I was doing some research (i.e. “avoiding work/killing time online”) when I found an old piece on Quora, a content partner with Slate. It posits the hypothetical question, “what would happen if oxygen were to disappear for five seconds?” The respondent, a self-described science junkie named Andrew Cote, describes a series of truly eye-popping events that would occur. Citing principles of basic geology, chemistry, and air pressure, he predicts that among other unpleasantries, everyone’s inner ear would explode, the oceans would evaporate, and the earth itself would collapse into a drifting mass of cosmic dust.
For those of us who have written speculative fiction, hypothesizing about the future is what we do, with the added challenge of turning it into a dramatic narrative. As with all writing, our stories are further informed by our quirks, tics, and bêtes noires: not just everyday neuroses and fantasies, but our greatest hopes and worst nightmares, as well. My ex-husband is both a science fiction novelist and a science and technology writer. For him, speculative fiction is an act of both affirmation and boundless optimism, a creative riff rooted in knowledge and research. He really believes in new technologies; no matter how deep a hole we may dig for ourselves, he is convinced we can surely find our way out through science. To him, the key to the future resides in not just the hoary clichés of his genre, space travel and robots, but also nanotechnology, supercomputers, cloning, robotics, cryonics, and so on.
Yet anyone can dabble in futuristic scenarios and not just those who know anything at all about science. My current husband Laurence and I have written a young adult dystopian trilogy, the final installment of which, Guardians, is coming out in late March from HarperTeen. The trilogy, called Wasteland, is the story of a post-apocalyptic near-future, in which a pandemic has wiped out most of the earth’s population. The only ones living are the descendants of the early survivors, children who are illiterate and uneducated and who must scrabble for decades-old packaged goods in order to stay alive. What’s more, the water-borne disease ensures that no one lives past his or her teens.
Let me confess right now that neither my husband nor I are scientists. And if science fiction is indeed written with an optimist’s belief in technology, I can safely say that we approach a speculative future from the other end: a place of deep anxiety. Yes of course, technology may be capable of saving the day; but more often, we realize it’s led us to the brink of not just disaster, but lurid, comic-book-sized disaster. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are lurking in our largest hospitals. Extreme weather patterns are killing thousands worldwide. The runoff of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and our excreted meds in rivers and streams is affecting human and animal life in ways we don’t yet understand. I read that the flame retardants in my furniture and rugs have been linked to kidney failure in animals and may have contributed to my cats’ deaths.
Yet I would argue that writing about a dystopian future is not the masochistic and pessimistic display my science fiction-writing ex might claim it to be. Our book takes place in a wasteland, a harsh world where resources are precious, time is fleeting, and allegiances uncertain. But perhaps because their world is so hellish, it means our teenaged protagonists must also find others they can trust… for without them, they will surely die. With so little to live for, love becomes especially precious, as does loyalty. And bravery. And hope, as well.
Perhaps those of us who write about a dystopian future have more faith in people than we do in the wise application of technology. Because writing about survival in such a deadly environment is ultimately its own declaration of faith and affirmation: in the human struggle, the younger generation, and life itself.