Imagining the Future

This is an episode from the “What Makes Us Human?” podcast's second season, "Where Is the Human in Climate Change?" from Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences, showcasing the newest thinking from across the disciplines about the relationship between humans and the environment. Featuring audio essays written and recorded by Cornell faculty, the series releases a new episode each Tuesday through the spring.


A long time ago in galaxies far, far away, science fiction could be neatly partitioned off from its respectable cousin, literary fiction. Science fiction spoke of elsewheres and futures both utopian and dystopian – worlds that seemed to have little to do with our life in the here and now. Under this long-standing arrangement, science fiction dealt with hypothetical questions the what if and what would happen if, that performed a function that literary theorist Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement.” Fiction, in the meantime, operated on a consensual idea of reality unfolding in the historical present. 

The specter of environmental catastrophe has blasted open this distinction. Under the threat of not just climate change but “everything change” -- as Margaret Atwood, the celebrated author of The Handmaiden’s Tale recently put it -- many writers of mainstream or literary fiction are reinventing their work, if not under the label of science fiction per se then as climate fiction -- “cli-fi” -- or the ecogothic, weird fiction, and many other labels as yet unnamed. 

But are all these fictions just melancholic expressions of dead ends, or is there more that can be said about the spillover of environmental futures into literary reflections on the present? What is to be gained by imagining ourselves in terms of a manifestly ravaged planet? And is dystopia the only possible mode for literature to engage with the future, now that utopia seems to have been relegated to the waste heaps of history? 

The bad news is that a significant amount of contemporary science fiction and actual futuristic projects you might have read, watched, or heard about are basically technologically up-cycled frontier fantasies from centuries past. They feature larger-than-life individuals hunting for ways to live under the harshest conditions of nature – with the difference that the post-apocalyptic environments have now replaced the Wild West or the planet Mars. Manifestations of frontier survivalism range from the eternal quest for water and gas in the deserts of the Mad Max franchise, to the new fetish among the super-rich of buying equity in nuclear bunkers and space colonies. 

The good news is that science fiction has always contained the seeds for a different kind of storytelling for the future of the environment. Samuel Delaney -- literary theorist, social activist, and a rare African-American gay writer among the luminaries of classical science fiction– pointed out in a 1985 interview that realist fiction pitted “an individual, or a collection of individuals,” against myriad natural or technological elements. In contrast, science fiction protagonists were likely to be not human at all, but “landscapes, technologies, and life-forms both known and unknown.” 

Delaney’s distinction marvelously anticipates Amitabh Ghosh’s recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh, an acclaimed writer of literary fiction, calls the “manor house” of the literary establishment a delusional, unsustainable utopia that needs to be “contaminated” without delay by science fictional modes of imagination. The anthropologist Anna Tsing, likewise, asserts that the stories needed for imagining any future at all would need to be simultaneously real and fabulous. 

What might such contaminated fiction look like? For starters, it would not just break open the boundaries between the present and the future or between literary fiction and science fiction, but also interrogate science fiction’s current assumptions about itself. What happens to the what if, as the indigenous writer and critic Grace Dillon reminds us, when for the majority of the planet the apocalyptic future is not something yet to arrive, but has arrived a while ago and is here to stay for the long term? Perhaps Gerald Vizenor’s concept of storytelling as survivance, “an active presence that is more than survival, more than reaction or endurance” would help us muddle our way not exactly towards utopia, but towards a future imperfect.

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