Future Perfect: Some Thoughts on Writing

council of clan mothers in post-civ culture; diorama from Afterculture

It has long been my intention to write a novel or book of short stories about the world after civilization’s collapse. It would be set an imprecise number of millennia in the future, since time most likely doesn’t really exist anyway, and since we have a propensity for assuming things will change in the future more quickly than they actually do.

This collection would not be a dystopia. I think that’s too easy, and needlessly depressing, and the plethora of such writings out there suggests to me just how addicted we are to civilization’s current story (and obsessed with our grief and shame about it). The predominance of like-today-only-more-so-but-worse dystopias also demonstrates, to me, just how serious our collective imaginative poverty has become.

Each time I start to pull together some ideas for this collection, I run into the same roadblocks. First, the future of the human species, if there is one, is almost certain to be one of staggering diversity and local autonomy. We will be bit players in the fabric of our planet’s life, acting out very different and isolated adventures. So each story in the collection, if it is to be even vaguely representative, would entail a completely new beginning, and tying the stories together might be impossible, which would be hard on readers accustomed to looking for linear threads and patterns.

Secondly, I want to avoid at all costs the hackneyed, formulaic approach of almost all contemporary writing. The orthodoxy that all good stories must have tension, struggle, heroism and villainy, redemption, and a moralistic (usually but not always happy) ending, is IMO tyrannical and imposes an egregious limitation on the scope and power of good writing. The shortage of well-known stories that lack these ‘orthodox’ qualities does not indicate, to me, their necessity, but rather the power of the orthodoxy to limit our exposure to stories that do not require them.

The third, and perhaps most challenging, obstacle, is the limitation of language itself. I am ambivalent about the use of radically different languages in which to couch stories about the future. They certainly make the books harder to read, and when they do work, as with the mind-boggling Riddley Walker, they are exhausting for writer and reader alike. And even then the language imposes limitations that are rooted in our presumptions about how the world works, or worked, in the time the writer lived or studied, in the present or past, which constrain how the tethered languages and cultures of future times can be imagined and portrayed.

So, for example, I can imagine a future world in which communication is done using sign language or song, and is perhaps non-linear. But what linguistic tools, current or as-yet-uninvented, would allow me to capture what such communications and culture would be like, in a book that readers could fathom? It took James Joyce 17 years to write such a book, and, after all that, it was released largely to public opprobrium.

Or I could imagine some such future cultures to be so collectivist and inclusive as to have a language without (at least singular) pronouns. But I’ve tried writing with that restriction, and it’s trying, clunky, and annoying.

I certainly would not want anything like English to be presumed as the language of any future cultures I can imagine. Given its invention and evolution as a tool principally for subjugation, extraction of information, military instructions, deceit, and ever-greater concentration of power,  our language, and its sisters, are absurdly limited in their capacity to convey what life and interactions might be like in an utterly different future. A future in which such capacities are of no more use to its citizens than they would be to the birds and other wild animals that have thrived, with utterly different means of communication, for thousands of times longer than our rather pathetic species has been around. That will entail the evolution of very different languages than the impoverished ones we struggle to use today.

At one point I envisioned the book being simply a narrative of what was observed by an overhead drone, of unknown origin, recording images of life in this distant future, and leaving it up to the reader, or viewer, to assess what, if anything, these word-images meant. Such a narrative, or film, would, I think, need an extraordinarily fine soundtrack to accompany it, to help convey its message.

Good writing, TS Eliot famously said, has to appeal both to the emotions and the intellect. It has to provide us with some new idea or insight or possibility, some ‘aha’ that is suddenly recognized, and must as well invite a sensuous, evocative appreciation that transports us, ‘moves’ us. These days I read (and watch) little fiction, because most of it offers neither of the above, instead manipulating us, insulting our intelligence, and reinforcing our existing prejudices. By filling in all the details, it starves, instead of exercising, our imaginations. I have an aversion to almost all video games for the same reason.

I’m also a believer that the most inspired, novel, and challenging writing essentially ‘writes itself’ through us — though that does not mean at all that it is a simple or straightforward process. And so I am convinced that, if and when this collection gets written, it will happen when it’s ready to be written. To some extent my preparation for this is just noticing, taking notes, being open to the awareness that it might be time. My writing of music is at the same point of anticipation and not-quite-readiness, and it’s possible that the soundtrack of my writing will come before the words or images. (Or maybe I’m just too lazy to just start. I don’t know.)

It’s hard to imagine this work, regardless of its medium, being without a musical accompaniment — I may be able to paint pictures with words, but not the sounds that elucidate them.

If and when it is produced, I do not expect it to be popular. It will lack the ingredients that most of us have been conditioned to expect and to want in a narrative. Like a photo that tells a non-linear story, it will not have a momentous resolution, conclusion, or even trajectory. The characteristics of its characters will not be familiar to or resonate with most readers. It is important that reading it (and writing it) be tremendous fun, but both writing and reading it will probably also be challenging. My task will be to ensure it’s not more trouble than it’s worth; for most readers, I suspect it will be, no matter how accessible I try to make it.

