Apocalypse No

19 Apr

Competition finalist Andrew Gray says we should throw off our sackloth-and-ashes approach to the future

Photo: Ruhrfisch.

I’m sick of the Apocalypse. It’s a tired, worn-out trope and an excuse for lazy writing and I wish it would go away.

I’m currently writing a novel set 200 years from now and you know what? It’s hard. It occurs to me that someone writing a novel when the first steam locomotives were just appearing couldn’t possibly have imagined the chain of events that would lead to something like the Facebook phone — not even close. So how the hell can I create something convincing that far in our future? Wouldn’t it be easier to just drop an asteroid/global warming/zombie invasion/plague on everything and then write a novel about people struggling in a world gone to hell?

Sure, it would be easier. Just wreck the world, throw in a few mutated monkeys, and stir. But it’s intellectually lazy. We’ve been down that road a million times and we know what it’s like: dazed survivors wandering the ruins, gnawing the thigh bones of their former neighbours. A plucky few trying to rebuild civilization again in between shooting zombies and building Thunderdomes. Enough already!

Two of my favourite SF books of last year, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and Alastair Reynold’s Blue Remembered Earth both convincingly and artfully escape the apocalypse trap. They don’t shy away from the challenges in our future, but they also don’t balk from conceiving a radically different, yet still convincingly human future for us.

In 2312, which has rapidly been gathering award nominations this season, Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t portray a utopia – the Earth is still suffering the lingering effects of climate change and overpopulation, and he cleverly (and accurately) refers to our current era as “the Dithering”, which was followed by a crisis that killed scores of people. But we survive to fill the solar system with our cities and our art and he shows a way forward for us, while not pretending we’ll escape the eternal struggle between our best and our worst impulses.

Blue Remembered Earth is set a little closer to now – less than two hundred years, but paints a similarly compelling picture of a humanity who have expanded beyond Earth, dealt with many of the solvable issues of our time (climate, violence and poverty), and who have changed in remarkable ways. It shouldn’t seem daring that Reynolds chooses Africa as the future seat of much of the world’s energy and power, but it’s something rare in SF, and I found it refreshing.

Both books show wonders like augmented realities and radical body modifications, new social structures, an industrialized solar system – but are no blind techno-utopias. People are still people, which I think is the most important thing about both books: they don’t just spark the imagination; they humanize the future. They make it seem like a place worth living in.

Will they get it right? Of course not; that’s not really the point. But I can imagine a writer in a couple of hundred years looking back at books like these and seeing something. Something compelling. Our attempt to build a bridge to our descendants, to imagine how we’ll solve the problems that beset us.

What are they going to get out of our host of zombie apocalypses? Fear. Fear of the future, fear of ourselves and not much else. That’s not what I love about science fiction, and that’s certainly not what I want to write.

Read Andrew Gray’s story “A Node in the Network”, a runner-up in our short story competition.

Read Alastair Reynolds’s story “The Water Thief” in Arc 1.1: The future always wins.

Kim Stanley Robinson answers the call of the wild in “Shedding Skins”. Read it in Arc 1.4: Forever alone drone.

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