Writing Futures from the Present

Bud Helisson, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing: Person holding brown glasses, through which you can see a forest scene, all set against a green background.

Lately I’ve been processing the strong possibility that I won’t get to keep my new home in Colombia (at least, not full-time for a few years), and it’s been difficult to focus on writing in the middle of this grief. Compounding that difficulty is the fact that I’m currently working on my entry for Grist’s Imagine 2200: Climate fiction for future ancestors. This is a free-to-enter international call with cash prizes — and as such, the rare contest worth most any writer’s time.

It’s been tough, though, because I chose to centre my story around a humbler barrio here in Medellín, and I hadn’t anticipated how much more painful it would be to write about a better, most egalitarian future for a city you love, when you’re busy mourning the idea that you might not get to be a part of efforts toward that greater end.

However, I’ve now reframed the writing process as itself a part of that better-world-building, and to an extent that’s helped. What I’m currently grappling with, then, is a far more common issue for writers of realistic futures: how best to bypass mentalities of the present, to imagine a truly different sociopolitical context 180 years down the line.

It’s not an easy issue. A few years back, I wrote a review of Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars in which I called attention to a phenomenon present in a great deal of contemporary space-opera: the writing of today’s gender/sex/orientation issues into far-flung alien futures in ways that feel profoundly anachronistic — an appeal to contemporary Western readers at cost to coherent worldbuilding. Obviously, that appeal works for some (or else there wouldn’t be such a market for it), but I find that this sort of “inclusion” only makes the future bleaker — because if we’re still struggling with the same identity battles hundreds of years down the line, what have we truly learned in all that time?

It is so tempting to play out today’s struggles verbatim in future contexts — but even if that future story shows a “win” for the “right” side of today’s struggle, having the struggle itself dominate our futurescape means that we’ve still allowed the present to colonize another, far-flung era. And yet, we can’t help but write from the present, as people living in and inundated by it, so can we ever really write outside of current ideological contexts? Is it sheer folly to try?

My far-flung SF novel inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, which will be seeking a home with publishers sometime this year, explores precisely that question: How does one write their way out of a social contract that shapes everything about who we are in the here and now?

But even writing a whole novel on such a theme didn’t save me from overly colonizing another future with ideas from the present — and so, the first time I drafted the aforementioned cli-fi story, which explores hyper-localism in 2200 as the path to better global governance, I realized I’d made quite a few mistakes with both structure and word choice.

Even worse, though, I’d shaped an early, world-establishing conflict around a moment of dog-whistling prejudice, as espoused by an historian from a richer barrio who visits our protagonist’s community and tries to tell her barrio about its own history in a way that casts aspersions on the locals’ ancestors. My plan had been to use that conflict to illustrate the restorative techniques that children in this future are raised up with as a matter of course, so that they can defuse harmful situations faster, and represent themselves sooner on local-global councils.

But did you catch how much my original establishing incident immediately colonizes my imagined future with the limits of our present moment? In revealing my protagonist’s superior childhood education through such a geo-local provocation, I’ve gone and undermined my whole global-local system. The story, after all, is about an international governance model that groups hyper-local councils all over the world into teams annually dedicated to policy tasks that build on those localities’ shared interests, expertise, and needs.

Why, then, was I still centring geo-local tensions as the starting point for this story’s worldbuilding?

Moreover, even though it might seem progressive to show how strong my protagonist’s restorative-justice training has been through her response to this historian’s arrogant imputation about her ancestors, it remains a simplistic narrative choice to show her childhood training at work against so obvious a form of prejudice.

This is supposed to be an optimistic future, after all — and in a world where better justice-training is fully naturalized, we have to expect that some of the world’s ongoing justice challenges will manifest differently from how the ones we have today appear in the world. Why not explore one of those new manifestations? Why not write a crisis that allows the resilience of my protagonist’s restorative-justice training to be revealed while tackling the sorts of issues we’ll have the energy and means to address in 2200, after today’s most pressing injustices have been dismantled?

After realizing my misstep, I set about rewriting my story’s central conflict entirely: away from geo-local tensions, and instead involving a serious question that my protagonist — fifteen and exhilarated by the fact of being freshly elected into the working-group that will directly face-time with her barrio’s global-local partners — has to answer for herself, so as to represent her region well.

I’d be giving away too much, I suspect, if I shared precisely what that “serious question” might be — but suffice it to say, it’s the sort of question that I can see our governance system posing, for individual actors the world over, the moment we have both the technology and the willingness to pursue a more egalitarian and inclusive global politics.

And that’s the real point here, isn’t it, as a writer of speculative fictions? To go at least one step beyond?

I have no idea, then, if this story will “work” for this competition’s initial slush readers (to say nothing of the four judges who will ultimately review the best of the nominations), but already, the story has “worked” for me, because it’s compelled me to take a good, long look at how I’m still allowing the present to colonize my imagination with respect to possibilities for the future.

And if I’m being fully honest with myself, it’s not just the world of 2200 that this story has helped me realize I’m colonizing with present-day constraints: it’s also the rest of 2021. And 2022. And all the other years of my fleeting life. When I think about what will happen if I can’t get the visa I need in April to stay… if I have to switch between half-years in Colombia and another country until I can raise funds for an investment visa instead…

Well, life will be very hard and very lonely. That is true.

But it need not be that way forever.

And the load of these imminent difficulties always feels a bit lighter, whenever I put more effort into imagining the future challenges I might face, after all these present-day setbacks have been overcome.

May your own “conversations” with yourself (literary, or otherwise) yield similar moments of self-reflection. May you come to identify the limits you’ve set upon your own dreaming… and then learn to dream a little further down the line.

M L Clark explores the challenge of writing futures less colonized by the present.


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