Trying to figure out what kind of a future world I might be writing about I came up with this diagram via, and adapted from, W.H. Auden, Samuel R. Delany and Gerry Canavan (see Delaney’s interview and Canavan & Robinson’s Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, 2014).
I’m not interested in writing dystopic or apocalyptic fiction but rather utopian fiction as defined by novelist Kim Stanley Robinson – fiction with a vision of trying to make a more just society (and trying to avoid the repressions that utopias often wind up in). These binaries – utopias and dystopias, city and country – are in play in most future fictions. In the Techno Super City scientific and technological developments have solved all problems, or in Arcadia there is a rural idyll of self-sufficiency and benevolent sentient nature. Sometimes there is a relationship between city and countryside – but Delany points out people tend to lean towards the city or the country and to see the other as necessarily ‘bad’.
The flip side of these utopias are the dystopian versions: the Bad Cities of 1984, Brave New World and Blade Runner, where an all powerful state uses technology to surveil its citizens and chronically curtail their rights and freedom, or the dystopian countryside full of natural disasters, diseases and human savagery. The Hunger Games and many other future fictions use these city/country dystopias or city/country oppositions in tandem. The countryside sometimes functions as a place of escape or of temporary retreat where a way to overcome corruption is discovered enabling a triumphant return to the newly utopian city.
Canavan identifies a fictional city somewhere between utopia and dystopia – Junk City – an adapted, hacked urban-techno chaos that people nevertheless find ways to flourish within (see William Gibson for example). He also discusses a toxic, polluted countryside admired for its decadent beauty, naming this rural dystopia in fiction ‘The Culture of the Afternoon’. Many of J.G. Ballard’s future fictions such as Vermilion Sands and The Drowned World, with their beachcomber heroes and their languid desire for the collapse of ‘civilization’, could fall into this category. Then there is ‘Quiet Earth’ where human activity has led to the destruction or near-destruction of most species including homo sapiens. I am trying to write an Anthropocene Arcadia, focussed on a watery future – coastal, riverine, estuarine – and imagining some relationship with Junk City.
Writing future fiction is a new direction for me after having written two historical novels but they have similarities in that both estrange readers from the present. Canavan argues that in SF estrangement is a ‘flexible artistic tool for disorienting and defamiliarizing the conditions of everyday life, opening up the mind to previously unimagined possibilities … SF distances us from the contemporary world-system only to return us to it, as aliens, so that we can see it with fresh eyes’, and historical fiction, in part, does the same thing.
All novels grapple with the landscape of the mind and emotions, and a novelist has to ask themselves what is the story, the quest the protagonist is undertaking? I am dealing with my characters’ choice, hope and agency – all key questions for ecological thinking now. I’m imagining the partial breakdown of capitalism and its ‘economy of unpaid costs’ as K. William Kapp put it, because that’s what I want to imagine. I’m imagining new ways of living and surviving that draw on old ways, thrown back on the technologies of the body, of husbandry, of a post-peak oil world, because that’s what I want to imagine. I’m imagining living in conjunction with other forms of life – aquatic flora and fauna, and with the natural rhythms of tides, seasons, moon, day and night, sleep, waking and hibernation. To make things happen we first have to imagine them.
Thanks for all your interesting responses yesterday. Keep them coming. Another post from me on Frontiers and Islands tomorrow.