Destiny Defined: Analyzing Narratives of the Future
As someone who had yet to study the genre of futuristic literature, I was surprised to discover just how complex the genre truly is. Works of the future are multifaceted and can generally be grouped under one of three storylines: creation/apocalypse, evolution, and alternative futures. While these are just the three primary narratives of futuristic literature, these groups are not entirely exclusive of one another, and it is not uncommon to notice elements from one storyline present in another. Over the course of the semester, I have gained a deeper understanding of each of the three storylines, and a newfound appreciation for futuristic literature as a whole.
The creation/apocalypse narrative has a linear timeline, with a clear beginning and end. This is largely attributed to Judeo-Christian ideology, which brings to us the concepts of Alpha/Omega, beginning/end, and Genesis/Revelation. According to our course’s website, as a storyline, this linear “model conforms to Aristotle (Poetics VII) that a plot or narrative must have ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end.’” It is a straightforward timeline which most people have some level of familiarity with. However, in some instances, this linear model can become a bit more complex as it can appear somewhat cyclical—for example, certain aspects from “the beginning” or Creation reappear during “the end” or the Apocalypse. For instance, union with God is first seen in Eden’s utopia, and also later in The Book of Revelation, where we read of Heaven’s own reunion with God. As discussed in class, another example of this cyclical pattern is Genesis’s Tree of Life also making a return appearance in the book of Revelation.
When considering the Bible, Genesis marks the beginning of Creation, while Revelation both begins the formation of a dystopia (the Apocalypse), and later in chapters 21-22, the beginning of a utopia: Heaven. A utopia is a society where everything appears to be running smoothly, and all of its members are seemingly happy/content. In contrast, as defined by our course’s website, a dystopia is a “society opposite from a utopia, a utopia gone dysfunctional, or the world just before an apocalypse or ‘left behind’ after one.” In works of the future, dystopias appear to be far more common than utopias. A prime example of a dystopian/apocalyptic society can be seen in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In it, the story’s protagonist, Lauren, finds the world around her self-destructing—the government is corrupt, water is scarce, fire is rampant, and violence has her world in ruins. It is the start of the apocalypse, the beginning of the end, whether Lauren is ready for it or not.
In contrast, the second type of futuristic storyline, the evolutionary narrative, appears to emphasize free will and adaptability. Only the strong survive, and evolution is necessary in order to stay alive. Although Parable of the Sower falls under the creation/apocalypse narrative, Lauren herself exhibits characteristics seen in the evolutionary narrative. The world as she knows it is ending, but she takes it upon herself to evolve/adapt to her new normal. She begins to form Earthseed, her own religion, and Lauren repeats over and over that “God is Change”—she is ultimately able to save herself by evolving as an individual. Lauren also serves as an example of our course’s definition of evolution (evolution = change + continuity), as indicated by Karin Cooper’s midterm, “The Alternative Evolution of the Apocalypse” (2015). Cooper writes that while the group Lauren creates is new, Earthseed still resembles the community in which she was raised. Cooper argues that Lauren’s formation of a new group still falls “within the bounds of the evolution narrative because while the community she starts has similarities to the one she came from, it does have changes that make it more able to survive in the new environment in which it was founded.” While she still maintains certain aspects of the life she once led, Lauren must adapt and evolve in order to make it in her post-apocalyptic world.
“Stone Lives” by Paul Di Filippo exemplifies the evolutionary narrative in a more obvious way, where the protagonist, Stone, is blinded, then given a new set of bionic eyes, and introduced to a new world of technology. In order to survive the post-apocalypse, he must learn to adapt/evolve to his new surroundings, much like Lauren does in Parable. Similarly, “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson is also classified as an evolutionary narrative, although far more primitive and less technological than “Stone Lives.” In it, bears have evolved to the point that they are fully capable of starting fires, and can also interact with humans without behaving aggressively, possibly another example of their growth as a species. However, apart from these more obvious signs of evolution, the short story also features less obvious signs of evolution, such as the protagonist’s hesitancy to upgrade to radial tires, which is reiterated time and time again, presumably to emphasize the changing times.
Finally, the last narrative, alternative future fiction, is likely the strangest of the three subgenres. Concerning alternative futures, our course website reads that “according to postmodern quantum physics or relativity, time travel and multiple strands of time are theoretically real or at least probable.” It goes on to state that because of this strangeness and all that comes with it (“multiple universes, parallel worlds, time portals, worm-holes”), alternative future narratives might appear to be “far-fetched” to some, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, as some may find the uniqueness of the genre to be appealing. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine is an example of this genre, as it explores time travelling. This narrative is especially interesting, though, because it is also an evolutionary narrative following a linear timeline which allows the Traveller to witness the growth and decline of the world as he transports to and from different time periods both before and after the one in which he resides. And although it does seem unrealistic at times, there is some level of relatability as the Time Traveller has almost humanlike interactions with the majority of the creatures he encounters (the Eloi and the Morlocks), and does not divulge too much information concerning strange organisms he discovers (such as the giant crabs or octopus-like creature). This stands in agreement with what we have discussed in class, where in order for a work of science fiction to be not only interesting, but convincing, there can only be one “unbelievable” or “magical” component (in this case the time machine itself), and all of the rest should be relatively believable, hence why the Traveller could not possibly interact with the foreign creatures any more than what has been described, simply because it would have become far too far-fetched and unbelievable.
Believability is an issue which arises in each of the narratives that we have covered, save for one. “Better be Ready ‘bout Half Past Eight” by Allison Baker is one of the pieces that I found to be most interesting simply because it is not one that I would have initially associated with any of the three genres, let alone alternative future. In it, the story’s protagonist, Byron, struggles with the realization that his lifelong friend, Zach, is transitioning to “Zoe,” and as the story progresses Byron begins to internalize her plight, and experiments with makeup, transforming himself into a woman for no particular reason. At certain points, he also has conversations with his deceased mother, and as he struggles with his own identity, seems to take on his mother’s as well. Although this narrative may not appear to be as much of an alternative future narrative as The Time Machine, it still meets the criteria of the genre as the characters struggle with which paths they should ultimately take, and subsequently dictate their own futures.Throughout the course of the semester, perhaps my greatest takeaway is the understanding that while each of the three narratives are defined by certain criteria, they still share more similarities than differences. In each of the pieces we have covered, even though their individual time scales may vary, I have noticed a great deal of overlap between genres. As a genre, futuristic literature is large and expansive, and while it might certainly seem “nerdy” to some, it is a powerful platform because its possibilities are endless and therefore entertaining, but also incredibly versatile. Although apocalyptic, evolutionary, and alternative future fiction all take different approaches, each genre serves its purpose: to be informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking as well.