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Our Future is in the Air is Wellington author Tim Corballis’ fourth novel. He’s a past winner of Creative New Zealand’s Berlin Writers’ Residency (2015) and a holder of a PhD in aesthetic theory. In 2015 he was Writer in Residence at Victoria University. Oh, and he’s a father of twin daughters – probably the best qualification for this particular project – a project of future and hope. Sort of, anyway.
It’s 1975. A time of protest and upheaval is ending. A few years earlier, the world was in disarray. There are protesters in the street and change is everywhere. Meanwhile science is making leaps and bounds into unknown territories, off the back of the Space Race and Nuclear Armament development.
The book opens with a dry and technical account of the experiments that led to the discovery and development of a new technology that would alter how we think, plan and govern going forward. There is whispered talk of the lead scientist, only known by his, or her initials. It seems that sometime in the 20th Century it was discovered that it was possible to receive information from the future. And then it was possible to send people into the future as well. And then, for a short time in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, visiting the future was possible. But this had some pretty monumental consequences.
Time Travel, like recreational drugs, was big in the counter-culture. Hippies found a way to trip out without acid. Personal time travel became popular. But there were also some dark discoveries. Some of the visions of the future had extreme impacts. The 9/11 attacks in New York were witnessed and so, because of that the building of the Twin Towers were put on hold. Building was cancelled to prevent future catastrophe. Investment into airlines and mass airline travel was literally stopped in its tracks: the Boeing 747 was shelved as an idea, the Dreamliners of today were never developed, and as a result everything in the travel space stagnated. There was no crash landing on the Hudson or bombing over Lockerbie.
Consequently, New Zealand was affected. Tourism as we know it today was affected. Our economy was still buoyed up by shipping and Lamb sales but our sense of isolation and the access to the great OE was greatly impacted. Our connection to the world never grew to the levels it is today. The internet never happened.
And now? When time travel was made illegal, it moved underground – servicing a demimonde of addicts, spies, bankers and activists. In amongst this, there’s a mystery. One character, Pen, is missing. His friends and family start to wonder where he’s got to. He’s known to go on benders in the past but somehow this is different. So much of the book is around the search for him. It transpires that he’s been sneaking around behind his wife’s back time travelling. In his case, it becomes addictive. He can’t stop. The book becomes a sort of mystery search and rescue, of a man who doesn’t realise he’s missing.
Written from the perspective of the 1970’s, Corballis intentionally sets out to write this book as realism. He wanted something of a documentary truth to it, like a book that accompanies a series or film. He lays out the evidence with a number of devices including an array of voices, pseudo-documents, blog entries, etc. If you look at the current documentary on Stuff called The Valley, about Afghanistan, you’ll see how investigative journalists have painstakingly tried to construct the full story from fragments of evidence, conscious that the main players, like the NZ Defence force, choose to remain silent. And in a similar way, Corballis puts his findings before us in an attempt to tell the story.
He’s on record as arguing that this is a Sci-Fi novel due to the geeky references to technology and the general concepts of time travel. In other ways, though, it’s not Sci-Fi because it’s not really about our future because it’s set in our past. A recognisable but alternative one at that.
One of the delights of this story is that, in the future, it is understood that it is possible for ghosts to exist. You get this communication and cohabitation between the parties. In a similar way to how we react with virtual people on our devices and real people in the room.
This is not entirely new. Many cultures walk alongside ghosts and spirits. When I was recently in the Cook Islands I was told how people bury the dead in their front gardens so that they can include then in their everyday affairs like eating with them during social occasions. This appreciation and assimilation is similar in Corballis’ book.
His ghosts are echoes of the past. He wraps his story around specific dates. 1975 wraps into 2008. 1968 turns into 2001. He does this to see if history can be collapsed in a little, if two different time periods can plausibly coexist. It may be his comment on the acceleration of time – or our perception of it.
To make it more real he references the politics, land rights, fashion, of a 1970’s Labour Government run New Zealand, a place which is just sufficiently far back in our memories to be a little fuzzy around the edges but still close enough to be instantly recognisable. There was hope for the future. Utopian dreams. Investment in environmental causes. Many of the protest movements of that time were to do with the future, such as human rights. Extrapolate that out and it’s possible to see that they may have impacted events, indirectly or even unintendedly in the future.
Interestingly, we don’t have that same relationship with the future that we once did. Mainly, it seems, because the rate of change is so face the future is almost in the past. Imagine the future, crowd fund the idea and it’s happened. That’s the dream. So, to make his point he looks at how he can play with the future – albeit in the past. So much of our sci-fi is apocalyptic and negative. Our future is doomed – movies, books etc all set us in a time when humans, the environment and other factors have almost destroyed us. Dreadful dystopian stuff. Is there really a future for us humans?
It seems Corballis wants to find the future in our past, that 1970’s was the last time we looked hopefully into the lens with positivity. And that is the lesson he gives us. The dystopian lens paints a black future, informed by religious beliefs and myths of woe. He doesn’t want to follow that direction. For him, as a writer, defaulting to an Armageddon theme is all to easy and perhaps a little passé. There are times in our past that we need to get back to learn and plot the next steps objectively, for a change. There’s got to be better ways of thinking about what comes next.
The Future is in the Air is an exploration of an alternative history. A what if? There’s no lesson here, except maybe to think in parallel about the decisions we made. We often think it would be great to jump in a time machine and leap forward to get the answers we want. This might just be the cautionary tale that accompanies that thinking.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
Our Future is in the Air
by Tim Corballis
Published by Victoria University Press