Not all speculative fiction is about space stations, rogue plagues and desertification. The ways in which we fictionalize the future depends on how we interpret the present. Margaret Atwood points to environmental meltdown. Orwell predicts a dictatorial thought-reading. Huxley leans hard on pharmaceutical solutions to doldrums problems. Terrifyingly, most of those predictions have come true– if only in the comparisons we draw to global warming, Facebook and anti-depressants. But when we read these novels, it’s hard to see our society in their over-wrought, depleted worlds.
Perhaps more relevant, and more difficult to write, are the small-scale dystopias, the novels that place only part of society in the future while the rest remains resolutely in the present. These three novels write a kind of future we could all predict, if only in its likeness to today.
Jonathan Letham’s Chronic City focuses on a former child-star Chase Insteadman and his stoner pal Perkus Tooth as they negotiate Manhattan’s perpetual state of crisis. A tiger is terrorizing the town. A parallel Sim-version of the world is occupying too much time and money. And Chase’s finance is trapped aboard a space station, paralyzed by Chinese space mines. The obsession with Marlon Brando is real, the medical-grade marijuana feels real, but the winter is endless, the snow lingers through August, the tiger turns out mechanical, and the millionaire mayor is terrifyingly behind it all. This novel attempts a version of the future that isn’t a warning call, so much a view into a counter culture that could already exists on the island that is NYC.
Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel Gods Without Men was reviewed by Daddy-of-them-all Doug Coupland in the New York Times. Coupland calls it Translit, genre of fiction that effortlessly pinballs between locations and eras as if on a smart phone of its own, accounting for our ability to synthesize multiple characters and story lines as easily as our fingers scroll a screen. In Kunzru’s world, we only need a location to tether us to the book; the narrative drifts around three pinnacles in the desert. The pinnacles serve as witnesses as burnt out London pop stars, Mormon miners, Franciscan monks and Iraqi war simulators interact with the desert in their own destructive ways. This novel is dystopian only in its intense vision of the present: the autism, the talk shows, the crystal meth and the general loneliness that consume us so deeply today.
Lauren Groff’s novel of past-present-future begins beautifully as a utopian novel– a small caravan of hippies stop on a river bank to establish a colony. A commune is born and named and nurtured in the era after the summer of love. Gardens are planted. A dilapidated mansion is renovated. Small but observant Bit is the first child born on the farm dubbed “Arcadia’ by its leader, and he is the best protagonist to witness the groups rise and inevitable fall. By Groff’s third section, which takes place in a near future, we witness the shattering effect that a community has on its most dependent members. A gorgeous, lyrical novel that is only dystopian in its thwarted, pitiful version of utopian gone wrong.