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What It Is I'm Doing, I Think
(or Damn It, Stop Calling Me a Futurist)
by George Saunders

 

 

Many people, in writing about my work, have called me "a dystopian futurist" or "a dark dystopian futurist" or "a discouraging futuristic satirist who depresses the hell out of me" or "a dystopian futurist who is darkly sentimental and yet deeply, futuristically discouraging" or, in one rather inaccurate case, "that guy who is like some sort of human fly and once climbed the Sears Tower." Well, may I say, for the record, as if someone had asked me, I don't really consider myself at all a futurist. What I see myself doing in my writing is riffing on (present) human tendencies. I don't put the stories in the future as much as in a sort of parallel America, where everything is, say, 20 percent more than it is now. (Irony is just honesty with the volume cranked up.) I'm doing what satirists have always done, which is to make a cartoonish, exaggerated world, where verisimilitude and realism (that is, the attempt to mimic the "real" world) are left behind and you're left with a distilled version of reality. Why? Well, truthfully, because it's the only thing I can seem to do with any verve. But also (he says, defending his approach after the fact) because America is a big, lovely, powerful, fat country, and like anything big, lovely, powerful, and fat, it is capable of doing both great harm and great good, and could benefit, possibly, from having a whining gadfly shrieking at it from the wings.

In other words, I don't care what happens in the future, much, and totally doubt my ability to predict it. And wouldn't care to try. Because what are the odds of being even a little bit right? Think of someone in 1900 trying to predict, say, the O.J. Simpson thing: A man who is a "star" (a term not yet invented) in a game not yet invented races around town in a vehicle not invented, being watched by millions of people on another technology not yet invented, as he communicates with the police via a technology not yet invented, and the entire nation is mesmerized, and this becomes a defining historical/cultural moment?

Also, I don't think much new ever happens. Most of us spend our days the same way people spent their days in the year 1000: walking around smiling, trying to earn enough money to eat, while neurotically doing these little self-proofs in our head about how much better we are than these other slobs, while simultaneously, in another part of our brain, we secretly feel woefully inadequate to the smarter, more beautiful people who surround us.

I think the history of human development goes something like this: in learning to survive, it was somehow beneficial for us to posit and believe in this thing call the self. And even though we now know that the self is just a sort of elaborate physio-chemical feedback loop, and doesn't refer to any stable, reliable, "permanent" entity, and that privileging that self over other beings is nutty and harmful and illogical, and that even treating that self as something fundamentally separate from the rest of creation is crazy and indefensible, we are still doing it, because we are still physically predisposed to doing it--we're wired that way. So what I think will happen (what I think had better happen) over the next 1,000 years, is that we will gradually wean ourselves away from the self.

Now that's futuristic. And hopeful. Hardly dark or dystopic at all.

I shall now return to attempting to climb the Sears Tower.

The author of two collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, George Saunders teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

 

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