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The Real Story of What Happens to America
By Albert Brooks
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Albert Brooks
All rights reserved.
It was a normal day, or so it seemed. Actually, nothing in 2030 seemed normal, not to Brad Miller anyway. Brad was surprised at how many people showed up for his eightieth birthday. Surprised because he had these friends in the first place and surprised at how healthy they all were. This was not what people in their eighties were supposed to look like. Sure, the lifts helped, along with the tucks and the hair and the new weight-loss drug, which, while only seven years on the market, had become the biggest-selling drug in the history of the world. That's what happens when a chemical works almost one hundred percent of the time, in everyone. But still, Brad thought, these folks look good.
And they did. They were thin, healthy, all looking better than their parents were at forty. The only thing missing were younger people. Brad couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a young person at his birthday. Other than his son, whom he never talked to anyway, he didn't even know anyone under fifty. Nor did any of his friends. There was just too much resentment and too much fear.
As the lights dimmed, the customary "life" movie played in the middle of the room, holographic style. People were getting tired of these. It was one thing to watch home movies of someone else; it was another to feel like you were in them. It was like boredom squared. But people watched; they laughed and told Brad how much fun it was to see him "age." He, like many of them, actually looked better now than he had ten years ago. But it was funny. Where once that was a compliment relating to how you lived your life, whether you ate well or exercised enough or got a good night's sleep, now it was just about what you could afford. And once cancer had been cured, the youth business went crazy.
Most people in that room were only in their twenties when Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer. Like all the wars going on at the time, this one seemed to have little success. The progress was so slow. Still, people held out hope that when they got older there would be a cure for what ailed them. But when the year 2000 rolled in, there they were: bald, fat, and ugly. And there was still cancer.
But everyone in that room, probably everyone in the world, remembered where they were when they heard the news. Oh, there had been so many hopeful stories over the years. So many false starts. So many mice that were cured, but when the human trials started, people dropped dead of all kinds of things that had never bothered a mouse. But then it happened. And like all of the greatest discoveries, from Newton to Einstein, Dr. Sam Mueller's cure was so exquisitely simple.
* * *
Dr. Mueller was no genius. He grew up fairly normal, in Addison, Illinois. A big night out was going to Chicago for pizza. After graduating Rush Medical College, Sam Mueller interned at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center and then, realizing that making a living as an internist was going to be tough at best, he started looking elsewhere. He thought of concierge medicine, which was all the rage, but decided to take a fairly lucrative position at Pfizer. He figured he would do that for a while and then something would unfold. Oh my, did it unfold.
Mueller had always been interested in the immune system. So much in medicine was pointing to the body's own defenses as a cure-all, but the success rates were modest at best. He was assigned various projects at Pfizer. Some were interesting, some he hated. He never understood the Viagra-for-women thing. Every woman he ever knew could go all night, have a bowl of cereal, and go for another afternoon, but he worked on it anyway, and when it happened it was huge.
The team got big-time bonuses and raises and all kinds of rewards. They were even sent to Hawaii, where Sam Mueller met his wife. She wasn't Hawaiian, she was an assistant on the project whom he had never really gotten to know, but then one night on Kauai they both got drunk, walked on the beach, watched the most beautiful sunset in the world, and fell madly in love.
Maggie was a great companion for Sam. Smart, easygoing, and very supportive. He could talk to her about his ideas and she would not only listen but also encourage him. The idea she liked most was an interesting one. Something about using a person's own blood to attack cancer cells. Sam was convinced that if a person's blood was combined with someone else's blood that wasn't compatible, if the combination of the two was just right, one person's blood cells would fight not only the other blood cells but the foreign bodies in their system as well, including the cancer. But the real break came when Pfizer merged with a Swiss firm and Sam was let go. Thank God he never told anyone there about what he was working on or they would have owned it.
With Maggie's help, Sam Mueller raised three hundred thousand dollars, took on a partner, and started Immunicate. His blood idea was in the right direction but it didn't work properly; it knocked out cancer cells but attacked the other organs, too, and the body's immune system went into overdrive, killing everything. Something had to be done to make the blood combination work against the disease without working against the rest of the body. The answer turned out to be common amino acids.
