Back to J. D. Robb’s Future: How the Futuristic Technology of the In Death Series Has Fared in the Present

The dichotomy between the head (futuristic technology) and heart (the prime directive since the world began) informs J. D. Robb’s In Death series: “It is the year 2058, and technology now completely rules the world. But New York City Detective Eve Dallas knows that the irresistible impulses of the human heart are still ruled by just one thing-passion.”

J. D. Robb published Naked in Death in July 1995. Secrets in Death, the 45th book in the In Death series, came out in September 2017—22 years later. The pertinent number, however, is 63—because in 1995, Robb imagined a New York City 63 years into the future. What did she foresee? Was she prescient? What did she envision that hasn’t happened?

Time moves very slowly in Eve Dallas’s world. Just a couple of years have elapsed since Naked in Death, Eve’s romance for the ages with Irish gazillionaire Roarke combined with hardcore police procedural plots.

Futuristic setting notwithstanding, human nature is what it is. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is remarkably applicable to Robb’s world. A quick recap:

Eve and Roarke breakfast together in her tiny apartment in Naked in Death. Eve’s salary isn’t lavish, so her lifestyle is worth examining—what electronic devices are commonplace? Is there what we now call an internet of things? What do they consume? In other words, how are Physiological and Safety (Basic) needs met in Robb’s future world?

She took a quick shower, bundled into a robe, then headed into the kitchen. There was Roarke, in trousers and a shirt he’d yet to button, scanning the morning paper on her monitor. [1. Personal Electronics]

Looking, she realized with a quick tug-of-war of delight and dismay, very much at home.

“What are you doing?”

“Hmmm?” He glanced up, reached behind him to open the AutoChef. [2. Automated Food] “Making you coffee.”

“Making me coffee?”

“I heard you moving around.” He took the cups out, carried them to where she was still hovering in the doorway. “You don’t do that often enough.”

“Move around?”

“No.” He chuckled and touched his lips to hers. “Smile at me. Just smile at me.”

Was she smiling? She hadn’t realized. “I thought you’d left.” She walked around the small table, glanced at the monitor. The stock reports. Naturally. “You must have gotten up early.”

“I had some calls to make.” He picked up the portalink he’d left on the table, slipped it back into his pocket. “I had a conference call scheduled with the station [3. Outer Space]—five A.M. our time.”

“Oh.” She sipped her coffee, wondering how she had ever lived without the zip of the real thing [4. Real Food] in the morning. “I know those meetings were important. I’m sorry” (Naked in Death).

1. Personal Electronics

During breakfast, Roarke uses a couple of different devices. He scans “the morning paper” and checks “stock reports” on Eve’s monitor. He makes calls to an off-planet location using his “portalink.”

Roarke speaks to people from his PPC (personal portable computer) using an earpiece for privacy. Like the monitor in Eve’s kitchen, it’s not much different from today (although back in 1995, devices like these were not the norm). One more example: in Brotherhood in Death, Roarke “tapped something on the screen.” Touchscreens: commonplace now but certainly not in the mid-90s.

Many houses have internal electronics called viewing stations. One use is to see who is at the front door. A young man tells Eve, “There are viewing stations in several rooms.” Eve, who admits she’s “not very good with complex electronics,” is able to ascertain that “somebody took the whole damn deal—the drive or whatever the hell it is, the discs” (Brotherhood in Death). This addresses the Safety level of the Maslow pyramid.

Voice commands are common: “ 'We’ll take the elevator,' Roarke said, solving the problem by calling for it” (Brotherhood in Death). Siri and Echo are just two examples of voice-command technology today.

2. The AutoChef

There’s nothing readers of the In Death series want more than an AutoChef. And guess what, they might not have to wait much longer. A young Indian inventor has created an auto-chef! For busy folks, an automatic food maker can’t come soon enough.

How about a fridge that connects to your smartphone and tells you when you need to restock it? It’s happening now: Walmart is already there.

AutoChefs are ubiquitous in In Death. Here’s a mini one in an upscale bathroom: “In addition to the divan—pink and white stripes—there was a curvy vanity: drawers full of creams, lotions, enhancements; a closet filled with various robes and slippers; a mini AutoChef and friggie built into the wall” (Brotherhood in Death). By the way, “enhancements” temporarily change a person’s face—now that’s something for the future.

