To the Non-Linear Future and Beyond: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

To the Non-Linear Future and Beyond: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

An interview with author and podcast host, Charlie Jane Anders, exploring the potential futures of personal technology, climate change and human interaction.
Charlie Jane Anders
Author + Podcast Host
Nisa Malli
Senior Policy Analyst
November 14, 2019
Print Page

Charlie Jane Anders’ award winning novel, All the Birds in the Sky, is set just before and just after our present day, in the midst of a climate collapse heralded by superstorms and earthquakes. It is a prescient title: a 2015 Guardian article reported that one quarter of global bird species have been affected negatively by climate change, significantly changing their migration patterns, and moving into higher altitudes and closer to the poles to seek more hospitable environments. In the novel, technological advances and financial interests have led to slightly different, and more advanced technology than ours: the Uncanny Valley still exists but robots are capable of feeling, and expressing, emotions; sentient, networked AI is possible; wormholes can be opened into space that could transport settlement ships to new galaxies; and alongside a smartphone, most people carry personal “caddies” that facilitate human connection and interaction in a benevolent and non-commercial combo of Facebook’s event function, Google Maps, Foursquare, transportation apps, and dating apps. Workers have dropped down to four-day weeks due to blackouts and instability in the electric system and two factions are fighting over whether to use technology or magic to save the world, although both their ‘nuclear’  options may destroy it. The book asks questions about human intimacy, connection, and care; education and skills development inside and outside of the formal education system; the value of non-human life in an apocalypse scenario, and the potential for technology to save or ruin us.

We caught up with Charlie Jane Anders at Can*Con, where she was the conference’s Author Guest of Honour, to talk about climate change and the need to shift policy attention to long-term challenges and their impacts, the role of science fiction in imagining alternative systems and non-linear futures, and the ways in which our current personal technology creates human connection and interaction through conflict.

Share

"Often part of the value [of science fiction] is just seeing that things don't have to be the way they are."

Charlie Jane Anders

Nisa: Part of the premise of this interview series is that science fiction has public value as a tool for imagining future scenarios and for thinking about incremental and disruptive change. I loved the most recent op-ed you wrote in The Washington Post about encouraging stories around atomic futures. What do you think the function of science fiction should be in public discourse and in addressing big policy questions?

Charlie Jane: I think that there is a lot of scope in science fiction, and fantasy actually, for thinking about systems in general and thinking about the kinds of systems we create and how that can backfire or how they can work for better or worse. A lot of what is great about speculative fiction is that you can create other versions of society and other versions of the real world that work differently. In one of my Washington Post op-eds, I quoted this guy who said that it’s like a laboratory; it’s a way to test out a lot of different variables. And obviously, it’s not a real experiment: it’s a thought experiment. The individual author gets to play God and maybe cheat a little bit. It is also a chance to think about how systems can be organized in a different way. Some of my favorite science fiction books, one way or the other, posit different ways that things could work. Often part of the value of that is just seeing that things don’t have to be the way they are. There’s no iron clad rule that says that we have to be living the way that we’re living.

"I believe we're pushing further and further away from the idea that technology could actually bring us together and enable us to actually connect in the real world."

Charlie Jane Anders

Nisa: Having recently reread All the Birds in the Sky, it seemed like beginning of the book is set approximately in our present and in the latter half, it is set about 10-15 years later. The technology in that world feels slightly more advanced than ours, or perhaps it’s that our scientists and our billionaires have slightly different priorities in the technology they chose to develop. Is that accurate? If so, what was your thinking behind what enabled those technological advances?