Sam and his partner, Ben Wasser, spent an entire year injecting the blood with different aminos. With the help of computers they tried millions of combinations. There were so many months where they felt it was not going to work. And then on the night of June 30, 2014, they put together alanine, isoleucine, proline, and tryptophan. Four common amino acids that had never been combined before, certainly not in this precise measurement.
Two years later, over ninety-four percent of the participants in the human trials were cancer-free. There were still rare cancers that did not respond, but all the big ones were knocked out, and the success was so overwhelming that trials were stopped early and the drug was available to the general population by the spring of 2016.CHAPTER 2
Kathy Bernard was just five years old when she heard about the cure for cancer. It meant very little to her, although she wondered if her grandfather would benefit. She didn't really like her grandfather, but she didn't really like anyone. She was voted angriest girl in her sixth-grade class.
Some of the reasons were obvious — divorce, a lot of fighting in the family, a stepbrother who was a freeloader, a verbally abusive mother — but there was something else. Something that she felt even as a small child watching her family move down the ladder. Her father and mother both losing their jobs, owing more money than they had, her birthdays becoming less and less of an event. She simply felt that her generation was getting the short end of the American dream. And she wasn't the only one her age who felt that way.
Kathy started hanging around with a gang when she got into her teens. Not a typical gang — these kids didn't kill each other or go to prison or even get arrested. They were smart and pissed. They all felt they were getting screwed by their country. They didn't hate any particular race, although if you mentioned the "legal" illegals, you would start a fight. What they really hated the most was the whole idea that their lives were going to be tougher than those of their parents — something that had never happened before in America.
When Kathy was very young, her father, Stewart Bernard, seemed secure in his job, but that was only because she didn't really understand the situation. He worked, like his father before him, for General Motors. But unlike his father, the last ten years of Stewart's employment were filled with uncertainty. The family moved from Missouri, where he had a job building Chevy vans, to Kansas, where he worked on Malibus, to Tennessee, where he had the misfortune to build Saturns, which GM decided to just stop making altogether.
The whole concept of an American car for which there was no haggling on price, for which the dealers were like your friends, and for which the craftsmanship took on a European feel had been such a rush when it was first introduced in 1990. And twenty years later Stewart Bernard was on the factory floor the day they announced the brand was finished. For all intents and purposes, so was he. The family moved again, this time to Indianapolis, where Stewart took a job with Goodyear Tire & Rubber. After five years, when that job ended, he was out of options. He wound up working at a Jiffy Lube, and then one day Kathy saw her dad dressed in that stupid outfit, his hands and face covered with grease, and she snapped. How in God's name did this happen? And what does this mean for me?
* * *
At a quarter to ten Brad Miller's birthday party ended. The older folks didn't much like to stay out past ten-thirty. They also didn't travel alone. It was a rare sight to see anyone past seventy driving by themselves. Several companies even marketed something that people had tried twenty years earlier to get into the fast lane on freeways: the fake passenger. But these new ones looked really good. You could get them in any color, though mulatto and Hispanic were still the favorites. They had the most realistic faces you could imagine and they were lightweight, so they could easily be taken from the car to the home. You would have to touch one to know it wasn't a real person, and you certainly could never tell in a speeding car.
When placed in a house, the fakes made the residence look occupied. In the beginning they deterred almost any burglar, but as the bad guys got hip to the fakes, the fakes had to be improved, and the moving mouth was a big step forward. If people looked through a window and saw a large figure talking, most didn't want to break in to find out if he was real.
The fake business in general had become huge: fake protection, fake friends, fake life, and fake love. It was getting so good that the word "virtual" was virtually dropped. If someone said he was going to Tahiti for a week, the first question was usually, "The real one?"
New kinds of fakes were coming on the market all the time, and some of them were children. People who could afford it found a Japanese company that made children who were as real as pets. They didn't grow; you could buy them at age five and they would stay that way. However, an unexpected issue popped up: People fell in love with them but got bored at the same time. Apparently, if the child didn't get older, the adult would lose interest. The company tried putting out a model that gradually aged, but the cost was prohibitive.
The pet children also presented another problem: pedophilia. Certainly pedophiliacs could enter virtual worlds or buy any number of artworks or movies or photos to titillate their fancy. But people drew the line at their owning a fake child. That was why a law was passed that required a permit to purchase a robot that looked younger than eighteen.
