Essays

The Timeless – and Timely – Allure of the Near Future

By posted at 6:00 am on October 28, 2014 8

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coverMaybe we should lay this one on Cormac McCarthy. In 2006, after writing a string of rigorously realistic literary novels that seemed to come down to us from some remote desert Olympus, McCarthy delivered an utterly out-of-character book. The Road was set in the near future after a vaguely defined cataclysm – “a long shear of light and then a series of concussions” – had turned the planet into a wintry ashtray, wiped out most of mankind, and erased civilization. The novel was post-apocalyptic and viciously dystopian and, most amazing of all, unashamed of its genre trappings. It was not exactly news in 2006 that the once-impregnable walls separating literary genres were beginning to crumble. But when The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, became an Oprah pick and got made into a major motion picture, it suddenly seemed that writers of every persuasion, from highbrows to hacks, had the green light to explore that realm once seen as the preserve of writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction: the near future.

coverEmily St. John Mandel, a colleague of mine here at The Millions, has just been named a finalist for the National Book Award for her fourth novel, Station Eleven, a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization. Here, in Mandel’s words, is what such a world might look like:

An incomplete list:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below.

No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films… No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, or a dog bite…

No more flight…

Mandel, in an interview with the New York Times, cited McCarthy’s take on the end of civilization as a liberating force for herself and like-minded writers. “It’s almost as if The Road gave more literary writers permission to approach the subject,” she said.

That Times article dissected the “cluster” of recent and forthcoming novels that are set in bleak worlds after civilization has crumbled. The article speculates that this cluster – books by Howard Jacobson, Michel Faber, and Benjamin Percy, among others, plus Station Eleven and the Divergent and Hunger Games series – is fed by our era’s anxieties over pandemics, environmental catastrophes, energy shortages, terrorism, and civil unrest. Today’s headlines about the international spread of Ebola are sure to deepen this anxiety.

(It’s worth noting that novelists aren’t the only ones drawn to the dark possibilities of the near future. The makers of movies and television shows are churning out dystopian fare set in a future inhabited by a few decent souls trying to navigate worlds riddled with cannibals, zombies and totalitarian cults.)

For many years, the near future has beckoned writers as different as Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. They’ve recently been joined by a growing legion of literary novelists that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, and many others. As these writers have shown, fiction set in the near future can be post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. (It is, however, almost always dark.) It can contain elements of fantasy, magic realism and/or science fiction, but it doesn’t have to. In the end, labels are less interesting to me than writerly strategies: What is gained by setting a work of fiction in the near future?

coverA good place to start looking for an answer is Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story, a satire set in New York City around the year 2018. Rather than imagining some environmental or economic upheaval, Shteyngart has simply taken today’s technology and tried to extrapolate what it will be doing to us a few years from now. The novel bristles with devices like the äppärät, a pendant that broadcasts the wearer’s scores on everything from looks to “fuckability” to credit rating. An individual’s credit rating is also displayed on sidewalk “credit poles.” The currency of choice is the “yuan-pegged dollar” because the old dollar is worthless. Women wear see-through jeans called Onionskins. Hipsters have migrated from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Nobody reads books anymore. (On an airplane, a fellow passenger upbraids the protagonist, Lenny Abramov, for cracking open an actual book: “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.”) The country is run by the right-wing Bipartisan Party, and American society is made up of elite High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lenny Abramov is the “The Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation,” which provides life-extension services to anyone who’s got a pile of money and a desire to live forever. The novel becomes, among other things, a very funny portrait of the twinned hells of post-literacy and constant connectivity.

Shteyngart has said that when he started writing the book in 2006, he imagined a future in which Lehman Brothers, General Motors, and Chrysler all tanked. Two years into the writing, those companies actually tanked. “So I had to make things worse and worse,” Shteyngart told The Nation. “That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days – there doesn’t seem to be a present to write about. Everything is the future.” Another difficulty, as Shteyngart discovered, is the novelist’s need to walk the increasingly blurry line that separates the plausible from the outlandish.

