Charlie Jane Anders: How Can Science Fiction Allow Us To Imagine Better Futures?

Mar 19, 2021
Originally published on March 22, 2021 6:33 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Through The Looking Glass

Science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders explains how the genre is a portal for us to imagine different ways of being human. She invites listeners into one new world with an excerpt from her short story collection.

About Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders is an award-winning author of science fiction, including the novels All the Birds in the Sky and Choir Boy. Her short story collections include Six Months, Three Days and Five Others. Her short stories have also been featured in Boston Review, Wired Magazine and Slate, among other publications.

She most recently penned The City in the Middle of the Night. Her upcoming book Victories Greater Than Death is set for release in April 2021.

When she isn't writing, Anders organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts a podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with writer Annalee Newitz.

Anders studied English and Asian Literature at the University of Cambridge.

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TED Radio Hour / NPR

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

Throughout this episode, we've been talking about the looking glass - a tool to enter another reality, whether it's the big, wide universe, the tiniest microbe or our own mind. And now we're going to try something a little different. We're going to do our best to take you Through the Looking Glass with a more figurative tool - the story. In this case, a science fiction story that ventures into the future.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS: Science fiction is really a mirror. I think science fiction shows us us.

ZOMORODI: This is sci-fi writer Charlie Jane Anders.

ANDERS: Good science fiction allows us to see ourselves in a lot of different contexts, and it kind of allows us to kind of think beyond our narrow ideas of who we are as a species, as a people and become more accepting of different ways of being a human being.

ZOMORODI: So, Charlie Jane, you are going to read one of your stories for us. But before you do that, just - I want to understand a little more about how you came to use stories. My understanding is that you struggled in school when you were a kid because of a learning disability, and then you had this one teacher who kind of showed you how to use stories to cope.

ANDERS: She basically - part of how she got me to be able to read and write was by getting me to write down stories.

ZOMORODI: Uh-huh.

ANDERS: She kind of taught me that the way to, like, deal with schoolwork but also just the way to deal with life was to be creative and to make up stories and to imagine the silliest, weirdest, kind of most colorful stuff that you could and that that would get you through it.

ZOMORODI: What role do you think now that science fiction is playing in society? I mean, the world has changed since I was a kid in terms of our lives being on screens, concerns about climate change. Do you think that the role of fiction, specifically science fiction, has altered or changed?

ANDERS: I do, actually. I think that back in the sort of mid- to late 20th century, the role of science fiction was to kind of, you know, be a cheerleader for the space age. And I think that science fiction really is essential right now to help us grapple with a time in which things change so quickly that, you know, right now, 2019 feels like a long, distant era. And, you know, 2010 feels like, you know, a thousand years ago.

ZOMORODI: Amen to that. You know, you're reminding me of - in 2019, my then-12-year-old son and I decided to read "Ready Player One" together. And it's this kid who basically goes to school and lives his entire social life online, wearing these goggles.

ANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ZOMORODI: And he has to remember to, like, get up and exercise his body, and he has to remember to eat. And I was like, ugh, that's awful. And then here, a year later, my son is now doing all of his socializing and schooling online. And I have to remind him to get up to eat and to exercise his body. There is an amazing ability for science fiction writers to be able to predict the future. Is that part of what you want to do - is paint pictures for people as to what might be?

ANDERS: Oh, wow. I think that a lot of what science fiction can do is just kind of inoculate us against possible futures and also help us to, like, see futures that we would like to work towards. And part of what's super exciting about speculative fiction right now is that you are getting a much wider range of voices being kind of brought into the mainstream of the genre. And that means that we can imagine more interesting futures, more inclusive futures, and we get better real futures when everybody sees that the future belongs to all of us.

ZOMORODI: OK. So for this episode, we have asked you, and you have generously agreed to read an excerpt from a story that you've written, which is a vision of the future where we actually survive climate change. Tell us more about this.

ANDERS: OK. I'm going to read an excerpt from a story called "Because Change Was The Ocean And We Lived By Her Mercy." And it's a story that sort of takes place in the future after catastrophic climate change. And, you know, a lot of the story takes place in San Francisco, where I live, but now San Francisco is an archipelago. It's a series of islands because most of the city is underwater. And there's just, like, these little hills, and they're poking up above the water. But everything else is underwater.

