Canadian Prairie Futurism: Looking at Tomorrow without Forgetting the Past

On a lazy evening in Regina, Saskatechwan, you can go to a bar called The Fat Badger, grab a beer, and put a little money into the jukebox if you want to hear an old country song about the prairies. Except the jukebox is my cousin, a soft-spoken guy named Marshall Burns, strumming guitar with his band The Alley Dawgs and singing as many classics as they know (and there are a lot). It’s the kind of thing you might have seen here 80 years ago. Or that you might see 180 years from now.

Two summers ago, when I was finishing the first draft of my novel Autonomous, I watched Marshall play and thought about the future. Back then he was at Leopold’s Tavern, and I’d come to the crowded bar with a bunch of family after a long dinner full of conversations about politics and art. This is the sort of thing we might do more often if there were an apocalypse, I mused. We’d gather in some communal shelter, after a day of hunting and gathering in the trashed wastes. Then somebody from our family would start to sing. We’d raise our voices too, to take our minds off the famine and plague and wildfires.

But it’s also the exact kind of thing we’d do in a Utopian future. Imagine us surrounded by carbon-neutral farms whose plants are monitored by sensors and satellites. Our brains would be crackling with ideas, thanks to government-funded science education. After a productive day in the fields and the labs, we’d gather at the co-op watering hole and sing our brains out in agrarian socialist solidarity. We’d all sound great too, because we’d have optimized our vocal chords with open source biotissue mods.

Maybe it sounds a little strange to say that Marshall’s old-fashioned songs gave me these vivid, contradictory images of the future. But I see the future clearly in these anachronistic moments. If we can still hear traditional prairie music in a modern city bar, then it’s a kind of guarantee that people of the future will still be listening to us. As Marshall sang, I could imagine distorted bits of my own culture still alive in a world utterly transformed by time’s passage.

That’s why, about a year later, I asked Marshall if he’d write a country song inspired by my novel for a book trailer. When he’s not being a human jukebox, Marshall is a professional musician and tours with indie rock band Rah Rah, so he took my request pretty seriously (also, he’s just kind of a serious guy). He thought the idea of writing a country song about a robot was pretty weird, which was exactly why I liked it. It represented that blend of past and future I’d seen in the Regina music scene, but also in lots of places on the Canadian prairies.

This is a province that has world-class universities and high-tech farming right alongside small towns with one-room schoolhouses. Go to a bar in Saskatoon, and you’ll find scientists and poets drinking alongside farmers and workers from the oil fields. I’m not saying the blend of tradition and modernity here is perfect—Saskatchewan’s indigenous people still suffer from the historical injustices of colonial conquest. Canada’s past haunts its future, reminding us of ongoing conflicts and unhealed wounds.

I wanted to capture all of that in Autonomous, which is about how the future comes to the prairies, still soaked in the blood of historical crimes. So when I commissioned Marshall to write the Autonomous song, I said something like, “Make it kind of sad.” What he created with this song about the robot Paladin—who is chasing our protagonist Jack Chen across the prairies where she was born—is both funny and sad. In its exaggerated twang you can hear the self-satire of prairie humor, always laced with genuine humbleness. And in its lyrics you can hear a protest against injustice that arcs through time, from the great 19th century Metis rebel leader Louis Riel, to the enslaved robots of Saskatchewan’s future.

Through Marshall, I met Regina filmmaker Sunny Adams, who created the amazing visuals for this video. Sunny animated a kaleidoscopic blend of images from Autonomous: there are scenes from the Saskatchewan prairies and the boreal forest to the north, as well as the science and robotics that are our protagonists’ lifeblood. There are a ton of Easter eggs, too; for people who’ve already read Autonomous, Sunny’s donut machine animation will be shiver-inducing.

What Marshall and Sunny created in this music video can’t rightfully be called a book trailer. Yes, it was inspired by my novel. But it’s also very much the product of their imaginations. It’s an example of what I like to call Canadian prairie futurism. It doesn’t pretend we can have a future without honoring and coming to terms with the past.

Though I have a lot of family whom I love dearly in Saskatchewan, I grew up in California. I’ve spent a lot of time on the prairies, but that’s not the same thing as being from there, living through dozens of those cold, dry winters. I’m very aware that my perspective is colored by my outsider status. Luckily the people of Saskatchewan are usually kind to outsiders. After all, you can’t just leave a person outside to freeze.

Plus, Canadian prairie futurism isn’t just about the prairies—it’s about how the future is taking place everywhere. Tomorrow doesn’t come just to the Tokyos of the world. It happens in Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan. It happens in a suburb outside Vancouver called Richmond. It happens in Tallinn and Samarkand, but it also happens on farms, and in countries that don’t make the G20 cut. Nobody is left behind by the future. But not all futures are exactly the same.

When you watch this video or read Autonomous, I hope it inspires you to think about how the future is a humble place. It’s a patchwork quilt made with what we’ve salvaged from the past. Some swatches are assembled from self-cleaning nanofibers; others will always be stained with the blood of a not-so-distant colonial past.

The pirate Jack and the robot Paladin are living in a future that is full of biotech wonders, but whose people still live in slavery. They don’t dream of spaceships like Luke Skywalker did. They dream of freedom from bondage. It is a humble dream. But maybe it’s the most audacious one.

Autonomous is available September 19th from Tor Books.

Annalee Newitz is an American journalist, editor, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship from MIT, and has written for Popular Science, Wired, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She also founded the science fiction website io9 and served as Editor-in-Chief from 2008–2015, and subsequently edited Gizmodo. As of 2016, she is Tech Culture Editor at the technology site Ars Technica. Autonomous is Annalee’s first novel.

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