Charlie Jane: That is absolutely accurate. And in fact, while I was working on the book I kept going back and Googling, “When did YouTube start? When did Facebook start?” because I had been working on this book since 2011. So I was thinking the parts where they were in junior high might be a little bit in the past, like five or ten years ago, and the parts where they’re adults is about five or ten years from now. It’s very near future, very recent past, and I wanted to leave it vague enough that you would understand that YouTube and Facebook have been around for a while. So when those things are referenced, it doesn’t necessarily anchor the story in this exact moment. I was hoping that when the book was published, it wouldn’t feel super outdated. I seriously thought that by the time the book was published, we would have caddies or something equivalent to them. And we really don’t. (Caddies) are like phones that are actually better than phones in terms of enabling human connection. I feel like phones increasingly drive us away from each other. That part of it seems more fanciful than when I wrote the book in some ways, because I believe we’re pushing further and further away from the idea that technology could actually bring us together and enable us to actually connect in the real world. I’ve ranted about this endlessly, but a lot of things like Facebook and Twitter, especially as they’ve become more optimized for smartphones, are about capturing eyeballs, which means if they do enable you to connect with people in meat space, they’re not doing their job of keeping you glued to your device. So you have connection, but it’s connection that is mediated through these platforms, in which you increasingly see drama, arguments, and a kind of unpleasantness as a way to make sure that people never look away. Similar to how you can’t look away from a train wreck. You could make people connect through positivity and understanding, but that probably isn’t quite as good for capturing eyeballs. I think that there’s a conscious effort at this point to make sure that you see stuff that’s unpleasant and upsetting so that you stay glued to it. You have to make a conscious effort to disengage because it’s toxic and addictive. The starting place for All the Birds in the Sky novel is with these kids, one is a mad scientist and one is a witch, and I wanted to think about technology and what technology could mean in the future as part of making Laurence and his worlds feel cohesive, believable, and real. I didn’t want it to be dismal and Black Mirror-like and so the theme of human connection becomes something that comes up as another axis in the book alongside the science and nature themes. In general, I wanted to explore how technology can move forward. Also, in the back of my mind, there was this idea that a lot of the more advanced stuff, especially the caddies, had come about because of the AI Laurence and Patricia had created, which was a little bit magic and a little bit science. I also wanted to talk about climate change. So that made it useful for the novel to be set a little bit further in the future.

"...people who, in San Francisco, are making our coffee and cleaning the toilets and doing service jobs that are less high status and less preferred, can't afford to live in the city where they work."

Charlie Jane Anders

Nisa: I want to ask a bit more about magic and technology from an economic perspective. Laurence’s technical and STEM skills are heavily economically and socially rewarded in the book, but Patricia works service jobs and her healing-based carework magic is frowned upon and nobody is willing to pay her for it. I’m curious, what would need to change in the world of the book in order for both of those to be valued by society?

Charlie Jane: That’s a really good question for real life as well. In the real world, that kind of caring and supportive work is not valued the way it should be. It makes me incredibly angry whenever I think about the fact that teachers aren’t paid as well as coders. Of course, programming is an important skill and it’s really valuable. I know people who work at tech companies and they’re doing amazing stuff and they’re really smart people. But teachers should be the most well-paid people in society. Service workers in general, people who, in San Francisco, are making our coffee and cleaning the toilets and doing service jobs that are less high status and less preferred, can’t afford to live in the city where they work. That just seems like a fundamentally broken system and one that nobody is really coming up with solutions for. In general, with All the Birds in the Sky, you can see over and over again where I tried to complicate things and not make things feel like this is the way it always is. When things start to get that stark or that simplistic, it stops feeling real to me and it starts to feel a little too allegorical. In this book, I was careful to include the character of Kawashima, who is driving around in a Lexus wearing three-piece suits while Patricia is staying humble and not profiting from her magic. If Patricia just worked a little harder to earn people’s trust and was a little craftier about it, she could probably use magic to enrich herself as well. There’s no hard and fast position on that.

"Often teachers are expected to work miracles without the necessary resources."

Charlie Jane Anders

Nisa: I was struck by how dysfunctional and ineffective all of the educational systems were in All the Birds in the Sky, and the way the educational systems, the educators and the pedagogical models felt very true to being a true smart kid in our education system. Both Laurence and Patricia effectively need to teach themselves to prove that they are worthy of a more befitting and advanced education. I’m curious what your thinking was around creating, for lack of a better word, muggle education systems that neither technocrats nor witches feel welcome in.