William Gibson, who made his name in the 1980s writing science fiction novels set in a future heavily influenced by then-nascent computer technology, is now going against the grain: He recently started setting his fiction in the present. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written,” he told The Paris Review in 2011, adding, “For years I’d found myself telling interviewers and readers that I believed it was possible to write a novel set in the present that would have an effect very similar to the effect of the novels I had set in imaginary futures…I finally decided I had to call myself on it.”

It’s a wrinkle on Shteyngart’s discovery: technology is changing so fast that there’s no longer a present; the future is already here, relentlessly unspooling into the past. Which presents its own counter-intuitive challenge, as Gibson sees it: “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.”

coverMichael McGhee has set his first novel, Happiness Ltd., somewhere between the worlds of Mandel’s extreme post-apocalyptic future and Shteyngart’s more recognizable near future. In the middle of the 21st century, the novel’s titular entity governs the developed world like Amazon on steroids, crushing competition, feeding the public a diet of happy news, and demanding that people consume the abundant goods and services offered by the Bountiful Age. Celebrities are worshipped, lifespans are artificially extended, and after a major economic collapse and years of devastating storms, watery lower Manhattan has been walled off and ceded to disenfranchised persons, or DPs, who refuse to be seduced by the consumer society’s ubiquitous baubles. There are strong whiffs of Huxley and Orwell in this smiley-face dystopia. There is also an echo of the difficult love affair at the center of Super Sad True Love Story – when Nelson, a rising star in Happiness Ltd.’s news management operation, falls in love with a DP named Celia, trouble is inevitable. Such slumming is fiercely discouraged by the powers that be.

In an email, McGhee explained his decision to set his novel near the middle of this century: “To me, the appeal of near-future fiction is its invitation to tweak society’s nose – to take today’s standards and extend them to a ridiculous extreme. For example, modern American culture encourages us to spend beyond our limits – what happens tomorrow when a cash-strapped government requires us to spend beyond our limits? Or, today our culture practically worships celebrities. What happens tomorrow when some of us literally worship celebrities?  It’s a fertile field for satire.”

Like Shteyngart, McGhee learned that current events have a way of outracing a writer’s imagination. “The peril is that the near future has a propensity for arriving faster than you expect,” he writes. “It took me 10 years to write Happiness Ltd., and almost all the fantastic features I started with – advertisers tracking our every move, hurricanes ravaging lower Manhattan – came true before I was finished.”

coverEdan Lepucki, another colleague of mine here at The Millions, hit the New York Times bestseller list this summer with her dystopian debut novel, California. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a young couple, Frida and Cal, who flee southern California after a string of financial and environmental catastrophes, then try to eke out a life in the northern woods. America has finally become what it is now firmly on its way to becoming: a bifurcated society, where the haves live in gated communities, and the have-nots like Frida and Cal live in decayed cities or the wilderness. Like Shteyngart’s future America, Lepucki’s is a country of High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else.

Lepucki, in an email, described the allure of the near future this way: “I loved the challenge of speculation, of imagining certain present-day conflicts (oil crisis, climate change, disappearing tax base in dying cities) escalating to an intense degree. I also liked the freedom of a post-technological world, and how that added mystery to my characters’ lives, and deepened their isolation. And it was just fun to play pretend, to really fling myself into this new, unfamiliar landscape; I had never done that in fiction. Last, there was a real sense, when I was writing this book, that the characters’ conflicts mattered. I’d never had such a strong and accessible sense of dramatic propulsion when writing, and I think the apocalypse had something to do with it.”

There is, she added, a flipside: “To create a believable future you have to think logically through certain large-scale events, which is so different from my usual concern when writing fiction; I usually work on a much smaller scale, considering a made-up person, putting them in a room, and letting them interact with another made-up person.”

If I see a thread running through these books and their authors’ comments, it would be this: the near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed.

If today’s crop of books, movies and TV shows set in the near future are an accurate barometer, it looks like we’re in for some filthy weather.