The point is everyone has an AutoChef; the scale and scope of the offerings are all about money. Television reporter Nadine Furst needles Eve on her dilapidated office at NYPSD Headquarters.

“And your equipment’s pathetic.” Enjoying herself, Nadine clucked her tongue over Eve’s work units. “At the station, relics like this would be delegated to some low-level drone, or more likely, kicked to a charity rehab center.”

She would not scowl, Eve told herself. She would not scowl. “Remember that, the next time you’re tagged for a donation to the Police and Security Fund.”

Nadine smiled, leaned back on the desk. “At Channel 75, even drones have their own AutoChef” (Glory in Death).

3. Intergalactic Travel and the Colonization of Space

Robb’s vision of space is still just that. We have no space colonies, no intergalactic travel, no off-world prisons and/or resorts. Do we need a Roarke to make this happen (calling Elon Musk)? Robb folds space stations and intergalactic travel into normal business activity, as when Eve checks Roarke’s status.

“Your whereabouts, Roarke. Please verify.”

He remained silent, studying her. Eve heard someone speak to him. He flicked away the interruption with a dismissing gesture. “I’m in the middle of a meeting in the presidential chamber of Station FreeStar, the location of which is Quadrant Six, Slip Alpha. Scan,” he ordered, and the intergalactic link circled the room. A dozen men and women sat at a wide, circular table.

The long, bowed port showed a scatter of stars and the perfect blue-green globe of Earth (Naked in Death).

4. Ersatz or Modified Food vs. Real Food

Lack of access to real, authentic, non-processed food—as opposed to more affordable ersatz offerings—is a reality for most people, including Eve.

American economist and Nobel Laureate Robert J. Shiller tweeted from the Davos gathering about what Patrick Brown had to say about synthetic food. Brown is a “Stanford biochemistry professor” and the “latest entrepreneur looking to upend the global food industry.”

Note the word cheaper. The rich of the future can afford real food, the less affluent cannot. And since cops rely on coffee to fuel them in the future as well, Roarke first woos Eve with the nectar of the Gods.

Eve woke to the fragrance of coffee. Genuine, rich coffee ground from beans cultivated on Roarke’s plantation in South America. The luxury of that was, Eve could admit, one of the first things she’d grown accustomed to, indeed come to depend on, when it came to staying at Roarke’s.

Her lips were curved before her eyes opened.

“Christ, heaven couldn’t be better than this.”

“I’m glad you think so” (Glory in Death).

Keen readers of the In Death series will not be surprised that Eve doesn’t have a droid—likely due to the expense but perhaps because of Eve’s innate solitariness. Droids do just about everything in 2058: child-care, clean, cook, bartend, sex (as for that sex with inanimate objects thing—in October 2017, a brothel opened in Germany stocked with plastic sex dolls).

Droids can be unsettling, especially for straightforward Eve—like here, when she interviews a potential suspect, actor Justin Young, and he offers her coffee.

He flicked a glance up as a domestic droid, dressed, Eve noted with horrified amusement, in the classic French maid’s uniform, carried in a glass tray topped with a single cup and saucer. Justin took the cup from it, used both hands to bring it to his lips (Immortal in Death).

There’s a continuing interplay between Roarke and Eve about the beautiful, sophisticated droids his scientists create. On a visit to one of Roarke’s laboratories, Peabody—Eve’s stalwart assistant—is struck by a lab droid with a voice “as melodious as church bells.”

That’s a droid,” Peabody murmured to Eve, and Anna-6 turned, smiled beautifully.

“I’m a new, experimental model. There are only ten of us at this stage, all in use here, at this complex. We hope to be on the market within six months. The research behind us is very extensive, and unfortunately the cost is still prohibitive for most general markets. We hope that larger industries will find the expense worthwhile until we can be cost-effectively mass produced.

Eve cocked a head. “Has Roarke seen you?”

“Of course. Roarke approves all new products. He was very involved in the design.”

“I bet he was” (Immortal in Death).

