Expert opinions, Features, FORECASTS

Why read stories about the future?

We often read science fiction to find out what writers think about the future. But do they really know something about things yet to come? Is it a good idea to view their fantasies as direct sociopolitical forecasts? What kind of reading are their futuristic stories after all?

We all remember the opening sentence of William Gibson’s The Neuromancer (1984): The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

This statement resonates with other well-known introductions – from Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, and other iconic books. The poetic objective of Gibson’s curtain-raiser is very clear – to introduce the reader to the world of the future, in which even a natural thing like the color of the sky has not escaped the impact of technology. But what does this phrase imply for a modern reader – the monochrome white noise, the blue screen of death or colored cubes? Does this phrase even make sense to a young reader who sees channel scrolling as a relic of the past rather than an actual practice?

Although Gibson’s novel is often included in the lists of the most accurate literary predictions of the future, his introductory remark is definitely a blunder. Should it be viewed as a mere predictive failure, or is the situation a little more complicated? This phrase actually reveals the author’s inability to leave the present, to distance himself from the “here and now” experience. In a broader sense, any book is primarily a story about the author who belongs to a certain historical period and culture.

The “here and nows” breaking through the fabric of writing are spontaneous and uncontrollable because we are oblivious to the present. It mostly escapes direct observation and conscious reflection. The world around us only makes sense to the extent where it correlates with our previous experiences, on the one hand, and the horizon of our future expectations, on the other. We can only consciously go through the experience of the present at a time of disruption, when our natural everyday life collapses under the influence of external factors.

And it is not that important whether this disruption is happening in reality or as we immerse ourselves in the imaginary world of a book (according to cognitive research, on the basic level, we perceive fictional situations in the same way as real events).

As we read Gibson’s sentence, we experience a certain variant of a micro-disruption that allows us to grasp the historical gap between my, a reader from 2020, present and the author’s present. Still, we can’t rule out a possibility of this sentence becoming meaningful again in the future – if television somehow enters into a renaissance in some new form and the idea of a “dead channel” finds a new unexpected significance. In Safe Conduct (1931), here is how Boris Pasternak described poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:

“Since his childhood, he was spoiled by the future that was given to him rather early and, apparently, without much effort.”  

Pasternak’s description could apply to us today: advertising and pop culture are insisting that “the future is now” and “the future is in our homes.” Futurism and the culture of the late 19th – early 20th century in general, which we inherited, introduced the future as a category that determines the present. At the same time, Pasternak had a strong sense of the fact that being “spoiled by the future” and imposed fantasies about it is obscuring the present which is only assessed from the perspective of being distant from the goals and targets we set.

“The visibility of the present alone is the future,” Pasternak wrote in the same book thus introducing the present as an autonomous category that requires attention and reflection beyond its relation to the past or the future.

But the present is always oversaturated. The reality is far above our ability to perceive it and our language’s ability to describe it. French philosopher Jacques Derrida differentiated between “the future” (le future) and “the forthcoming” (l’avenir). Le future is a result of a conscious engineering; it stems from the conditions that determine the present and is subject to current interests and demands. Derrida defined l’avenir as “the present future.” It is absolutely open and evades projection of our knowledge about today; it offers no horizon for expectations. It is the absolute other that cannot be predicted or foreseen. By expanding the imaginary dialogue between Derrida and Pasternak we can see the intertwining poetic images of the latter and philosophical contemplation of the former.

“The future could not be foreseen, but it could be seen when one stepped into the house from outside. Here its plan was made evident: the distribution of those forces to which it would be subjected. And there was no dream blown in by the movement of the air in the street that the spirit of the house did not swiftly dissipate at the very door of the entrance hall,” writes Pasternak in The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers (1922).

‘Outside,’ ‘the movement of the air in the street’ are Derrida’s spontaneous l’avenir; the house whose structure conforms to a plan is the engineered le future. The forecasts of speculative fiction writers are similar to the Pasternak house: they create imaginary worlds whose believability is based on the conventional knowledge about the present, but they call it the future.

The story goes that Leo Tolstoy was once asked about the meaning of his Anna Karenina, and he said that to answer that, he would have to retell the novel using the very same words it was written in.

During public discussions, speculative fiction writers are often asked to comment on the problems of contemporary society and give a forecast: and the darker the forecast is, the more likely it is to become popular and pass quickly from one person to another. Apparently, this interest influences the writing practice. For instance, books by Neal Stephenson or Kim Stanley Robinson, who are known as the most perspicacious and accurate visionaries, are written in a way so that they can be reduced to a short summary, a sociopolitical platform.

The approach to writing, in turn, triggers a similar approach to reading: reading for information, diagnosis, a forecast. But then, why write and read lengthy (and in the case of Stephenson and Robinson, quite lengthy) novels if they can be summed up in a short essay?

In addition, the artistic concept, no matter how extensive it may seem, if devoid of its literariness such as description, the plot and the storyline, characters, details and so on, is often nothing in itself but a simple binary opposition: the left and the right, the top and the bottom, the west and the east, the colonizer and the colonized, the private sphere and the public sphere, elites and masses, and so on. The relations between these poles take the form of a conflict that is resolved through two scenarios: suppression and assimilation (restoring the status-quo), or a revolution (a radical reform of the existing situation). The author’s choice here depends on his/her political and social views.

I think that one of today’s most remarkable authors who work with novelistic polyphony, can show gradations between the aforementioned poles as well as multiple and equitable points of view and complex relations between them, and know ways to prompt the reader to consider each of the opinions, is China Mieville, author of The City & The City, a 2009 novel which is very representative in this regard.

This is not to say you should not read books by Stephenson, Robinson and other fiction authors. This was absolutely not my intention. What I mean is that we should not hastily give in to the obvious ‘reader’s program.’  Literature reading is ultimately a prolonged process of interiorizing an imaginary world, identifying with its characters and an experience of interacting with imaginary realities. Speculative fiction presents interest due to details that are not the product of an author’s imagination but a reflection of the current experience that is not yet reflected upon. Correlating this experience with our impressions during the reading process allows us to stay in the moment and perceive it as a tangible physical and cognitive experience.   

By Artyom Zubov, Ph.D (Philology), Lecturer, Department of Philology, Lomonosov Moscow State University

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