Opinion » John Rember

The Shape of Things

The moving finger writes—and rewrites


My title this week is taken from H.G. Wells's 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come, which purported to be a chronicle of world history from 1933 to 2106. Wells got some things right, notably submarine-based ballistic missiles and the World Encyclopedia. He missed the shape and outcome of World War II and the continued strength of religion (he suggested religion would be replaced by a supremely rational scientific materialism). He predicted the triumph of socialism over Mussolini-style corporate capitalism, which is as close to 180 degrees wrong as you can get. He said nothing about resource depletion, computers, climate chaos, human population growth and the fact that his World Encyclopedia would be called Siri.

These days, people read The Shape of Things to Come to see what Wells got wrong rather than what he got right. If they want to see what he got right, they read The Time Machine, a novel of the future in which an effete, luxury-loving upper class degenerates into a species of stupid children. It then becomes a food group for a brutish cave-dwelling species descended from its own industrial slaves. (#rupertmurdoch)

If you want to be a prophet, you should write a bunch of books about the future. One of them might be right. When the time comes, you can throw the rest in the bushes.

That said, predicting specific events is risky. My work-in-progress these days is the rewrite—because events keep catching up to it—of a small book called 100 Little Pieces on the End of the World. It consists of 10 10-item chapters, and the last chapter is made up of letters, emails and official documents from 10 different American futures, none of them you'd wish on your grandchildren. It's tempting to compare America to Rome, and to suggest that the bigger the empire, the harder the fall. Arnold Toynbee, no doubt an H.G. Wells reader, created a distinguished academic career by elaborating on his assertion that, "History is the sound of silken slippers descending the stairs and hobnailed boots going up."

These days, history doesn't offer prophets much help. Technology has fractured all the crystal balls. Futurists make this point when they invoke the Singularity—the moment where artificial intelligence becomes so advanced that scientific progress will accelerate beyond the ability of human intelligence to keep pace. Once artificial intelligence gets smart enough to design even smarter intelligence, the result is going to be Darwinian evolution on crack. Humanity's future will pass beyond a technological event horizon. Our future will cease to exist because we lack the imagination to place ourselves in it.

But today's futurists, audacious as they are, are late to the party. The Singularity has already arrived. It came in 1914, when the Great War destroyed conventional narratives of what human beings were and how they should behave.

Who, in the 19th century, woulda thunk it? In 1914, men became machines fighting other machines. In subsequent years, civilians became both hostages and enemy combatants in automated wars. Notions of honor and justice faded before the machine gun, which acquired its own peculiar morality. Capitalism proved to be well suited to eternal war, and triumphed as a system about the time the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism became cultural fixtures. Security, if you were sharing a world with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, became something that might have existed once, before the future became inconceivable. History, before world corporate culture erased local stories, might once have been stable enough to be remembered.

I'm focusing on population growth, resource depletion and the ugliness capitalism resorts to when confronted with limits. I'm looking at climate chaos as a byproduct of human activity, figuring that when you dump massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere of a planet with a history of climate oscillation, you're going to get an oscillating climate. I'm focusing on the breakdown of people's stories, and the failure of new stories to be written. I'm looking at class warfare based on genetically tailored vaccines. I'm imagining the end of internal combustion engines, television, smartphones and the Internet. I'm trying to understand how people taught to equate patriotism with consumption will react to a world where food and energy are mostly gone. I worry that ethics and altruism will be obliterated by narcissism and hunger.

I haven't written about the JFK assassination or 9/11 being a false-flag operation because the official reports of those events contain far deadlier implications than any conspirator could dream up. I haven't written about a rogue planet coming in from the Oort Cloud to cause earthquakes and tsunamis, or a runaway greenhouse effect, or nuclear war, because I think humans breeding like bunnies will be more than enough to end the world as we know it.

I may sound like a pessimist, but I'm simply a person who lacks a predictable future, rewriting a manuscript that predicts the future. The work may still be in progress when civilization isn't. But I'm hoping to find out if I'm any better at prophecy than H.G. Wells was. As long as I can keep revising, I suppose I will be.

Adapted from MFA in a Box, mfainabox.com.