Image via mikelehen/Flickr





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8 Responses to “The Timeless – and Timely – Allure of the Near Future”

  1. Dan Bloom
    at 8:52 am on October 28, 2014

    cli fi? See Wikipedia page for “cli fi”…

  2. Janelle
    at 9:52 am on October 28, 2014

    Wow, scary how good writers are at “predicting” the future. I just recently finished ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand. Written in 1957, it eerily depicts the future we now live in, where political favors are the currency and Washington decisions, made by the elite few, affect everyone across the country. Fascinating!

  3. Ed Bast
    at 10:36 am on October 28, 2014

    McGhee unwittingly summarizes the problem with this brand of fiction:

    “To me, the appeal of near-future fiction is… to take today’s standards and extend them to a ridiculous extreme.”

    This quest for uber-ridiculousness comes at the expense of such things like character development, realistic dialogue, plot, purpose, emotion. So these novels just become a catalogue of ridiculousness. That’s not literature, that’s not art.

    Shteyngart is the chief offender of this. You can’t help but notice him smirking behind the scenes at his own cleverness. His fallback bit of “satire” is the old standby, “Hey, you know how big companies merge all the time? Like, say, Time Warner? Well, in the future, they’ll still do this, only absurder! Like, UnitedDeltaContinental! Ha!” His books are already outdated by the time they come out, and they’re almost immediately forgotten.

    This is not writing, this is re-writing articles and changing the names. Dave Eggers’ horrible The Circle traffics solely in this sort of laziness. It’s preaching to the choir, it’s a lack of creativity. The “freedom” these authors trumpet can be a crutch to avoid any sort of engagement with real world concerns. A crutch that, say, Orwell avoids using in 1984 – no uber-ridiculousness to be found, and the center of the novel isn’t easy satire but the very human relationship between Winston and Julia.

  4. Danny
    at 3:17 am on October 29, 2014

    Janelle: “Wow, scary how good writers are at “predicting” the future. I just recently finished ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand. Written in 1957, it eerily depicts the future we now live in, where political favors are the currency and Washington decisions, made by the elite few, affect everyone across the country. Fascinating!”

    You’re being funny. Tell me you’re being funny.

  5. Moe Murph
    at 9:23 am on October 31, 2014

    Oh, how I long for a pleasant future in which aliens land and offer boxed sandwiches and tea.

    Moe Murph
    Over-Dystopianized

  6. Jacques Fleener
    at 1:33 pm on October 31, 2014

    “That’s not literature, that’s not art.”

    What is the point, that books with a short lifespan never used to be published, and now they are? It’s a mistake to be confused about “what is literature” in the present moment. If art is of insufficient merit it will be forgotten, as so many previous works have been.

    People have always and will always enjoy reading or listening to yarns whose context they can process without trouble. I wouldn’t worry about whether a certain popular book is short of original ideas. 99% of everything ever written is short of original ideas. You seem very concerned with the idea that people are publishing or reading the wrong things. But there never was a time when people read only the right things. Somewhere in there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what art actually is.

  7. Moe Murphy
    at 8:32 am on November 3, 2014

    a.) Mr. Fleener, very much enjoyed your observation.

    b.) Loved Ms. Mandel’s theme of a troupe of Shakespearean actors touring through the wilderness in “Station Eleven.” A beautifully written work of art.

    c.) To my taste, the most wonderful science fiction is the type that seems to spring fully formed out of someone’s fever dream.

    I highly recommend Kirsten Bakis’ “Lives of the Monster Dogs” (1997) about a canine race with the manners of Victorian gentry, voice boxes to enable speech (in fluent Prussian German) and giant prosthectic human hands. Descendants of the original “monster dogs” arrive in Manhattan one day in 2008.

    Utterly original.

  8. Ed Bast
    at 8:57 am on November 3, 2014

    “What is the point, that books with a short lifespan never used to be published, and now they are?”

    What? That’s some impressive extrapolation there! I’m trying to figure out where I suggested anything resembling that….perhaps you were reading a different comment? My point was that Shteyngart and Eggers are lazy writers, and that setting fiction in the near future and focusing on one-upping the ridiculousness can be a crutch for lesser writers to lean upon.

    “You seem very concerned with the idea that people are publishing or reading the wrong things.”

    Um, guilty as charged? I care about writing and reading, yes. Also, I have opinions.

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