Can Fiction Help Us to Build a Better Future?
by Paul Vacca
These days, reality competes unfairly with fiction. This causes a real threat to writers. We have learnt, for example, that the writing of the sixth series of Black Mirror — the apocalyptic-technological anticipation series created by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones — has been postponed. An obvious move. After all, it seem like we’re already living in this sixth series.
This reality-fiction battle was already a threat to the show before the pandemic. Black Mirror gave us the uncomfortable sensation that it described not our future but our present. The “Nosedive” episode — in which every human can be scored from one to five stars — features a scheme of notation similar to the Social Credit System already at work in China. It’s dizzying to see how fast the future is aligning with the series — and therefore us — to the point of catching up with it.
Brooker’s reasoning is that one must not further despair the audience in these peculiar times. Strange decision. Ironically, our appetite for apocalyptic stories has never been so frantic. We have turned to The Plague, Albert Camus’ dark novel, let’s say, rather than to Nuptials, his solar work, in which he celebrates the fullness of communion with nature. This confirms for us that fiction does not fulfil the sole function of escape or compensation. Dystopian works offer us keys to reading in difficult times. They enlighten us — albeit gloomily — on our present.
But what about future? Dystopias leave us helpless, offering few constructive solutions — at best, a few improbable individual outbursts. It makes sense: a dystopia that would provide edifying clues would de facto cease to be one. Call it an escape game.
Why not choose utopia then? In fact, this is what we very quickly witnessed — at least here in France — as a counterpoint during the epidemic: ravenous desires for reconstruction and utopian impulses. A collective narrative took hold, embodied by solemn calls for the creation of the now famous “le monde d’après”. We’ve also seen this spontaneous re-emergence of utopian tales of “Grands Soirs” and other tabulæ rasæ through, for example, the call for 100 proposals from an environmentalist personality or a petition against consumerism signed by over 200 stars.
But, for taking hold of the future, a world all painted in pink is of no better use for us than a world all painted in black. For we can say about utopia what Charles Péguy declared about Emmanuel Kant’s philosophy: It has pure hands, but it has no hands.
In my opinion, there is another literary genre far more fruitful for building a better future: it is uchrony — the fictional genre based on the principle of rewriting history by modifying an element of the past. Novels from this genre include Fatherland, Robert Harris’ novel which posits that the Nazis won World War II, or The Plot Against America, in which Philip Roth has Charles Lindbergh, the aviator sympathetic to Nazi theses, defeat Roosevelt in the 1941 elections, plunging America into chaos.
Here is a scheme that can also give rise to comedies, such as the film Yesterday, in which its director, Danny Boyle, imagined a world where the Beatles never existed. Or the Hollywood Netflix series, in which Ryan Murphy rewrites post-war movie history as a time free from taboos of gender, race and sexual practices. What if a woman had been at the head of a studio? What if leading actors or actresses had come out of the closet? These iconoclastic and rejoicing hypotheses help us to deconstruct our perception of Hollywood.
And yet, I can feel an objection: uchrony is a tool designed for rewriting the past; not the future. Fair enough, that is indeed its very definition. But nothing prevents us from using it to look to the future. This is what Civilizations, Laurent Binet’s latest novel published in France in September 2019 — and awarded the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française — suggests we do.
Binet’s revisionist history has it that Christopher Columbus was captured by the Incas who later set sail to invade and conquer Europe. Therefore, the whole history of the world has to be rewritten. Above all, the assumptions of the Reformation and nascent capitalism need to be revised. The narrative jubilation of the novel’s recreation of the past merges with the rejoicing of the reconstruction of a new world, as in the videogame Civilization — eponymous with the novel — where the aim is to build one’s own civilization.
This is the magic reversible effect of uchrony, when the narrative suddenly becomes performative: If the world could have been different, so it still can be.
If utopias invite us to comfortably cherish the dreams of a possible revolution, uchronies, like those of Binet or Roth, incite us, on the contrary, to consider revolution as a real possibility.
 Its publication in English is scheduled for April in the UK by Harvill Secker and in September in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
About the Author
Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and speaker. He gives courses and lectures at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM Paris), Technocité (Brussels) and collaborates with the think-tank Volta (Milan). He writes a weekly column for the Belgian magazine Trends-Tendances and for the French magazine Ernest. He is the author of 4 novels and 5 essays. His first novel La Petite Cloche au son grêle (Mum, Marcel Proust and Me) published in paperback at Le Livre de Poche in 2013 have met a great success and was translated in Japan, and won several prizes (Madeleine d’Or Marcel Proust 2009 – Laureate of the First Novel Festival of Chambery, Laval and Mouscron…). Recently published, two literary essays Michel Houellebecq, phénomène littéraire published by Robert Laffont (2019) and Les vertus de la bêtise (“On Stupidity – And How It Can Make Us Smarter”) by the Editions de l’Observatoire (2020). He is currently working on the adaptation of his latest novel Au jour le jour (“The Feuilletonist”) for the screen.