I was fortunate to hear the brilliant author Margaret Atwood speak recently. She was in town as part of the ASU sponsored Science and Imagination Series. The initiative defines sustainability as stories about the future world we desire.
Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy takes place in a future world run by anonymous corporations while scientific research in biogenetics is carried out in fortressed compounds. Big Pharm sells vitamins that make people sick and gratuitously markets the remedies. The God’s Gardeners’ underground movement tries to keep old traditions and themselves alive.
In person Atwood was funny and wry. She labels her Maddaddam work as speculative fiction. Extrapolating present facts and trends, she projected into the future. She asks, do we really want to go there? If not, she declares, we need to change the road we’re on.
In regards to climate change, Atwood pointed out that in many cases we have the technology we need to address the problems, but lack the will to change. Towards the end of her talk she mentioned a project out of Norway called Future Library.
A young woman named Katie Paterson came up with this mind-bending idea. Why not plant a forest of trees to be cut one day to create books? The books would contain literature written over the past one hundred years, specifically for this project. A specially designed room within the New Public Deichmanske Library in Oslo has already been prepared, where the stories, poems and essays will be sealed.
Works of literature will be contributed over time to build a collection of manuscripts. The stories and poems will be contributed as gifts to the future, one a year, dating from when the forest was mere seedlings until their crowns spread into the sky.
Starting in 2014 and for ninety nine years after, an esteemed author will be asked to submit a piece of writing to the project. Margaret Atwood was the first to be invited to participate and is currently working on her contribution. She’ll never know how her work is received, none of us will. No one alive today will read her story, because it will be sealed in the Future Library.
A printing press will be placed in the library along with the growing body of literature. One hundred years from now, enough of the forest will be cut to print the library’s treasure. A century of fine literature written by storytellers from each era will become available to readers.
What will the world look like then? Who will the “readers” be?
How uplifting to consider an enterprise that reaches across the divide of time and that carries history and meaning. Commercial gain was not a driver in this case! The project embodies the expanse of the human soul.
Atwood claims the future is everyone’s playground. Let’s cut free and go play. Let’s change the road we’re on.