Branching Timelines. Speculations on a Future (Never) Perfect

Julia Grillmayr

The Eeriness of Future Perfect
“The last tense / that I learned / as a child / was anterior future,” begins the poem Futurum exactum by Erich Fried, which tests the eerie waters of future perfect: “I still know / I didn’t understand / why it is called / future. / Even the anterior past / didn’t sound half so / past.” The lyrical I, intimidated by a finality that will occur, tries to get used to this uncanny tense by practicing: “I said aloud / without feeling secure / I will have lived / I will be gone.” Future perfect—also known as Future II, futur antérieur, or futurum exactum—the grammatical tense to describe a future event that will have already taken place, has a bitter aftertaste. Every future perfect seems to contain a Memento mori: “I will have lived.”

Fried’s contemporaries, the philosophers Günther Anders and Hans Jonas, are also aware of this uncanny power of future perfect and use it purposefully to formulate their respective ethics of responsibility. Both advocate teaching people the meaning of fear—and in the truest sense of the word. Here, too, it is about a process of learning and practicing. The grammatical leap into a past future should help “create” imaginations of possible catastrophes, which serve, as Jonas calls it, a “heuristics of fear”. This, in turn, should motivate endeavors to prevent this catastrophic future.1 Anders and Jonas write these instructions for an “invigorating” and “loving fear” in light of an imminent nuclear catastrophe.2 Anders even introduces a modern Noah to this end, who weeps for the future prospectively, thus warning of the pending misfortune.

“When did this accident happen?” repeated Noah slowly. And after a pause, without looking up: “You mean you really don’t know? It happened tomorrow.” […] / “Tomorrow is great!” jeered a man, and another: “Why not the day after tomorrow?” […] And they laughed and tapped their foreheads. / […] “How is this possible?” repeated Noah slowly. And after a pause, without looking up: “You mean you really don’t know? Because the day after tomorrow it will be something that has been.”3

While in the twentieth century it was warnings about the nuclear threat that were expressed in the future perfect tense, today it is climate change and related socio-economic and ecological crises that inform the narrative in future perfect. The Anthropocene is an almost paradigmatic Future II concept. It points to the current Earth age prospectively and retrospectively; from the perspective of archeologists from a distant future who will study the layer of Earth we will have left behind. Here, too, the catastrophe diction predominates. Precisely in the Anthropocene, “it is somewhat ironic that humans are dreaming of their own extinction in the very epoch named for the indelible trace they will have left in the geohistory of the planet,” writes Eva Horn in The Future as Catastrophe: “Humankind looks back upon itself after its end. It is a gaze in the future perfect, a future that will have been.”4 Similarly, Ursula K. Heise emphasizes the Future II character of the Anthropocene and in this context the power of fiction as well, in particular science fiction (SF): The strength of the Anthropocene concept lies not in the scientific denotation of the Earth’s age but in its capacity to encapsulate the present as a future that has already occurred—that is, in its capacity to narrate a future perfect.5

The Anthropocene idea itself relies on a science fiction conceit by inviting us to look at our present through the eyes of a future geologist studying the Earth’s strata millions of years hence. This anterior future, now standard in narratives about the future of the planet, has always been the purview of science fiction as a genre.6

The efficacy of speculative fiction also plays a role in the Future II warnings of Hans Jonas and Günther Anders: “The serious side of science fiction,” writes Jonas in his prolific work The Imperative of Responsibility, “lies precisely in its performing such well-informed thought experiments, whose vivid imaginary results may assume the heuristic function here proposed.”7 The plasticity of the literary form serves the aforementioned learning and practicing effect, which Anders insists upon: The potential of technology—and nuclear technology, in particular—is “beyond our comprehension and feelings”, he diagnoses in Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolescence of Human Beings], speaking of “moral stretching exercises” and the “task to cultivate moral fantasy” to bridge the gap between agency and its consequences.8 The only possible and safe framework for experiments that beget such extreme scenarios tangible is fiction.

