Feature Articles / Writing the Future: Excavating the future

There is something unsettling, even uncanny, about the feeling the future is already here, a sense in which the boundary between now and what is to come is becoming porous, as if we are caught in a world of hauntings, or perhaps we ourselves are the hauntings in a world we no longer recognise.

James Bradley Writing the future April essay

A couple of years ago a tech company called Colossal announced a project to resurrect mammoths, Jurassic Park-style, so they could be reintroduced to the Arctic. This scheme had various objectives, but the one its backers were most eager to promote was the idea the presence of mammoths on the tundra might help slow down the melting of the permafrost, thereby delaying or even preventing the release of methane from the frozen ground.

There was some science behind the project: as temperatures in the Arctic rise, trees and moss are replacing the grasses that once dominated the tundra. Because the trees and moss are darker than grass, they absorb more heat, causing more warming, which results in more trees and moss, and so on and so on. Theoretically at least, mammoths would slow down this process by knocking over trees and fertilising grass with their droppings. And in a world where temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have been rising at seven times the global average, and the permafrost is alarmingly close to a tipping point, or what the IPCC describes as a ‘large-scale discontinuity’ – even crazy ideas seem worth considering.

For me, though, the story had a quite separate resonance. The recreation of mammoths to help slow down global heating was one of the central conceits of my 2020 novel, Ghost Species, which imagines the creation of a Neanderthal child, and that child’s coming of age against a backdrop of hastening climate catastrophe. Seeing things you’ve imagined as science fiction come true is one of the hazards of working in speculative modes. This experience, though, was given extra charge because I wasn’t predicting a new technology or imagining some specific social change. Instead, I had been trying to give shape to the growing derangement of climate catastrophe.

There is something unsettling, even uncanny, about the feeling the future is already here, a sense in which the boundary between now and what is to come is becoming porous, as if we are caught in a world of hauntings, or perhaps we ourselves are the hauntings in a world we no longer recognise.

The irony is, of course, that this porousness is one of the things Ghost Species seeks to explore. One of the book’s starting points was the way the past has begun to bleed into the present. In the Arctic, ancient animals are emerging from the melting permafrost. In Europe the long-lost shapes of prehistoric settlements have been appearing in drought-parched fields. In America, skeletal remains are being exposed as Lake Mead, the reservoir that supplies California, Arizona and Nevada, dries up. This sense of temporal derangement, of human time and planetary time collapsing into each other, is written into the novel’s fabric, from the creation of the Neanderthal child, Eve, to the other experiments taking place around her, the de-extincted thylacines and mammoths, and indeed to the book’s final sections, when catastrophe arrives, and history begins to run backwards.

I suspect describing the book in this way makes it sound a bit abstract. But it is also a very personal novel. I began writing it just after my father died in 2016, and it was published a few weeks after my mother died in 2020. Much of the editing was carried out while Sydney was covered in smoke from the fires that devastated the east coast across the summer of 2019-20 when it was impossible to see the sun for weeks on end, and the smell of burning clung to everything. It is a book written in the shadow of grief, both personal and planetary.

I’ve always believed one of the purposes of fiction and poetry is to give shape to the things we do not know how to say, to make comprehensible feelings and experiences that are outside of language. Ghost Species is very much an exercise in that process. I wanted to think about the ways personal loss and planetary loss overlap and interact, and the ways one might let us think about the other. And I thought that by imagining Eve, the time-lost child, it might be possible to give shape to the way these experiences spoke to some of the strangeness of our moment.

But I also wanted to think about what the loneliness of being the only one of your kind said about the idea of extinction and loss. Many people will be familiar with the film of the last thylacine in its cage at Hobart Zoo. There is something deeply affecting about watching it pace up and down, about the sense it will soon disappear, that grants it a mute power, especially in a world where some scientists predict close to one in six species could be wiped out by the end of the century.

