“Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”
-Margaret Atwood, on whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a prediction
There’s a rule among white water kayakers: “point positive.” In rapids, the river gets too loud to shout over, so kayakers do a lot of pointing to share information about dangerous things: undercut rocks (if you get swept under one, the current can hold you down and you drown), strainers (same thing), and so on. But if there’s something dangerous on the left side of the river, I’m going to point to the right. I’m going to point where I think you should go. Point positive.
Dystopian stories—which I’ve often found incredibly powerful, and when I’ve tried to write—do the opposite. They’re warnings. They’re charms against the curses we’re muttering. They’re the opposite of predictions: look at this, see it, so we don’t end up there. That’s a powerful thought, and an important one. The Handmaid’s Tale is still one of my favorite books to teach in high school: I’ve felt, and seen, how it can break open the walls, how it can start a conversation where the real prejudices built into our systems don’t get to stay behind the sheetrock. At the same time, as I watch people trying to respond to COVID-19, I find myself looking for stories that point positive—that show us choosing something better, that give me a different perspective, a different way of conceiving of and ordering reality, so that, in reading, I can see walking a different path. A better path. A path that’s not this doomed capitalistic greedy one we seem so intent on.
I wonder if Atwood feels something similar. Afterall, she says it’s “wishful thinking” to hope these antipredictions can steer us away from the future they describe. Or maybe we just need, next to these visions, something more wishful. Something more hopeful. Seeing the horror of what we’re headed toward, showing that horror—that warning has power. Warnings make us pull back. But the river’s loud, and it’s hard to hear each other. Once we’re aware of the danger, once we feel the rapid churning, maybe we also need someone on the shore, someone who’s seen the shape of the water and is pointing, hoping, this way.
Just now, in all this, I want to keep learning how to point positive.