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Stranger than fiction: What - and how - we'll be reading in the future

Thirty years is a long time in the world of literature, but a quick read of his crystal ball tells Ewan Morrison we will soon be turning the page on ebooks, the Western tradition – and the truth

 

When China became the world’s leading economy in 2024, the West was forced to admit it was now the frontrunner in debt accumulation and little else. The yuan became the global reserve currency in 2032, leaving the West with no say in determining the form of the planet’s economy, the internet, publishing and fiction.

The world of 2043 is a place of state-enforced paywalls and firewalls, state censorship and surveillance through the net – the reverse of the carefree life we knew in 2013, when we all threw away our rights to privacy in the name of “sharing”.

People are now wary of all social media, fearing they’re largely tools for surveillance, propaganda and behavioural manipulation. In this, the “useful idiots” in the United States played no small part, by legitimising snooping through the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), Facebook and so on. In 2043, the internet is no liberator sweeping away authoritarian regimes. Rather, it offers “bread and circuses” to the masses, distracting them from the time-consuming task of political organisation with pirated movies, free porn and LOLcats.

China entered the digital revolution late and, as a result, had a chance to learn from the mistakes of the West. It witnessed the demise of the bookshop, the shrinking of publishing houses to three vast monopolies and the freefall of ebook prices. It saw how zombie mash-ups had cannibalised the Western canon and realised that Marx was right: capitalism, left to its own devices, would devour itself.

While the West frittered and Twittered its time away, China became the only hope for the survival of literature, with its state-enforced literacy programmes, its veneration of high literature and lifelong learning, its vast guaranteed audience, its government-funded five-year cultural development plans, its 500 state-owned publishing houses and bookshops and its writers’ unions. Writers, musicians and filmmakers scrambled to break into the Chinese market as they once strove to make it in the US.

There was once a utopian internet belief that thousands of fledgling writers would be able to forge a brave new future in digital publishing, shaking the foundations of the old elitist media corporations. But warning bells first sounded in 2012, when it emerged that half of selfepublished authors earned less than HK$4,000 per imprint per year.

Devastating confirmation came in 2013, when it was revealed that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling had written a book under the name Robert Galbraith. Rejected by many mainstream publishers, it lurked unseen among the hundreds of thousands of books by unknowns on the internet.

As soon as the news leaked that Rowling was the author, it became a global bestseller.

The message was clear: if you don’t have a name already, you won’t get seen, let alone read. At the turn of the millennium, 80 per cent of a publisher’s profits would come from 20 per cent of its authors, encouraging imprints to invest across a spread of writers. By 2013, the ratio had shifted, according to Jonny Geller, joint head of British literary and talent agency Curtis Brown: “Now it’s more like 96 to four.”

This meant that reinvestment in authors also shrank proportionally.

While the internet was good at selling discounted culture, cheap goods and used furniture, it could not create and monetise new culture.

In 2020, writers decided to get out of short-selling themselves, echoing the likes of bands Radiohead and Atoms for Peace, who decided back in 2013 that streaming services such as Spotify were “bad for new music” and withdrew their work. Or as Nigel Godrich, the sometimes sixth member of Radiohead, put it: “New artists get paid f *** all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work.”

 

THE GREAT BETRAYAL One after another, the lucky few within self-epublishing who managed to build a reader base jumped ship into the arms of mainstream publishers, accepting big-money, multiplatform publishing deals in a process that came to be called the Great Betrayal. This caused a storm among digital diehards who had believed that writers could (and should) survive through online sales, shunning big corporations.

As each successful Kindle author jumped ship, self-epublishing was further demonetised, as everyone who could abandon the system did so in favour of global deals with mainstream publishers. These “traitors” effectively turned self-epublishing into a self-sifting slush pile for big publishers. The net became a means of free market research for corporations: if you could make sales through self-epublishing, you already had a following to build on. The opposite was also true: if you couldn’t build a paying audience online, clearly you would never succeed.

So, to be a cyber hit in the 2020s, you had to undercut all competition: the subsequent race to the bottom saw hundreds of thousands of authors starting to give their books away free. With consumers expecting ebooks to cost at most a handful of change, it became impossible for anyone to make any money from self-epublishing.

 

THOSE CRUCIAL 10,000 HOURS Between 2020 and 2030 – the lost decade – the number of ebooks multiplied by a factor of three. But not only did authors rack up debts, they also found it impossible to dedicate enough time to their craft to become skilled, or even proficient, let alone to experiment and make discoveries. Time is money, and this generation was unable to put in the 10,000 hours required to perfect their talent and become professional novelists. The result was an entire generation who lacked the skills to generate fiction, who at best could re-mash the story franchises from the past – a lost generation.

 

THE CRASH OF 2032-34 The powers-that-be in the new world economy are in possession of the exact facts about the crash of 2032-34, but no one else is permitted to know or share this information. And fictionalising it is not allowed. But it is said that global economic meltdown was narrowly averted. Everyone in 2043 is very pleased that this did not transpire – and very grateful to the People’s Republic of China for coming to the aid of the West.

No more is said. Or, if it is, it is censored by the Great Firewall of China.

 

LITERATURE GOES META After the collapse came the new peace, according to Chinese rules.

