Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Those who forget the future are doomed to repredict it

Mr. SHTEYNGART: There's no present left. This is the problem for a novelist, is the present is gone. We're all living in the future constantly. How I envy...

GROSS: What do you mean by that? I'm not sure what that means.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, look, back in the day, Leo Tolstoy, what a sweetheart of accounts and [transcription error?] a writer. He wanted - in the 1860s he wanted to write about the Napoleonic campaign, about 1812. If you write about 1812, you know, in 1860, a horse is still a horse, and a carriage is still a carriage.

Obviously, there have been some technological advancements, et cetera, but you know, you don't have to worry about explaining the next killer app or the next, you know, Facebook or whatever, because right now things are happening so quickly.
Gary Shteyngart talking about his novel Super Sad True Love Story on Fresh Air.

Gary Shteyngart is a ludicrously credentialed writer, but the part of his interview that caught my attention had little to do with his fiction or his approach to writing. Instead it ... Well, maybe it would just be simpler to show you.

In 2010, here's what Mr. Shteyngart's near-future satire looked like:

A half-dozen of my fellow citizens were seated behind their chewed-up desks, mumbling lowly into their apparati. There was an earplug lying slug-dead on an empty chair and a sign reading: Insert earplug in ear. Place your apparat on desk and disable all security settings. I did as I was told.

An electronic version of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" - ain't that America, something to see, baby - twanged in my ear, and then a pixilated version of the plucky otter shuffled onto my apparat screen, carrying on his back the letters A-R-A, which dissolved into the shimmering legend: American Restoration Authority.

The otter stood up on his hind legs and made a show of dusting himself off. Hi there, partner, he said, his electronic voice dripping with adorably carnivalesque. My name is Jeffrey Otter(ph), and I bet we're going to be friends.

Feelings of loss and aloneness overwhelmed me. Hi, I said. Hi, Jeffrey. Hi there yourself, the otter said. Now, I'm going to ask you some friendly questions for statistical purposes only. If you don't want to answer a question, just say I don't want to answer this question. Remember, I'm here to help you.

OK, then, let's start simple. What's your name and Social Security number? I looked around. People were urgently whispering things to their otters. Leonard or Lenny Abramov, I muttered, followed by Social Security.

Hi, Leonard or Lenny Abramov, 205-32-8714. On behalf of the American Restoration Authority, I would love to welcome you back to the New United States of America. Look out, world, there's no stopping us now. A bar from the McFadden and Whitehead disco hit "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" played loudly in my ear.

And here's what near-future satire looked like almost forty-five years ago:

The inescapable communication device, the cheerful tone covering the ominous totalitarianism, the cute cartoon icon. All in a big budget movie made five years before Gary Shteyngart was born.

Go back a few more years to 1953 and you can find antecedents for Shteyngart's satiric take on corporations and consumerism in the Space Merchants * (where mergers were actually resolved through armed conflict) and in any number of books and movies since then. And as for the jokes about the decline of books and reading found in Shteyngart's story, the challenge is finding a science fiction book that doesn't have them.

None of this is meant to imply any kind of plagiarism or even to suggest the book is derivative. Shteyngart is a sharp and funny writer and though I haven't read it, there's every reason to expect Super Sad True Love Story to be a terrific book.

It is, however, a book that approaches the topic of the future in a way we've seen before and that fact leads to an interesting observation: for over half a century, people have seen themselves as being at that point in history where the world was about to undergo radical and unimaginable changes. What's more they've discussed these approaches using much the same language and often similar jokes.

I suspect that it was initially a reaction to the explosive technological and social changes from around 1875 to 1945. If one man could have witnessed the first phonograph, telephone, light bulb, airplane, radio, movie, television, and an atomic bomb (not to mention two world wars, enfranchisement of half the population and too many literary and artistic forms and schools to count), just imagine what the next few decades would hold. (It is probably not a coincidence that during this period, the time travel genre was introduced by Twain and Wells and became an established part of popular fiction.)

Once established it's easy to see why the idea of the hurtling future proved so popular. There is a natural tendency to underestimate the contemporary impact of what we think of as antiquated technology. Check out Shteyngart's quote about Tolstoy that seems to imply that the development of photography, telegraphs and locomotives changed the world less than Facebook and Angry Birds.

Besides, most people like the idea of an exciting future (particularly since so few of us alive today have actually had to live through one).

* You'll notice that some seniors have had no trouble keeping up with the future.

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