The Nathaniel Rich and Robin Sloan Emails
On May 7th, Robin Sloan and Nathaniel Rich sat down in front of an audience at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco to discuss the role of fiction in interpreting the future. After the event, the conversation continued online.
The future and the novel. Where to begin? I’m relieved at least that we’re not discussing the future of the novel—a truly tedious and overtalked subject. (My answer: the novel will be just fine, thank you very much.)
Perhaps best to begin with a question, not answers. Is it, What can novelists tell us about the future? Or: Do novelists have an obligation to write about the future? Or: How can novels help us make sense of the future? We seem to be living in an era that is particularly obsessed by fantasies, and fears, about the future, but we tend to seek out scientists and technologists for our predictions, not novelists. You and I have both written fiction about the future. Are we in way over our heads?
I’m going to pick out your second question, because it’s the one that triggered the strongest reaction. “Do novelists have an obligation to write about the future?” you ask. I’ll dispense with any equivocation, any caveats, any little-bit-yes-little-bit-no, and say simply: Hell yes.
But I think it’s important to stipulate that “the future” doesn’t mean Star Trek. Our novels both deal with the future, but they also both unfold in a very recognizable mid-twenty-teens milieu, a sort of 21st-century future-present. So, “write about the future” can absolutely mean “write about this year,” as long as the writing has that forward-leaning stance, like a runner falling into her first stride, slightly off-balance.
Here’s why I am so resolute. I think our collective vision of the future is super important, and there’s no shortage of influences: sci-fi movies, ad campaigns for consumer technology, apocalyptic theologies, economic forecasts, etc.—each a form of fiction, each with its own agenda. Literary fiction, as a genre, is (I think) really remarkably agenda-free. It tends to be personal, humane, grounded in real experience. There’s something useful there—or at least it would be useful if, as a genre, literary fiction didn’t totally ignore the future!
I’m overstating for effect, but I really do believe literary fiction as a genre is more backward- than forward-looking. I suspect it believes in inevitability more than contingency. I fear it prefers memories to plans. You know the story: a family secret, buried for years, finally comes to light—of course it does—and leads to tragic consequences—of course it does.
Your novel Odds Against Tomorrow is a tremendous counterexample, and not even primarily because it takes place in an unspecified future year. Rather, it’s the characters; they all have that forward lean. Even your protagonist Mitchell Zukor, who spends most of the book freaked out and fearful, is pitched forward: if he’s haunted, it’s not by ghosts of the past but by premonitions of what’s to come. On the literary fiction shelf, that is radical. So, this is at the root of my answer. I want more premonitions. I want more dark shapes on the road ahead—as opposed to shadows caught in the rear-view mirror.
But I don’t know. Maybe it’s okay for literary fiction to sit this one out, and leave the future to the sci-fi screenwriters, etc. You’re a journalist as well as a novelist, and much of your reporting has a future-present pitch. (I’m thinking, for instance, of your recent story about the startup incubator Y Combinator for the New York Times Magazine.) So—which works better? Is journalism or fiction the better tool for grappling with the world to come? And if you were steering a young future-obsessed writer in one direction or the other, which would you choose?
Pitched forward, always,
“Pitched Forward”—I like that. Though it sounds dangerously close to “Lean In.”
I’ll offer a disagreement without much of a difference: I don’t think the novelist is under any obligation to write about the future. But I think that novelists should try to make sense of the time in which they live—it’s unavoidable, really—and we are living in an era that is more obsessed with the future than any previous generation in the history of the civilization. It seems almost impossible, therefore, to write eloquently about our time without writing about the future that we imagine for ourselves. The subject of climate transformation offers a perfect example: it’s a looming anxiety about the future that seeps into our everyday lives.
This is another way of saying I agree that “writing about the future” equals “writing about this year.”
It’s true that the novels have a backward-looking bias. But isn’t there a compromise? I’m thinking of a couple of excellent recent nonfiction books that pull a fascinating bait-and-switch. Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time is a history of the Dust Bowl, but it is also secretly a cautionary tale about the future of the American West (which may well return to desert). Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a series of ecological case studies that really serve as premonitions of our own bleak future. Jared Diamond’s Collapse functions in a similar way, divining the future of our civilization in the collapse of previous ones. Can’t a novel work the same way? In other words, can’t a historical novel be, at some deeper level, a novel about the future?
Well, you make a strong case, and I agree: novelists can and should take on that kind of Egan/Weisman/Diamond project—the great bait-and-switch. So, wearing my correspondent-about-writing hat, I’m pretty satisfied. But when I throw that hat into the corner and pull out my other hat, the big one with the gems and the great curling horns—my reader’s crown!—my outlook changes, and there’s just no denying it: I’m hungry for more serious novels of the near future.
That might seem like a strange thing to say, because we are currently confronted with a veritable glut of fictional futures. I am referring, of course, to THE YOUNG ADULT DYSTOPIANS. But here’s the problem: most of these stories, even when they’re deftly constructed and deeply felt, are not serious. That is to say: nobody, not even the author, really thinks the future is going to look like that.