There are human analogies as well. In 1911, in California, a man who came to be known as Ishi was brought to the University of California. Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yahi, a sub-group of the Yana people of the central Sierra Nevada, in Northern California.

At Berkeley, Ishi was placed in the care of the head of the anthropology department, Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber and his colleagues recorded his stories, traditions and songs, as well as requiring him to perform displays of his bow and arrow making skills for visitors. In return, Ishi was paid $25 a week to work as a janitor in the museum.

The unequal nature of Ishi and Kroeber’s relationship has long been controversial. Although there is little question Kroeber cared about Ishi, he also used him to benefit his career and, after his death, removed Ishi’s brain and sent it to researchers at the Smithsonian in violation of Ishi’s wishes. In his book about the two men Orin Starn writes that, ‘Ishi was genuinely a friend, but he was also a specimen’, a formulation that seems accurate but also uncomfortably inadequate.

Kroeber is also notable because he was the father of the novelist Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin largely avoided speaking about Ishi – on her blog she is deliberately evasive (‘Ishi died thirteen years before I was born, so I have no nice anecdotes about knowing him when I was a child. I’m sorry.’). Yet it is difficult not to see resonances between Ishi’s story and all the solitary emissaries sent to alien planets that populate Le Guin’s work.

In recent years, there has been a shift in the understanding of Ishi and his experience, a desire to refocus attention from narratives that cast him as a victim to talk instead about his resilience. Still, it seems clear his life, severed from his land, culture, language and people, was diminished in some irrevocable way. Even his name was not his, but simply the word for ‘man’ in Yana; it was given to him by Kroeber because Yahi law dictated Ishi could not speak his name until formally introduced by another of his people. In Ishi’s words: ‘I have none, for there were no people to name me.’ The grief embedded in those words is a reminder that the loss of a culture or a language diminishes the world in some profound way.

The extinction of a species, too, is not just the loss of genetic potential, it is a far deeper rupture, in which connections to other species, ways of being in the world, even the threads of culture binding generations together disappear out of the world. As the philosopher Thom van Dooren has observed, ‘extinction is never a sharp, singular event – something that begins, rapidly takes place, and then is over and done with’; instead it is ‘a slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life that begins long before the death of the last individual and continues to ripple long afterwards’.

This idea of the significance of connection, of the webs of meaning and connection that sustain us as individuals and species is threaded deep into the fabric of Ghost Species, as is the idea of the loneliness of inhabiting a world where other species are disappearing at a terrifying rate. But alongside it, the novel is also trying to grapple with a series of questions about how we are to live in a world where unspeakable loss is already inescapable.

It is now almost certain the planet will crash through the 1.5 degree guardrail that was supposed to keep us from dangerous global heating before the end of this decade, while the odds of remaining below two degrees grow worse daily. Heating of more than two degrees will result in widespread extinction and ecosystem collapse, large-scale movement of people, and heatwaves and weather events against which the fires and floods of the past few years will look like mere warm-up acts.

As a writer, it is difficult to know how to engage with disaster on this scale. How do we think about possibility and inevitability? How do we represent the unthinkable? And what is the role of fiction when confronted with these questions? To bear witness? To agitate? To console?

At least part of the answer has to be the development of new forms capable of containing and expressing this new reality. Ali Smith – somebody who has, especially in her recent Seasons Quartet, pushed the novel into new configurations in order to capture the altered temporality and strangeness of our moment, recently wrote about the idea of ‘formal feeling’. For Smith, conditions of crisis demand a shift in the way we write, innovations capable of capturing and expressing the particularity of the world we inhabit. Smith quotes Virginia Woolf’s desire to step outside of human consciousness into, ‘a world which one could slice with one’s thoughts as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water-lilies’. Woolf famously wrote that, on or about December 1910, modernism wrought a fundamental change in human nature. The upheavals of our own times are effecting an even more profound shift in human consciousness.

