by Kate Maruyama
I sat down with four futurist and scifi writers—Cecil Castelucci, Matt Kressel, PJ Manney, Nisi Shawl, and Sherri L. Smith—on BookSwell with Cody Sisco in May, and we talked about the difficulty of writing the future when our present times are so difficult. So many very productive writers I know have had trouble stringing sentences together these days, let alone pages or story, as we are all overwhelmed by the present. Each day brings new tonnage of information to process. Our biggest questions were, “How do we move forward?” and, “What can we write now?”
This conversation was early in the quarantine, and we were seeing the positive environmental repercussions on the planet from everyone simply staying home. My family made the trip to see bioluminescence come back to the Santa Monica Bay for the first time in decades. Matt Kressel said, “All across the world people are reporting bluer skies, cleaner water. I hope that people will make it want to last longer, think about how to treat the environment better.”
I came away from that conversation so full of hope for the future and this planet, hope that out of the current crises, things can change. I also came away thinking science fiction was more important now than ever.
When I wrote “Footprint” I was in a very different place, wrestling with growing knowledge that my kids, now eighteen and twenty, were outgrowing my abilities to protect them from the world. I had a terrible feeling I hadn’t prepared them properly. I’m certain so many parents are feeling this right now. The story, in the November/December issue of Asimov’s [on sale now], dives into the helplessness of being a parent and how terrifying it is that every decision you make, even if it feels like a guess, can have lasting repercussions on a child’s life. At the time I wrote it, I was overwhelmed by these feelings, to the point at which I was having trouble writing. But not writing isn’t an option, so I waded in, sank for a while. I set the story in a future where global warming is catching up with us and my main character is missing garlic, which no longer grows fresh in Southern California. Temperatures are up, bees are down, food supply is challenging, but it was important to me to capture a future with hope in the air, a world on the cusp of positive change. That the reader leave this future feeling things are on their way to getting better. In many ways I hope that is where we are now, a bad place where things can only get better.
But not writing isn’t an option, so I waded in, sank for a while. I set the story in a future where global warming is catching up with us and my main character is missing garlic, which no longer grows fresh in Southern California. Temperatures are up, bees are down, food supply is challenging, but it was important to me to capture a future with hope in the air, a world on the cusp of positive change.
Science fiction has always created worlds we want to see, but there has been a recent trend of dystopian futures, worlds without hope. Zombie narratives have touted an every man for himself future, testing the theory of how badly we will behave when things are at their worst. The problem is we’ve reached some terrible times, and that narrative seems only to have encouraged hoarding. There was that period of the quarantine when we all ran out of toilet paper, when I saw people installing deep freezes in their garages so they could buy all the meat, when the shelves at the supermarket were empty. Cory Doctorow has written and spoken on how these narratives in fiction can be damaging to us as a human race.
In these times, I’m more fascinated by the good I’m seeing coming out in people. In Los Angeles, I’m seeing neighborhoods stepping forward to take care of their own, from people buying groceries for each other, to local restaurants in Little Tokyo forming cooperatives to churn out free meals for people unemployed or houseless due to COVID-19. My group of friends seem to be participating in a vegetable exchange as we’ve all started growing things in our gardens or in pots. Rebecca Solnit, in her book A Paradise Made in Hell, tracks disasters across a century and a half, detailing how unexpectedly people have kindness at their center when terrible events occur. These times, despite the news to the contrary, are full of basic human kindness. In our conversation on BookSwell, Sherri L. Smith said, “The willingness to stay inside to protect other people . . . is the most generous movement I’ve seen on this planet for a long time.”
Afrofuturism revolutionized the idea of laying a path of positive futures centering on Black characters doing good things, in positions of power, at the leading edge of technology, living free of the inequities of current times. There is power in painting futures we want to see.
A number of science fiction writers at NorWescon (Nisi Shawl and PJ Manney included) were on a panel where they talked about the importance creating a New Mythos, an ideology where we don’t have to imagine a terrible future. We can envision ourselves better; we can envision a planet healing; we can find a way forward. In our conversation, Nisi Shawl said, “[dystopia] is what’s served to us, it’s what we’re trained to enjoy . . . I want people to feel better, to let them know they can go forward . . .”
In our conversation, Cecil Castellucci pointed out that half of the scientists she knows at NASA say that science fiction was what gave them the vision to want to pursue space exploration, that drove them to choose science. That the better futures dreamed up in fiction seemed like a possibility worth pursuing.
So as writers of the future, how can we expose the evils of the world—as they should be—but bend toward a more hopeful future? How can we help change the human narrative? Be careful what you write; you are making a bigger imprint than you know.