The writer Robin Sloan’s speculative short story “The Conspiracy Museum,” part of The Atlantic’s new Shadowland project, is set at the grand opening of a Smithsonian institution—one dedicated to the human tendency to conjecture (wildly, and sometimes dangerously) about invisible social forces. Sloan’s story not only recognizes the prominence of this kind of thinking in the history of organized society, but also foretells where that fascination might lead Americans.
Musing about humanity’s impending reality is irresistible, though as David Epstein notes in his book Range, many theorists go wrong in predicting the future. Many novelists, meanwhile, use their hypothetical narratives not to prognosticate but to give warning. The imaginative timeline in Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory highlights the social traits of trees, making the violence that humans impose on nature more glaring.
Dystopian feminist novels by authors such as Bina Shah and Leni Zumas have become especially grim, as the abuses and restrictions they imagine no longer seem so far-fetched. Science-fiction novels written by Namwali Serpell and Pola Oloixarac spell out a future in which the rise of tech harshly infringes on human freedom.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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Welcome to the Smithsonian Museum of American Conspiracy
“Inside, you will find a literal hall of mirrors. No visitor’s experience will be the same. You’ll learn about the tropes and techniques of an important art form, and you’ll encounter a kind of counter-history: a network of narratives that have established themselves in the tide-pool crevices between real events.”