (or eventually will) is the mantra of the tech apologist.

The notion of inevitability comes up again in one of O'Hara's chats with Captain America:

Manifest Destiny isn't just a denouement to Marvel 2099. It's an argument for total, full-hearted faith in the one-way arrow of human progress, and the inevitability with which Homo sapiens will wholly transcend its aboriginal origins, freeing itself from its "natural" tendency to accumulate and dominate, from want, and from its dependence on (and vulnerability to) conditions within the terrestrial environment.

Kaminsky gives us no indication as to why this time is going to be different. Manifest Destiny pegs the avarice and short-sightedness of the 1% as the cause for the end of the Age of Heroes, and we've seen how their mega-corp successors have been fucking the world over across the whole 2099 line. Do these people suddenly disappear? Were the biological/social tendencies that tend to create a 1% throughout human history suddenly effaced? I'd like to know how. (I'd also like to know what happened to those people who somehow didn't get superpowers.)

It seems technology in the Marvel universe turns human beings into angels, which the history of this universe will readily disprove. The industrial revolution converted a multitude of self-sustaining farmers into an industrial slave caste (and was the dawn of the carbon problem). The invention of the automobile led to the inventions of the drive-by shooting and the 80 mph suicide bomb (and contributed further to the carbon problem). A direct consequence of the miracle of human flight was the miracle of aerial bombing campaigns. The internet has done a lot of good for the world (it introduced you and I, after all), but it has also been a boon for inventive thieves, taken espionage (and potentially warfare) to the digital plane, and compelled us to welcome into our lives the most sophisticated and inescapable surveillance apparatus in human history. Every new technological development brings benefits, certainly, but these advances have generally exacerbated the destructive potential of our worst instincts instead of nullifying them.

But this time is different, says Kaminsky in 1998, just as the futurists today promise that an inflection point is just around the bend, once we get through our "growing pains."

In Manifest Destiny, everyone gets superpowers. What happens is global stability, and not bar fights and feuds between people with optic blasts and the strength to topple buildings. Humanity's excursion into outer space brings civility and peace to the E.T. cultures it discovers (not at all like how the rifle and cannon-armed conquistadors brought the light of Christianity to the peoples of South and Central America). Kaminsky, you'll notice, even includes a line saying that how the "wise" aliens see the inevitability of a galactic Earthling hegemony (and might even welcome it; greeting us as liberators, as it were). And back on Earth, the environment—which was in pretty lousy shape back in 2099 because of unregulated industry—seems to be doing fine now because technology.

Doom 2099 borrowed from Watchmen by punctuating every issue with a quotation from a literary or historical figure, and Manifest Destiny borrows from X-Men 2099 in this respect. The quote is from Stewart Brand:  "We are as gods, and we might as well start getting good at it."

Well, sure. Historically, the gods have been a volatile, self-absorbed lot who care only about pursuing their own entertainments, amours, and grudges, and have no problem streamrolling anyone they find annoying or unimportant.

I'm not saying a better world or a better humanity are impossible, or that they're not things for which we shouldn't strive with the full commitment of our hearts and imaginations. And yeah, we're still talking about a superhero comic book. But Manifest Destiny's Panglossian optimism and millenarian zeal ring too similarly to the tune of Silicon Valley's and the tech-prophets' anarchic song and dance (and their damnable insistence that the imposition of their designs for the world is a matter of destiny) not to push my buttons.

Footnote: a caveat from the earlier-cited New York Times article on the digital boom of the 1990s:
And it was just the right amount of technology. By the end of the decade we all had cellphones, but not smartphones; we were not overconnected or tyrannized by our devices. Social media had not yet made social life both manically nonstop and attenuated. The digital revolution hadn’t brutally “disrupted” whole economic sectors and made their work forces permanently insecure.
I wonder if there are any op-ed columnists in the Marvel Universe circa 2415 writing about the downfalls of everyone having superpowers. The social pressures. The constant need to assert that your ability to make grass grow at 2.5 times its normal rate is just as worthwhile as your next-door neighbor's, who can read minds and control other peoples' bodies. How all the good jobs are going to the guys who got super-speed. Etc., etc. Accelerated tech, accelerated problems. And on it goes.


  1. Kind of funny to read this today, right after discussing plans for a series of short stories with someone that involve a post-scarcity world where human avarice and desire for privilege lead to a different kind of class system.

    Technology can make our lives better, but not our culture.

  2. Thanks for saying this. I'm of the mind that a deliberate cultural renovation is much more likely to improve the human condition (and keep Homo sapiens from directly or indirectly destroying itself) than the social anarchy of endless technological upheaval—but, let's face it, that's as much a pipe dream as anything we see in Manifest Destiny, and I can't imagine any way it could realistically be achieved without top-down tyranny and repression.

    Incidentally, one of the reasons I'm on this 2099 kick is that I'm working on a futureshock piece of my own. If you want to knock heads and share stories/chapters, let me know.

    1. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you should really give Dune a read, if only for book four. A huge part of the series' plot is the engineering of the kind of cultural renovation you describe. Hell, reading the cliff's notes for books 1-3 just as a primer for book four would be sufficient, I think you would really dig it.

    2. Appreciate the offer, but the series I'm working on is very... esoteric. The focal point guiding the cultural change and establishment of a new class system is something you, statistically speaking, are probably not into.