Say it's midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you're living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.
In quantum teleportation, no matter is transferred, but information may be conveyed across a distance, without resorting to a signal in any traditional sense. Still, it's the word "teleportation", used seriously, in a headline. My "no kidding" module was activated: "No kidding," I said to myself, "teleportation." A slight amazement.
The synthetic genome, arguably artificial life, was somehow less amazing. The sort of thing one feels might already have been achieved, somehow. Triggering the "Oh, yeah" module. "Artificial life? Oh, yeah."
Though these scientists also inserted a line of James Joyce's prose into their genome. That triggers a sense of the surreal, in me at least. They did it to incorporate a yardstick for the ongoing measurement of mutation. So James Joyce's prose is now being very slowly pummelled into incoherence by cosmic rays.
Noting these two pieces of more or less simultaneous news, I also noted that my imagination, which grew up on countless popular imaginings of exactly this sort of thing, could produce nothing better in response than a tabloid headline: SYNTHETIC BACTERIA IN QUANTUM FREE-SPACE TELEPORTATION SHOCKER. .
Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn't blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they're talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you're fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don't know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one's own culture.
The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.
Please don't mistake this for one of those "after us, the deluge" moments on my part. I've always found those appalling, and most particularly when uttered by aging futurists, who of all people should know better. This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing. It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else's past, every present someone else's future. Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now.
The best science fiction has always known that, but it was a sort of cultural secret. When I began to write fiction, at the very end of the 70s, I was fortunate to have been taught, as an undergraduate, that imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they're written. Orwell knew it, writing 1984 in 1948, and I knew it writing Neuromancer, my first novel, which was published in 1984.
Neuromancer, though it's careful never to admit it, is set in the 2030s, when there's something like the Internet, but called "cyberspace", and a complete absence of cell phones, which I'm sure young readers assume must be a key plot-point. More accurately, there's something like cyberspace, but called "cyberspace", but that gets confusing. I followed Neuromancer with two more novels set in that particular future, but by then I was growing frustrated with the capital-F Future. I knew that those books were actually about the 1980s, when they were written, but almost nobody else seemed to see that.
So I wrote a novel called Virtual Light, which was set in 2006, which was then the very near future, and followed it with two more novels, each set a few imaginary years later, in what was really my take on the 1990s. It didn't seem to make any difference. Lots of people assumed I was still writing about the capital-F future. I began to tell interviewers, somewhat testily, that I believed I could write a novel set in the present, our present, then, which would have exactly the affect of my supposed imaginary futures. Hadn't J.G. Ballard declared Earth to be the real alien planet? Wasn't the future now?
So I did. In 2001 I was writing a book that became Pattern Recognition, my seventh novel, though it only did so after 9-11, which I'm fairly certain will be the real start of every documentary ever made about the present century. I found the material of the actual 21st Century richer, stranger, more multiplex, than any imaginary 21st Century could ever have been. And it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don't really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.
Zero History, my ninth novel, will be published this September, rounding out that third set of three books. It's set in London and Paris, last year, in the wake of global financial collapse.
I wish that I could tell you what it's about, but I haven't yet discovered my best likely story, about that. That will come with reviews, audience and bookseller feedback (and booksellers are especially helpful, in that way). Along with however many interviews, these things will serve as a sort of oracle, suggesting to me what it is I've been doing for the past couple of years.
If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event, but that must be true of any 2010 novel with ambitions on the 2010 zeitgeist. But all three of these novels are also about that dawning recognition that the future, be it capital-T Tomorrow or just tomorrow, Friday, just means more stuff, however peculiar and unexpected. A new quotidian. Somebody's future, somebody else's past.
Simply in terms of ingredients, it's about recent trends in the evolution of the psychology of luxury goods, crooked former Special Forces officers, corrupt military contractors, the wonderfully bizarre symbiotic relationship between designers of high-end snowboarding gear and manufacturers of military clothing, and the increasingly virtual nature of the global market.
I called it Zero History because one of the characters has had a missing decade, during which he paid no taxes and had no credit cards. He meets a federal agent, who tells him that that combination indicates to her that he hasn't been up to much good, the past ten years. But that quotidian now finds him. Events find him, and he starts to acquire a history. And, one assumes, a credit rating, and the need to pay taxes.
It's also the first book I've written in which anyone gets engaged to be married.
A book exists at the intersection of the author's subconscious and the reader's response. An author's career exists in the same way. A writer worries away at a jumble of thoughts, building them into a device that communicates, but the writer doesn't know what's been communicated until it's possible to see it communicated.
After thirty years, a writer looks back and sees a career of a certain shape, utterly unanticipated.
It's a mysterious business, the writing of fiction, and I thank you all for making it possible.
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