Our Future is in the Air by Tim Corballis (Victoria University Press, 2017) 272 pp., $30
Sometime in the 1960s physicists discover a way of getting images from the future. But in the interests of proving that capitalism will be destroyed, the Soviet Union releases a photo from the future of twin towers in New York being demolished by a plane. So the planned twin towers are never built. And planes are no longer built. Without aviation, New Zealand becomes more isolated from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, by the 1970s, ways are discovered of travelling into the future. Apparently time travellers can go only about thirty years forward and for very limited visits. But such travel is controversial. Soon the equipment required is being strictly controlled. Travel into the future becomes an illegal ‘underground’ activity. There is a kind of black market in time travel. In New Zealand, those who indulge in it are regarded as subversives and are of great interest to both the police and the SIS.
In one obvious way, Tim Corballis’s Our Future is in the Air is different from most time-travel stories. Both its ‘present’ (the 1970s) and its ‘future’ (the early 21st century) are now gone, so both eras in the novel are modified versions of our recent past.
If the science-fiction idea of time travel is Tim Corballis’s chief concern, then Our Future is in the Air gives us many familiar paradoxes. If we can see or experience the future, does that deprive us of any ability to shape the future? Therefore is human history determined and beyond human will? Or are glimpses of the future merely glimpses of possibilities? The novel’s glimpse of the twin towers being demolished leads to the twin towers never being built – so therefore it is not an image of the future at all. And wouldn’t it be disconcerting for people in the ‘future’ to have people from the ‘past’ butting into their lives? (Corballis answers the last question by having most people in the 2000s merely shrugging with weary indifference at ‘ghosts’ from the 1970s.)
Taken exclusively as speculative fiction, Our Future is in the Air has long sections of text explaining, in cod science, how time travel (called Temporal Contour Forcing – TCF) is achieved. Black borders in the text rope off these explanations from the main narrative and the activities of the novel’s named characters. But as the explanations are presented in the form of a long interview, there is ambiguity about the identity of the person who is doing the explaining. When Marcus, who is more-or-less the novel’s protagonist, travels from the 1970s to the 2000s, Corballis simulates the disorientation of time-travel by having his thoughts become disconnected as he is dragged into a vortex of incoherence. This disintegrating consciousness could raise the possibility that the future, which doesn’t exist, is a mere construct of deformed human consciousness. The future is hope and fear, not objective physical data.
So we could deconstruct Our Future is in the Air as a philosophical discourse on the nature of time and speculation.
But what if the novel is really intended as social commentary, and the time-travel aspects are simply metaphor? This seems to me a more fruitful way of reading it, especially as the roped-off, disembodied voice spends as much time discussing New Zealand society as discussing science.
Why, we might ask, does Corballis choose to place his story in the mid-1970s?
More than anything, it seems to me, Our Future is in the Air reflects that moment when radical hopes from the 1960s were disappointed. Marcus and his circle are former student radicals who still profess to prefer (urban) communal living, but who are settling, willy-nilly, into middle-class domesticity (marriage, children etc). Marcus, a psychotherapist, clings to the theories of R.D. Laing, but their vogue is fading. His friend Pen (whose disappearance is the focus of the plot) is still thinking of smashing capitalism. Elements of the plot have Marcus and friends associating with both an SIS man and a cop – conservative authority figures whom they would once have abhorred and shunned. Their (former) hopes for the future are dying, and part of the reason is that their conception of the future has changed. In this (fictional) world, the triggers for this disillusion are the images from the future. As the disembodied narrator explains:
So we were just beginning to get a sense that the future was opening up. Then it was as if a fog descended, a frustrating, confusing fog. It made me angry to think that all the political possibilities we had imagined for ourselves were being replaced by vague feelings and pictures. Don’t get me wrong – there was some excitement about those pictures. For a lot of people, they were the first exciting thing they had encountered. But there were too many, more and more, and they could never be put together into a whole. (pp. 47–48)
Even though the internet did not exist in the 1970s, the last sentence of this paragraph suggests the deadening of intellect by the profusion of images that the internet provides – the era when ‘too much information’ paralyses action. It seems significant that, in the ‘future’, Marcus is most stunned by a display of what appears to be a version of Google Earth – a photographic mapping of every minute corner of, and every single domicile in, the world. This literal globalism reveals the world to be so vast and various that concerted local political action seems puny and pointless.
Specific New Zealand events of the 1970s are referenced briefly – the land march, the Sutch trial etc. But the pivotal political event is the end of the Kirk–Rowling government, which had fed at least some radical hopes – even if radicals thought it substituted reformism for revolution. The disembodied narrator describes the 1975 election of Robert Muldoon as:
like some heavy object, something inevitable, a sign of some great inertia all around them. In New Zealand and in the world. It was part of the dwindling – the slow ebbing away – of the initial euphoria of the times, the growing sense of the deep, established conservatism around them … (pp. 104–05)
So what is Corballis metaphorically fingering as the death of radical hopes? Is it simply the maturing of people as they put their student days behind them? Is it a form of globalism, which crushes local or national initiatives? Is it the overwhelming effect of too much data, fed by mass media that existed in the 1970s and were later extended by the internet? Is it the bankers and corporations, who are said to have taken control of images from the future for their own profit? Given that illegal time-travellers are called ‘users’ who get ‘addicted’ and go on ‘trips’, there is even the possibility that Corballis is taking incidental swipes at the drug culture, which turned at least some aspiring revolutionaries into passive and self-absorbed people.
Then again, does the whole conceit of the novel point to a vague Zeitgeist, which, like speculations on time, takes us into the field of metaphysics?
The overall effect of Our Future is in the Air is very dispiriting. True, the novel’s title suggests that the future is for us to make, and is not predetermined after all. True, towards the end of the novel one strand of the plot, concerning a sick child, calls on the values of compassion and fellow-feeling and suggests that these can push back other forces that might shape the future. There is implicit optimism in the way Marcus’s group set about looking for the lost Pen, empathise with one another and find they have more allies than they at first thought they had.
Yet the dominant tone of the novel is typified by a phrase that tells us of one group of covert time-travellers, whose ‘wonderful, outrageous hope [was] pushed underground into just another small dusty room’ (p. 246). For whatever reasons, the adventurous ‘present’ is replaced by a bland and colourless ‘future’. Or is this to take Corballis’s grand metaphor too literally? Given that both eras of the novel are now in the past, and are known to have been somewhat different from the way Corballis’s characters see them, it might be time to suggest that the real theme of Our Future is in the Air is the uncertainty of speculation.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet and historian who holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. He writes the book blog Reid’s Reader.