Science fiction authors tend to get salty when people accuse us of trying to predict the future. Especially when people are like, “Hey, in your book you said that there would be giant flesh-eating killer moths in 2015, and instead they arrived in 2018, and I want my money back.” Most science fiction authors will insist that even if a book is set in the future, it’s really about the present—and there’s a lot of truth to that.
But lately, I’ve been feeling like a lot of my science-fiction writing about the future is actually about the past. The past and the future are reflections of each other, after all. And what kind of future we build depends on what we learn from our past.
Take The City in the Middle of the Night, my novel that just came out in paperback. It takes place in the year 3209, on another planet that humans colonized centuries earlier. Yet, a lot of what’s going on in that book is actually a meditation on our history of settler colonialism, here on our own world. And also, one of the main themes of that book ended up being our relationship with history, and how we process (or fail to process) the collective traumas of the past.
The City in the Middle of the Night is about a shy girl named Sophie, who lives in a city where there’s permanent, unending darkness on one side of town, and blazing hot, unseeable sunlight on the other.
Sophie is forced to venture into the frozen darkness, where she learns how to communicate with the creatures who live there. Because these creatures, the Gelet, have no eyes or ears, they don’t communicate using sounds or symbols. Instead, you can touch them and share their thoughts, including their memories of the past. And over the course of the book, Sophie comes to realize that humans are an invasive species on someone else’s world, and she learns to make sense of a culture that has a radically different relationship with history.
The colonialism strand in my story ended up being very important to me, because stories about first contact with extraterrestrials have always been a way for us to talk about encounters between peoples here on Earth, as long ago as War of the Worlds and as recently as Avatar. So I wanted to tell a story about colonization that dealt honestly with the toxic nature of invading other people’s homes, looting their heritage, and trying to erase their cultures. One theme that comes up a lot in this book is the question of who gets to be considered people? How do we decide whom to treat as an equal, and whom to make less-than?
I also came up with a complicated future history, in which seven powerful city-states on Earth have pooled their resources to send a mothership to a new world, including Calgary, Zagreb, Ulaanbaatar, and Khartoum. And there’s a whole complex backstory involving betrayal and attempted genocide during their journey through space.
And then there’s the fact that The City in the Middle of the Night takes place in a world where the sun never rises and sets, so people can’t track the passage of time just by looking up at the sky. This, in turn, makes it harder for people to know how long ago something happened, and messes with our very sense of history.
So, that book ended up being peppered with little meditations on our relationship with history. Like, “The only thing that never goes away is the past.” Or, “Humans are experts at remembering information but forgetting facts.” Sophie, my main character, is struggling to process her personal trauma, while also working to uncover the historical truth about what happened to her own ancestors on the long journey from Earth.
Those two kinds of trauma, personal and collective, are intertwined. And reconciling them is the only way that Sophie is able to find a way forward, for herself and for humanity.
I worked really hard to depict the different ways that people cope with trauma—and conversely, to avoid making it seem as if there’s one standard manner of processing traumatic memories. I talked to a lot of friends who were dealing with long-term trauma, and also read a stack of books, including The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, which I highly recommend.
Sophie, my hero, starts referring to her episodes of re-experiencing her vicious mistreatment at the hands of the police as “memory panic.” While I was listening to various pundits sneer about people getting “triggered,” I was also having really tough conversations with my brave friends who were finding ways to keep going in the face of endlessly self-renewing post-traumatic stress and anxiety.
Thus The City in the Middle of the Night ended up being a book full of obnoxious ghosts. And the fact that the alien Gelet can share second-hand memories of long-distant memories just added to the theme of remembering and reconciling.
I’m not alone in using the future to talk about the past.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is a riff on Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Frank Herbert’s Dune is arguably about the impact of European interference in the Middle East. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars stories are really about the American frontier. There have been a host of books about people who are enslaved on board starships, including Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, and they’re always somewhat about our actual history of chattel slavery. Star Wars has a lot of World War II in it. Star Trek is Wagon Train crossed with Horatio Hornblower. And so on.