(Reading) I couldn't deal with life in Fairbanks anymore. I grew up at the same time as the town, watched it go from regular city to megacity as I hit my early 20s. I lived in an old decommissioned solar power station with five other kids, and we tried to make the loudest, most uncomforting music we could with a beat as relentless and merciless as the tides.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERS: (Reading) We wanted to shake our cinderblock walls and make people dance until their feet bled, but we sucked. We were bad at music and not quite dumb enough not to know it. We all wore big hoods and spiky shoes, and we tried to make our own drums out of dry cloth and cracked wood. We read our poetry on Friday nights. There were bookhouses, along with stinktanks, where you could drink up and listen to awful poetry about extinct animals. People came from all over because everybody had heard that Fairbanks was becoming the most civilized place on Earth, and that's when I decided to leave town. I had this moment of looking around at my musician friends and my restaurant friends and our cool little scene and feeling like there had to be more to life than this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERS: (Reading) I hitched a ride down south and ended up in Olympia at a house where they were growing their own food and drugs and doing a way better job with the drugs than with the food. We were all staring upwards at the first cloud anybody had seen in weeks, trying to identify what it could mean. When you hardly ever saw them, clouds had to be omens. We were all complaining about our dumb families, still watching that cloud warp and contort, and I found myself talking about how my parents only like to listen to that boring boo-pop music with the same three or four major chords and that cruddy AAA/BBB/CDE/CDE rhyme scheme and how my mother insisted on saving every scrap of organic material we used and collecting every drop of rainwater. It's f****** pathetic is what it is. They act like we're still living in the Great Decimation.

They're just super traumatized, said this skinny genderfreak named Juya, who stood nearby holding the bong. It's hard to even imagine. I mean, we're the first generation that just takes it for granted that we're going to survive as, like, a species. Our parents, our grandparents and their grandparents - they were all living like every day could be the day the planet finally got done with us. They didn't grow up having moisture condensers and myco-protein rinses and skinsus.

Yeah, whatever, I said. But what Juya said stuck with me because I had never thought of my parents as traumatized. I always thought they were just tightly wound and judgey. Juya had these two cones of dark, twisty hair on zir head and a red pajamzoot. And zi was only a year or two older than me but seemed a lot wiser. I want to find all the music we used to have, I said. You know, the weird, noisy s*** that made people's clothes fall off and their hair light on fire. The rock 'n' roll that just listening to it turned girls into boys. The songs that took away the fear of God. I've read about it, but I've never heard any of it, and I don't even know how to play it.

Yeah, all the recordings and notations got lost in the Dataclysm, Juya said. They were in formats that nobody can read, or they got corrupted, or they were printed on these discs made out of petroleum. Those songs are gone forever. I think they're under the ocean, I said. I think they're down there somewhere. Something about the way I said that helped Juya to reach a decision. Hey, I'm heading back down to the San Francisco archipelago in the morning. I got room in my car if you want to come with.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR UNLOCKING)

ANDERS: (Reading) Juya's car was an older solar model that had to stop every couple of hours to recharge, and the self-driving module didn't work so great. My legs were resting on a pile of old headmods and biofills, plus these costooms that everybody used a few summers earlier that made your skin turn into snakeskin that you could shed in one piece. So the upshot was we had a lot of time to talk and hold hands and look at the endless golden landscape stretching off to the east. Juya had these big, bright eyes that laughed when the rest of zir face was stone serious and strong, tentative hands to hold me in place as ze tied me to the car seat with fronds of algae. I had never felt as safe and as dangerous as when I crossed the wasteland with Juya. We talked for hours about how the world needed new communities, new ways to breathe life into the ocean, new ways to be people.

By the time we got to Bernal Island and the Wrong Headed community, I was in love with Juya, deeper than I'd ever felt with anyone before. Juya up and left Bernal a week and a half later because ze got bored again, and I barely even noticed that ze was gone. By then, I was in love with a hundred other people, and they were all in love with me.

Bernal Island was only accessible from one direction, from the big island in the middle, and only at a couple of times of day when they let the bridge down and turned off the moat. After a few days on Bernal, I stopped even noticing the other islands on our horizon, let alone paying attention to my friends on social media talking about all the fancy new restaurants Fairbanks was getting. I was constantly having these intense, heartfelt moments with people in the Wrong Headed crew.

The ocean is our lover. You can hear it laughing at us. Joconda was sort of the leader here. Sie sometimes had a beard and sometimes a smooth, round face covered with perfect, bright makeup. Hir eyes were as gray as the sea and just as unpredictable. For decades, San Francisco and other places like it had been abandoned because the combination of seismic instability and a voracious dead ocean made them too scary and risky. But that city down there, under the waves - that had been the place everybody came to from all over the world to find freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

ANDERS: (Reading) That legacy was ours now.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

ZOMORODI: That was author Charlie Jane Anders reading an excerpt from her upcoming short story collection, "Even Greater Mistakes." Her next novel is called "Victories Greater Than Death," and it comes out in April. You can see her talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week, Through the Looking Glass. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. And if you've been enjoying the show, we would be so grateful if you left a review on Apple Podcasts. It is the best way for us to reach new listeners, which we really want to do.

Our TED Radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, Matthew Cloutier and Farrah Safari, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Janet Woojeong Lee. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint.

I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you have been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.