Future Tense

How to Write a Book About the Future in a Pandemic

Old-fashioned binoculars sit on a wooden surface.
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Rose Eveleth, author of the new book Flash Forward and host of the podcast by the same name, is your guest newsletter writer for this weekend. Sign up to receive the newsletter every other Saturday.

Writing about the future is daunting. It’s hard not to imagine future cynics, tenting their fingers and chortling about just how wrong you were—the way that we do when we look back at past predictions. (We still don’t have flying cars, after all.) The future is a strange creature, full of tentacles that you can’t quite keep track of even if you know how many there are.

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Take the current pandemic, for example. For years, experts had warned that the next pandemic was a question of when, not if. It was a certainty that it would happen at some point, probably soon. On my podcast, Flash Forward, I did a pandemic episode in July 2018, walking listeners through all the ways it might go, the agencies that would respond, whether travel bans would work, and the like. The U.S. government did several simulations to walk through how to respond best to a novel virus like SARS-CoV-2. And yet, well, I don’t have to tell you how things went. Suffice to say that it doesn’t seem like all those predictions and simulations did very much good.

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So imagine my mental state, in March 2020, as I tried to finish a book about the future that I knew wouldn’t come out until 2021. All around me, the world was being flipped upside down in both surprising and unsurprising ways. While the virus itself was novel, a lot of the problems that made this pandemic so bad for so many people in the United States and beyond aren’t new. Income inequality, racism, the gutting of the social safety net, the rise of conspiracy-theory-as-political-ideology, all of these topics addressed before on Flash Forward. Even with the certainty that what I was seeing made sense, was a logical outgrowth of trends I’d covered for years, nothing felt sensical at all.

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For many people, the pandemic created a mind-bending combination of certainty and uncertainty. For those who were able to stay home and shelter in place, days become monotonous and repeating, with a constant, paralyzing dread about what would happen. If you want to make people unhappy, one of the best ways to do it is to tell them that something bad will happen soon, but not tell them when.

This is the feeling all my work tries to fight against, and it’s what I hope people take from the Flash Forward book as well. The future is uncertain by definition, but that uncertainty doesn’t have to be paralyzing. Thinking through the possibilities, imagining what might happen, can actually make us healthier, happier, and less afraid. Even imagining dark scenarios offers us a blueprint for what to avoid, and how. Perhaps the best email I’ve ever gotten in the nearly six years of making Flash Forward is one from a woman who told me that she felt less afraid, and more prepared for the pandemic because she went back and listened to that 2018 episode.

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Many chapters of the Flash Forward book offer an escape from our present reality: living underwater, living in space, living in a world where gender is malleable for everybody. There is no pandemic-related chapter (thankfully), but there is one about death, something that far too many people have close encounters with over the past year. And if there’s anything that a futurist can reasonably predict, it’s that we’ll all at some point die. What happens next is the hard part.

The above is adapted from Flash Forward by Rose Eveleth. Copyright © by Rose Eveleth. Reprinted by permission of Abrams ComicArts. All rights reserved.

It’s Future Tense Fiction day! This month’s story is “Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey, author of Pew, The Answers, and Nobody Is Ever Missing. It’s a tale of facial recognition and trusting technology over your own senses. In the response essay, human rights lawyer Nani Jansen Reventlow writes, “As we continue automating our lives, entrusting important decisions to technology in not only our justice system, but also in welfare, health care, and schooling, we need to continually pause and ask ourselves critical questions.”

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And here are some articles from the recent past of Future Tense.

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Future Tense Recommends

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we might remember the Earth in the future, after humans have ravaged even more of its ecosystems (happy Earth day?) and as part of that depressing exercise I recently resisted a podcast called Forest 404 by the BBC. It’s a fictional series, centered around a character whose job is to sort through and delete old sound files that remain after some kind of crash. When she finds the sound of a rainforest, everything changes. The story is full of suspense, and big ideas, and just some really, really beautiful sounds. And the podcast actually comes with extra episodes that just provide you with those sounds themselves. So much nature appreciation is highly visual (who doesn’t love BBC’s Planet Earth) but this series manages to evoke the same wonder using only audio.

Wish Future Tense’d Published This

Appropriate Measures: Changing the Tech We Use Is Not Enough to Mitigate the Environmental and Social Harm of Mass Technology,” by Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly, Real Life

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary and Missy Cummings, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University, discuss the latest deadly crash apparently involving a Tesla on Autopilot mode. Last week, Lizzie talked to Charlie Warzel about his decision to live the New York Times to start a Substack newsletter, and how Substack fits into the changing relationship between content creators and their audiences.

Future Tense Events

• Wednesday, April 28, noon Eastern: Former Slate Editor David Plotz talks to Amanda Ripley about her new book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. RSVP here, and read an excerpt about how a Danish town came to a sort of peace during a toxic discussion over wolves.

• Wednesday, May 4, noon Eastern: Nicholas Schmidle discusses his new book, Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. RSVP here.

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.