Putting the life back in science fiction

Is it better in the past?
May 31, 2011, 10:45 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, livable future, science fiction, Worldbuilding

Wow, I haven’t posted since…Um yeah. Where did April and May go? Right. Living in my secret identity.

Anyway, random short-ish thought. I’ve been finishing up a time travel manuscript, and now I’m figuring out how to sell it.

The one thing (as I’ve noted below), it’s set partially in deep time. This isn’t the killing-Hitler type of time travel, this is getting back into the Paleocene and other parts of the Cenozoic. While I like human history, I see no need to show off my modest knowledge of the subject, besides which, people with real history backgrounds have been embellishing human history for decades. It’s not like there isn’t, oh, 400 million years of other time to explore.

So I’ve been thinking to myself, “Self, one of the biggest problems I have is getting anyone to believe that a livable, sustainable future isn’t, well, chunky, and funky, and terribly earnest, and only available in a limited color scheme, and…well, not much fun, really. We all “know” after all, that dysfunction and sex are what sell, and if everything functions well enough and people know how to keep their zippers zipped, where’s the fun in that?” It’s that whole eating your broccoli-sprouts feeling about a sustainable future. It doesn’t matter how cool and hip the solar decathletes are, how much we know we need to do it. It’s just missing…something.

At least, that’s my thought. So no, I’m not trashing the past, exactly. What I’m thinking about is the question of where do we find our sustainable inspiration. I think it comes from the past. Perhaps from Eden, or Shangri-La, or the hunter/gatherer paradise, or even Lothlorien. Just think about these places, and those long, glorious green shadow of the past reach out and romantically embrace us. Right? As a society, we’re steeped in the mythology of the fall, of paradise lost, of how things used to be better back in the first chapter, the golden age. Even the silver age.

So what better place to put the sustainable future than the deep past, before humans even evolved. There’s something like 400 million years of livable planet back there, long enough for thousands of civilizations to rise, live, and fall. The only catch is that, if such places existed, they must of been masterful environmentalists, because they’ve erased every trace of themselves from the world.

Of course, this only works if time travel is easy. If time travel is easy, they must be hiding it from us, right? What better inspiration to environmentalism than to live the good life, keep the riff-raff of the unenlightened future out.

So that’s my question: not how one goes about hiding a civilization (I figured that one out already), but does it feel better to have that livable future back in the past, hiding from the fossil record? Is it a cute conceit, or could it actually be inspirational for those of us stuck in linear time?


6 Comments so far
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I think it could be inspirational but it also dodges the hardest bit of going from where we are now to some better future. If your past civilizations were just “naturally” better at treading lightly, and never had any collective action problems or short-term destructive belief patterns to overcome, it doesn’t really say anything about humanity’s problems other than it would be nice not to have them. But in fairness, I don’t have any good idea how to get to a better future that doesn’t take a detour for the worse first. I think the idea of invisible civilizations hidden in the deep past is compelling for fiction, so that should probably weigh heavier than didactic concerns.

For that matter, I think that there’s no particular reason a sustainable future should be a boring, forced-to-eat-your-broccoli sort of setting for stories. Pre-agricultural human societies were basically sustainable but that doesn’t mean that they were free of conflict or that they render stories set there boring. A sustainable future is one where humans can project their current behavior a hundred generations into the future and see that those inhabitants of the future aren’t going to be screwed over and can continue to behave basically the same.

Obviously we’re not there yet. Humans will eventually find a way to a sustainable future or they will go extinct. They could find sustainability at a level of material comfort approximately equal to the present enjoyed in the developed world, at a level well above the present, or at a level well below the present. We don’t know if the sustainable future is peaceful or plagued by war. We don’t know what its political issues and systems are like, what its artistic, cultural, or scientific components are, how its economy is structured, or how many people are living in it.

It seems to me that you can get most of the way to sustainability with just a few major changes. Stop burning fossil fuels. Reclaim rare elements from trash. Substitute common elements for rare elements that can’t be sufficiently reclaimed. Stop growing the human population ever-upward. Stop degrading and paving over farm land. Stop over-harvesting wild animals and plants. Stop turning jungle, forest, and grasslands into farms, mines, and buildings. I don’t think these changes are easy to achieve, but assuming they’re achieved they don’t place many constraints on the sorts of future societies and potential stories available to a writer.

You can write milquetoast, didactic fiction in the manner of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. You can tell gritty stories of inequality and violence, like Richard K. Morgan (just because the rich discover a long-term interest in preserving the planet doesn’t mean they’re preserving it for the little guy). You can tell hopeful-but-realist stories of building new societies in the manner of KSR’s Mars Trilogy. You can tell detective stories, coming of age stories, crime capers, rise-and-fall of family dynasties, romances, exploration adventures, new scientific discoveries, almost any sort of subgenre, trope, or type of fiction that you could tell in the present or past.

Sustainable-future-fiction is going to be boring only if you decide to make it a guided tour of how nice and sustainable the future has become, and explaining how it all works in excruciating detail. This is what I’ve heard called “wiring diagram fiction” before, more commonly seen in old SF, where the characters seemed to be there mostly to explain things to each other that they already knew so the reader could get a detailed picture of the amazing new gizmo or society the author had spent a long time daydreaming about. You’re trying to make a compelling story, not a diorama. Write a compelling story set it in the sustainable future, and show off only as much of that world’s underpinnings as properly suits the story.