Eve is inclined to agree with the scientist she has come to visit, Dr. Engrave. The testy doctor tells Anna-6 to “go smile someplace else” after she escorts Eve and Peabody inside, further adding, “I know droids have their place, but damned if they don’t make me itchy.”

Veteran financial journalist Amy Resnick commented on a New York Times story from 2017 Davos, “A Gathering of the Global Elite, Through a Woman’s Eyes,” pinpointing her uneasiness with androids.

When I first read Glory in Death, the second In Death book, I was struck by an unusual object: a talking picture. After Prosecuting Attorney Cicely Towers is murdered, Eve and Feeney painstakingly search her luxurious apartment for clues. Computer expert Feeney, a father himself, points out Towers had two children; he wonders out loud if her children were threatened:

With a frown, Eve walked over to the holograms. Curious, she picked up one of the boy and girl together as young teenagers. A flick of her finger over the back had the audio bubbling out.

Hey, big shot. Happy Mother’s Day. This will last longer than the flowers. We love you (Glory in Death).

This didn’t exist in 1995, the year Glory in Death was published, but now you can go to Amazon and buy a sound module for greeting cards.

A programmable greeting card is a small thing. Robb writes about big issues constantly, like virtual reality. It’s a huge topic, but suffice it to say, it’s part of everyday life now—and not just for pleasure and recreation. On October 24, 2017, a team of world-wide surgeons donned virtual reality headsets to participate in an immensely difficult surgery taking place in London, England.

What about transportation?

“Eve.” She turned, spotted Mira—the department’s shrink and top profiler—all but leaping off a glide and rushing toward her, pale blue coat flying open over her deep pink suit. “You’re still here. Thank God” (Brotherhood in Death).

Glides? That’s science fiction, right? Au contraire—there’s a fast-moving glide at the Toronto Airport and Swiss researchers have determined that 10-mph moving sidewalks could make crosstown buses in New York City obsolete. As always, Twitter nails it (where’s social media in the In Death world?)

Cars that drive themselves are not uncommon in 2017. But cars that can also move upwards? Not yet. Unsurprisingly, Eve has a special souped-up car (thanks to Roarke).

The DLE looked like your poky uncle’s economy vehicle—and drove like a rocket. Eve swerved around vehicles whose drivers considered the sirens a casual suggestion. She hit vertical to leapfrog over others until Mira simply closed her eyes and hung on” (Brotherhood in Death).

Morality has changed by 2058. One example, prostitution is licensed. Does that mean rape and torture of women have ceased? That jealousy is a thing of the past? Maybe. Here’s a description of the marital arrangement between Dennis Mira’s dead cousin, Edward, and his wife Mandy.

The fact that Edward cheated, often? She considers that part of the whole, and not particularly important, as he’s discreet. She’s discreet as well, and uses the services of a licensed companion (Brotherhood in Death).

Virility is extended well into later years. Roarke looks for “some names of lovebirds Senator Hound Dog might have roosted with.” Answer: “Five women in the past year … multiple visits, on a weekly basis.” Eve: “Five, in a year. And he’s nearly seventy.” “Medical science, and we salute it, has made that issue moot” (Brotherhood in Death).

To recap, let’s compare some social norms of 2058’s Naked in Death to today’s mores. Prostitution is legal (1), mood-enhancing drugs are readily available and legal (2), and guns of every shape and variety are illegal and almost entirely off the streets (3). Some politicians are up to nefarious deeds (4). Scorecard, please, for 2017:

  1. Prostitution is shifting to a more sex-worker, victimless crime.
  2. Legal drugs: it’s happening.
  3. Gun control: seems like it’s nevah gonna happen, at least not in the US.
  4. Corrupt politicians: what else is new?

Let’s close out our quick survey of Robb’s futuristic vision—what’s here now, what’s coming, and what’s a way off—with something familiar to all citizens of New York City.

He overtipped the driver—purposely because the weather was truly horrible. It might have been the generosity that prompted the driver to roll down the window and call out that he’d left his briefcase in the back of the cab. (Brotherhood in Death)

Cabs, passengers, and NYC weather—welcome to 2058. Some things never change.

We've got tons of J. D. Robb coverage, including a review of all of the In Death novels—click here for more!


Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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