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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What We’re Reading
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.”
Science fiction’s preoccupation with privacy
“Dark Constellations is a slim allegory written with a chat forum’s acrid wit, while The Old Drift is a sprawling epic that unfolds with the wild detail of a Hieronymus Bosch painting … The novels share a provocative core idea: that colonialism was a massive invasion of privacy, and that technology is on track to rival it.”
📚 The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell
The novel that asks, ‘What went wrong with mankind?’
“In [Richard Powers’s] tree-mad novel … trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people.”
The remarkable rise of the feminist dystopia
“Writers including [Louise] Erdrich, Leni Zumas, and Bina Shah are warning readers of what could happen in a near-future world, with sperm counts mysteriously plummeting, global temperatures and STD rates rising, and a pivotal anti-abortion vote poised to tip the balance of the Supreme Court. Dystopian fiction isn’t soothing anymore. It’s too close for comfort.”
📚 The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
📚 Before She Sleeps, by Bina Shah
📚 Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
The peculiar blindness of experts
“Reliable insight into the future is possible ... It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon among experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has granted them a special grasp of what is to come.”