It’s logical to think that societal progress will line up neatly with the progression of time, to believe that life will get better as we move towards the future. At least, it’s something to hope for: that, just as most lives are better now than they were a hundred years ago, so too will the lives of our descendants (literal or metaphorical) be equally better than our own. But there’s also a pressing fear that things could go the other way—that, instead of a better tomorrow, humanity might have to deal with a vision of the future that looks suspiciously like its own past.
Evoking the past in stories of the future can make for an unsettling read, and it’s a device that certain writers have found useful to tap into a collective anxiety over the collapse of progress.
Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is set in a devastated future England in which society has regressed to a crude and primitive level. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas each offer visions of a future in which the worst aspects of the past have returned. (Reading his books in tandem, one can also note that Mitchell observes that different nations are on different timelines: one space’s collapse into feudalism might occur as another is making huge technological leaps.) And Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning blends nods to archaic storytelling forms with a technologically advanced world, to a dazzling and disorienting effect.
In Carmen Boullosa’s novel Heavens on Earth (translated from the Spanish by Shelby Vincent), the juxtapositions of past and future are made explicit by its very structure. It’s the story of Lear, who resides in a futuristic society known as L’Atlàntide where the powers that be are making increasingly unsettling demands of the population. Lear is researching a manuscript translated by a woman named Estela, who lives in roughly contemporary Mexico City; Estela’s area of study is the narrative of the life of Don Hernando, an Aztec man who was trained as a priest but found himself facing obstruction from the racial and societal prejudices of his time.
Each of the three layers echoes one another: each of the novel’s three narrators is somewhat out of step with the repressive society around them, and each finds refuge in the written word and the voices of others. Throughout the novel, Boullosa explores the conflict between an intellectual life and one which embraces more sensual aspects; each of the narrators is left with difficult choices around them. This is perhaps most striking in the L’Atlàntide sections, as Lear increasingly finds herself appalled by the society’s decisions to remove themselves increasingly from written language, to often grotesque ends.
The descriptions of L’Atlàntide, especially its separation from the surface of Earth and totalitarian tendencies, suggests affinities with Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, another work where elements of the past cycle back around in the future. (The increasingly nightmarish vision of a future without written language also echoes Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music.) In the end, Boullosa doesn’t offer easy resolutions to any of the dilemmas faced by her characters; instead, she suggests a haunting middle ground, an uncertain temporary resolution without a definitive triumph or defeat in the cards.
The manifestation of the past in the future setting of Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is more overly harrowing, and—due to the nature of that setting—decidedly claustrophobic. A number of writers have made use of the concept of a generation ship in which aspects of the past manifest themselves in the societal order: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun comes to mind. For the travelers into interstellar space in An Unkindness of Ghosts, the past recurs through social stratification, inequality based on race, and a horrifying religious fundamentalism. It’s set on a ship, the HSS Matilda, that has been traveling through space for centuries. While a white elite enjoy the fruits of a technologically advanced society, a black working class have their rights removed, and are treated as subhuman by those tasked with enforcing the social order.
Aster, the novel’s protagonist, has found a tenuous place for herself due to her knowledge of medicine and the technological legacy of her mother, a troubled woman who vanished years earlier. Her bond with Theo, the ship’s Surgeon General and a fellow iconoclast, allows her certain moments of genuine human connection—though their differences in status also create numerous moments of tension, as their encounters are carefully monitored by those in power.
What Solomon does brilliantly in this novel is in the creation of a society in which dichotomies loom over certain aspects of the narrative, and are eschewed by others. The social and racial divides, for instance, supply the novel with an abundant amount of conflict, and the confined nature of the vessel on which the novel is set increases things even more so—it’s not like there’s anywhere for those appalled by this system to go. At the same time, there’s also a running thread about gender on the ship: one of the decks uses the female pronoun as a default, while other characters’ genders exist outside of a binary classification. This adds another layer to the society that Solomon has created here, and a sharp contrast to the controlling fundamentalism of the ruling class on board the Matilda.
Hearkening back to the past in visions of the future can hold a number of narrative purposes. It can serve as a cautionary tale, that the future can just as easily be a nightmarish return to aspects of society we’d hoped to bypass. It can exist to comment upon certain trends in contemporary society (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale can arguably fall into this category) by accentuating them and accelerating their spread. And it can exist as a jarring technique illustrating the unpredictability of anticipating what’s ahead of us, societally speaking. The past offers us countless nightmares and cautionary tales; so too, I’m afraid, can the array of possible futures lurking up ahead.
Top image: Cloud Atlas (2012)