In On the Writing of Speculative Fiction (1947), Robert A. Heinlein describes the genre as: ‘[N]arratives concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology, speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem’. Authors have used this malleable genre (which encompasses elements of fantasy, science fiction, utopia/dystopia, horror and historical fiction) to explore social issues. Sometimes, these novels are even seen to predict the future. Writing in the New Yorker, Abby Aguirre reads Octavia Butlers Parable of the Sower (1993) as a ‘prescient vision of a zealot elected to “Make America Great Again”’ with Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1985) similarly eliciting comparisons with the Donald Trump era. Taking human issues at their heart, speculative fiction can often offer a way to step into a new world to reimagine real concerns – as Susan Watkins explores in her post on Squid Game‘s ability to tap into the popularity of dystopian fiction.
So, we wondered if there is something special about speculative fiction that can help readers imagine the future of older age?
In some ways, maybe not. Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, writing in Nature, noted a ‘lack of galactic grandmothers’ in speculative fiction. When older women do appear, they tend to take on roles such as fairy godmothers, wise crones or evil witches. Spruck Wrigley suggests that even in the world-bending and future-thinking spaces of speculative fiction, age still seems to be a boundary that remains fixed in traditional representations.
In other ways, though, speculative fiction can help us reimagine ageing. In our reading groups, we read novels that played with temporalities, meaning that older characters rejuvenate (as in John Wyndham’s Trouble With Lichen and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Turnabout) or younger characters find their futures foreshortened (as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Yoko Tawada’s Last Children of Tokyo). In terms of imagining the future of older age, the speculative fiction we read allowed us to envision worlds where science/technology highlights humans’ responses to longevity, rejuvenation and age-swapping.
Some novels posed obvious age-related questions, such as Trouble With Lichen, a science fiction narrative that imagines what would happen if a discovery was made that slowed down the ageing process, allowing people to live for up to 300 years. The core theme of longevity allowed our reading group participants to speculate and draw their own conclusions about an extended lifespan. Although Wyndham’s novel presented an alternative future, often the reading groups would ground the discussion in present concerns, like Angela*, who couldn’t ‘imagine living […] another 100/200 years. I mean, the way things are going just now with our healthcare, what’s going to happen there, I just couldn’t imagine it. I think if I was financially stable I suppose and I knew that the healthcare system that we’ve got was stable which I don’t believe is, then I think it could be a possibility, but I just couldn’t imagine living that long’. The quality of that extended time was debated through the lens of class dynamics and gender, where the future of older age is impinged on by a perceived lack of support in healthcare and pensions.
Other speculative novels pose subtler questions. In our reading of Never Let Me Go (2005) readers were confused at first that this novel had been put on the list when it didn’t have any obvious themes of ageing. The book follows Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, who don’t expect to live past their thirties. However, Catherine Charlwood (2018) notes in her essay on ageing and memory that Ishiguro’s guiding question for Never Let Me Go was: ‘how can I get young people to go through the experience of old people’? With this new framing, our reading group participants noted that Ruth and Tommy do experience an expediated frailty but that didn’t necessarily correlate with older age. Instead, Frankie* suggested that the novel used temporality in the opposite way to Trouble with Lichen, as the characters are ‘compressing their whole lives into a smaller space and they know that they have limited possibilities, whereas in Lichen they didn’t have a clue what they were going to do because they thought they were going to live forever’.
Finally, in Last Children of Tokyo (2014), the novel explores how a human-induced catastrophe has left the young people of Tokyo unable to age healthily. Children are prone to illness, intolerant to most foods and will mostly die young. Meanwhile, the ‘aged-elderly’ live to be over 100, enjoying a vital, healthy and seemingly unending life. Sarah Falcus suggests that ageing is a necessary part of dystopian fiction, as the genre attempts to vocalise an anxiety and hope about the future. She argues that ‘[t]o articulate its threats, dystopian fiction relies on generational disorder and anachronism, and figures of ageing’ – in fact we need figures of ageing in these narratives ‘to realize our futures’ (Falcus, 107). Last Children of Tokyo plays with expectations of peak and decline across the lifespan, not just of the characters’ but of the generations to come. This novel, perhaps more than others, prompted discussions around intergenerational justice and guilt, where blame is placed on past generations who have not done enough to safeguard the environment. Here, the pursuit of everlasting life (often glorified in other science fiction novels) becomes a burden, as the great-grandparents have to watch their younger counterparts and the environment they once knew waste away. The older characters become a reflection of the reader’s potential future and an inspiration to change things before it is too late.
In these three novels, ageing is used as a way to explore an experience of time. Whether that experience is sped up or slowed down, our readers were interested in how the human life span is framed against larger social issues. Overall, we found that speculative scenarios prompted readers to reframe how they approached the temporality of an individual life and their own experiences. Our discussions may have spanned the philosophical to the political but however outlandish the speculative scenarios, the discussions always came back to present-day concerns such as how we might resolve issues such as climate change, work, retirement and care.