I was doing some research (i.e. "avoiding work/killing time online") when I found an interesting piece on Quora, now 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 various other unpleasantries, everyone's inner ear would explode, the oceans would evaporate, and the earth itself would collapse into a drifting mass of cosmic crud.
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 the usual neuroses and fantasies, but our greatest hopes and worst nightmares, as well. A friend of mine is both a science fiction novelist and a science and technology writer. For him, science 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 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, even cryonics.
Yet anyone can dabble in futuristic scenarios and not just those who know beans about science. Laurence Klavan and I have written a YA novel that is coming out this week from HarperTeen. Called Wasteland, it's the story of a post-apocalyptic near-future, in which an illness 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 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 writing partner 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, it's led us to the brink of not just disaster, but lurid, comic-book-sized disaster. A new, antibiotic-resistant superbug is lurking in NYC hospitals. Extreme weather patterns caused by an over-reliance on fossil fuels 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 even 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. With improvements like that, who needs enemies?
And yet I would argue that writing about a dystopian future is not the masochistic and pessimistic display my science fiction-writing friend might claim it to be. Our book takes place in, yes, a wasteland, a harsh world where resources are precious, time is fleeting, and allegiances uncertain. But perhaps because their world is so hellish, 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.