Last week’s thoughts about the Future Library ended with me touching on the idea that I (and most of the people involved in the project, I guess) will never know how it works out, and never get to find out what exactly Margaret Atwood’s book is all about.
It’s a unique kind of frustration, because while we like puzzles and questions, we generally also like answers to those questions, and in some cases we also know we’ll never get them. In this case, it’s because we (or, at least, I) just won’t be around long enough to see. I thought I’d write about that a little bit today.
The first time I can recall having thoughts along these lines, I must have been 7 or 8 I guess. My dad had been watching some science program or other (probably Nova, it usually was) and they were talking about the Sun, and stars, and how stars have a life cycle. At some point they mentioned that the Sun would (of course) not exist as it does forever, and at some point would blorp up into a red giant (I think that’s it – if there are any astronomers reading, please forgive a medieval historian), Earth would die, and the Solar System would be very different. Young me was intensely worried, and I didn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t really worried as well – the Sun was going to blow up, for f’s sake!
Of course this won’t happen for a really, really, really long time. It’s reasonable to wonder whether there will be anything resembling human society around long enough for the Sun blorping up to even become an issue. Somehow, though, even when that was explained to Young Me, it didn’t really provide much comfort. Partly because, I think, the Sun was still going to blow up, but also because it was maybe the first time I had been confronted with the idea that Things would go on after I was gone (and, probably, the idea that one day I would be gone) and that there was really nothing to be done about that.
I remember I fretted about the thing with the Sun for a very long time. I also remember that when I wrote stories, a lot of them had protagonists who would, explicitly, live forever. I suspect there’s some connection there.
This kind of happened again when Halley’s Comet last cruised by. I was a little older, perhaps not much wiser. Everyone got very excited about the comet. (Again, I’m sure an astronomer could explain that Halley’s Comet should not actually be that exciting to people, but popular culture is not my fault!) We did a bunch of comet-related stuff at school. Dirty snowballs came up a lot. Mostly, people kept saying how it was a once in a lifetime thing.* At first I thought, well, maybe if you’re already old, but I’m still a kid. Then I (unusually for me) did the math. It’s actually really unlikely that I will live to see Halley’s Comet again. Wow. Didn’t like that either.
Again, I guess mortality is part of why that was a hard thought to digest. Or a reminder of the scale of things in the universe at least; it goes on without us and disregarding us and we only get to see a tiny little bit of it. That’s part of where the perspective of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories come from; tiny fragile beings in a reality that is so much bigger than they are.
Also with tentacles.
But that realization of things being intensely, massively, Bigger Than Us (and, honestly, bigger than me was probably the most important part of that) was a tough nugget for Young Me to digest. I suspect it offends the self-centred consciousness most of us have, to varying degrees. It’s very hard not to think that the world is centred on us, at least a little, because that’s how we experience it, through our own consciousness and senses. Being reminded that it’s not actually that way can be a little uncomfortable.
Slipping into historian-mode for a moment, there’s a whole genre of history (and, therefore, historians) that took this idea of the size of Things and the basic irrelevance of individual people to it all and applied it to human history: the longue duree or the Annales school. (Ferdinand Braudel and Jacques Le Goff are the ones I came at the perspective through, but there are lots and this is not, I swear, a history blog) Basically the Annales historians would say that change in human society is driven by social and economic forces that develop over a very long time, ultimately involving mass groups of people. Studying individuals is, therefore, ultimately not very important because individuals don’t really do anything, they just act as their broader context allows them to, or compels them to.
Kind of Lovecraftian, in a way. Certainly a perspective that clashes with a lot of Western society’s beloved Rugged Individual narrative.
I feel like I should say that I am not a longue duree historian, for reasons that I will not inflict upon you today. It’s an interesting perspective, I think there are answers there, but not all the answers. I really like individuals. Somewhere the shade of Marc Bloch shakes his head, sadly.
Ok, so hauling this back to writing I guess, since that’s mostly(?) why anyone reading this is here – one of the things that is so very cool about writing speculative fiction is that both writers and readers get to ignore this whole question of scale, to some extent. You can create (and experience) the futures you’ll never see. You can find a whole series of answers to those questions that we will never get answers for, in mundane life. If you wanted to, you could answer the Future Library question. I think that’s part of the appeal of the whole genre.
We’re full of questions. What’s out There? (For all sorts of values of ‘there’) What will happen 50, 100, 10,000 years down the road? Where is human society going, what is it becoming? How will the decisions we’re making today work out? How much of the universe do we really perceive?
I could go on, but you get the point. We have these questions. Most of them, we also, on some level, know we won’t get answers to, or at least not directly. Some kinds of art let us find these answers ourselves, either through the process of creation, or through consumption (and for lots of people, both), and that is probably, in part, why we love it. It lets us ignore that difference in scale that upset 8 year old me and feel like we know what’s going on again. Maybe it makes us feel like giants, instead of very tiny, again, for a little while.
Anyway, that’s it for today. I’ll try to do better the next time.
Oh, I did send another Chunk of the next project out to the Eager Volunteers late last week, at long last. When I manage to spend some substantial time on it, I get pretty excited about this story again. I hope to be able to share a little more about it with you before too too long.
*-Granted, this was A While ago, but it still strikes me as interesting that people still get as excited as they do about things like a comet making its trip by. It’s a bit contrary to expectations of the supremely rational society we have in the West. Maybe there’s another entry there, someplace.