Comparative Futures (Essay 1)
When discussing the “literature of the future”, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fears, concerns, and anxieties of both the past and present. Without the context of where we are and where we have been, speculating about the future of humanity becomes a pointless exercise in futility, grounded in nothing but the fantastical. Former student Tom Britt’s 2016 pre midterm essay “A Gift to the Dead and a Warning to the Living” affirms this notion of the necessity of the literature of the future to be grounded in the context of both the past and present. Necessities, however, can be problematic, as the idea that literature MUST contain something seems to limit the very scope of literature. If topics must be covered, and universals are established, then visions can be compromised. Literature of the future addresses this concern in the form of multiple distinct, concurrent narratives: the creation/apocalypse narrative, the evolution narrative, and the alternative future narrative. These narratives are all concerned with similar issues, but they take different approaches to said issues, creating a discourse in which we can discuss the future through a variety of different, but equally valid, interpretive lenses.
The creation/apocalypse narrative and the evolution narrative are the two visions of the future which are most directly concerned with the issues of the past and present. Creation narratives, by their very definition, have to consider the context of humanity’s past. If we wish to explore where we came from, we must acknowledge where we have actually been. One of the biggest themes in creation/apocalypse narratives is the concept of revelation, or the idea of some sort of ultimate understanding divined through the intervention of the supernatural. This concept is fully on display in the scriptural texts covered in the course. Genesis and Revelation (particularly Revelation) are the word of God himself, and offer a vision of humanity’s beginning and end. Genesis begins with “The Creation” itself, and simply states that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth.” As Genesis progresses, God begins to give shape and from to the dark void which originates from his creation, and man is shaped in the image of God. This conception of the creation narrative is one of the most fascinating texts that we have, as it outlines the processes of creation in which a God who is the invention of man invents man in the image of himself, an image which was created by man in the image of itself. In essence, we made God in our image, who in turn made us in his image. This paradox of creation has been one of humanity’s longest lasting fascinations, and our inability to understand from where we truly came has in turn led us to constantly wonder how we will end. Revelation details the process of our end, and this is demonstrative of the linear narrative structure that is typically associated with the creation/apocalypse narrative.
Many of the themes present in these scriptural texts are reflected in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Parable parallels many of the concepts of a more traditional creation/apocalypse narrative but also simultaneously introduces concepts associated with an evolutionary narrative. These narratives are valid, but they are lacking in empirical evidence, leading to subjective interpretations which can weaken the strength of their arguments. On the other hand, evolutionary narratives are often directly concerned with the empirical. Evolutionary narratives have their own sort of revelations, but they are divined not through the supernatural but the empirical. Their claims are based on observation, and assert that the story of creation, and destruction, resemble structure like circles and spirals. According to the evolutionary narrative, humanity’s beginning, and its demise, can be traced through objective and empirical evidence. Evolutionary narratives also carry themes and ideas that reflect the concept of Social Darwinism, or the idea of the “survival of the fittest”. Here, Parable merges the creation/apocalypse narrative and the evolutionary narrative. The apocalypse has come and wiped out the previous way of life, but now new social structures have taken hold as the strongest of humanity’s survivors have risen up to create a new world. Life springs from destruction, and evolutionary forces come to the forefront in the creation of the new world.
A similar process occurs in H.G. Wells The Time Machine, in which an apocalyptic event takes place, wipes out humanity, and paves the way for new forms of life to grow and eventually dominate the remnants of the earth. Time Machine is far more concerned with evolution than Parable, however, as it directly addresses time on the cosmic/geologic scale. The Traveler moves thousands of years into the future, and comes to a point in time where humanity is not even a memory of time but just a simple speck on the timescale, long extinct and forgotten. This narrative style allows Wells to explore the future without the pretext of human influence while simultaneously establishing that certain distinctly human ideas and conceptions, like civilization and economics, might be inherent and necessary for sentient, conscious communities to exist. If Parable merges the creation/apocalypse narrative with the evolutionary narrative, then Time Machine merges the evolutionary narrative with the final narrative we have covered in the course, the alternative future narrative.
The alternative future narrative takes ideas and concepts from the other two narratives to create a sort of far more flexible hybrid narrative. Alternative future narratives combine the empirical and supernatural in order to form a better-rounded and complete vision of the future, often explaining their chronology through things like alternate dimensions, forking paths, and parallel worlds. A number of our texts have depicted alternative futures (The Time Machine, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “Mozart in Mirrorshades”) and these texts all contain some conception of time as a maze/labyrinth/spiral, often delving into subjects more traditionally associated with theoretical physics, like worm holes, time spirals, and alternate or parallel dimensions. The theoretical and more open ended conventions of these narratives often allow them to more freely discuss and experiment with many of the concerns of literature of the future. By not limiting themselves to specific structures, alternative future narratives are enabled to bore completely explore future concepts that themselves are difficult to define with structures, like culture and gender. These narratives are also often far more experimental and playful than their counterparts, as they deal with concepts and ideas that do not necessarily translate very well into the sometimes too serious discourse of traditional, “high” literature. Allowing Mozart to exist as a time travelling, reality warping antihero is not something that many other forms of the medium are allowed to do, but the alternate future narrative enables its authors to do just that, disregard expectation and practicality in favor of exploration and discovery.
These three conceptions of the narratives of the future that make up our course all carry with them distinct characteristics and qualities, and yet the most effective and memorable texts which we have studied often combine or blend aspects of all three of them to create more well-rounded and complete visions of the future. The necessity of convention in defining mediums and genres is almost thrown out in the discourse of literature of the future, as the subject itself is one that defies convention. Any narrative of the future is ultimately going to be an exercise in speculation, and the realm of speculation is infinite. These narratives allow us to explore and navigate that realm, and by attempting to define or predict the future often reveal more about the past and present. We project our present fears and concerns into the narratives of the future in order to distance ourselves from them, so that we may better understand them. The narratives of the future are, by disubstantiation, very much the narratives of the present.