Dark Futures

What happens when literary novelists experiment with science fiction.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images.

The worst thing about the present, if you’re an artist, is that it never stands still long enough. Once, perhaps, it lingered, back in the days when everyone communicated by letter and Jane Austen heroines entertained houseguests for seven weeks at a time. But now we live in a world where occupations that once seemed reliably perennial, like clerking in a retail store, are suddenly teetering on the brink of extinction. For novelists, whose work typically takes at least a year (and often much longer) to produce, delivering an up-to-date depiction of contemporary life must be a maddeningly elusive goal. In the time it takes to write a novel that perfectly nails some new technologized form of connecting, the rest of us will most likely have left off using it and moved on to something new. Surely today no one remembers, let alone reads, Lucy Kellaway’s best-selling 2006 corporate satire Who Moved My Blackberry?

Some novelists beat this problem by sticking to historical fiction, a move that rescues, for example, a writer who married before the advent of social media from trying to accurately depict what courtship feels like in the age of Tinder. But more and more literary novelists now choose to move in the opposite temporal direction. Writers who once might have penned tender coming-of-age or immigrant-experience novels, who might once have devoted themselves to wacky satire or meticulously observed depictions of the way we live now, have opted instead to speculate on how we’ll live then—that is, in the near or distant future. Sometimes that future doesn’t look terribly different from the present we know, and sometimes it’s a smoking crater of hardship and peril. But in either case the line between literary fiction and science fiction has become harder and harder to draw.

Not that it was ever very clear or bright. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley wrote speculative fiction in the first half of the 20th century, and Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood wrote it in the second half. Nevertheless, in 1996, when David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest, the fact that book was set in a not-too-distant future in which northern New England has been rendered a toxic waste dump was viewed as an eccentricity (as well as rather tiresomely broad satire). By the mid-2000s, dashes of dystopia had begun to appear in novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but it was Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road that made futurist fiction fully legit in MFA circles. Revered by a younger generation for his solemn, manly lyricism, the unimpeachably literary McCarthy had already won the National Book Award (for All the Pretty Horses), and The Road netted him a Pulitzer.

McCarthy’s long history of writing about cowboys and ranchers underscored the roots of postapocalyptic narrative in the western. In The Road, a father and son roam a blasted landscape, scrabbling for sustenance and evading bands of cannibalistic savages, trying to make new lives for themselves. Two years later, Suzanne Collins, a television writer turned young-adult novelist, kicked off a dystopian YA boom with The Hunger Games, about a young woman battling a cruelly stratified society in which underclass children are forced to fight to the death on a televised competition. Although they’re often conflated, dystopian and postapocalyptic stories are two distinct genres. Dystopian fiction (Brave New World and 1984 are the two best-known examples) describes an oppressive social order, typically one in which an alarming contemporary trend like reality TV or the widening gap between rich and poor has been taken to extremes. Postapocalyptic stories imagine a world where the existing social order has been wiped away by some catastrophe, and humanity has been cast back into a primal state.

Another way to look at this difference: Dystopian fiction is animated by fear, but postapocalyptic stories almost always harbor a kernel of desire. Dystopia is a form of criticism: It sounds a klaxon, urging society to course-correct before it’s too late. But the postapocalyptic narrative is fatalistic and romantic. Civilization’s coup de grace might come, as 20th-century science-fiction novelists anticipated, in the form of nuclear war, or—today’s preference—as a pandemic or devastating climate change. The carnage will certainly be epic. But afterward comes the possibility of a return to what really matters and a clean slate on which to draw society anew. Even at their most seemingly nihilistic, postapocalyptic scenarios invoke the persistent, cherished American myth of the frontier, that place where a man can prove himself through hard work and violence, free from the rules, hassles, and compromises imposed by civilization.

By 2010, it wasn’t unusual to find glimmers of dystopian satire in such novels as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Both feature scenes set a few years in the future (right about now, in fact), in which smartphones and a burgeoning infatuation with social media and market research create situations in which everyone is reviewing everything and everyone else at all times. Shteyngart’s hero, Lenny, goes out to the bar where his fellow patrons can instantly run a full financial, health, religious, and sexual history check on him and where his mobile device informs him that the girl he’s been checking out has rated him “MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450.”

That isn’t how things turned out in 2017, at least not yet, but shrewd novelists can learn from the examples of stock-market mavens such as Jim Cramer: Get one or two predictions right and the public can be remarkably forgiving about the many more you flub. Write about the present or the past and pedants will pop up in Amazon reviews, on Twitter, or even in the New York Review of Books to fault you for the mistakes you’ve made about Italian motorcycles of the 1970s or for how you fail to capture the texture of life among contemporary youth. But you can’t be wrong about something that hasn’t happened yet. By the time the future comes around to thumb its nose at you, no one will be paying enough attention to hold you to account.

