To Know the Future

As you know, next week will see the launch of Elisha Barber, and with it, the culmination of a dream which will hopefully lead to many more. Will it be a success? The suspense is killing me! And it makes me wonder if this is one of those times that I already knew the ending.

In my article, “Spoiler Alert!” for Clarkesworld magazine, I used some recent research into how people enjoy stories, and some examples from Tolkien, to argue that readers often prefer to know the ending of a work–it’s been shown to enhance their enjoyment of reading. Prophecies, time machines, and prognosticators of various sorts are popular  elements of speculative fiction. We want the stories to be twisty and unexpected, but we want the surprises to fall within a certain range or comfort. Would I rather know now if my book will hit one of the bestseller lists? What if it merely rests in the mid-list, or sinks to oblivion?

In some ways, it would be a comfort to know. Like the readers in those studies, it would take some of the pressure off, and, perhaps, allow me to enjoy the journey of arriving at that known end point. In fact, this desire to be certain of the end has been a driver of many aspects of human culture, perhaps from the start. (and you thought E. C. was giving up history in favor of blogging about writing–ha!)

Stonehenge at Dawn

Stonehenge at Dawn

Stonehenge is only one of many ritual centers constructed by early peoples around the world which contains built-in predictive inclinations based on the rising of certain stars at certain times of year. Imagine, if you will, the dark and worrisome days–and the great peace there must have been in knowing that the pattern of the stars themselves would return, that the sky, while it seemed to be changing, was, in fact, a constant. No wonder people began to name the patterns they saw and to shape stories for them, as if the stars (or, as in Peru, the dark spaces between them) were familiar creatures and old friends.

From there, it’s an easy step to imagine that these stars were placed by one or more great deities, for the deliberate use of his/her/its/their creation. We like to believe there is an order to the world around us, that, even if we don’t understand it all, there is structure and direction. Just as in my entry about finding the right ending, there is deep satisfaction in seeing the pattern we have begun fulfilled in a way that seems appropriate. It seems natural that we would postulate a writer–a creator–who has envisioned such a structure, and thus, such an end. In our holy books and stories, we imagine what the world after death is like, and are soothed by the vision, by knowing what will come.

Then we take a few steps closer, we make that ending personal. It’s no longer enough to gather at a ritual center to greet that returning star, we want to know how the star affects us, and we look for the pattern that will lead from the particular place we are, to the place we’d like–or fear–to go. Hence the medieval popes and monarchs who consulted astrologers, and the medieval physicians who explained the plague as caused by a conjunction of the planets which affected the air. Back around the turn of the first millennium CE, the Chinese created highly sophisticated astrological clocks, in large part to be able to write down the exact moment of the birth of an imperial heir, and use that information to predict his future. What would he be like? What sort of reign could he expect to face?

The desire to know the future has driven the creation of great works of architecture and engineering, the development of religions, the invention of new technologies. In fiction, it leads to the use of prophecy, the delivery of teaser readings or excerpts by the author, the creation of fan-fiction and whole websites devoted to speculating about what will come next in the series.

For millennia, humans have sought comfort in creating certainty about the future, whether it is for ourselves, our children, or our fiction. And yet, if we knew, truly knew, might we then stop searching the stars? If we knew how our dreams would end, might we not stop dreaming them?


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in Elisha Barber, essays, fantasy, fiction, history, medieval technology, religion, The Dark Apostle and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to To Know the Future

  1. Michelle says:

    Interesting that readers prefer to know the endings……I wonder if that is why I have given up on Game of Thrones……Most series continue on with most of the same characters you enjoyed following since Book 1 and you know that no matter what trials they may endure over the course of each book, there they are again in Book 2 (or 3 or ?). Killing off those who appear to be primary characters so frequently is a serious turn-off and I see no reason to “invest” anymore in characters that may be dead in the next chapter. And maybe that is why Michael has what I consider to be a “bad” habit of reading the last chapter first!

    • It’s important to keep the right balance between tension (believing that something bad could happen to the character) and rooting interest (hoping that the character will succeed). Too much worry, and the reader begins to feel that the work is futile–even if the character did survive, the new situation would be just as hopeless, so why bother? And of course, different readers (and different genres) have other comfort levels with that balance.

      I did not realize that Michael was a spoiler guy. Interesting. Thanks for reading!

  2. Cultures try to explain the world through myth – through the actions of gods. As our knowledge of science increases, we cut down the amount of myth that is necessary to explain the things and happenings around us. Finally we arrive at the atheistic conclusion that there are no myths and we know the truth about our end – it’s simple oblivion. Personally, I like to leave room for the unexplained, because I don’t believe that we will ever know the ultimate causes that make the universe tick. And being alive is so much more rewarding if there is room for possibility.

    • Yes–I think possibility is key. I suspect the human heart needs some sense of mystery–it’s part of what keeps us wondering, exploring and striving.

      Thanks for reading!

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