The trouble is, science fiction has always had a nasty tendency to idealize the past, and gloss over the worst aspects of our ugly history. A lot of science fiction authors who pride themselves on having a clear-eyed and unstinting view of future pitfalls and troubles are also the first people to romanticize the glories of bygone days. As I was revising The City in the Middle of the Night throughout 2017 and early 2018, during the endless battles involving Confederate statues and thugs in Nazi regalia, I couldn’t help thinking about our dysfunctional relationship with our own ancestors.
Science fiction has a lot of power when it comes to helping us cope with the future. SF can help us adjust to mind-blowing changes, like brand-new technologies but also social upheaval. Authors like Octavia Butler, Malka Older, and Doris Lessing have given us a road map for dealing with new and confusing circumstances. But I increasingly feel that one of the most valuable things science fiction can do is to help us come to terms with the past.
Because lately, it feels like our refusal to reckon with our own history is killing us.
For example, the reaction to The New York Times‘ 1619 Project was a mixture of bracing and horrifying, because many people absolutely do not want to reckon with the origins of our nation, and all the ways that slavery is woven into the fabric of all our institutions. So many people remain ignorant of the truth about the Civil War, and the genocide of indigenous peoples, and countless other stains on our legacy.
But I’ve also been noticing, here on Earth, that people often have a hard time knowing how long ago things happened. There are people in Europe who are still mad about something that happened in the twelfth century, and they talk about this incident as if it was just yesterday. And then there are people who like to pretend that certain recent events (like Jim Crow) are ancient history that happened in another geological era.
I don’t believe history literally repeats itself, but I do believe that history contains a set of things that tend to recur with greater or lesser frequency, like wars, economic crises, social failures, and so on. So being aware of history can help us to see when those common occurrences are re-occurring—and maybe even find ways to make the worst outcomes less likely.
Everyone I know is freaked out right now. The world is literally on fire, governments are veering towards authoritarianism, our ruling elites are looking more and more like organized crime bosses. I can’t titrate my anger—I either let out all of it or none of it—and that leaves me feeling exhausted and filtered to death. But our current nightmare only makes it more helpful to remember all the struggles we’ve already been through, and all the heroes who came before us. We have a fighting chance now because heroic activists refused to stop fighting back then. We need to be reminded of this fact, over and over again.
The great strength of science fiction is that it lets us take real-life stuff out of its context, to allow us to see it more clearly. For all its flaws, Avatar was an environmentalist parable that played to massive audiences who never would have gone to see An Inconvenient Truth. By setting a story on another planet, or in another era, we can make it safe for people to face up to some of the things that we’re in denial about. And you can ask big questions about human nature by eliminating some of the variables and sticking people inside a thought experiment that’s purer and bigger than any real-life psychology experiment.
But I think it’s especially valuable for SF authors to be aware of two slightly contradictory things.
First, even if you think you’re writing about the future, you’re probably really writing about the past, to some extent.
And second, humans are masters of denial, repression and rewriting the historical record to make ourselves look good, at any cost.
The second of those two things makes the first that much more important.
The failure mode of using the future to talk about the past, of course, is that you get something clumsy and preachy. The Roman Empire on another planet! Space Nazis! The Spanish Civil War, except now it’s the Spinach Civil War, fought between two different kinds of leafy greens… Just like anything else, historical commentary can be done well or badly. But as much as we don’t need butterfingered attempts to address our painful legacies, a thoughtful approach to conjuring the past in a story about the future is more useful than ever before.
And the best visions of the future don’t just hold up a mirror to the past and show how we got here. Instead, they help us to think about our heritage, good and bad, in a new way, and illuminate the choices that our ancestors made that still resonate now. Transposing the past into the present also allows you to take enough liberties to throw events into relief. But most of all, a story about the past, transposed into the future, can help us see the patterns of oppression that we’re constantly at risk of perpetuating and amplifying.
Poet and philosopher George Santayana famously insisted that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But I think we can shorten that sentiment for today’s short-attention-span era: “Those who forget history are doomed.”
Originally published in February 2019.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.