Charlie Jane: I felt mildly guilty about that because I love teachers and a lot of my favorite people are teachers. Teachers are, as I said earlier, brilliant and work incredibly hard but I definitely had that experience of not really fitting in. When I was in sixth grade, I was at this middle school for one year where they had these tracks: the smart kid track and the dumb kid track and I was shunted into the dumb kid track because I had a learning disability and because I was new. They were rigid about establishing which kids deserve proper attention and which kids to benignly neglect in a way. I definitely landed in the benign neglect camp. I feel like there are a lot of problems with public education that partly stem from the partial privatization, especially in the United States. It’s all based on locality. If you are in a rich suburb, your school has insane resources and if you’re in a city center, your school is probably starved for resources. Often teachers are expected to work miracles without the necessary resources. Unfortunately, we’ve had this regime in the United States in which there doesn’t seem to be a need to actually spend money on education, we just need to have more standardized tests. There was a version of All the Birds in the Sky, back when the book was vastly overcomplicated, that has this weird experimental educational system which is standardized test heavy and memorization heavy. That came from my frustration with the overreliance on standardized tests. When I was a kid, I was constantly being subjected to whatever weird fad they wanted to test out on us this year, and every year would be something different. Especially with me being gifted and learning disabled, I was constantly poked and prodded and experimented on and the overemphasis on memorization was very real for me. In a nutshell, these tests were designed to identify kids who had a very specific brain type and if you aced these standardized tests, you would get to go to a special programs, just as Laurence did.

"People have a bias in terms of thinking that the future is going to be some kind of linear continuation of the past and present, that every trend is going to continue in a straight line, and that the future is some version of what we've already seen."

Charlie Jane Anders

Nisa: I want to talk about the far future for a moment because it’s not a conversation policymakers often have; we mostly work within short-term electoral cycles. So I’m curious what questions you wish policymakers, scientists, journalists, politicians were asking about the medium and the far future.

Charlie Jane: In San Francisco, we have this nonprofit organization called the Long Now Foundation that has a ten thousand year clock (and they make their own gin, which is lethal). They are trying to get people to think about the longer curve of history. Annalee Newitz, my partner, and I talk about this a lot. With climate change, it’s going to be tens of thousands of years before we get back to any kind of equilibrium after all the damage we’ve been doing to our environment. People should definitely be thinking in longer terms about climate issues. We should think of sustainability in terms of how we can build something that will last. Paul Krugman, who is one of my favorite online thinkers, is always quoting Rudiger Dornbusch’s law, which says that a crisis always takes longer to arrive than you think it will. And then when it arrives, it always happens faster than you think it will. Which I think is definitely something I’ve witnessed with the housing bubble in the States. People have a bias in terms of thinking that the future is going to be some kind of linear continuation of the past and present, that every trend is going to continue in a straight line, and that the future is some version of what we’ve already seen. And people have a hard time thinking in terms of things being radically different. Looking at longer time scales is one way to get us thinking about how things can be different.

"What if we could recognize many different types of personhood and many different identities—human and non-human—as being valid?"

Charlie Jane Anders

Nisa: Some of my favorite, sharply written science fiction asks a core ‘what if’ question. What ‘what if’ questions are you obsessed with currently or in your previous projects?

Charlie Jane: My big ‘what if’ question is just what if people had more empathy and more communication? I keep going back to that, even in both novels that we’ve discussed and in my short stories. What if people were able to easily understand each other and were able to see each other as people. What if we could recognize many different types of personhood and many different identitieshuman and non-humanas being valid?

Nisa: Any last thoughts on the role of science fiction in policymaking on the future of work and the economy?

Charlie Jane: I was recently at Boston University addressing college students (at a centre for) training the next generation of policy wonks, techies, and inventors. They asked me to talk about the future of work and I think they thought I was going to say something inspiring about how the future of work is going to be amazing. But basically the future of work is going to be horrible because increasingly these systems are getting more exploitative. There will be fewer middle class jobs and more terrible contract jobs. And at the end of the day, you better hope that you can escape from the traps of contract labor. I think that science fiction in general has a role to play in helping people think about how work could be different and how we can have a healthier relationship with work. We also need to value different kinds of work and value unconventional contributions more highly. There’s a lot of scope in science fiction to talk about emotional labor and other kinds of labor that we don’t talk about often enough.

This interview has been edited and shortened for publication.

Through the Policymaker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Brookfield Institute’s team interviews leading science fiction authors, both Canadian, and international. Join us as we examine the future of work and the economy, on Earth and in space!

 

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Charlie Jane Anders
Author + Podcast Host
Nisa Malli
Senior Policy Analyst
November 14, 2019
Print Page

Share