What if Prince were the only man left on Earth? What if aliens were studying our most intimate moments? What if we could be disembodied - but still, say, go to the movies?
These are just some of the wild story lines in Darwin's Bastards, a new collection of dystopian fiction from some of Canada's best writers.
The Globe and Mail sat down with three of the collection's contributors - cyberpunk icon William Gibson, novelist Annabel Lyon and short-story writer Pasha Malla - to hash out what exactly "future" (with a capital F) means; why even doomsday stories should be fun; and who's better: Philip K. Dick or Philip Roth.
What came up for you when you were first asked to write a dystopian vision of the future?
GIBSON: Actually, I got that completely confused, and thought I was being asked to write a story about the concept of dystopia, set in Vancouver! Just as well, probably. An interesting assignment.
I don't really believe in the dystopian, any more than I do in the utopian. One person's dystopia is another's hot immigration ticket - all very relative, subjective. The supposed dystopias I've written about are generally much nicer than actual places we can get in our cars and drive to (if we're willing to drive far enough).
MALLA: I thought most about the story that I didn't want to write - one that took an existing social problem and extrapolated from it some sort of apocalyptic end result.
So I set my story in the past, which in some small way was meant to be a comment on the end-is-nigh hysteria that seems to roll over from one failed doomsday (2000) to the next (2012 etc.). I wanted to write something that was absurd and silly and wild and implausible, something that would make us laugh at ourselves a little bit.
I don't really put much stock in the concept of dystopia either, which feels so nihilistic and depressing. More than anything, I tried to write a story that was fun.
LYON: This was my first and only attempt at dystopian fiction - and at writing in the second person.It's such an odd voice to write in - so essentially bossy, telling the reader who they're going to be - that I thought it would be fun to take it to an extreme and have the "you" of the story be an extraterrestrial, cruising around in his rocket ship, surveilling people on (present-day) Earth.
The story is about the fun, and possibilities, of language, rather than any idea of dystopia. It's interesting that fun seems to have mattered - a lot - to each of us.
Fun is an interesting word, because so much sci-fi straddles the line with kitsch. What if … zombies took over the planet!? What if … people became pets for aliens!? Are you playing with our B-movie associations at all? How do you do that and still get at deeper themes?
GIBSON: If fiction isn't "fun," at some level, it's going to be a pretty hard sell. I'm inclined to believe that comedy can sometimes admit us safely to levels of seriousness where we might otherwise be unable to breathe.
MALLA: I agree with that, for sure. Even "serious" social-realist writers like Dostoevsky and Dickens lighten their work with comedy - what's socially realistic about a world that's not funny?
I feel the same about story. There's nothing wrong with the sorts of hard-driving plots you find in B-movies; in fact, I think part of what inspired this collection was breathing narrative life into the short story.
There's a place for fiction about morose, adulterous couples skulking passive-aggressively around their condominiums, but, yeah, what about zombies and aliens? They're people too.
LYON: I couldn't have said it better! Plus, surely one of the uses of humour is to honour your reader's intelligence - acknowledging: Hey, we're both intelligent adults engaging with zombies and aliens, but that's okay; we're going to go somewhere interesting with it. Humour can get the reader over that first big hump of incredulity, I think.
What are the challenges, or freedoms, of imagining the future right now?
LYON: One of the biggest challenges is surely writing something that won't sound dated in another six months or so. It's all very well to write a futuristic satire of, say, a contemporary political figure (I won't mention any names!), but once that figure is out of the public eye, how much of a shelf life will the story have?
It's interesting that a lot of the contributors to Darwin's Bastards seem to address this problem by engaging with the past, as well as the present, to show both the timeliness and the timelessness of what they're writing about.
GIBSON: I think we're going through a massive (and largely unrecognized) shift around the cultural construct we call "the future." It certainly isn't what it used to be. Our capital-f Future's gone now, and our lower-case future is short-term and provisional (and quite possibly brutish and short).
Climate change is something we never suspected we were causing. As a species, I think we're rightly feeling a bit sheepish about that. The Future was an aspect of modernism. If there's anything to the idea that we're postmodern, I think it's that we've lost the Future, and perhaps the future as well.
Atemporal is better. I love the atemporal.
MALLA: That might be because it's the year 2010 and we still don't have those flying cars and robot butlers all the science-fiction writers promised us. Maybe we're disillusioned with the whole idea of prophecy and vision. Those things were very much in vogue 100 years ago, when technology seemed full of boundless potential - though, in retrospect, now we can blame it for the mess we're in. We might see fiction starting to resist the technological by slowing things down a little bit; maybe we need something like an Atemporalist Manifesto, a century after the futurists.
For writers, the biggest challenge might be not just reiterating the dominant discourse. A planet destroyed by climate change is no longer the province of speculative fiction. So why make up stories that just reaffirm what everyone (save a few reactionary whack jobs) already knows?
Also, I always feel a little skeptical about writers who try to predict and caution us about the future. If you want to get into that racket, trade your laptop for a crystal ball.
An Atemporalist Manifesto! What would George Orwell say? Is speculative fiction dead?
GIBSON: All fiction is speculative. So is all history.
We are all, always, living in dystopian and utopian scenarios simultaneously, relative to other possibilities. We can imagine slightly worse scenarios, slightly better ones, or radically worse scenarios, radically better. But not absolutely worse, absolutely better. "Radically worse" is what we mean by "dystopia," today, and we can all see some, every day, on our various screens.
1984 is the classic modern dystopia, because it's such a methodically speculative novel about 1948, the year in which it was written. Our biological nature predisposes a stubborn temporal parochiality. Imagination frees us from that.
MALLA: Yeah, isn't all fiction in some way about speculation and wonder? To me, Alice Munro is just as speculative as Stanislaw Lem (or, for that matter, Roald Dahl or Stephen King).
The problem with genre is that it creates this totally specious intellectual hierarchy and ghettoizes writers: Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is a much better book than Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, but Dick's novel is dismissed as somehow less serious because of where it's shelved in bookstores - despite telling, essentially (and more successfully), the same story.
LYON: Yet surely there's something that unites our stories. Is it maybe a greater freedom than we're used to seeing in Canadian fiction, a kind of happiness (despite the doom-and-gloom dystopian scenarios), a sense of play, whether it's play with language or ideas or sense of place?
I got such a sense of joy reading this collection, a sense that here were a bunch of writers trying new things, stretching and twisting in new ways, discovering all kinds of possibilities that don't seem to come as easily in the usual conventional po-faced Canadian short story - passive-aggressive couples in their condos, as Pasha says it so well.
John Updike once said, "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy." I think these sorts of stories are part of a vast conspiracy to make us happy - cannibals, fetuses, zombies and all.