Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Five Futures by editor Suzannah Evans

In seeking submissions on the theme of ‘The Future’ (deadline: April 1st), I thought it might be a good idea to provide a few pieces of inspiration, or at least an introduction to a few futuristic things that have had some influence on me over time.

It was pretty hard to pick only five… Black Mirror, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, The Guardian’s ‘Future Food’ series, Harvard’s Robobees and Matthea Harvey’s Robo-Boy poems all came very close. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to include Star Wars, since technically it happened ‘A Long Time Ago’, so I’ll just say that I enjoy its retro futurism: a world where there are humanoid robots but no internet (or is the Force the ultimate internet?). 

1. Archigram

Archigram is an avant-garde architectural movement that formed in the 1960s and was inspired by futuristic technologies. The movement included the architects Peter Cook, Rod Herron and Warren Chalk and their projects were wildly imaginative:

  • the Plug-in City, in which components could be slotted in and moved around, the Walking City, which would be part-city, part-robot, the Instant City, which would drift around existing urban areas to make them more desirable. 

Their designs and drawings (the above is a screen grab of a Google image search for Archigram) are robotic, colourful, urban and mad.

As you can probably imagine, none of these dreamlike structures were ever built, but the movement was an inspiration to many architects, including Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in their design of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, as well as Future Systems who designed the beautiful knobbly Selfridges building in the Birmingham Bull Ring. 

Founded in 2009 by Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, Dark Mountain is, in their own words, ‘a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.’  Dark Mountain produces stunning anthologies of poetry, prose and artwork twice a year, exploring the role of the arts in a time of imminent (as they believe) social collapse.

Their manifesto, Uncivilisation, can be read on the website above. It explores in particular the relationship between humans and nature and the fact that we almost definitely have the whole thing wrong:

The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won.
Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, The Dark Mountain Manifesto

3. Threads

My walk to work (The Moor, Sheffield) with added mushroom cloud.

image credit:

Although I’d have to be feeling pretty emotionally robust to ever embark upon watching it again, I can’t deny that Barry Hines’ Threads  had a massive impression on me when I first saw it. Set against the backdrop of 1980s Sheffield, the story follows a young couple and their families as nuclear war breaks out and the city becomes a target.

It is pretty low-budget, although there are some melting milk bottles at one point, and a memorable scene with a dead sheep somewhere in the Peak District. It also has a distinct feel of being a public information film at times, with facts flashed up on the screen and narrated as we witness the ensuing months, years and decades after the attack. There is no redemption here; the ending is one of the bleakest things I’ve ever seen. You have been warned.

4. Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker took seven years to write and is an absolute post-apocalyptic must-read. The narrative takes place in a somewhat altered version of Kent, in a Dark Ages-esque future society that has rebuilt itself following a nuclear disaster referred to as ‘the 1big1’.

The story follows twelve year-old Riddley as he discovers more about the distant past and the people who hold power in his community. This new world is very small, which means cleverness, science and technology are causes for suspicion and fear. Their community's myths and folktales are a disturbing and twisted mixes of Bible stories, folk stories and nuclear fission.

And there’s the language, of course. Spoken English has become something a little different in these future times and reading it aloud is often the only way to make sense of it:

There hung over the place a kynd of scortchy smel a kynd of stinging scortchy smel and the grey smoak driffing thru the blue smoak of the chard coal harts. Twean lite it wer the 1st dark coming on. Bat lite it wer and dimminy the pink and red stumps glimmering in the coppises like loppt off arms and legs and the rivver hy and hummering. The dogs wer howling nor it wernt like no other howling I ever heard it wer a kynd of wyld hoapless soun it wer a lorn and oansome yoop yaroo it soundit like they wer runnying on ther hynt legs and telling like thin black men and sad. Crying ther yoop yaroo ther sad tel what theyd all ways knowit theyd have to tel agen.
Riddley Walker (chapter 16) 

The incredibly imaginative Catherine Sarah Young has set about exploring the future in inventive ways that make the consequences of climate change, global warming and other human influences on our environment into tangible experiences for an audience.

It’s not actually as apocalyptic as you’d expect, given the name, and is more about making the future real and exploring it in real terms. The Ephemeral Marvels perfume collection, for example, is a set of perfumes based on things we are losing: coasts, ice, honey, even wine (grape production will be hugely impacted by climate change and global water shortages) and their Future Feast includes recipes for dishes such as insect jelly and vermi (worm) steak.

The latest project listed on their website is the Sewer Soaperie which features, as you might guess, soap made from fatbergs!