Futures of the Past

by Henry Farrell on January 24, 2018

I’ve wanted for a while to encourage people to buy John Crowley’s Totalitopia, which was published as part of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series at PM Press. It’s a great series of short books, each containing stories, essays and interviews. I also recommend Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains – if you liked what Le Guin did with anthropology, you will probably love Arnason -, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lucky Strike). The e-books are now on sale, along with all the e-books at PM Press, for a dollar each (go to their website, pick the books you want and enter BUCK into the coupon field), except for those, like Robinson’s, which are free. I’ve spent the morning stocking up on Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, Elizabeth Hand and others.

But Crowley again – Totalitopia has many good things. Perhaps the best is the lovely short story “This Is Our Town,” which approaches a 1950s Catholic childhood, with saints, miracles and mysteries, through the structure of genre, turning it into a self-contained universe which is both a fantasy and not, depending on whether you are looking from without (as Crowley now is), or within (as the child that Crowley was once did). His essay on the criminally underappreciated Paul Park is also very fine. The title essay, Totalitopia, is a non-fiction sequel to his novellas “Great Work of Time” and “In Blue,” talking about how every present generates its own impossible, contradictory futures, which quickly become antiquated, alien and lost.

Crowley’s argument is that the futures of the past swiftly become superannuated.

And when read now, forty years on, what is immediately evident about my future is that it could have been thought up at no time except the time in which I did think it up, and has gone away as that time has gone. No matter its contents, no matter how it is imagined, any future lies not ahead in the stream of time but at an angle to it, a right angle probably. When we have moved on down the stream, that future stays anchored to where it was produced, spinning out infinitely and perpendicularly from there. The process I engaged in is still viable, maybe, or as viable as it was then; but it must forever be redone. The future, as always, is now.

And what novels about the future provide is not prediction nor description of anything external, but themselves.

Instead of perspicacity and authority, which in the predicting of the future are fatuous, there is beauty and strangeness, the qualities of art, which sees clearly and predicts nothing, at least on purpose. These are the qualities of all the greatest fictional representations of the future, books that, after the initial shock they carry has faded, can reappear not as tales about our shared future nor salutary warnings for the present they were written in but simply as works of disinterested passion, no more (and no less) a realistic rendering of this world or any world now or to come than is The Tempest or The Four Zoas.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, because my current writing starts from just the opposite perspective, arguing that a future of the past can tell us quite a lot about the future that we live in today. Specifically, I think that if we want to understand today’s America (less so other parts of the world), our best and most plausible guide is Philip K. Dick. As a futurist, he did badly (his technological imagination was neither rigorous or strong). But as a prophet of the world we are living in, a world in which ground truth appears to have disappeared from beneath our feet, he is terrifyingly on target.

From my piece in the Boston Review’s Global Dystopias issue:

tandard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots—automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).

In other words, we live in Philip K. Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s. Dick was no better a prophet of technology than any science fiction writer, and was arguably worse than most. His imagined worlds jam together odd bits of fifties’ and sixties’ California with rocket ships, drugs, and social speculation. Dick usually wrote in a hurry and for money, and sometimes under the influence of drugs or a recent and urgent personal religious revelation.

Still, what he captured with genius was the ontological unease of a world in which the human and the abhuman, the real and the fake, blur together.

… In his novels Dick was interested in seeing how people react when their reality starts to break down. A world in which the real commingles with the fake, so that no one can tell where the one ends and the other begins, is ripe for paranoia. The most toxic consequence of social media manipulation, whether by the Russian government or others, may have nothing to do with its success as propaganda. Instead, it is that it sows an existential distrust. People simply do not know what or who to believe anymore. Rumors that are spread by Twitterbots merge into other rumors about the ubiquity of Twitterbots, and whether this or that trend is being driven by malign algorithms rather than real human beings.

Such widespread falsehood is especially explosive when combined with our fragmented politics. Liberals’ favorite term for the right-wing propaganda machine, “fake news,” has been turned back on them by conservatives, who treat conventional news as propaganda, and hence ignore it. On the obverse, it may be easier for many people on the liberal left to blame Russian propaganda for the last presidential election than to accept that many voters had a very different understanding of America than they do.