Fortunately, Brad Miller had no propensities toward children. The only fake person he owned was Lola, a six-foot-tall Hispanic woman whom he would either put in his passenger seat or prop up in his kitchen. Robot research proved Hispanic females were as effective a deterrent as a man. The studies were done by a company that specialized in fake Latino women, but still.
As Brad headed home with Lola in the front seat and two of his real friends, Herb Fine and Jack Eller, in the back, his mind started to wander. He missed his wife, who had died seven years earlier, but he felt great physically, certainly for his age, and he had no real material wants. He owned his condo outright, and with Social Security, plus his retirement from the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, he could pay his bills. The hair transplants that had cost him a fortune in his thirties turned out to be his best investment. Fifty years later he still had something to comb. And his posture was still that of a younger man; the older-age stoop he had always been afraid of had never come.
He did desire a girlfriend and felt something might be wrong with him when he occasionally looked at Lola the wrong way, but other than that, he was doing as well as could be expected. Sometimes, though, he cursed the memory drugs that were making Alzheimer's a thing of the past. It was funny how people could get nostalgic for anything, even a disease. "Remembering the bad things," Brad would say, "is not such a plus."
"Hey, schmuck!" Herb said. "You're going past my complex, wake up!"
Brad pulled over to a gated apartment building. Almost everything was gated where the older folks lived. Some places had a human inside a guard shack; other complexes, like the one Herb lived in, had gates and cameras and sometimes a robot figure, but no live person.
Brad drove up to the camera. Herb rolled down the window and looked straight into the lens, and after a second the gate opened. "I swear to God," Herb said, "these eye things give me the worst headache. They can't be good for you."
"They don't do any harm," Jack told him. "If you've got a headache, you're not peeing enough."
"I'm peeing fine! What are you, the Internet?" Herb got out of the car. "Happy birthday, Brad."
"Thanks, Herb. Are you going to play golf tomorrow?"
"Meet you at seven." And Brad drove off, leaving Herb to go through one more eye check to get in the door.
"You're going to give me a tumor!" he yelled at the machine.
Jack Eller didn't live in a gated anything. He was the poorest of Brad's friends and still lived in a retirement home with no protection and no real services to speak of. Eller had never married. He'd lived with a woman for twelve years and helped raise her son, but when that relationship broke up he never met anyone else. It didn't bother him that much — he was one of those people who were okay being alone — but Jack made a fatal mistake moneywise. He did not diversify. He put all his retirement back into the company he worked for, a successful energy business based out of Houston, Texas. When its stock went from 190 to 3, Jack was wiped out. And when the company was sold for nothing, that was exactly what he was left with.
He found other employment, but it never compared to the good years, and now he waited each month for his Social Security check. It was his lifeline.
One day, years earlier, when Jack Eller was turning sixty, he ran into the boy he'd helped raise. The boy, now seventeen, didn't recognize him at first, but even when he did he showed no interest. Jack couldn't get over how angry the kid was and he had no idea that the boy had joined the "resentment gangs" — the same gangs Kathy Bernard hung out with. By 2023 you could find them in every city in America.
* * *
Kathy Bernard would be considered pretty by almost any standard, but she certainly didn't feel that way herself. At nineteen years old she looked twenty-four, stood almost five foot eight, and weighed 118 pounds. She had beautiful black hair that she wore long, and with pale skin and light green eyes, she looked almost European. Kathy seemed to go out of her way to play down her looks, but the few times she let it all out, it even surprised her.
One of those times was when she went with Brian Nelson, her boyfriend, to a frat party. Kathy had met Brian a year earlier and liked him; nothing amazing, but he was cute and he went to college, something Kathy could not afford at that point in her life and something she envied. Kathy's situation at home was pretty bleak; her father barely had enough money to pay his mortgage, so when she graduated high school, furthering her education was not even discussed. She went to work in a restaurant, which was miserable, but at least it brought in some income. She was determined to get a real estate license one day and made that her goal, but for now her life was all about tips and dreams.
That night, waiting for Brian, Kathy came downstairs dressed in a short black skirt, high heels, and ruby red lipstick. Her father almost had a heart attack. "Where are you going?" he asked, already knowing, but that was all he could blurt out.
"You know where."
Excerpted from 2030 by Albert Brooks. Copyright © 2011 Albert Brooks. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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