Sat, Aug 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Imagining the future of literature

What will literature be like 30 years from now? Writer Ewan Morrison looks into his crystal ball and finds it is bad news for ebooks, the West — and anyone who cares about verifiable history

By Ewan Morrison  /  The Guardian, LONDON

In about 2038, the first of the new generation of Western fictions appeared. These did not feature invented characters as was once the case, but real people — authors from the 20th century, in fact.

Among the top 20 titles of 2043, no fewer than eight were fictionalized accounts of authors’ lives. This brought to mind books from around the early 2000s, such as Colm Toibin’s reimagining of Henry James in The Master, the repicturing of Virginia Woolf in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, or the films about Sylvia Plath.

In 2043, this phenomenon reached its zenith with fictional reimaginings of the lives of Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, and even Toibin himself.

The rewriting of great authors’ lives was done in earnest, as an act of reverse amnesia and willed learning. Because so much real history had been lost in the digital revolution, the only way to bring these authors back to life was to invent their lives. Other great rebirths included Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Christie, Kafka, Joyce and E.L. James. One popular title was Hilary’s Mantle, an alternative-universe depiction of the author time-traveling within the era of Thomas Cromwell.

The problem was that, as A.L. Kennedy had pointed out decades before (and I paraphrase): “The lives of writers, if they are any good as writers and committed to spending their lives at a desk, should not really be worth writing about.”

RETURN OF A LOST FORM

Another form that re-emerged under Chinese guidance was serialized fiction, funded through subscription. Most consumers in 2043 have got out of the habit of paying for one-off cultural products, but a serial that unfolds over time can hook them (and their money) in. Here, the “freemium” business model first developed in China — with computer games offering free samples, but requiring payment to get the whole package — proved sustainable and marginally profitable. Such schemes had humble origins: Back in 2013, there were the subscriptions to Netflix or JK Rowling’s Pottermore; and before that, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas and Leo Tolstoy published novels in newspapers and magazines.

TOXIC MAN

In 2043, the largest fictional forms in the world are multimedia, multi-platform titles based on what we knew as “comics.” These are called “e-mooks”: a form somewhere between a comic, a book and an enhanced ebook that was first created in Japan, then popularized in China.

The leading global work of fiction is a comic/e-mook/TV/game/film series produced in China called Toxic Man, the first “new” superhero to have been invented since 1989. It is no coincidence that this was the year the Berlin wall fell, communism was pronounced “dead” and the Web was “invented.” There is also great irony in the fact that when the West lost its cold war enemy, it was unable to invent any new superheroes for itself.

Back in 2013, we realized that Western superheroes were in the terminal stages of recycling, but we failed to fully understand the implications. This first “new superhero” in half a century was invented in China in 2032 and coincided with the country’s rise to power. The tale of Toxic Man, or Toxi, is seen by many as a parable of the fall of Western capitalism; this is a hero who is a victim of his own superpowers and is cursed to kill all that he touches (they melt to death in toxic slime).

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