Why We Write About This Thing Called the Future
Naomi Alderman on The Heads of Cerberus and the Invention of Progress
When was the future invented? It’s been with us so long now that we might believe that we’ve always tried to imagine what was coming, how society would change and how people would live in new ways in times to come. But we haven’t. Homeric heroes looked to the past, not the future, to understand their lives; biblical figures too looked back to their fathers and their fathers’ fathers to work out the right way to live. Religious prophecy was, for most of human history, as close as we got to trying to imagine the future—and those prophecies had to be kept usefully misty, so that the prophet could never quite be proved completely wrong. For much of human history, if people imagined the future at all, they imagined it to be essentially continuous with the past and the present.
Like all historical theories, this is debatable, but the future as we understand it probably began roughly at the same time as the Enlightenment, the “long 18th century”—from around 1685 to 1815, a time of rapid scientific discovery and political change. The French Revolution and then the American War of Independence carried with them a promise of a new “humanism”—a belief that the old orders could be swept away by will, determination, and the willingness to fight for a better future. It’s then that the idea of progress was invented: things wouldn’t just carry on being as they always had been, and neither would they inevitably fall off from a past mythical Golden Age. The Enlightenment gave humanity the idea that we might make things better, that perhaps there was some inevitability to this, that we would discover more, find better ways to live, treat one another with greater kindness, and eventually build a kind of heaven without the need of gods to hold it up.
The future has been a compelling proposition for writers and thinkers ever since. The earliest fictions about the future date from that “long 18th century”—to begin with, the idea of writing from the future was used to discuss political ideas, mostly to suggest how awful things would be under a continued monarchy, or if Catholicism were to continue in its ascendancy. But as the Enlightenment continued, technological futures became almost irresistible: suddenly there were imagined utopian societies on the moon, new designs for a future Paris. By 1871, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race—which proposed a new force he called vril by which all of humanity’s problems would be solved—became an international bestseller.
Fiction about the future has always held this tension, though: Are things getting better, or are they getting worse? Or is it just possible that they’re doing both at the same time?The Heads of Cerberus also features another relatively modern discovery: the knowledge that the past can be forgotten or misremembered so badly that it becomes a parody of itself.
The Heads of Cerberus is a thrilling adventure, a joyful contribution to the new human pastime of trying to look beyond our own era and get a peek down the track to see what’s coming. Three friends—Viola, Trenmore, and Drayton—fall through time into a version of Philadelphia that is both fascinating and horrifying. In the great tradition of Bulwer-Lytton, Gulliver’s Travels, and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, they encounter terrible dangers, and also social customs and ideas about how to live that strike them as both bizarre and disgusting. Their journey is in many ways a delicious romp and the three characters are drawn in an enjoyable comic-book style, with the giant Trenmore always ready to start a fight with anyone who seems to insult him, while the lawyer Drayton tries to investigate and think through what they’re seeing, and Viola expresses the furious indignation of their offended sensibilities. The Heads of Cerberus seems to prefigure a number of enjoyable modern-day stories of parallel worlds and time travel too, with a set-up reminiscent of Quantum Leap, Sliders, the British classic Red Dwarf, and Star Trek.
The travelers explore the society around them—and eventually come to understand how it evolved from the world they remember. Invented futures often have something to tell us about the anxieties of our age, from the cheapened sensibilities and casual population management via psychoactive drugs of Brave New World to the ultraviolence and therapeutic abuse of A Clockwork Orange. In this way too, The Heads of Cerberus is reminiscent of the ur–time travel story, Wells’s The Time Machine, in which the society of Eloi and Morlocks is a sharp critique of the social divisions of Wells’s own time—the beautiful but useless Eloi are understood to have evolved from the upper classes, while the terrifying Morlocks are the eventual outcome of generations of brutalized working class people.
Stevens’s world in The Heads of Cerberus, written just after the First World War, also contains horrifying echoes of the contemporary world at the time. A shuffling mass of ordinary people are merely “numbers” to be sacrificed at a whim by members of a self-perpetuating aristocratic class who pretend to meritocracy and democracy but in fact simply continue to award themselves the titles of cleverest, quickest, strongest, and loveliest. One need not know much about the brutal stupidity of trench warfare, of endless phalanxes of young men who were viewed as just numbers and hurled over the top at the enemy, to see the reflection of the First World War in Stevens’s new Philadelphia.
The Heads of Cerberus also features another relatively modern discovery: the knowledge that the past can be forgotten or misremembered so badly that it becomes a parody of itself. Although there had been an interest in recovered artworks and classical sculpture since the 15th century, systematic, meticulous, intellectually open archaeology aiming to discover the truth about ancient civilizations and cultures had really only developed toward the end of the nineteenth century. It’s through detailed archaeological analysis that historians found that what we remembered about Troy, about Knossos, about the Ancient Egyptians was partly true—and partly so distorted that much of it was invented fiction. One cannot but look at the evidence of ancient cultures and reflect on how much of our own time will be remembered correctly and how much will be changed beyond recognition. The new Philadelphians in The Heads of Cerberus venerate something called Penn; they consider themselves members of the Penn Service. But the existence of William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania, is a mystery and even a blasphemy to them. There is something uncanny to the realization that the web of meanings in our lives, all those things that seem entirely obvious to us, could be forgotten with the wash of just a few generations.Did people ever really believe that the perfect appearance of chastity was the most important possession a woman could have?
I write this from a time poised equidistant from Stevens’s imagined future and the year in which she wrote. Her travelers from 1918 visit 2118; I write today from 2018, looking back to her time and forward to the unknowable future. Already the generations have passed—almost no one who was alive when this novel was published is still alive today. Already some elements of the plot and characterization feel so distant they might have come from another world. Why does Viola faint when she arrives in the new world, while her brother, Terence Trenmore, and his friend Drayton are puzzled and surprised but don’t keel over? Women’s bodies can’t have changed that much in a scant century. Is it possible to accept that the first thing on all the female characters’ minds is to make sure no one ever suspects that they might have been alone overnight with a man? Even when looking back from 2018 to nonfiction accounts and diaries of Stevens’s time, these things can be difficult to accept. Did people ever really believe that the perfect appearance of chastity was the most important possession a woman could have? Even now, one looks back and thinks, “Surely they were pretending? They couldn’t really have believed that.”
And yet they did—a brief century can change minds in ways that would make us in certain ways repellent strangers to our great-grandparents.
But then, as with Homer, as with the Bible, at some points humanity comes so vividly to life that one perceives the long unbroken chain of past, present, and future. Human nature is what it is. Those with power in the future Philadelphia want to hold onto it, use it to satisfy their own desires, make sure that no one can take it away from them. Viola, Trenmore, and Drayton represent a challenge to the current order—and so the powerful want either to co-opt them or to do away with them. As with the Penn Service, so too with modern gerrymandering and voter suppression. As with the tacit deals between the factions of new Philadelphian aristocracy, so too with modern logrolling. One looks at the uninspiring specimens who have managed to cement their positions of power in the Penn Service; one looks at the people currently in charge of several Western countries. And, like the attempt to discern between pig and man at the end of that other fantastical political allegory, Animal Farm, it is hard to detect a difference between the two.
Copyright © 2019 by Naomi Alderman. Introduction from the book The Heads of Cerberus by Francis Stevens. Published by arrangement with Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.