This is something I’ll be writing more about – comments and criticisms will be gratefully received.



Matt 01.24.18 at 7:35 pm

Dick is one of my favorite authors in the genre. Like John Brunner, I think that his work holds up better over time than most of his contemporaries. Not because he got the details of the future right any better than authors writing wiring diagram fiction about atomic spaceships, but because he captured textures and moods that still resonate today. Or maybe only resonate today — I wasn’t around in the 1960s to experience these works as they were written.


Whirrlaway 01.25.18 at 4:11 am

technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things.

Funny you should say that, since the old technologies of N-P language and social construction mean that humans have been partially artificial things for a long time, and many of those social constructions have been involved in mythmaking, here “spurious realities”. So something is different these days, but I don’t think this is it.

If it’s hard to tell bots from skins, then it must be hard to tell skins from bots. Most people seem to have no trouble at all knowing what to believe and affirm. People form clusters, pidgin societies, but can’t achieve consensus or even coherence because of the thinness of the dialog. Like Jimi Hendrix played way too loud on a bad PA. We knew where it was going in the ‘60s, before the web: C’mon people now, smile on your brother. Face to face.


bad Jim 01.25.18 at 9:27 am

Part of Dick’s appeal is that his characters are often fairly normal, or at least reasonably familiar, with families and their attendant issues, living in a recognizable world. His old haunting grounds, Berkeley and Marin and Fullerton, are not quite the same as they were fifty years ago, but they haven’t been transformed; parts of them have been spiffed up and others have deteriorated.

Further: his protagonists are never heroic; they’re bumblers who don’t understand the situation in which they find themselves (perhaps because the author hadn’t thought out the story while he was writing it) which is pretty much the way we go through our lives.


SusanC 01.25.18 at 9:51 am

I agree that our present is very like a Phillip K Dick story. In much conspiracy theory SF someone knows what’s going on, even if that someone is an AI. We seem to be in a dystopia where the AI’s don’t know what’s going on, either. So we’re not in a William Gibson novel, or M John Harrison’s Light. Much more Phillip K Dick like.

I also like the suggestion in @2 that we’ve always been in a false reality. Very Lacanian (the Real etc.)


William Timberman 01.25.18 at 1:48 pm

On the obverse, it may be easier for many people on the liberal left to blame Russian propaganda for the last presidential election than to accept that many voters had a very different understanding of America than they do.

Nicely put. So here we were, confidently editing the script as usual, when some yahoo grabbed the pen out of our hand and ran off with it. This is serious, existential even. No really, I mean it, people could get hurt…..


Cian 01.25.18 at 5:33 pm

John Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Lookup’ is certainly looking more and more prescient with every year that passes…

An odd thing about the whole virtual vs real world, is that the virtual world has a powerful grip on the intellectual imagination. This is the world that journalists, politicians and many of the elites seem to live in, and base their decisions on. But it’s pretty disconnected from the physical world. Bots may be a big deal on twitter, but they have little affect on my life of work, kids and dealing with increasingly crappy expensive health insurance. And even if people spend a lot of time on Facebook, as far as I can tell that’s mostly engaging with people they already know. Half of my wife’s discussions on Facebook are just continuations of gossip that happen elsewhere. People who argue about politics, or push Republican/Democrat memes, are just quietly blocked (with half amused/half-irritated comments made about them in conversation IRL) for being boorish.

The other thing is that I think the group most disconnected from reality in the US currently are the elites. They’re the ones chasing conspiracy theories about Russia, or Benghazi, or whatever. Meanwhile the US empire is not just in decline, but seems to be rapidly collapsing due to rotting supports.


bruce wilder 01.25.18 at 6:55 pm

I can relate.

I came here from reading scifi Charlie Stross’s Dude, you broke the future! from December (which indicates something of how far I am falling behind my own time line — I am not sure I am not lost off on a dead branch, about to fall off the tree!).

