Ilyse Kusnetz

I was 11 when my brother Arthur dressed me up as R2D2 and took me to a Star Wars convention a few months after the movie opened. This was the same brother who let me tag along to Dungeons and Dragons night with his friends. We constructed my droid costume out of old cardboard boxes and duct tape, and decorated it with a Magic Marker. I loved it without reserve, though secretly I envisioned myself in the role of Princess Leia toting a blaster rifle. I had long, brunette hair and felt certain I could pull off the whole twin raspberry-danish coiffe.

It was 1977. We lived in Albuquerque, where nothing ever happened, a mile from a military base abutting a hollow mountain that was rumored to be full of nuclear weapons. Even at that young age, we were waiting for our futures to unfold, for something extraordinary to happen, some indication that our lives were going to mean something. Our love of science fiction and fantasy was an expression of yearning for more than the world displayed before us had to offer.

What I remember of the conference is mostly a blur, the crowd and press of bodies pushing through rooms that felt enormous, the colorful tables and booths full of merchandise – t-shirts, action figures, fake weaponry including every knock-off version of light saber imaginable. The universe was suddenly not far, far away but up close and personal. The Force spoke to Arthur’s soul, and he would soon found one of the very first Star Wars fan clubs in New Mexico when he was 17 years old.

I did not know for another 36 years that I’d be diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer – that the future to which I looked forward with every cell of my being would be rudely, unimaginably altered when those cells had the audacity to mutate and rebel against the body that had hosted them all their lives. Where was the Force when you needed it?

I have suffered all my life from what one might call nostalgia for the future. In 2011, two years before my first cancer diagnosis, my husband and I spent the summer in Japan. I thought that if the future were to be found anywhere, it would be there, in bubble-fueled, Midas-fingered Tokyo, a metropolis on steroids, pumping out to a soundtrack of flashing lights and pulsating club music, its very own grand, epic vision of Tomorrowland.

If Tokyo has a challenger to its status at the capital of Tomorrowland, it is Odaiba – that vast, human-made island reclaimed from Tokyo Bay. To get there, you board a Jules Verne ship that will whiz you across the water (you can also access Tomorrowland via the monorail that hangs bat-like over the bay). At night Odaiba glitters, an amusement park of the senses. Families swarm through its monolithic shopping malls in Ginza-bought designer finery. Pet stores sell rhinestone-encrusted outfits for tiny dogs. There are Shih Tzus and miniature Schnauzers dressed as firemen and traffic cops. Chihuahuas in tuxedos and Western-style wedding gowns. The ball of the Fuji TV building hangs like a bathysphere in the building’s silver lattice, where Captain Nemo looks out over the city. A replica of the Statue of Liberty stares past the Starbucks balcony into the heart of Odaiba, the ultimate monument to free market capitalism. This, too, is the future.

It is beautiful, this version of Tomorrowland. It feels as if nothing bad can happen in this version of the future. It is an embodiment of everything television and movies told us it would be.

The best thing about Tomorrowland is that the future is still free to be imagined, and somewhere within it, I’m sure there is a cure for cancer. I try not to stain this vision of the future by thinking about how profitable cancer has become for the pharmaceutical industry. There are drugs to treat the actual cancer, and drugs to treat the nausea and vomiting caused by the cancer drugs, drugs to treat the headaches and high blood pressure caused by other drugs that improve the function of the cancer drugs, drugs to keep you in artificial menopause, drugs to regrow your bones over the lesions left by tumors that once lived in your bone marrow before they melted away like poisonous lumps of snow. Where does the motivation to cure a disease lie when companies can make so much money treating the symptoms?

My nostalgia for the future includes the memory of Sick Bay on the Enterprise. If Kirk or Spock had cancer, I imagine Bones would just give them a pill or wave his tricorder over the affected area, and they’d be cured. My own doctor tells me that cancer is a “clever bastard” – and the recently discovered “cloak of invisibility” around each cancer cell that acts to conceal it from the body’s white blood cells is evidence of that. In that sense, it’s tempting to compare cancer to the Klingons or the Romulans, but I think it has more in common with the shape-shifters from the Deep Space Nine franchise who lived in the Gamma Quadrant and whose mission was to wreak genocide on other, “solid” races. Unlike when menaced by the Borg, resistance wasn’t futile – the Federation eventually triumphed. Given enough time, I think scientists will also figure out how to cure cancer.

And I know I might die before that happens. And maybe in fifty or a hundred years, scientists will figure out how to upload our consciousness, download it again into a cybernetic body. Once again, too late for me – but that would be my futuristic pipe dream, a way to extend my life span and the life spans of those I love.

I’d like to hope that science and technology will advance exponentially before things like global war and the overuse of planetary resources overcome us. And I imagine, however naïve it might seem, that science and technology and the people who use them will create a future where poverty and disease have been eradicated, a future in which we reach the stars and thrive there.

Sometimes it seems very possible that my chemo will lead to full remission from the disease that threw my life off track. But I wonder – are our best visions of the future still the ones we dreamed up in the past? Although I try to remain optimistic, I know I’m only one infection away from a hospital stay, from becoming too frail to beat the cancer. Too sick to topple empires, take a joyride in the Millennium Falcon, welcome the arrival of benevolent aliens who support humanity’s launch into the broader galaxy and universe. Of course, the aliens might not be friendly, and the singularity is certainly a dicey affair at best.

And not surprisingly, I find myself wondering what there is after I cease to exist as myself. I’m on the fence about reincarnation. What’s not in question is that after we die, it’s the living who are left with the wreckage, but also with the gift of time – time enough to arrive at a potentially better future.

It’s said that when the last person who knew us dies, that is when we truly die. Maybe that’s what lies behind the current craze to digitally document our lives.

Maybe I’ve been wrong and the future doesn’t matter after all. Because for the first time in my life, I find myself focusing as much as possible on the present, on being with those I love, in moment after precious moment, as far into this world’s future as I’m given.

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Ilyse Kusnetz

Author's Bio

Poet and journalist Ilyse Kusnetz is the author of Small Hours, winner of the 2014 T.S. Eliot prize from Truman State University Press, and The Gravity of Falling (2006). She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and her Ph.D. in Feminist and Postcolonial British Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Guernica Daily, the Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Stone Canoe, Rattle, and other journals and anthologies.

With deepest sympathy, Kyoto Journal regrets the passing of Ilyse on September 13, 2016.