Authors Ask: How Terrifying Will Our Future Be?

06/01/2010 03:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Which is the way the world will end: Nuclear holocaust, supercomputer takeover, or zombie army? Or maybe widespread closings of independent bookstores. The thrills and terrors of where our world is headed served as the subject for Thursday night's "Bleak Horizons: Dark Visions of the Future" panel discussion at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO.

Authors Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galchen and Cory Doctorow discussed their thoughts on the literary and literal aspects of Armageddon, while author and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman moderated.

"I love nuclear holocaust--that's my favorite holocaust," said Shteyngart, who described how exhilarating he found films like The Day After. "I just want a clean slate."

Galchen, author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbance, saw the upside of disasters in literature, as they give characters a radical change from the drudgery of their everyday lives. She called it an "ugly hunger" for something meaningful, pointing to Linda Hamilton's character in The Terminator, "As soon as the apocalypse happens, she's really important...Sometimes bad news is the best thing that ever happened to you."

The panel discussed how works about future horrors worked better as "inoculations" to our own fear of them, rather than as actual predictions. Greenman suggested that by rehearsing frightening scenarios and putting their repercussions into the public imagination, we may have helped prevent them--though it would be hard to disprove him, since if the world does end exactly as an author predicted, no one would be around to point that out.

While tyranny, disease and nuclear annihilation may be the more typical notions of where everything is going, the authors also considered less sensational things that could go wrong in the world, such as illiteracy, suggested by Shteyngart. He recommended "The Portland Index," which would determine the health of any society by how closely its culture, values and haircuts resemble those of Portland, Oregon. (DUMBO scored high, parts of Siberia very low.)

Doctorow, editor of Boing Boing and author of the recently published For the Win, said that he saw reasons for fear in the "security syllogism" of "Something must be done. We have done something. Something has been done," prevalent in London, where he currently lives. "When we approach security as, 'it doesn't matter if it works so long as we're doing it,' we disorder our cultural capacity to understand risk and probability...that way lies ducking stools."

The authors focused on the literary aspects of dystopia and disasters, asserting that whether Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Cormac McCarthy's The Road, writers' visions of the future are only as compelling as their characters. Shteyngart, who's forthcoming novel Super Sad True Love Story centers on something of a romance set against the backdrop of a nightmarish vision of America at its end, said that while Aldous Huxley's Brave New World had a richer take on dystopia, it is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that is more widely read because the characters are just more interesting.

"If anyone wants to embark on a novel or anything having to do with the end of the world, you better make sure that the last critter is incredibly compelling," said Shteyngart. "Otherwise you're screwed."