But where and how could the canon be rebuilt? For more than 20 years, no new fiction had been generated. The last generation of “professional writers” had passed away. Chinese ownership of the net – with its copyright protection, state censorship and imprisonment of free-information activists – ensured that the West could not revert to its old ways of file-sharing cannibalism. So it was forced to write fiction again.

In 2038, the first of the new generation of Western fictions appeared.

These did not feature invented characters as was once the case, but real people – authors from the 20th century, in fact. Among the top 20 titles of 2043, no fewer than eight were fictionalised accounts of authors’ lives. This brought to mind books from the early 2000s, such as Colm Toibin’s reimagining of Henry James in The Master, the repicturing of Virginia Woolf in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, or the films about Sylvia Plath.

In 2043, this phenomenon reached its zenith with fictional reimaginings of the lives of Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, J.D.

Salinger, Margaret Atwood and even Toibin himself. The rewriting of great authors’ lives was done in earnest, as an act of reverse amnesia and willed learning. Because so much real history had been lost in the digital revolution, the only way to bring these authors back to life was to invent their lives. Other great rebirths included those of Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Christie, Kafka, Joyce and E.L. James.

One popular title was Hilary’s Mantle, an alternative-universe depiction of the author time-travelling within the 16th-century era of Thomas Cromwell.

The problem was that, as A.L. Kennedy had pointed out decades before (and I paraphrase): “The lives of writers, if they are any good as writers and committed to spending their lives at a desk, should not really be worth writing about.”

 

THE RETURN OF A LOST FORM Another form that re-emerged under Chinese guidance was serialised fiction, funded through subscription. Most consumers in 2043 have fallen out of the habit of paying for one-off cultural products, but a serial that unfolds over time can hook them (and their money) in.

Here, the “freemium” business model first developed in China – with computer games offering free samples, but requiring payment to get the whole package – proved sustainable and marginally profitable.

Such schemes had humble origins: back in 2013, there were the subscriptions to Netflix or Rowling’s Pottermore; and before that, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas and Leo Tolstoy published novels in newspapers and magazines.

 

EVERYONE LOVES TOXIC MAN In 2043, the largest fictional forms in the world are multimedia, multiplatform titles based on what we knew as “comics”. These are called “e-mooks”: a form somewhere between a comic, a book and an enhanced ebook that was created in Japan, then popularised in China.

The leading global work of fiction is a comic/e-mook/TV/game/film series produced in China called Toxic Man, the first “new” superhero since 1989. It is no coincidence that this was the year the Berlin Wall fell, communism was pronounced “dead” and the web was “invented”.

There is also great irony in the fact that when the West lost its cold-war enemy, it was unable to invent any new superheroes for itself.

Back in 2013, we realised that Western superheroes were in the terminal stages of recycling, but we failed to fully understand the implications.

This first “new superhero” in half a century was invented in China in 2032 and coincided with the country’s rise to power. The tale of Toxic Man, or Toxi, is seen by many as a parable of the fall of Western capitalism; this is a hero who is a victim of his own superpowers and is cursed to kill all he touches (they melt to death in toxic slime).

 

CHARACTERS ON ‘LIVE’ FEED Fiction in 2043 is leaner but more alive than ever. Through careful use of digital technology, it is now part of the fabric of life. In 2043, people no longer see titles as individual products (free or otherwise): they see fiction as a stream of content, as an alternative living world that unfolds in many media alongside their own lives. They check in to see how a story is developing. Characters are well maintained, original and credible – and authored by teams of specialists raised and nurtured by staterun publishing houses.

Fiction exists in 2043 as a series of alternative realities: fictional characters “live” and go about daily activities, with updates available by the minute. While the reusing of characters from previous eras is frowned upon (due to the rapid burn-up of content), it is not uncommon to still find a stray Winston Smith or Madame Bovary passing through the same virtual village, alongside new characters who have, for the first time in half a century, been allowed to live and grow in the years of hope and progress that followed the dark days of the digital revolution.

 

HISTORY ERASED There is, however, one major problem in the new post-digital peace: the verification of historical facts. To rescue true history from the digital morass of mashed-up facts, humankind must sift through trillions of files of textual mess created by the digital revolution (and by those who attempted to make money from corrupting the lives of historical figures). In 2043, there are no professional critics or specialists left to judge what is real history: academia has had to change to become profitable and serious journalism, sadly, did not survive.

The digital revolutionaries burned books in the last days of their battle, seeing historians as dated and elitist, and replacing dusty paperbook tomes with what they thought were exciting, constantly updated, hivemind Wiki-texts. Thus the people of 2043 will never know if it is true that the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima a century ago. The facts have been changed too many times by pranksters, the politically motivated and those who sought to create scandal so they could be “liked” and “shared”.

We will never know the degree of historical truth in the bestseller Chez Che – a fascinating exposé of the secret gay adventures of the famous Bolivian revolutionary in the San Francisco of the 1980s. Nor whether he died in Cuba alongside his comrade Elvis Presley, as some surviving webfiles declare.

Guardian News & Media

 

Ewan Morrison is a British author. His most recent book, Tales from the Mall, is a linked collection of short stories exploring the ways in which individuals struggle to make something of themselves in a consumerist society.

 

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