Imagining alternative futures | new book from Tim Corballis

Our Future is in the Air is the latest novel by Wellington author and Science in Society lecturer Dr Tim Corballis. The novel explores an alternative history of the 1970s, triggered by time-travel technology.  Lorraine Taylor talked to Tim about about his new book, his work and the ability of science fiction to ask the questions science can’t.

Set in the past, your book Our Future is in the Air explores an alternative past (or is it a present?) where a certain form of technology that we are all quite attached to (no spoilers!) has been rejected by society to protect its citizens. What were you trying to invite reader to think about?

This book, like a lot of science fiction (sci-fi) has an element of social thinking about science. There’s often a fictional theory or gadget or technology at the heart of sci-fi, which then builds a fictional world around the social consequences of that technology. It gives you a lot of resources to think about how technology works in the world, what effects it has, and how it might work differently, how life would be different if we had or didn’t have a certain technology and so on. And this works not just at the nerdy technical level but at the level of meaning. It can be a way to think about how technology alters the meaning of our lives. In Our Future is in the Air there are technological changes that effect how people think of their geographical place in the world and their relationship to the future – these are profound existential questions that science and technology influences.

Thinking of this alternative past or present – how much of this vision was hope and how much caution?

What the book imagines most clearly is an alternative past. The present, which is the future of the book’s past (confused?) is actually very vaguely evoked. I’m not sure this is about either hope or caution. It’s more about where we look for the seeds of the future, and how we face a future that’s unknown. I don’t think the book provides easy answers either way, though I would like readers to get a sense of openness from the ending – the positive side of that future vagueness or unknowness perhaps.

The work explores a number of social societal constructs as well, beyond science and technology.  How much of Tim Corballis is in this novel?

I’ve said this in other fora too, but I’m a bit of a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Carrier Bag’ theory of fiction: more or less, that a book is a nice handy bag that you can put a whole lot of stuff into, rather than a neat plot line from start to finish.  So if I’m in the book, it’s because I put in a lot of what I was interested in, what I came across, while I was writing it. For example, the Russian Biocosmists, who believed in the revolutionary necessity of a scientific programme to bring back the dead – and who really existed I should add – they’re in there, largely because I was interested in them at the time and wanted to build something around them.

You have one of the most diverse academic backgrounds I know.  Tell me about your academic whakapapa, and what led you to such variety?

Should I mention carrier bags again? I was a maths and physics geek as a kid, but after studying it a little at university my interest drifted. I think I was excited by the imagination of the world and the universe in those fields, but it just wasn’t there after a few years. Not for me anyway.  I crossed into philosophy via logic, which provides a bit of a bridge from maths. There I discovered versions of aesthetics and existentialism. Writing seemed like an obvious thing at some point, partly out of a sort of embarrassing young man’s existential desire to do something with my life, and partly again chasing that imagination of the world and other worlds. I’ve sort of wavered between writing and academic work ever since, but I’ve been interested in all kinds of subjects and ways of seeing things. My doctorate had elements of sociology, cultural studies, history, environmental humanities, architecture… I think it probably followed on from my philosophy studies, but broader (philosophy can be frustratingly narrow).

You teach within the Science in Society group at VUW.  How does your humanities work influence your understanding of science and how does your obvious scientific obsessions influence your work in the humanities?

I think the humanities, and the social sciences too, offer very good ways to think about how things might appear from other perspectives. They offer ways to think about what science might mean to people, and to put things in terms of the rituals and meanings they accrue around themselves. So, what kind of ritual is science (or the sciences, since I don’t really think there is a singular thing called science)?

I’m also really interested in new sciences – the forefronts of computing, biological sciences and climate sciences are really having profound social impacts, and aesthetic impacts too. So much of our culture obsesses over them, it’s hard not to be interested. So, I think you miss a lot by seeing them just as technical phenomena, or as new knowledge. They’re cultural phenomena too, full of undreamed of ways to imagine ourselves and the universe. I think they offer us amazing visions and stories.

Do you think fiction or literature or even the humanities have a particular way of doing this that science does not?

Literature and the humanities are both hugely diverse, obviously, but I think of them as doing quite particular things. They are both focused on things that science finds hard to measure, even qualitatively: meaning, interpretation, the imagination. And literature of course is free to make things up. Writers of fiction especially aren’t constrained by the need to get anything right. I think it’s really important to keep that sense of imagination unconstrained by boundaries and methodologies. It’s important politically – it allows us to think about how the world might be different. I happen to think it’s also important for science. This might not make me a lot of friends, but I’m a cautious follower of Paul Feyerabend, who argues against the idea of methodology in science too.


Tim Corballis at the launch of Our Future is in the Air at Unity Books. Image by John Duke


Lorraine Taylor is the Centre Manager for the Science in Society group at VUW 


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