by John Rember
Everything we write depends on an imagined future. It’s not too much to say that narratives are like icebergs: nine-tenths of the meaning of a story lies not in its words, but in the past and the future that its words evoke.
Last week I tried to demonstrate a disconnect between the past and the present, and suggested that these days, our present can’t find meaning in its past. Technology, like the Khmer Rouge, has declared a Year Zero, and we can only hope that technology’s reign will be less murderous.
Writers are left with the future as a source for meaning in their fiction and nonfiction. But the future cannot be observed, it can only be imagined.
The usual way of imagining a future is to extrapolate identifiable trends. But trends often fade away before they get to the future, and sometimes we find out that the future has been transformed by an event that isn’t part of any trend. Nonetheless, it’s possible to project ourselves ahead a few decades or even a few centuries, bearing in mind that our projections tell our readers more about ourselves and our time and place than they do about what is to come.
July 17, 2031
Sawtooth Valley, Idaho, Han Empire
By the time you are old enough to understand this letter, you will have heard stories about my generation — the Baby Boomers — and they’re all true. Yes, our family owned its own home, and that home had several rooms. Yes, we did have a car, and that car was powered by gasoline, and we could buy gasoline without the danger of being caught and sent to the potato fields. Yes, both your great-grandmother and I both went to university and could choose our occupations. We could have become mining engineers or tax officials or even officers in the military, but we studied literature instead. Literature used to be an honorable profession. People were paid to study it and even — I’m not kidding — to produce it.
As it happened, neither your great-grandmother nor I got rich at literature, which probably saved our lives during the wealth redistribution riots of 2016, when so many of our fellow Boomers perished. True, we were educated, old, and had canned food stored in our crawl space, but we weren’t bankers, politicians, lawyers, or corporate executives who had moved jobs offshore. Our location in a rural community saved us from search and seizure and summary execution by the Hoarding Police — we had always lived modestly, and even during the great famines there were better pickings elsewhere.
It has always amazed me how long America held together after capitalism started eating itself. The three generations prior to the Boomers had worked to accumulate tremendous stores of wealth, and the salvage economy based on their efforts carried into your grandparents’ generation, allowing them to live all their lives in front of screens showing videogames. That’s what happened to your grandparents. As things got worse in the country, they retreated further toward the limitless internal horizons of virtual reality, and starved to death at their game consoles.
As was the practice in those days, your great grandmother and I took in our children’s children — your parents — and raised them. We were not able to afford to educate them, however. As soon as they were old enough to work in the fields, we rented them out to Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland, and so were able to hang on to our house for a few more years, until the Chinese foreclosed on us.
A good many of our fellow Boomers still see the Chinese foreclosure and the incorporation of North America into the Han Empire as a catastrophe. But your great-grandmother and I have fared well as naturalized citizens of China. We have enough to eat, for one thing. And even though we aren’t fluent in Chinese, we are respected because of our age and education, and we have been given an entire room in an Autumn Residence, the Chinese term for what used to be known as retirement communities. We have been able to make the occasional small sum explaining idiomatic English to Chinese historians, who study America as a cautionary example. “We do not want to end up like America,” they tell us. “Where did you go wrong?”
Of course they know where we went wrong, but it amuses them to hear our answers. “We stole from the future,” I tell them, “and then the future moved into our house.” It’s a phrase that translates well into Chinese, I’m told.
I am delivering this letter by bicycle courier to the potato farm where your parents supervise the chain gangs of black-market gasoline sellers, captured Canadian resistance fighters, and the descendants of hedge-fund managers. Considering that they started out as indentured servants, your parents have done well for themselves, and it is an indication of how well they’ve done that they were granted permission to have a child. I have congratulated them in another letter, one I paid to have translated. I’m not sure if they remember English.
Our legacy to you will be necessarily small — a few books, enough money for a year of school, and our photo album. The house in the photos is real, made out of real wood. Our smiles are genuine. You won’t believe this, but we used to get in that car and drive a hundred miles just to see a movie. We even used to fly through the air in airplanes, and once we visited the real China, if you can imagine that.
Try not to blame us for giving you a world that is much different than the one we were given. When we were born — this sounds more stupid than it seemed at the time — people didn’t realize actions had consequences. Citizens were referred to as consumers in those days, and we didn’t realize how voracious we were until we consumed everything in our world and yours. Even when it was apparent we were poisoning the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans and destroying most of the creatures that shared the planet with us, we kept on keeping on, until what little we hadn’t consumed had to be sold to pay the bills.
Your parents may be able to pay for more than a year of education. If they do, and if they don’t consider it a waste of your time and their money, you should study English. It of course won’t be of much use to you growing potatoes, but it was a language that gave rise to a beautiful body of literature, one that’s a joy to read in the original. Over the years, our books have given us constant pleasure in inconstant times, and your great-grandmother and I would be pleased if you could read them. That way, when you’re tempted to think we left you nothing of value, you can share with us at least one small part of the world we thought would last forever.
Good luck with this year’s potato crop, and I do hope that you’re reading this letter and not having it read to you.
There. That was fun. A little fiction to work up an appetite for breakfast, inspired by a bumper sticker on a big motorhome parked at the Post Office yesterday: “We’re Spending Our Grandchildren’s Inheritance.” Well, yes. You are. They will not think kindly of you for it, either.
Another source of inspiration, from the morning news: the utter inability of our elected leaders to act in the face of a financial and political crisis that has left this country with a fifth of its workforce unemployed.
Yet another: the passivity of Americans in the face of restrictions on civil liberty, offshoring, propaganda disguised as news, an oligarchy disguised as a two-party system, theft disguised as financial deregulation, and permanent damage to the land and water by people who won’t clean up their messes.
As a writer, I’m not yet to where Cormac McCarthy was when he wrote The Road, but the trends I’m seeing these days make me think that people with children and grandchildren should be worried. The great-grandchild above bears no resemblance to anyone living or dead, as the disclaimer goes, because Julie and I decided long ago not to have children, much less grandchildren.
Perhaps that’s why I can witness what I’m witnessing. British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima have been events that I’ve continued to research because they weren’t supposed to happen and yet they happened and I find them as interesting as they are tragic. It’s possible we’re in an era when any decision will turn out to be the wrong one, any leader will be overwhelmed by the impossibilities of his position, any technology will turn out to be lethal, and any profit will result in someone else’s loss.
The implications for writers are profound. I can’t think of a better time to be alive and witnessing the world, but I also can’t think of a time when the pitfalls have been so deep and wide. The stage directions have become the play, and we face the problem of writing characters who can keep their eyes wide open to the huge events around them. I suppose it will help if we don’t give them children.
This essay first appeared at MFA in a Box.