The Mystery of the Future and Why We Are Fascinated by It Going Wrong
Some futures are nearer and easier to predict than others. If someone hurls a banana your way, you anticipate its trajectory in order to duck, or to catch it, depending on your abilities, and the speed and condition of said banana. We make more complex calculations the further out we go. Some of us know to a depressing, seemingly inexorable certainty, exactly where we will be at noon tomorrow, what our bland, heart-healthy sandwich will taste like, and who will be there, nattering on about the morning’s traffic. Others, living uncertain lives, haven’t a clue if they will eat at all. Some lucky few may have reason to believe lunch will be wonderful, with good company and delicious food. Of course, in a story, such a lunch would never come to pass or, lunch would be interrupted by an assassination attempt, a kidnapping, or an awkward, painful and mysterious breakup.
Whatever our lot, all of us need to speculate on the future. How else to decide what to wear? We compile data, wonder, ruminate, and recalculate as each possibility draws near so we can prepare as best we can for what is to come. When we travel further out in our imaginations, and speculations grow by need more wild, why do we tend to imagine a world gone horribly wrong? Perhaps there is nothing more engrossing than plans gone wrong*.
Tales of the future have been leaning toward dystopias for a long time. More recently, Young Adult stories have fully embraced a time-to-come full of teens set to murdering each other, running through technological mazes of death, or overzealous standardized testing in Chicago. These stories speak to fears both general and specific, especially in YA.
Young Adult in particular exploded not very long ago with these sorts of tales, at a time when scientific research keeps suggesting the young adult brain is ill-suited to thinking ahead. But is it? Evidence, and history, show a teen may be more likely to hurl a banana without thinking about the consequences than someone in middle age, but there are many ways to think ahead. Unraveling the mystery of who murdered Uncle Reginald is very different than impulsively deciding to see if a vice principal will notice a detention escapee digging doughnuts into the school lawn.
The young adult brain is constantly testing theories about the future — the maximum amount of future a brain can consider, if you think about it. Brains younger than young adult haven’t grown into this capacity, and older brains, to be perfectly honest, have less future to consider. Plus as people age, many tend to cement in their ways and settle for an entrenched world that rejects possibilities. Perhaps all these ways teens are looking at the far and potentially hazardous future make a great deal of sense. Teens (and adult readers who haven’t calcified) might forego a short term thought here and there, focusing not on whether hurling a banana is a good idea, but whether the world will have any bananas left in 20 years.**
We don’t know what comes next — we never really do. The future is always a mystery of one degree or another and, conversely, a mystery is always a story promising a future where the mystery is revealed. The mystery of the future is, in part, the question of how our present day problems may be solved.
One could infer all this pessimistic speculation is born out of a generalized fear of what is to come, and I wouldn’t argue against it. But, it’s also important to remember compelling stories are born from adversity. If you’ve ever listened to a good vacation story, it isn’t one where the teller describes a beautiful island sunset. That is a happy memory, not a tale. What rivets and fascinates the listener is hearing about how the wrong boat was boarded and how, hours later, the travelers found themselves disembarking to some unfamiliar place with no clear way home. The story is about the journey — we want to see how they manage through adversity.
Stories of happy people delighting in utopia just aren’t very interesting, nor are they useful. Tales of utopia nearly always involve someone getting kicked out, like Eve or Kal-El, or utopia not being what it seems. Often it’s both, because what kind of utopia kicks people out or explodes into shards of Krypton?
We love a mystery most when the reveal, despite all our guesses and expectations, comes as a surprise, but one we could have seen coming. It is deeply satisfying to see the work. We want to know how the protagonist managed each setback and tribulation, to make it through to the end.
We may keep telling grim tales with oppressive governments, humans turned zombie mutants, or domed cities overrun by ads, but these stories are, we should hope, warnings, not predictions. These stories are warnings that may help us work our way through, or around, such fates. If the future turns out exactly as we’ve inscribed, that would be a deeply unsatisfying end. We need mystery as much and as deeply as we need hope.
*for someone else, naturally, not you.
** It doesn’t look good for the banana.
Gregory Katsoulis (http://gregorykatsoulis.com/) is an author, photographer, filmmaker, educator, and, occasional goofball. His first book, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED takes place in a dystopic future where all language is copyrighted or trademarked and people must pay for every word they speak. Its sequel, book 2 of the Word$ series, ACCESS RESTRICTED, is out soon. He is in love with ideas, and possibility, after having a prickly relationship with the probable (which has not entirely ended.) When he is not writing, he composes film-score like music, enjoys taking pictures of faces, debunking bunk, and confounding children by teaching them about black-holes, time-travel paradoxes, and the hilarious fallibility of human memory.