Smith’s framing of the question is useful because it suggests a more constructive way to think about fiction that is responsive to the world we inhabit. Because of the way the conversation around fiction and environmental crisis is framed, there often seems to be an expectation that books about climate and environment should do something about climate change. I find this instrumentalising tendency a little odd – we don’t, after all, make the same demands of other kinds of novels: books about marital discord aren’t expected to end divorce, and crime novels aren’t expected to somehow bring down the carceral system.

Yet, at the same time, the expectation isn’t entirely wrong either. We live in a moment of planetary emergency, and if fiction is to be more than mere aestheticising, it has to be responsive to that emergency in some way. If it’s not, why write it?

I suspect for many people the first step in this process is simply acknowledging reality. The dissonance between the enormity of the disaster that is overtaking us and the refusal of politicians and the media to address, or often even acknowledge, it is profound. By bearing witness to what is taking place, fiction can offer us a way to endure the loss and anger. That old CS Lewis line about reading to know we are not alone might seem trite and sentimental, but it’s not entirely wrong, especially in this context.

No less importantly, fiction offers ways of thinking about a future that often seems unimaginable. This is given one of its fullest expressions in the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, perhaps most significantly in his 2020 novel, The Ministry for the Future. For many, the most memorable part of the novel is its opening sequence, in which a wet bulb heatwave kills tens of millions in India. But for me the important thing about the book is its attempt to show that there is a way through, and however frightening the future looks, that societies are dynamic systems and history keeps happening. This insistence creates a space in which it is possible to think about the future in constructive and creative ways.

Interestingly, given Ali Smith’s idea of a formal feeling, Ministry is also notable for its rejection of conventional fictional form. Robinson has always been impatient with many of the shibboleths of literary writing – he once declared show don’t tell, ‘a zombie idea, killed forty years ago by the publication in English of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet still sadly wandering the literary landscape, confusing people’ – and he has long made an art form of discursive fiction and infodumps. But Ministry often reads less like fiction than some kind of imaginative history. The fury and despair that undergird it lend its generic instability a kind of electric energy, a charge that makes it feel necessary in the way a lot of much more polite fiction does not.

At this point in such discussions, it’s traditional to gesture towards Frederic Jameson’s famous aphorism about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But as Amitav Ghosh has observed, this is ‘patently untrue’.

‘The majority of the world’s population did not live in capitalist societies for much of the 20th century,’ he writes. ‘Even in the West the normal functioning of capitalism was mostly suspended for years, during the two world wars.’  Instead, Ghosh argues, what has never been suspended is the dynamics of global empire, of exploitation and extraction. ‘That which is really harder to imagine than the end of the world is the end of the absolute geopolitical dominance of the West.’[i]

Perhaps what is necessary is a kind of decolonisation of the imagination, an opening up of new possibilities, and new ways of seeing things. Part of this has got to involve breaking down the false dichotomies between Nature and Society, between us and the world, and recognising the degree to which everything is connected, and the existence of other ways of being. But it also demands we begin to think not just about the future implications of our current crisis, but also its historical dimension, its roots in the ongoing violence of slavery, colonialism and dispossession.

This is already happening, of course. First Nations writers such as Alexis Wright, Claire Coleman, Evelyn Araluen and Tara June Winch are producing startling, eloquent work that delineates the lines of force connecting colonial violence, capitalism and the climate crisis. Other writers such as Jane Rawson, Laura Jean McKay and Jennifer Mills are writing books that try to imagine non-human perspectives.

These works all offer their own versions of the formal feeling Smith describes. They engage not just with the scale of the crisis we inhabit, but also its textures – the sense of yawning loss, of fractured connection, of temporal derangement and cultural erasure. Yet they also go further, creating imaginative spaces in which it is possible to see the past in new ways. And perhaps – just perhaps – they open a space in which we can imagine other, and better, futures.

James Bradley is an author and critic. His books include the novels WrackThe Deep FieldThe Resurrectionist, Clade and Ghost Species, a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. His first book of non-fiction, Deep Water, will be published in 2024.


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