Given this much-vaunted power, contemporary SF is not only an extremely popular form of mainstream entertainment; it is increasingly perceived as a “machine of art and thinking”9 and associated with thought experiments or cognitive schemes.10 The three text forms cited above are rooted in the question What if? They do not aim to predict the future, rather to try out different futures—and presents. In a foreword to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) SF and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin writes with her familiar wit and serious irony:

Yes, indeed the people in it [the novel] are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, […] I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.11

Once upon a time … / What if … / It will have been …
Now, what role does the relationship between the past, present, and future play in these fictions, which hold the promise to somewhat guide our thoughts and actions? What does the jump into an already past future entail in these thought experiments? If the What if … intends to chart potential fields of action and new perspectives, an It will have been … seems to be placed, above all, before forbidding warnings and urgent appeals. But in fact, only the rarest speculative narratives actually begin with a What if … or an It will have been …, let alone use the subjunctive or future perfect tense. What does it mean when one speaks in a figurative sense of What if … or Future II narratives, when the subjunctive and future perfect do not serve as a grammatical tense but as an implicit narrative motor and modality? This question leads us into a realm where the futurum exactum has a similar function but is again implemented quite differently: into the realm of feminist speculation.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s thought experiment in novel form, begins neither with What if … nor It will have been … It begins with a note from the narrator to the reader, which negates any possible It will have been … manner of reading from the very start: “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”12 The narrator emphasizes that his scientifically faithful report as an envoy is, in any case, also a story from a certain—namely his—perspective. In keeping with this notice, Naomie Gramlich draws a connection in the introduction to her compilation Feministisches Spekulieren [Feminist Speculating] between writing in future perfect and a critique of knowledge and scientific production:

The hypothesis is that long before the speculative turn, thinking in Future II and the visionary conception of other pasts, presents, and futures were constitutive components of feminist, post- and decolonial theories as well as gender and queer studies. Their protagonists and allies in art, theory, literature, and music share a fundamental distrust of traditional truth and knowledge systems of the Global North and question their alleged true and natural assumptions at their fictional and narrative core.13

To identify that stories and storytelling also reside in the basic assumptions, apparatuses, and structures of science—one of the central achievements of feminist theory—means to become aware of their power, too: “Feminist speculating,” Gramlich continues, “takes the reality-constituting power and meaning of fictions and narratives seriously and appropriates them by means of reconfiguration.”14 Karin Harrasser also explores this power of fiction and notes that it really steps up by thinking in Future II. Citing Isabelle Stengers, she advocates “speculations against the probable”. While stock market speculations or futuristic statistics bet on the probable and thereby aim to narrow the future funnel of possibilities, this form of speculation seeks to expand the funnel of possible futures.

Speculation, in this sense, is not about the extrapolation of the present or betting on probable processes; it has to do with a retroactive allegiance, an operation in Future II: Speculative thinking has to measure up with the possibilities that it will have brought into being.15

So it is about an “operation in Future II”, albeit one that resists the catastrophism that seems to be inherent to this tense. “Speculations against the probable” are a way of thinking with an open future and accompany ethical and political claims:

It is much more complicated when we realize that the future, even though it sometimes might not occur to us, is always open. […] For me, thinking with an open future also means: It is a stream of thought branching out in many directions. For example, if I project into the future—we will continue to pollute the rivers—then a likely future is that this river will die. But if you say that the bet is on the unlikely future, namely that the river won’t die, then it gets complicated because you are getting into these repercussions of possible branch points. Then you can ask: So what is possible now? A law reform? Do we have to ban river traffic? These are all very small-scale political solutions, which in turn have small-scale repercussions for concrete next steps.16

Paradoxically, Future II, the most final tense of all (“Even the anterior past / didn’t sound half so / past.”), becomes here the marker of a radically open future. At the same time, it remains—unlike the Once upon a time … narrative mode, which often leads to fairytale parallel worlds—linked with the present. What is determines what will have been. This more utopian, positive future perfect (the river will not have died) is, just like its catastrophic form, of particular urgency. “Instructed in this sf mode, perhaps human people and earth others,” writes Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, “can avert inexorable disaster and plant the conceivable germ of possibility for multispecies, multiplacetime recuperation before it is too late.”17 However, this urgency—to stop the unstoppable—is motivated by a prospect of a better world rather than the fear of an impending end. “We prefer our science fiction to be a bit more utopic,” writes Haraway with serious irony and provides an example: “maybe like Woman on the Edge of Time.”18