I also just finished reading Marcy Wheeler piece in The New Republic critiquing New York Magazine’s profile of Glenn Greenwald. The profile is titled, “Does This Man Know More Than Robert Mueller?” — Beveridge’s Law of Headlines was apparently intended by the editor to apply. Marcy, who is certain she knows more than Greenwald and possibly Mueller, objects to New York Magazine editing out almost all mention of the female sex. Russiagate intersects x-wave feminism! (Marcy gets a quote from Greenwald agreeing that the omission is odd.) I read Marcy’s piece for her take on Greenwald’s take on Russiagate, and it feels like a dreamwalk thru a surreal landscape littered with broken fragments of the competing Russiagate narratives on which she offers various and sometimes deeply informed criticisms but all from the perspective of that contradiction-in-terms remembered from my Catholic childhood, the Skeptical Believer.

Stross’s premise (he was giving the keynote for 34th Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig) is that the capitalist business enterprise — the business corporation and its purposeful bureaucracy strategically reshaping its political ecology — was an historical form or embodiment of “slow” Artificial Intelligence (AI) that is now accelerating. Just as General Motors and Exxon/Mobil (nee Standard Oil) labored thru the 20th Century re-making America for the automobile and sacrificing human values to do so, he thinks Facebook and Google and Amazon are doing something analogous but grander and faster, much faster. It is quite a vision of AI parasites with record capital market value eating our brains and making us redundant: first, they came for record stores, book stores and newspapers; then, they came for taxi drivers, cashiers and actors; and then, I suppose, they came for citizens, voters and money.

And from there I went to Marcy Wheeler and Greenwald and then, here, where I cling to my dead branch of future past.

On the obverse, it may be easier for many people on the liberal left to blame Russian propaganda for the last presidential election than to accept that many voters had a very different understanding of America than they do.

This last bit confuses me. I think it is all too easy, so very easy to imagine that those identified with the Other Party, “those people” do have a different and alien understanding of America. It is becoming a journalistic genre. The New York Times recently gave over the whole of their op-ed and editorial pages to letters from people who still support Trump, displaying their opinions like curious bugs pinned to paper in a display case. The PBS NewsHour did a focus group interview with six ordinary but articulate people with radically different views of Trump; I watched it with a liberal friend, who mumbled something about “trailer trash” when a blonde woman with unattractive teeth defended Trump.

I avoid Facebook as best one can. (Stross points out that you can’t really, because hell is other people and those people are on Facebook.) I have seen cable news intermittently. It is astonishing to me how much the ratio of narrative to factual analysis has been amped up: so much of the verbiage are arguments about what narrative you should believe about the meaning of events and so little is about the events themselves or the systems and mechanisms from which those events emerge. Maybe that’s the visual medium and its talking heads, but I cannot reject Stross’s hypothesis that it is about the commercial war for eyeballs and attention that leads to emotionally amped, attention-riveting addiction. Digital nicotine.

Am I just imagining in-the-flesh exchanges where one could imagine the possibility of constructing a shared reality anchored by observable facts and most of the differences are of value and perspective? Where “other people” are not cartoon aliens or Nazis or SJWs?

Maybe I am just an old guy who wants to yell, “get off my lawn” even though I don’t have a lawn and would not want a lawn. And, maybe Facebook is the leaded gasoline or freon of the 21st century and Mark Zuckerberg is the reincarnation of Thomas Midgley.

Anyway, thanks for the tip on where to get good fiction cheap.


Matt 01.26.18 at 5:00 pm

It appears that the comment by “Jannie Williams” is link-spam – deleted, thanks


Dave Maier 01.27.18 at 2:11 pm

Thanks for the PM Press tip — just picked up a lot of good stuff for not very much.


John Crowley 01.29.18 at 2:05 pm

Perspicuous, and not only about my own things. You have likely seen — I posted it on my facebook page — the NYTimes lengthy article on fake followers, created in the thousands and available for sale by those who want to plump up their social standing or profits. I noted it was a very PKD development.

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