Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fiction and the Future

The not-so-distant future is a very popular setting, and for good reason. It’s interesting to wonder where we’re headed. We can extrapolate, but in a way the future is tabula rasa—writers can paint any picture they want, because no one really knows. I think it’s surprising how many similarities these futures tend to have, actually. The popularity of the dystopian setting isn’t hard to explain: it was a big trend (for a while), and also a broken world means built-in conflict.

I’ve written before about the fact that in an alarming number of these possible futures, actual food is no longer a thing. People eat blue pellets or pre-measured scientific portions. Nightmare. The other option is that we go backwards: for example, Katniss providing for her family by hunting in the woods.

Fashion is also a logical casualty in worlds like the one found in the Hunger Games series. For folks in the districts, it’s back to basics: whatever you can scrounge or make at home. This series is interesting because it has both kinds of future world: the futuristic dystopia of The Capitol, and the back-to-our-beginnings Districts. Fashion does seem to be the raison d’etre of the Capitol dwellers, along with the ritual slaying of children, that is.

One other part of modern life that's noticeably absent from a lot of dystopian futures is one a lot of us can’t imagine living without: Reading. Books. Literature.

In the case of characters like Katniss, it’s unclear whether or not there are still books around in her world, but either way she doesn’t have the money or the time to curl up with a new release. I also think it’s strongly suggested that in the Capitol they’ve mostly thrown over thinking for a neo-Roman bread-and-circuses mentality. In a lot of other back-to-basics broken future worlds, books have suffered a similar fate: no one has time to read, because they’re too busy running from the government, dying at twenty-one, or having the love-area of their brains removed.

In some dystopian/SF worlds, the fact that literature is gone is part of the point. In my favorite classic dystopian, Brave New World, literature has been taken away, on purpose, as part of the plan to end conflict—and cognition. Fahrenheit 451, Feed, Uglies—my bookshelf is full of cautionary tales about a world full of people who have lost touch with the great words and ideas contained in books, and this loss has contributed to—or caused—the people to be less than they might otherwise have been.

I could write here about the oncoming storm. The common core standards that quantify how much fiction (versus the preferred, more practical non-fiction) a public school student can and should be exposed to. David Coleman, the College Board president, has been widely quoted as saying that it’s rare in a working environment in which someone will ask for “a market analysis by Friday, but before that…a compelling account of your childhood.” No, Mr. Coleman. I don’t want a compelling account of a random market analyst’s childhood. Or of yours, thanks very much. But wouldn’t the world be poorer if no one ever read about Pip’s coming of age? Or even Harry’s or Katniss’s?

So maybe we are creeping in that general direction. Literature may not be directly practical. I have news: neither is algebra. I’m still waiting for that moment when I need to use something other than retail math (70% off!) in my life. Ever. But literature is communication. Which is sort of important in actual life (at least until we have our feeds installed).

But books are more than that. They’re part of the reason we’re here. Artifacts that testify, sometimes so eloquently that you want to cry, that we’re all trying to figure out what it means to be human.

That’s why I think the 2002 film version of The Time Machine is the most hopeful SF story ever. In that film, as in the book, the distant future’s version of humanity is broken nearly beyond repair, split into two, and the great ideas of the past are all literal dust. But in the movie, the contents of the New York Public Library have been preserved on some sort of self-powering future computer. One of the final scenes shows the hologram librarian of the past reading Mark Twain to a group of Eloi children. The subtext (something people who read literature learn to pick up on—another benefit) is that literature will save us.

As messages go, it’s not a bad one.

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