Ever since the Sonic Acts Geologic Imagination conference in Amsterdam early in 2015, I’ve been thinking about how to articulate ideas about our reality and our fiction–our storytelling about the present and the future. I find myself drawn to consider what is going extinct in fiction and what is pushing up through the cracks to blossom. These are secondary concerns, perhaps, in terms of the future we face in reality. However, as our perception of the world continues to fragment at an ever greater rate and become layered with both the real and the not-real, the factual and the not-factual, the least fiction can do is try to tell some kind of truth or not participate in agitprop.
In April, Electric Literature published my long essay about the Slow Apocalypse and Fiction–inspired by participating in the Sonic Acts conference. It served as both a review of the Geologic Imagination book accompanying the conference and a rumination on the ways in which environmental change and apocalypse is portrayed in fiction. Very often these portrayals are neither truly dystopian or utopian, but in fact just escapist disaster porn, in part because of the commodification of some parts of book culture–the ways in which the broadest visions of the present and future in commercial films and the media colonize fiction. As I wrote then:
Given our modern predicament, readers may soon reject myths that aggregate as they do in many near-future novels as wistfulness for car commercials, for Starbucks lattes, or for a thousand trifling conveniences. On the other hand—suspended in this slow apocalypse as we are, neither raw nor fully cooked—we may soon not accept these things in novels set in the present-day, either. We may begin to see novels of the mundane and modern that seem like they could be written thirty years ago, give or take a smart phone or two, as symptomatic of a failure. The only form of nostalgia not seen as grotesque may be a yearning for that moment in time before we had set upon a course that would ultimately require radical change to ensure human survival or the survival of the planetary biosphere. Who, sane, ethical, would wish for a time like ours of unrelenting animal carnage, for example? For the dead wreckage of our systems being sold to us as the height of technological evolution?
In light of that statement, I find particularly interesting that as my year in reading has developed I’ve seen more and more mainstream literary novels set in the present-day that are aware enough of the larger picture that ecological concerns exist within them at the right level of granularity. You could say that these novels accept the science-fictional present of our world–and many times they do it better than outright SF, especially SF that’s just disaster porn masquerading as mid-apocalypse or post-apocalypse. The counter argument, of course, is that we need escapism at times. Maybe we do. But a steady diet of it serves as propaganda for a reality that does not exist and a near future that is already our present or our past.
This kind of writing is very hard to get right because every context is different and thus the level at which the setting exists and impinges on the characters and storyline is different. There’s always something that you sacrifice because the world is always more complex and specific than fiction. For example, in my Southern Reach novels, the role multi-national corporations play in our view of our present and future is completely absent, a necessary omission in order to get greater complexity and granularity into the examination of the dysfunctional and absurd secret agency exploring Area X. But an argument could be made that this simplification is a problem in the novels.
Another part of what the Slow Apocalypse essay was getting at was the need for a new relationship with our world, and especially with the animals in that world. The new essay that Electric Literature has published, Are We Alone?, speaks to this issue in more depth. It’s based on a speech I gave at the Arthur C. Clarke Center and in altered form part of it appeared at the Guardian over the summer.
Rejecting false information and finding a new path is incredibly relevant to human survival because our current crises are in part fueled by mindsets that see animals and our environment as disposable. But it is also relevant to our search for alien life, and our expectations and assumptions about that life. Because ultimately we must come to terms with the fact that other forms of intelligence always lived among us and that we ignored these forms and have also terribly abused them. Because this may help us to understand more clearly that ideas like Manifest Destiny that still permeate our society, sublimated in a devotion to unsustainable and endless growth and, yes, a reaching for the stars, also pertain to how we might treat aliens from far-distant places.
By examining the question of extra-terrestrials–which do not as yet exist, in that we haven’t found any–we can examine a wide range of other issues that have to do with how we frame our ET search and what we’re missing as a result. In addition to talking about animals and how we think about animals in wrong or incomplete ways, the essay interrogates our assumptions about the underlying rationality of the architects of the information age and also questions the very drive for expansion, the kind of bizarre imperative that leads to, for example,”let’s colonize Mars” seeming like a foregone conclusion and a desirable objective.
I don’t expect to have gotten everything right in these essays. But as a fiction writer I’m interested in the ways we tell our stories and I want to find ways to dream better, to understand more. The basic mistake made in thinking about dystopias or post-collapse literature is that it’s “pessimistic.” But the best of this fiction–and of lit set in the here-and-now that grapples with these issues–is optimistic precisely because it’s about seeing clearly where we are and where we are going. You just cannot get to solutions if your underlying assumptions are wrong.
I have a couple more essays in this vein that I’ll be writing over the next year or so. I hope readers find of them of interest. On a purely selfish level, writing about these topics is of incredible use to my own fiction, at the very least.