To illustrate, here’s a counterexample. M. T. Anderson’s Feed gets my vote for the best YA dystopia ever, because even though his future world is funny and exaggerated, it’s also deadly serious. Beneath the wacky moon stations and the future-tween dialect, there is a core of dark prophecy. (One might even call it Zukor-esque.) It’s almost impossible to believe this book was written in 2002, because it so perfectly prefigures Twitter and Tumblr and the relentlessness of our social internet.
It’s a risky proposition; Anderson’s prophecy could have missed. His book might now seem laughably misguided instead of spookily prescient. But, you know, maybe that’s precisely what I’m interested in: the risk. When a novelist filters her ideas about the future through the gauze of the past, she sidesteps that risk. She takes refuge in known history, established events… and maybe even a bit of nostalgia.
Okay. I should probably disclose that I was briefly, like your protagonist Mitchell Zukor, a professional futurist. That’s what it said on my business card. FUTURIST. My colleagues didn’t really know what to make of this, and sometimes, the snarkiest of them would crow: “Hey Sloan! What am I going to have for lunch today?” So perhaps I’m especially attuned to the risks of prediction, and especially sympathetic to the Zukors of the world, whether they’re toiling for FutureWorld or FSG.
I’ve wondered about that myself. Does the proliferation of Young Adult dystopian novels presage a new literary movement? Is the YA market what economists call a “leading indicator”? Or is this fascination with the future an adolescent fancy, to be discarded by all but the most infantile adults (i.e.: us)?
I agree that the problem with most dystopian novels is that they’re too often caricatures of our worst fears. You cannot take them seriously, so the dramatic stakes are not very high. The scariest novels tend to take place in the present, or in the near future. The question is, How does a novelist write about a subject like the transformation of the planet’s ecosystem without falling victim to clunky plotting and technical writing? In other words, how does one connect vast public concerns with one’s private, personal concerns? Where does the outside world meet our inner life?
These questions, as it turns out, have been puzzled over by novelists since the creation of the form—and solved. So why do they seem so intimidating today to so many novelists?
My theory: there has been a massive shift away from the so-called “novel of ideas.” In the last two decades or so, for a number of reasons (I’ll spare you further speculation here), literary fiction has become a genre unto itself. I suspect you agree—I noticed you referred it to it as a genre in an earlier note. Like any other genre, Lit-Fi has its own rules. Smaller, domestic stories are emphasized; the tone tends to be realist, sober; and big ideas are eschewed. What many readers don’t recognize is that this approach represents a dramatic break from tradition.
Think of all the wonderful novelists who have taken as their subject class, labor, money, national politics, war, philosophy, and economics! The first examples that come to mind: Zola, Balzac, Dickens, Proust, Joyce, West, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Forster, Cather, Wharton, Mailer, Bellow, Ballard, Nabokov, Burgess, Bradbury, Didion, DeLillo, Amis (father and son), Ellroy…the list goes on and on. (Many of these writers, by the way, were also accomplished journalists—to pick up a thread from a previous exchange.) Our best writers wrote novels about World War II, the cold war, the paranoid age of American politics—why not climate change? Doesn’t the destruction of the planet warrant the same approach?
You could say the same thing about the technological revolution now underway. Think of all the great novels about the industrial revolution. Where are their contemporary counterparts? I’m thinking The Jungle set at Monsanto’s genetically-modified foods plant; Hard Times in Mountain View (“Easy Times”?); Germinal in Shenzhen.
Do you still have those Futurist business cards? Can I have one?
I have to confess—your email basically ruined me, because now I desperately want to read a 21st-century Jungle set in agribusiness Kansas. That’s your next book, right? Right?!
The journalist-as-novelist thing is interesting. I think what we tend to get today, instead of idea-driven fiction epics, is idea-driven nonfiction narrative—for example, your work for the New York Times Magazine! As it turns out, a lot of that stuff is really, really good… but I believe (and I suspect you agree) that fiction can actually provide a more compelling and (counterintuitively) more accurate portrait of both the world we live in and, importantly, the world we’re about to live in. Journalism’s good for a lot of things, but really, prediction isn’t one of them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by… #longreads? That sounds silly, but I think there might be some truth to it. So maybe what we need is a program to lure some of these amazing journalists back towards future-focused fiction. I suspect this program will involve whiskey.
I’ve lost track of my old futurist cards, but really, if anyone has earned the right to carry one, it’s you, with Odds Against Tomorrow. So here you go—in the Paladin / Wile E. Coyote tradition:
It’s been a pleasure, Nathaniel. See you in the future.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of two novels: The Mayor’s Tongue and Odds Against Tomorrow. His essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Slate, and the Daily Beast; he is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He can be found online at www.nathanielrich.com and @NathanielRich.
Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet. He can be found online at www.robinsloan.com and @RobinSloan and @Penumbra.