Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall (Transit Lounge) is KYD’s First Book Club pick for April. Read Ellen Cregan’s review of the novel and join us on 24 April for a free in-conversation event with the author at Readings Carlton.
Writing the future is hard. Prejudice, culture, fear, wishful thinking, and even optimism, all play a role in an artist’s predictions. Our visions of the future are also influenced by current social norms and it’s interesting to see how science fiction writers of the past could imagine living on the moon or distant planets, but couldn’t imagine subverting the heroic, white, heterosexual, male protagonist paradigm. Current works of futuristic science fiction are also products of their time, with many of them imagining hopeful futures in which diversity and inclusion are commonplace.
The idea for what would eventually become my novel The Shining Wall first came when I read Harvard geneticist George Church’s claim that it could be possible to bring species such as Neandertals and woolly mammoths back from extinction. I was fascinated with the idea of Neandertals, one of modern humans’ closest related species, and one with which our own species interbred in the past, walking among us. I began writing a story set in the present day: what would Neandertals be like? What are the ethical considerations of resurrecting a species? How would they be treated and employed? But as I dug into the science of resurrection biology, I became convinced Church was being overly optimistic, and that we’re a long way from the technology and expertise needed for successful de-extinction. So I sacrificed my modern-day setting at the altar of scientific plausibility, and embarked on my novel with no real idea of the difficulties of imagining, let alone writing, a plausible future.
Prejudice, culture, fear, wishful thinking, and even optimism, all play a role in an artist’s predictions.
Despite the inherent difficulties of future prediction, futuristic works are often retrospectively examined for accuracy. When the year 1984 came around, there was debate over the extent of Newspeak in the current vocabulary, and the prevalence of the Big Brother-like surveillance described by George Orwell in his 1949 novel. Similarly, in 2015 (the year in which Back to the Future Part II is set) people lamented the elusive working hoverboard, and in 2019 we still don’t have the flying cars or off-world colonies of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
It’s unreasonable to expect artists to accurately predict the future. The most we can expect is plausibility and coherence. For my own writing I was inspired by Octavia Butler. When Butler wrote the dystopian future of her Parable books, she reportedly looked at the problems of the time (the 1990s) and gave them 30 years to develop. She used past and present behaviours, and the repeating historical cycle of empires withering to ashes, as a guide. Margaret Atwood also claims she looked to examples of the oppression of women throughout history to inspire The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Parable books are some of the most prescient books of our current time. Butler didn’t predict advances in science and technology such as the iPad or a chess-winning robot, but she did predict the rise of an American leader who preys on fears and prejudices and uses the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’.
It’s unreasonable to expect artists to accurately predict the future. The most we can expect is plausibility and coherence.
History can give us a guide to future human behaviours, but writing plausible futuristic science and technology is trickier. Arthur C. Clarke put it elegantly when he said that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ – Go too far, and it can read as completely fantastical; tread too carefully and the book will have been overtaken by real-life technology by the time it hits bookshelves (think of some of the awkward depictions of social media in novels from the early 2000s).
For The Shining Wall it was easy to imagine a future with an increasing gap between rich and poor, erosion of food security, reduced access to healthcare, lack of job security, and environmental devastation. These ideas are not unique to my work and are easy to extrapolate from the world in which we live. As for the science and technology, I researched current advances and examined the predictions of futurists such as Ray Kurzweil. Then I gave up on plausibility and allowed myself to dream. I dreamt of resurrected Neandertals and other extinct creatures, brain implants with high-tech features, blood-borne medical nanites, recycling down to an elemental level, defensive forcefields, and consciousness uploading. I created an alternate reality – not beholden to the history, geography, politics or timelines of our own, but still burdened by our oppression, prejudice, and the terrifying connection between privilege and opportunity.
Futuristic works can inspire scientific and technological advances, and encourage students down scientific paths. They can serve as metaphors or warnings about social, political, and environmental trends. But futuristic works aren’t always useful when looked to for prophecies or predictions. Instead of being examined for accuracy and plausibility, imagined futures should be celebrated as thought experiments that construct an infinite array of futures – both terrifying and hopeful.