Tag Archives: modernity

haunted by (hopeful) futures

The great pleasure of following Adam Roberts’s blogging—once you’ve gotten past the minor frustration of finding that he’s upped sticks and moved to another domain and/or platform for whatever he’s currently driven to write about—is watching him try out ideas, throw together a hypothesis, then start poking it to see if it holds up.

Latest case in point: do the ghost stories of Dickens mark a shift in the way in which fiction thinks about futurity? It’s quite a chewy idea, and you should read the whole thing if you’re curious, but this is perhaps the crucial part of the argument:

By the end of the [19th] century, most notably with the variegated futuristic fictions of H G Wells, the notion that the future would be in substantive ways different to the present had bedded itself into the emergent genre, such that it is — now — a core aspect of science fiction’s many futures. Nowadays ‘futuristic fiction’ simply comes with the sense, baked-in, that the future will be different to the present, not just in the old utopian writing sense that a notional 1776, or 1789, will usher in a new form of social justice and harmony (according to whichever utopian crotchet or social-reform king-charles-head happens to be yours), but that change will happen across multiple fronts, have intricate and widespread ramifications. That the future will be a different country, they will do things differently there.


What I’m trying here is to see, by laying it out, whether there is a argument of some significance that can be established. Does it begin with Dickens? So, to strike the keynote again: in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765) Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ (1824) or Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (1834) the present is haunted by the past, as is the case in most ghost stories. But in Christmas Carol and ‘The Signal-Man’ the present is haunted by the future.

I am not anywhere near sufficiently well-versed in C19th fictions to have an opinion worth hearing on this theory, but it’s interesting nonetheless—particularly as Roberts ties his proposed pivot (in part) to the concretised-modernity of the railways in “The Signal-Man”, and as y’all know well by this point, infrastructure as a cultural and political force is totally my jam.

I will also include this earlier part of the argument, for reasons of resonance which will become clear:

Through the early nineteenth-century plenty of books were set in ‘the future’, many of them utopian works in the Mercerian mode like Vladimir Odoyevsky’s The Year 4338 (1835) and Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836). But alongside this ‘new’ version of futuristic fiction was a vogue for a second kind of futuristic fiction, secularised (to some extent) versions of the old religious-apocalyptic future-imagining. […]

We might style these two modes of imagining the future as spinning ‘positive’ (utopian) and ‘negative’ (apocalyptic) valences out of their futurism, but let’s not. That would be clumsily over-simplistic of us. I’m more interested in the way the two modes feed into one another.

Again, no prizes for intuiting my interest in this part of the piece, and it will be interesting to see how (if?) Roberts collides the axes of utopia/apocalypse with haunting-pasts/haunting-futures. But it also chimes nicely with a little bit by Warren Ellis (who I’m very glad to see blogging once again):

A dystopia is a speculative situation where the absolute minority of people habitually experience hope and joy. Embedded in every piece of dystopian fiction is utopian thinking – the speculative condition where the absolute majority of people habitually experience hope and joy.

Commercial dramatic fiction requires tension between two poles. It requires stakes, change, a goal to advance towards. Conflict. Dystopian fiction is almost never actually about the dystopia itself (although writing dystopia is good, crunchy stuff with lots of detail to relish in the authorship). Dystopian fiction is almost always about the utopian reach that’s suppressed by the situation.

Nothing theoretically novel in that, perhaps, but it’s a very succinct way of stating one of the major threads of post-Moylan critical utopianism. As someone caught awkwardly between the positions of critic and author—and, some would say, not really covering all the bases on either pole; Roberts is a hard act to follow on that front, and not only because he’s so terrifyingly prolific—it’s satisfying for me to find statements from someone firmly in one camp (in this case, Ellis as author) that map clearly to statements from the other.

Because, contrary to the cliches, this theorist is pretty keen on seeing how theory plays out in practice…

the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete

Procrastinating this morning by catching up on a stack of as-yet-unread newsletter emails from L M Sacasas. This bit in particular, from 11th March, chimed with a lot of my recent early-morning thinkings-through of The Ongoing Situation:

… it is curious to note again the recent proliferation of conspiracy theorizing, something I’ve previously attributed to the failure of authoritative public institutions and narratives, or, to put it another way, to the collapse of common sense in Arendt’s use of the phrase, as an experience of the world held in common. But now I want to suggest as well that conspiracy theorizing is something like a mannerist manifestation of the detective story. The detective story genre is often characterized as a characteristically modern production in its insistence that even the most heinous and mysterious aspects of human experience can be neatly and adequately addressed by the persistent application of empirical reasoning. Conspiracy theories are simply detective stories that are quite obviously trying too hard, or, to keep with the literary theme, protesting too much, in the face of their increasing implausibility.

So, where does this leave us. I began by asking why this virus had taken on such an eery, disconcerting quality, why it had unnerved us so profoundly. Curiously, as many have observed, one of the recurring features coronavirus discourse is emergence of two camps: those who are accused of panic and those who are accused of reckless nonchalance. The more some appear to “panic,” the more others double down on their cavalier indifference. These reactions, however, are not necessarily opposites as much as they are two very common modes of coping with the same distressing realization: the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete. The unpredictable, the unknown, the incalculable, the capricious aspects of our experience will always be with us. The conquest upon which we have staked our hope will never be complete. And each phenomenon that makes it impossible for us to ignore this fact will mess with our heads and trouble our hearts.

As Sacasas also did, I will state here for the record that this is not in any way to diminish or dismiss the very real challenge and threat of the pandemic. I will further note that our both feeling the need to point that out is a phenomenon entirely tied up with the dynamic of distress that Sacasas is discussing above.