Throughout January, we're looking to the future and hearing from writers about what the future means to them. Today's post comes from Annabel Smith, whose latest novel The Ark considers what might be coming for us.
Image source: Flickr / mladjenovic_n
The enduring popularity of historical fiction is not difficult to understand: there is much to be learned about the present by looking at the past. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, the same is also true: fiction set in the future can be enormously insightful about the way we currently live. Surely what is likely to happen next is at least as interesting as what has gone before, if not more so.
My third novel The Ark is set during a post-peak oil crisis in the year 2041. It was inspired by the essay ‘Cities After Oil’ written by the futurologist Adrian Atkinson. A futurologist’s job is to predict what might happen based on the available data, and, in some cases, to advise people on how to prepare for what might happen.
Atkinson’s essay predicts a period of chaos (strikes, riots, looting), followed by a breakdown in infrastructure (‘essential’ services such as water, electricity, hospitals, food distribution and even - shock horror - the internet!), followed by the collapse of governments, leading to a mass exodus from cities, resulting in, eventually, the development of small, self-sufficient communities.
According to Atkinson, these developments will not take place in the distant future, but within a few decades from now. I may live through them, and my son almost certainly will.
To some extent, I believe that you don’t choose what you write about: there are certain ideas that weasel their way into your brain and refuse to leave, and writing about them is the only way to exorcise them. Despite its dry, academic tone, ’Cities After Oil’ made for exciting reading. The dramatic possibilities of the scenarios Atkinson described embedded themselves into my brain and couldn't be weeded out. As Christopher Poindexter said, ‘The thing about chaos is, that while it disturbs us, it too forces our hearts to roar in a way we secretly find magnificent.’
Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ couldn’t have put it more plainly when he said ‘Climate change is happening, humans are causing it, and … this is … the most serious environmental issue facing us.’ Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of human behaviour on climate change, and a wealth of information on how individual acts, collectively, can make a difference, people are still not willing to change their lifestyles. They prefer not to think about it. As Al Gore observed, ‘There is the natural tendency that all of us are vulnerable to, to deny unpleasant realities and to look for any excuse to push them away and resolve to think about them another day long in the future.’
Isaac Asimov said, ‘Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us.’ Literature is a sneaky means of getting people to contemplate things they would prefer not to contemplate. Instead of pie charts and line graphs, we can paint a picture for people of what life might be like if they don’t change. In The Ark, for example, readers can ‘enjoy’ the contemplation of whether it is preferable to be locked in a bunker, cut off entirely from the outside world, ignorant of the fates of everyone you know and love, at the mercy of a possibly despotic leader; or whether it is better to take your chances on the outside, facing riots, looting, food shortages or simply freezing to death.
Steven Spielberg describes stories of the future as a ‘first level alert’ of things to come. He believes ‘it's easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we're preaching to them.’ I like to think of my novel as a little maggot, eating its way through people’s brains, niggling at them to change their ways, lest they face the fate of my characters.
Some people view reading as a form of escapism, and there is a school of thought where, by dint of being set in places and times that do not yet/may not ever exist, science fiction is the most extreme form of escapism. The Ark, however, is set in the very near future, in a world that looks much like our own, with problems that flow directly from life as we know it. Only people in total denial about the issues currently facing our planet (the current Australian government, for example) could view such a book as an escapist text.
In an article on science fiction for the Huffington Post, Amie Kaufman suggested that ‘Real science fiction is as close to an intense discussion of philosophy as you can get while still reading fast-paced, page-turning fiction. And it doesn't always give us the answers. Sometimes it leaves us to answer those questions ourselves, and that discussion is one readers of all stripes relish.’
Annabel Smith is the author of digital interactive novel/app The Ark, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in Southerly, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings, Wheeler Dailies and Junkee. She holds a PhD in Writing, is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, and is a member of the editorial board of Margaret River Press. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.