'Imagination will take you everywhere'
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
So goes the first sentence of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of the most important novels of the 20th century, it is set in the dystopian world of Oceania, which Orwell created to warn his readers about the dangers of a totalitarian society amid the rise of communism in the 1940s.
Writers have always had a strong fascination with dystopian settings – from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games; future worlds controlled by ‘Big Brother’ figures and punctuated by annual death matches. Fun. But why is the future so frequently depicted in this way?
The future is a funny thing. Something that induces both fear and excitement. With the summer of 2017 stretching out before us, a lot of changes are ahead – just think of the mammoth year that 2016 was, and how it totally shook up our perceptions. I guess that the fear of the unknown is the spark that sets the imagination alight – who knows what will happen with Trump as President of the world’s biggest superpower? Who knows what will happen tomorrow, let alone in 5, 10, 100 years time. We may very well all wear silver jumpsuits and whizz around in flying cars and use robots as servants. We may be able to catch a budget airline to holiday in outer space – or as Elon Musk hopes, set up a human colony on Mars.
One artist from Scotland has launched a public artwork which is all about the future. Katie Paterson is known for her works exploring the essence of time and space, having designed a lightbulb that stimulates the experience of moonlight and created a fossil necklace with the help of DNA researchers. Her next project is on a slightly larger scale; essentially a forest of books called the Future Library. In 2014 Paterson planted 1,000 trees in Nordmarka Forest on the doorstep of Oslo, Norway, with the plan to get a different author to write a book each year and ‘bury’ it until they are unearthed in 2114. So these tiny fragile saplings will one day grow into towering pines which will be turned into pages of an anthology containing the stories – some of which will be written a century before.
The idea was born when Paterson was drawing tree rings on a piece of paper and saw “chapters, and leaves of the book, a forest that prints a book, but that grows through time,” she told the Telegraph. The Berlin-based artist describes it as “a living, breathing, organic artwork.” Future Library certainly has the environment at its core, raising issues surrounding climate change and overconsumption. She says: “It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.”
Disappointingly the texts won’t actually be physically buried in the Norwegian soil, but instead held in a specially designed room in the new Deichmanske Public Library opening in 2019 in Oslo. No living adult will ever know what is inside the boxes, which gives the unfolding project a distinct air of mystery – like a literary time capsule.
So far, the authors selected to write are international heavy-weights; the Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, who has delivered her text entitled Scribbler Moon for 2015, the British author David Mitchell has written a 90-page novella called From Me Flows What You Call Time for 2016, and the novelist for 2017 is Sjón from Iceland, who is an award-winning poet and lyricist, who also writes lyrics for the singer Björk. He recently handed over his work at a special ceremony amongst the trees that will one day bare the words of his novel – in 97 years and counting. He described being part of the project as being like an “adventure”.
“I realised that many of the mechanisms I take for granted as I write my texts are really something that I need to think about all the time: the precision of words, using old words…Writing in my language, which is the Icelandic language, was also one of the questions I was faced with because I don’t know where my language will be in 100 years.” Sjón
The authors are selected for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generations, although they will never know how their work will be received. Mitchell said in an interview that he hopes “things that are important to me will still exist, and that the orchestral blast of bad news that you get when you open newspapers and click on websites – all the dystopian stuff about climate change, about terrorism, about demagogues seizing control of large, industrial countries – that side won’t win. The side that values reading, that values seeing things from other people’s point of view, which is a great forte of the novel – that currently deeply embattled side has an equal shot at influencing the future.”
I think that sums up the power of a novel; fiction can let you escape into a new world when your own world isn’t quite going to plan, but it can also, as Nineteen Eighty-Four did, open people’s eyes and challenge their perceptions (something we desperately need in an age of social media echo chambers). And that will remain important for eternity.
Originally published in the January issue of the Sundial.