Future Narratives: Comparisons and Contrasts
In telling stories about an imagined future, authors generally confine themselves to one or a combination of two or three different types, which include apocalypse, evolution, and alternative narratives. Because readers can interpret texts in divergent ways, it is possible that different readers can attribute different intentions to the author, particularly regarding their vision of a future. An examination of the narrative types is worthwhile in enhancing discussion of authors’ future visions.
The apocalypse narrative usually tells the story of an ending, society, government, culture or planet. Within the Western tradition, these narratives are primarily found within the Bible, in the books of Daniel and Revelation. These prophecies, although made by different people at different times, share several things in common. Most importantly, both stories involve a vague timeline, which seem to be intended to suggest that the prophecy could be fulfilled at any day or minute. Another thing that is inherent to both narrative styles is the use of phantasmagorical imagery; this mode of mixing aspects of various animals and men calls to mind the mystical nature of a surrealistic dream state. Like the mysterious time cycles associated with this genre, this phantasmagorical style also allows for an expanded number of ways in which the works can be interpreted and thus connected to the life of the reader. Another aspect that defines apocalypse narratives is their attractiveness to readers; in a world where people sense decay and decline (rather than progress), the apocalypse narrative offers the hope of restoration, while promising destruction to people or institutions that would otherwise prevent them (also to many bystanders). In this way, apocalypse narratives seem very purposed towards the building of fear and hope, much like the religions that spawned them. While these types of narratives remain popular today, it is much more common to see the transplantation of apocalypse elements into other narrative forms than the repetition of the apocalypse as a narrative template.
One good example of the infusion of apocalypse elements into a different narrative form is in Parable of the Sower. The book’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is a daughter to a Christian preacher. The walled-in community where she lives is slowly declining into hardship, deprivation, and violence. As Lauren’s community members watch the world outside their walls continue to crumble, they turn to her father for spiritual guidance and counsel until his disappearance. Although the book is set in some sort of economic and ecological apocalypse, Parable resists this reading at some key points. First, Lauren has a genetic mutation that allows her to sense the pain of beings within her line of sight. Although this development is attributed to the use or abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, this change holds high importance within the development of the story; it necessitates finding new ways to solve problems and places a practical limit on the way that violence can be exercised by the character. Along with this mutation (which readers learn that Lauren is not the only one), there is the motif in Lauren’s journals which repeats, “God is change.” When one considers that the entire journey is about survival and starting a sustainable community called “Acorn,” along with the fact that most religiously inclined people have an intention of behaving and living in a “God-like” manner, Parable is better understood as being an evolutionary narrative.
Unlike the revealed information of the apocalypse narratives (from some divine or mystical source), the evolutionary narrative is based upon the observation of change over time. In Parable, Lauren’s writings about the rules and beliefs of Earthseed are based upon her observations of what and does not work for the purposes of survival. Likewise, the problems that Lauren and her cohorts face seem to be based on the imagination of current problems (in Butler’s 1992) into the future, including corporatization, drug epidemics, and environmental disasters. HG Wells’ book The Time Machine, also builds its vision in this way. Going hundreds of thousands of years into the future, Wells imagines the class and social divide (partially inspired by the Industrial Revolution) forward into the division between two biologically different species of humanoids: the gentle Eloi are the incarnation of the upper class, and the disgusting Morlocks embody his future vision of the proletariat. Although both Parable and Time Machine have their own problems in terms of plot, the authors seem to agree about the question of what constitutes progress. The same question is explored in “Better Be Ready Half Past Eight,” which is set in a near-future scenario, where the protagonist deals with his friend changing gender and sex. Once he comes to terms with this change, the hero ends up unsure about his son’s future gender status and even his own. Despite the uncharacteristically short timeline of this type, Half Past Eight also illustrates the way that changing ideas and bodies affect one another. Butler illustrates this by showing how failing institutions and social practices dictate the development of new mores and traits for a viable future; Wells also shows the same concept, particularly in the evolution of the Morlocks to survive in subterranean conditions. He also demonstrates this even more in the description of technologies and knowledge that are gained and lost. This differs from the tendency in apocalypse narratives of labeling things as good and evil; from the objective viewpoint in the evolutionary narrative, these distinctions are both impossible and unreasonable to make. The short story,” Somebody Up There Likes Me,” also demonstrates the concept of confusion regarding quality, but more in terms of communication. The “high signal to noise ratio” attributed to humanity and nonsensical correspondence with a distant wife create the pervasive feeling of anomie in the story. Because our subjective human nature generally compels us to qualify things relative terms, a third future narrative form has been created: the alternative narrative.
Alternative narratives of the future give authors the ability to apply their subjective judgements to a continuum of infinite possibilities and probabilities. In Garden of Forking Paths, the main character assassinates an Englishman because they are enemies at one point of the branching timeline in the future. Although this may seem abhorrent from a reader’s perspective, Borges demonstrates the ambiguous nature of understanding an act from a perspective in time. The same can be said of “Mozart in the Mirrorshades;” in this short story, the denizens of one future timeline travel back into other, alternative, timelines, to bring back oil and mineral resources. This, of course, has disastrous effects on the worlds which they visit, but provides much needed resources for the home world. Ironically, the denizens of the past world still manage to distract and divide the occupiers enough so that eventually they are forced to leave (and some time-natives manage to escape with the occupiers). In this story, the things that were good for some in one time, are bad for another in a different time; but, some of these same things are also the opposite for other people. These two tales illustrate the relativistic notion within alternative timelines, which differs from the moral and amoral perspectives of apocalypse and evolutionary narratives. The alternative future vision, which is not constrained by the revelation of divine wisdom or eons of unimaginable time, gives authors the freedom to explore ideas in ways that does not quite make temporal or spatial sense (much like quantum theory). In this sense, the emergence of the alternative narrative seems to mirror the changing ways in which we perceive the world.
Being forever trapped in the present, writers will continue to provide their future narratives, so long that writing is a part of our culture. For now, the future of future visions is in the alternative narrative form. Apocalyptic and evolutionary narratives will undoubtedly be borrowed from for the foreseeable future; but, their rigidity with regards to timelines and their processes of development will most likely limit them to being elements in an alternative future story. Conversely, the alternative future vision allows the perfect vehicle through which writers can suspend (or alter) the forces of God or nature into a vision that suits their artistic intent. Likewise, the alternative timeline represents the fringes of our comprehension, whereas the other two styles are reliant upon what is “known,” either from God or observation.