Here’s another bonus that comes with writing speculative literary fiction: Even the most obvious extrapolation you make will be lauded as prescient. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, published in April, has been called “astounding” in this respect because it depicts a dystopian future in which a celebrity becomes an authoritarian politician. As shocking as the presidency of Donald Trump has been, there’s a history of mulishly regressive Americans electing such people, from Ronald Reagan to Jesse Ventura. It was hardly prophetic to imagine us getting around to voting in someone even worse to the highest office in the land. But the newsiness of this aspect of Yuknavitch’s premise seems to distract many critics and readers from the novel’s other, frankly nonsensical qualities. In her version of the future, wealthy elites live in a “suborbital complex” suspended above the Earth, where they have been rendered bald and white-skinned, genderless and sexless, unable to reproduce. Nevertheless, these people are automatically executed when they reach the age of 50, a seemingly unnecessary economy destined to eventually zero out their class.

Similarly, the New York Times has marveled over how it “strange” it is that Omar El Akkad’s American War, also published in April, now seems “more like grim prophecy than science fiction.” El Akkad’s novel depicts a future America reduced to a divided, war-torn state by regional tensions. Again, that’s hardly a brainstorm; not only is the polarization of the nation a topic of nonstop media conversation, but America has already been through one civil war. In American War, the South resists Northern restrictions on the use of fossil fuel, and this, of all things, leads to the breakdown of the union. (Far stranger to this reader is the way race simply doesn’t factor in the schism.)

The plausibility of El Akkad’s back story may be beside the point, though. His aim is not to anticipate where America is headed but to translate the sectarian fighting currently going on in Africa and the Mideast to a context that American readers will find more relatable. His heroine, Sarat, becomes radicalized against the North when her mother dies in a retaliatory attack on the refugee camp where they live. She’s groomed by a local handler whose efforts are funded by a shady representative of the North African Bouazizi Empire, one of the superpowers that, along with the Chinese, have supplanted the nations of the West. The concealed desire in El Akkad’s account of Sarat’s travails is that Americans should know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their own country’s machinations.

Emily St. John Mandel’s best-selling 2014 novel, Station Eleven, wears its wish fulfillment on its sleeve. Most of the planet’s population gets killed off by a superflu, leaving the survivors to pick through the remnants while fending off marauders and creepy doomsday cults. The novel focuses on a band of traveling players who cater to the public’s renewed appreciation of Shakespeare and Beethoven now that the mass-media trash that once diverted them has been switched off. (You can see why a literary novelist would find this prospect heartening.) Scenes of the troupe’s adventures alternate with scenes from before the pandemic, all related to the life of an actor, Arthur Leander, who dies on the eve of the outbreak. Once creatively ambitious, Arthur became corrupted by fame and celebrity culture, losing his ability to be genuine even with those he professed to love. In case you miss the point, in a subplot, a paparazzo-turned-EMT finds that his life as a Pa Wilder–style homesteader is much more meaningful that hanging around outside the stars’ homes smoking cigarettes and hoping for an embarrassing candid shot. (Although if he’d stuck around any longer, Instagram would have rendered his old profession obsolete anyway, a development Mandel didn’t foresee.)

Supposedly, the advantage to having literary novelists take up stories once dismissed as the stuff of genre fiction is that readers can get exciting plots to go with the mainstays of literary work: nuanced characters and the kind of aestheticized writing conventionally referred to as beautiful. The latter is a dubious improvement. Beautifully written is a phrase often applied to any fiction that involves a lot of poetic landscape description, but to Mandel’s credit she doesn’t indulge too much in that. She does, however, produce a lot of passages like this:

That evening on the beach below her hotel, Miranda was seized by a loneliness she couldn’t explain. She’d thought she knew everything there was to know about this remnant fleet, but she was unprepared for its beauty. The ships were lit up to prevent collisions in the dark, and when she looked out at them she felt stranded on a dark shore, the blaze of light on the horizon both filled with mystery and impossibly distant, a fairy-tale kingdom.

Despite their varying ages, races, and genders, this is the basic temperament of all the characters in Station Eleven: a propensity toward melancholic, vaguely paralyzed reveries that invokes the type of personality you’d expect to find in someone who writes literary fiction. These people are, when you get right down to it, all pretty much the same person. So much for the promise that literary writers will bring something more than stock figures to their science-fiction scenarios; Mandel’s rueful musers are just a different kind of stock figure.

Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself. (Mandel insisted that she didn’t consider Station Eleven to be science fiction.) And besides, science fiction has its own bravura stylists, writers such as William Gibson, and psychologically acute humanists, such as Karen Joy Fowler. Gibson’s Neuromancer is the most evident influence on Void Star, the new novel by Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a well-received 2007 riff on Homer’s epic. Mason is a computer scientist (the novel’s title is a reference to the C++ programming language), and Void Star attempts the difficult feat of rendering the abstract ecstasies of mathematics in artfully oblique sentences: “The glyphs are intricate, radiant with significance that she can’t quite articulate. Like rain, she thinks, on a clear day, seen over miles of ocean. Like ideograms distended in a black hole’s gravity.”

Oh, like that. A friend who teaches writing tells his students that they can have a crazy narrator describing a realistic world or a reliable narrator in a fantastical world, but a madman’s account of Wonderland adds up to so much uncertainty that readers become too disoriented. Mason presents himself with a variation on this problem. He’s writing about something that’s hard to understand in prose that is hard to follow.

Void Star’s characters live in a near-future world where global warming has flooded most coastal cities and San Francisco and Los Angeles are wreathed in squalid favelas. Irina, Mason’s Didion-cool heroine, is one of a tiny number of people with a cranial implant that allows direct connections between their brains and computer networks. Corporations hire her to help them understand the artificial intelligences that reside deep within their own systems and that have begun to exhibit motives all their own. “We’re primates, evolved to live on Earth and pass on our genes,” Irina tells a client, “and this has give our thoughts a certain shape, but the AIs have nothing to do with these things, and their thoughts are shaped differently. Terrestrial matters are as counterintuitive to them as tensor algebra is to us.” The same could be said of Void Star. It’s a novel that seems to have something significant to say but will not deign to say it clearly.

Void Star comes the closest of all these recent examples to the classic definition of hard science fiction: idea- rather than character-driven and devoted to extrapolating from the technology we now employ to whatever tech will define our future. The novel has many small, astute predictions; Irina observes that with the advent of self-driving cars, people are even more inclined to treat their vehicles like bedrooms, places to get dressed and apply makeup, “anonymity substituting for privacy.” But Mason’s characters, too, are uncompelling compared to his plot, the waferlike concoctions of technothriller convenience, their superpowers perfunctorily deepened with a side serving of regret.

Perhaps it’s a lot harder than it looks to infuse the grabby plots and big ideas of science fiction with the full characters of literary fiction. Yet Meg Howrey does it in her new novel, The Wanderers. The author of two literary novels and a high-spirited fantasy series written under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte, Howrey understands that technology and psychology are not antitheses but two versions of the same thing, flowing in and out of each other. The Wanderers describes the preparations for the first manned flight to Mars. Three experienced astronauts—Japanese, Russian, and American; two men and a middle-aged woman—are chosen as the crew, but before any rockets fire, they must undergo a 17-month simulation of the entire trip in a remote desert location. The novel shifts point of view from one astronaut to another, but also carries the reader outside of the simulated spaceship, into the lives of family members related to each crew member.

Howrey meticulously recounts the challenges and limitations of space travel, from the recycling of water to the resourcefulness required of astronauts who want to preserve the niceties of terrestrial life; one makes a pair of slippers out of some discarded rubber matting as a birthday present for a fellow crew member. (It’s just what he wanted.) But the most complex and challenging aspect of the mission is by far the astronauts themselves, each exquisitely aware that his or her every expression and interaction is being scrutinized by the mission’s organizers for signs of weakness. Each, too, longs for the expanses of space while remaining connected by invisible tendrils to people in the outside world who have their own ambivalent feelings about the expedition. One astronaut’s daughter, a mercurial, attention-craving actress, does not want the most important thing about her to be the fact that her mother was the first human being to set foot on Mars. The Japanese astronaut’s wife is an isolate searching for an identity that feels authentic while training a robot to act as a household companion. The Russian astronaut’s teenage son begins his own first blundering explorations of what it means to desire other men. Every single character in The Wanderers feels distinct and vivid, a planet in his or her own right.

Science fiction has always promised its readers fictional wonders they can’t get in other genres, stories in which the stakes are high and the ideas are heady. What’s surprising is not that literary novelists are increasingly taking up science fiction’s tools, but that more of them didn’t try it sooner. Now, as the present crumbles away into a future that evolves more quickly than most of us can track, it seems impossible to write about contemporary life without writing science fiction. But the secret to doing it well doesn’t lie in suspenseful chase scenes, weighty messages or mind-blowing existential puzzles. That stuff can be fun, but it can also feel pretty thin without something that’s supposed to be a specialty of literary novelists: the fullest appreciation of humanity in its infinite variety and intricacy. Do justice to that, and the wonders will take care of themselves.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

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