Thursday, May 12, 2022

Writing to the Future

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column, on writing nonfiction pieces that will still be relevant by the time they're published:

Six Weeks Is a Long Time

The time lag that may undercut the applicability of a written work, according to him, seems to be getting shorter. Circumstances can always truly change overnight or in an instant, of course. Consider the difference between September 10, 2001, and September 11 of that year. Yet it may seem odd to define an essay meant to be read a month and a half after it's written as "futuristic thinking." The near future, however, is still the future. As C. S. Lewis's senior demon says in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, all human beings constantly travel into the future at the rate of sixty minutes per hour.

I once read a story about a time-viewing machine that allows the user to look into the future. The culture-transformative feature of this device is that it has no lower limit on how short a time span it can look ahead. And apparently (if I remember correctly) one can view events in other places, not just where one happens to be personally located. Suppose you peer ten seconds into the future? You're effectively spying on people's actions in the present, in real time. (On second thought, it may have been a past-viewing device. Same principle applies.)

Doctorow wrote this month's article in the midst of a new, highly contagious COVID variant and the imminent invasion of Ukraine, addressing us "in the distant, six-week future" from his moment in the past when "the odds of nuclear Armageddon [seemed] higher than they’ve been for decades." He greets his future audience thus: "I bear glad tidings. Only six weeks ago, you, me and most everyone else we knew couldn’t imagine getting through these next six weeks. If you’re reading these words, you did the unimaginable. Six weeks and six weeks and six weeks, we eat the elephant of the unimaginable one bite at a time."

We're familiar with the question of what message we'd like to send to our past selves. There's a country song about writing a letter to "me at seventeen." But what message might you want to send to your future self? Unlike speaking to one's past self, this we can actually do. Are there important events or thoughts you might want to write down as reminders in case you've forgotten them a month, a year, or decades from now? What would you like to record as an important reminder for the citizens of your city, your country, or the world next month, next year, a decade from now, or generations later? People often do the latter with physical "time capsules." Would the things you choose to highlight turn out to be important to those future audiences or not?

Isaac Asimov wrote at least one essay predicting future technological and social advances, and surely he wasn't the only SF author to do that. Some of his predictions have come true; many haven't. An essay like that could be considered a message to future generations.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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