I remarked to a friend the other day that this year, 2020, feels like the Year of the Jackpot. I was referring to a classic science fiction story by Robert Heinlein which appeared in the March, 1952 issue of Galaxy Magazine, in which a statistician plots seemingly unrelated trends, some human initiated, some natural phenomena, and notices that all of the cycles go into a deep trough at a particular point in the near future. Noticing a similar but less dramatic pattern in 1929, he foresees an apocalyptic crisis, which unfolds in economic collapse, pestilence, a devastating earthquake in California, nuclear war, and finally the sun going nova destroying life on earth.
I read the story when I was in junior high school and discovered my mother’s archive of Galaxy magazines in the attic. Those issues contain a good deal of speculation about the future. It is fascinating to revisit those narratives, which read as edgy social criticism when they first appeared, appeared simply quaint and dated when the Cold War was winding down (not having produced a conflict that would have justified the paranoia of the early 1950’s) and the Sexual Revolution had made Puritanism unfashionable, and now, as the timelines postulated by the authors have run their course, have a certain pertinence again.
Another perceptive and incisive story which appeared in this magazine about the same time is Lester del Rey’s The Fireman (February, 1951), better known under the title under which it was reissued as a novel in 1953 – Fahrenheit 451.
This book, which is often assigned in high school English classes, is presented as an indictment of censorship in general and book burning in particular. That’s a valid interpretation of the book, as Del Rey made clear in subsequent interviews, but it’s more complex than that. For one thing, discussions of it are quick to mention Nazis as the inspiration, but the action is set in the United States in 2052 and describes how trends Del Rey observed in America in the McCarthy era gave rise to the dystopian society depicted.
I was moved to revisit The Fireman when a housemate and I, whiling away our idle hours in time of pestilence, rented the DVD of the 2018 made for television movie of Fahrenheit 451. It differed substantially from the story I remembered, and while an entertaining film, conveyed the impression that there was a technological fix to the intellectual wasteland created by censorship. Absent from the film is the whole narrative of the protagonist Montoya’s unfulfilling childless marriage, in which his wife and her friends are more caught up in soap operas than in their own lives, and individual humans have no value compared to fictions projected on a screen. Instead of perishing heroically as part of a resistance movement dedicated to encoding human knowledge in DNA and propagating it via birds, Clarisse, the young woman who represents engagement in life, perishes senselessly early in the story, killed by joy-riding teenagers who run down pedestrians for kicks. Nihilism of youth and a high suicide rate are accepted as business as usual in America in 2052, and no one seems to notice the discordance between this and an official doctrine that maintains that protecting people from disturbing ideas via censorship increases overall happiness.
Although the state of the future is repressive and totalitarian, the original story represents this as the result of, rather than the cause of, the substitution of rapid-fire, dumbed-down, standardized sources of information and experience for print books and human interaction. Del Rey traces the roots of this from steam travel and rapid, cheap printing in the mid nineteenth century, via radio and motion pictures, to television (still in its infancy in 1951), and notes that the trajectory is exponential. The so-called information age and the internet seem to bear this out.
So which future am I living in, the Fireman, The Year of the Jackpot, or perhaps both? I would not even be asking this question if it were not for that box of Galaxy Magazines I found and read nearly sixty years ago, which now reside in the University of Oregon Rare Book Collection. The Year of the Jackpot is not readily available although a digitized version can be found on the internet, and the most accessible version of The Fireman is significantly distorted. Internet information sources censor not so much by banning and strong arming as by flooding cyberspace with bowdlerized versions of everything from news to the classics, trusting that the version which is at the top of the pile, or appears in the most copies, or has the best pedigree as attested by certification authorities that may also be compromised and prone to distortion, is the one most people will accept. We allow genuine dissenting voices to be drowned out rather than explicitly silenced.
Returning to the Year of the Jackpot metaphor, I tried to imagine it as a person would frame it in 1952, because a “jackpot” is a rather different kettle of fish in 2020. The mechanical slot machines available then differed rather little from the one-armed bandit gambling machine invented in 1894. The gambler inserted a coin or token, pulled a lever to set 3-5 wheels in motion, and, if he came up with a winning combination applied to an employee of the establishment for the payout. Electromechanical versions with automatic payout were introduced in 1963, and today gambling establishments feature a dazzling array of electronic games for which credit lines and push-button activation allow for higher stakes, a much more rapid rate of play, and easy access to gambling beyond one’s means in a way that compromises the future.
Exponential increases in the rate of information transfer and subsequent devaluation of human effort form a background to The Fireman. This is less of a factor in the metaphor of the Jackpot, because there was not a dramatic difference in rate between gambling around a poker table and an old mechanical slot machine. The rate and the stakes are much higher now, and escalating. Year of the Jackpot reminds us that certain combinations of simultaneous cyclical phenomena are winning combinations, but other combinations are decidedly losing combinations, and we are increasingly gambling for high stakes without due attention to the probability that several trends we think of as independent may trough simultaneously.
The Year of the Jackpot – Fair Use
Classic Slot Machine – Wikipedia Creative Commons