Are you tired of doom and gloom stories about our collective future?
With climate change affecting people all over the planet and protests over social injustice sweeping the globe, it seems like much of our news and popular culture is filled with dystopian images of the future. Sure, if you look at the trends in greenhouse gas emissions, temperature, biodiversity loss, income inequality and a host of other indicators, it can be hard to stay positive. With large parts of Australia on fire throughout the summer of 2019-20, it feels like we’re already living in a dystopian future. It’s no surprise then that the body of literature known as ‘climate fiction‘ or ‘cli-fi’ is relentlessly pessimistic about the future.
It’s also fair to say that these dire warnings about the future have played an important role in raising public concern about climate change to a point where there is pressure on politicians to act. But the risk with all this negativity is that we will collectively switch off to avoid the fear and guilt that these images of the future carry with them.
We have the creativity and imagination to imagine other pathways into the future. I’m not talking about unrealistic utopias or escapist superhero fantasies either – I’m talking about realistic stories that embrace the dark and light of the human condition while navigating us towards a future that is better than today.
In late 2018, the inspiring Karen O’Brien encouraged me to try and write just such a story. With her co-editors Ann el Khoury, Nicole Schafenacker and Jordan Rosenfeld, she put out a call for stories that would ‘reimagine the world from the perspective of a new paradigm’. The result was Our Entangled Future, a collection of nine short stories, inspired by quantum theory concepts, that imagine positive social change.
As a teenager, I dreamt of becoming a novelist, but it had been a long time since I had tried my hand at fiction. I found the process of writing a short story very different to my normal academic writing process. Unhindered by the burden of research and referencing, the story emerged in a very organic way over the summer holidays of 2018-19. It came to me in fragments, composed in odd moments while running along the beach, walking our dog Basil, or nursing a beer. I would hurry home to write down these snippets of character, dialogue, scene and plot, unsure how they would all fit together. In time, the connections emerged and the story of The Witnesses was born.
I sent it in to the jury process with no real hopes that it would go any further, content that it had been an enjoyable process and that it had helped me to imagine a different kind of future. I was shocked and honoured when the jury awarded it first prize and gave it the opening spot in the book.
Something I was really looking forward to was reading the other stories and seeing how different authors approached the challenge of telling a different kind of story about the future. It’s an inspiring collection. Below are my very brief reactions to each of the stories.
The Drought by Jessica Wilson
A fantastical, emotional ride through time to the Conscious Integral Age. Where I strove for a gritty realism in my story, Jessica Wilson tells a magical tale, a future fable, that swept me along like the waves that sweep her character Kariti. I wept with her for the loss of the coral and of her grandmother. It’s a story of transformation, but something I particularly loved about this story was the sense of uncertainty about when and where the transformation began. That loss of certainty seems fitting if we are to transform beyond our current obsession with scientific, rational certainty.
The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store by Catherine Sarah Young
Catherine Sarah Young’s intimate tale of the perfumer behind The Ephemeral Marvels Perfume Store captures the poignant feeling of loss that climate change and ecological destruction often brings forth for me. When I was a child, I had a favourite place in the local eucalypt forest where I would go to experience wild nature. I visited it often and experienced it in many different moods, as a place of healing, play and wonder. It’s a place that is charged with happy, innocent memories. That place is now gone, bulldozed to make way for housing. How I would love to open a bottle of perfume that would take me back to that place one more time!
Synergy by Otter Lieffe
What I like about Synergy is the way it finds the best of humanity even in what would otherwise feel like a fairly typical dystopian climate change future. It’s a reminder that even amidst the chaos of ecological derangement, living things continue to strive to live their lives and, at its best, that can be glorious. It feels like one of the most likely of the futures in the book – one where climate change has hit hard and changed everything, but adaptable humans still find a way to go on. I hope we can do better than that and act in time to avoid the worst impacts but on darker days this is the kind of future I probably expect.
Cool Burn and the Cherry Ballart by Jude Anderson
My fellow Australian, Jude Anderson, has written a beautiful, reflective account of indigeneity on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia. Last year, a mutual friend introduced me to Jude by email. We rapidly discovered that we had both written stories for the book and I was further astounded when I realised Jude’s story was set just down the road from where I live. Talk about entanglement! Reading Jude’s story, I could feel the slow summer flow of the Shoalhaven River and that feeling of my feet in the water as if I was right there. Australia’s landscape is enriched by 60,000 years of Aboriginal story but so little of this narrative world is known to us descendants of invaders. We need more stories that bridge worlds in this way.
The Green Lizard by Albert van Wijngaarden
This story makes no attempt to provide solutions to the complex sustainability challenges we face. Instead, it respectfully recounts three different narratives of people with very different perspectives on a proposed biodiversity conservation plan. It sits with the complexity of these perspectives and refuses to choose sides. As fascinating as it was to simply inhabit these competing worldviews, I have to admit I was hungering for a way to balance them. I really wanted the story to find some common ground. I admire the author’s ability to resist this urge and just present these entangled narratives for our consideration.
The Visitor by Julia Naime Sanchez-Henkel
The voice of nature itself is frequently omitted from storytelling. The Visitor rectifies this by telling a whole story from the perspective of an ancient tree in the middle of a rainforest. While I really liked the idea of giving nature a voice through story, I felt that the story romanticised ways of living with nature that are no longer viable with current population sizes. Perhaps what we need now is a more complex hybrid of Indigenous wisdom and postmodern innovation, rather than a simple return to past ways of life.
Let Us Begin by Saher Hasnain
Let Us Begin is perhaps the most speculative of the stories, imagining a world in which entanglement between human minds leads to a kind of telepathic connection. This telepathy emerges in an enlightened community, outside the polluted cities, and allows members to literally feel their connection to others. Consistent with Buddhist teachings of compassion, these enlightened individuals embark on a mission to bring their entanglement to the rest of the world. While the use of literal telepathy renders this as a work of speculative fiction, the message of connection and compassion, and of the bravery to take a first step, is entirely relevant to our present moment.
The Legend of the Cosmos Mariners by Kelli Rose Pearson
The final story in the collection is a fable for our times, a story told by the campfire of the Cosmos Mariners, surfing the cosmos on Spaceship Earth, battling the insatiable appetite of the Hungry Ghosts. I loved the compelling nature of this story and the way it showed that moment of personal transformation when someone is called to action by what they have learned. It’s a story of connection to nature and to each other, of the feeling of solidarity that comes with joining a movement towards positive transformation. I think it’s my favourite story in the book and a fitting way to end.
A single story, or even the nine in this collection, won’t change the world. But perhaps they will help a few people to think differently about the future, and thereby act differently. Taken together, the stories are a bold and kaleidoscopic attempt at a different kind of writing about the future. I hope many others are inspired to imagine positive futures rather than succumb to the lure of dystopia.