Don’t interrupt the chapter where a character wonders if they’re being followed by someone with a page-long infodump about how the house’s toilet system extracts nitrogen and phosphorus and produces methane from wastes. Characters shouldn’t be thinking to themselves or saying to others awkward phrases like “I think I’ll get today’s groceries from the nearest urban farm, which provides fresh vegetables without the energy waste and breeding for bland sturdiness that plagued the Oil Age.” Characters think or talk to characters in their own context and for their own purposes. They shouldn’t be playing tour guide for the reader.

If you can’t resist the urge to show off the underpinnings of the world you’re building, you could try putting infodumps in their own chapters, like the whale lore in Moby Dick, or using footnotes like Peter Watts did when the reader might not have grasped some important point of biology but it didn’t make sense for the explanation to be delivered by the narrator.

Comment by Matt

Thanks for that lengthy and thoughtful comment, Matt. I hate to say something as simple as “I agree,” but I do agree with most of what you said.

The only thing I disagree about is how simple it is to solve the problems we face with things like limiting population, not killing animals, and so forth. It’s sort of like that idiocy in Washington with the debt ceiling. It’s a simple vote, really (raise the debt ceiling), but it’s turned into something that could cripple the US for years. In theory, each of these problems appears simple to fix, but the solutions are vulnerable to idiocy, sabotage, and simple bloody-minded refusal. As one of my college teachers pointed out, if it was actually simple, they would have solved it already.

As for the toilets, my latest crackpot idea (on antipope) was that perhaps if you wanted to do a sustainable future history, one could write a Dune style political epic where the rich and powerful are fighting for control of the sewers and recycling bins, and hunting the latest technology that would squeeze an extra 1% in recycling efficiency on these things. After all, if we’re coming into an era of ubiquitous small-scale manufacturing via 3-D printers and similar gizmoids, control of the feedstocks is key. That means figuring out how to filter the leaking car batteries out of the sewage, mining the landfills, and so forth.

In a hypothetical story though, it might look something like this: Mr. protagonist (probably suffering from travelers’ diarrhea) looks at this immensely complicated hotel toilet, with valves and switches and pipes every which way, and says, “Good grief, I don’t even recognize this model. How do I use this one? Are there instructions anywhere on it? No. It’s maker-optimized homebrew. Shit.”

As for civilizations hiding in the past, well, that’s good, sarcastic fun. With dinosaurs, eventually.

Comment by heteromeles

The things we need to do to get to sustainability are comparatively simple. The high level concepts can be explained in less than a page. There are a few big changes, and a lot of consequent changes, that need to be implemented to get there. Humans already have all the basic scientific knowledge and technology necessary to provide a pretty good and sustainable life for everyone on Earth, even though it won’t have every perk that the median turn-of-the-millennium inhabitant of the EU or United States enjoyed.

So it’s simple, but it’s not easy, because there are powerful interests fighting it every step of the way. As a historical example, “all citizens equal under the law, all law decided directly by voters or by their elected representatives, one vote for every adult citizen” is a simple way to describe the basic workings (or at least ideals) of modern democracy. But it took struggles and a long time for democracy to become common in the world, and individual democracies have taken a long time to expand the pool of eligible voters until it was representative of the entire population.

Back on the storytelling, it’s fine and fun to show the reader what’s different about your fictional world if you can do it in an unforced way. Characters having to deal with weird or broken toilets or other machines is fine. Having characters say things like “I’m taking my biodiesel scooter into town for spare LED lights” isn’t. In a future where those things are common they’ll just be called scooters and lights. Someone will add the prefixes in ordinary conversation no more than I would say “It’s getting dark. Should I turn on the electrical light?” for the benefit of Victorian observers who might otherwise think I’m talking about gas lights.

This last quirk is one that drove me crazy while reading the otherwise wonderful Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Every single time artificial lighting was used he had to say “LED light.” LED glowpaint, LED spot light, LED running lights… I agree: the future is full of LED lighting! But once was enough: the narrator shouldn’t be trying to provide a “director’s commentary” at the same time he’s telling the story.

Comment by Matt

Have to agree with all of that. Cuba right now is a reasonable example of how people can get along if money gets cut drastically. The way they’ve turned every vacant lot into a garden is worth checking out, if only for reference for when it’s our turn in the barrel.

Getting back to the original topic, though, I found it really fun to figure out how people could live in the past without leaving any traces, and that’s ultimately what sustainability means: it means that you leave things more or less the way you found them. I always like inverting things, so I find it fun to write about people going to epic extremes to return things to the way they were originally.

Comment by heteromeles

An effort to describe an extinct terrestrial civilization which left a very important mark on biohistory but was effectively invisible to madern palaeontologists was McLoghlin’s Toolmaker Koan. Not a bad read.

Comment by Lars

True Lars. I’d forgotten about that book. Thanks for reminding me. It was from the time when people were contemplating the similarities between the end of the Cretaceous and nuclear war scenarios. One thing I liked about it was that the dinosaur-types were feathered, something that’s only now catching on in popular culture.

Comment by Heteromeles

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