A few thoughts on what I expect the collection would or would not include:

  • It would depict nothing that we would describe as “work”, and little of what we would think of as struggle; my sense is that part of modern humanity’s tragic Civilization Disease is the unique and unhealthy conviction that staying alive is worth any amount of struggle and suffering, and no matter what the cost.
  • There would be no distinction between what we would describe as food, drugs, and medicines, and no restrictions or judgements on their consumption; such distinctions are, I think, a uniquely modern civilization-era prejudice.
  • The apparent behaviours I would hope to present would be those I have observed in intelligent wild creatures, which are in many respects very, very different from those of our modern human species. We are an aberration.
  • The technologies they employ would not be derivatives or vestiges of civilization’s, which I think are unsustainable and hence doomed to be quickly forgotten; instead, future technologies will be almost entirely based on biomimicry — on discovery of how nature works around challenges, and on modest, analogical experimentation.
  • We will only be around in this imagined future if a way has been found to deal with the existing mess of 21st-century nuclear and chemical wastes that currently need modern human technology to be continuously and indefinitely maintained and safely stored to prevent it soon annihilating almost all life on earth; some intriguing, unexpected, adaptive workaround for that needs somehow to be accommodated in any plausible future narrative. Perhaps a new ritual to placate the future gods. Not sure. It won’t be any solution we would come up with.
  • If there is a lesson to the collection it might be about the rediscovering of things modern humans have forgotten, such as our sense of wonder and curiosity, our capacity to continually and joyfully create temporary things, our capacity to relish simple pleasures, and our capacity to laugh with, rather than laugh at.
  • And if those lessons are imparted it will be through what these characters do, not what they say, or, worse, what they supposedly think. There will be no annoying “…, he thought” passages in my writing. I try as much as possible to write like a playwright. Doing away with thought bubbles in narratives is liberating. Doing away with both thought bubbles and dialogue is…  well, I guess we’ll see. Maybe the visuals and the soundtrack will be enough.

Some renowned writers have said that the book they’d ideally like to write is probably impossible to write, due to a host of limitations. I’m not that pessimistic, and I’m not attached to the result being well-received. I’m similarly not attached to any particular medium for its expression. The constraints of language and media bring with them their own power. The problem with CGI and other ‘unconstraining’ tools in film is that, to some extent, in my opinion, the lack of constraints has made writers and producers lazy and undisciplined. In all writing, for every medium, there is no place for waste, for excess, for needless diversions. A three-hour movie, like a 1,000-page novel, is an extravagance, an indulgence.

Those are my thoughts so far, anyway. I am learning, these days, at a ferocious pace. A lot of it is going right by me, and I’m hoping some of the things I’m missing will come around again when they’re needed.

Something needs to be said, here, now or soon, that apparently can’t be said in the medium of a blog. Expect it to be radical, to push boundaries, and to be a bit ragged. I’m a creative generalist, and my best work so far has been coming up with intriguing and novel ideas that no one has voiced before, and standing back to let others do the hard work of bringing those ideas to fruition. They can have the credit.

They say that those who achieve astonishing things are merely standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them, who paved the path and pointed them in the right direction. I’d like to think some of the lower-downs on whose shoulders they’ve stood weren’t giants, just people, like me, who could imagine possibilities that even the giants hadn’t thought of. That would be just fine.

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3 Responses to Future Perfect: Some Thoughts on Writing

  1. bogbeagle says:

    I read Peter Carey’s “True history of the Kelly gang.”

    It was written in a most naive style, lacking almost all punctuation.

    I was surprised to find that, after just a couple of pages, my brain adapted to the style. I was left with the conclusion that much of ‘punctuation’ is really quite superfluous.

  2. Nathan Shepperd says:

    There’s a possibility that all these criteria might be a blocker – as in, there’s no harm in attempting to create a bridge between what’s comprehensible now and something very unfamiliar.
    Having just read Debt – the first 5000 years I can see there’s a lot of hints in actual history about cultures that have already worked in the way you hope future communities might, but they’ve usually been overwhelmed by violence related to empire and so on. Given that I think it’s unlikely humans are going to evolve out of ending up with civilisations unless the numbers are kept really small. I think you’d have to start thinking about millions of years beyond this time.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Bog — yes there are some intriguing possibilities. Writing from the centre of the page to the outside is another technique. Without the constraints of print you can have the page move to your eye’s focal point in interesting ways.

    Nathan — I agree to avoid violence our numbers have to be kept small. Much written these days about Existential Decay (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/29/opinion/covid-exponential-decay.html) which I think will get us there faster than we might think. The downside of the normal curve. Also if you look at other post-collapse animal populations they tend to continue on the long tail for a long time before vanishing, rather than rising again. We may make the same mistakes over and over, but nature doesn’t. The long tail of post-civ human society will, I think, be our most interesting period.

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