One or the Other Future
Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), a novel by Marge Piercy, is deemed both a feminist utopia and a feminist dystopia. In the novel two women from different eras are connected: Luciente from 2137 and Consuelo/Connie Ramos from 1976. It is a future perfect narrative insofar as Connie gets to see a distant future of the USA and ponders how her present could end up in that future. Luciente’s world is characterized by a much more just and ecological society. Also, the way Connie learns about the principles of this society is strongly based on the narrative of the classic utopia. The visitor from the past finds it difficult to shake off the prejudices and norms of her time: “‘So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding.’ ‘Three! That makes no sense! Three mothers!’”19 In turn, the hosts in the future are astounded by the barbaric lifestyles of the past. For instance, asked about waste management, Luciente says: “Thrown away where? The world is round.”20 This utopian future, however, is contrasted with another future that Connie only enters once and unintentionally. In this dystopian cyberpunk future she ends up in the apartment of Gildina 547-921-45-822-KBJ, who hangs out drugged in a virtual entertainment reality, waiting for a man who treats her like a possession. She seems to be happy to have snagged a multi-year contract with someone. Society is divided (“the great split”)—the rich have long since moved on to space colonies, and on Earth the air is getting thick: “But you can’t see down or any farther. How could you? It’s thick. It’s air. How could you see through air?”21 But also in her own present, in the US America of the 1970s, the life of the Chicana woman Consuelo is a nightmare. She is suppressed, patronized, and deprived of freedom by capitalist, racist, and patriarchal structures. She is held in an asylum, treated against her will with medication and surgically, too, in the end. Now, however, she cannot escape into the future, as usual in other such time travel stories. What she can do, and ultimately does do, is fight for the one future and against the other. In this sense, Woman on the Edge of Time is a novel that schools in “staying with the trouble” as Donna Haraway repeatedly upholds. Quoting certain characters and passages from the novel, she writes:

As we transform the foundations of our lives, we will know how to build natural sciences to underpin new relations with the world. We, like Dawn in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, want to fly into nature, as well as into the past, to make it come out all right. But the sciences are collective expressions and cannot be remade individually. Like Luciente and Hawk, in the same novel, feminists have been clear that “Nobody can make things come out right”; that “It isn’t bad to want to help, to want to work to seize history … but to want to do it alone is less good. To hand history to someone like a cake you baked”.22

History and stories cannot be handed over like cake, rather—following Haraway’s mindset—it is more like playing games of string figures: It is “about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works.”23 It is a classic time travel convention, that someone goes back in time and radically changes the future by manipulating (often only slightly) the course of history. Marge Piercy’s novel, in turn, underlines that even though social and systemic change are never the result of individual actions alone, every individual action matters. Games of string figures are passed down through generations and by a multitude of human and more-than-human players. Precisely this insight is conveyed by the SF novel The Future of Another Timeline (2019) by Annalee Newitz. Here it is mysterious stone formations, entrances and interfaces to wormholes, which allow one to travel back in time. In the end, it results in a “heavily edited timelime”.24 People go back in time to make an “edit” on the timeline, that is, to introduce a change so pronounced that it is tangible in the future. In contrast to Back to the Future and the like, this turns out to be an extremely difficult undertaking. Applied geology, which is responsible for time travel research in the story, had ascertained: “Centuries of scientific inquiry suggested that it was extremely difficult for one person to alter the timeline in all but the most superficial ways.“25 The “Great Man Theory”—that the course of history is largely dependent on individual persons, especially Great Men—gets complicated: “After killing the nineteenth-century tyrant Emmanuel, travelers were frustrated to find that Napoleon laid waste to Europe instead.”26

The Future of Another Timeline tells of how two fractions oppose each other in an “edit war”: A community of women scholars called “The Daughters of Harriet” (after Harriet Tubman) goes back in time to start emancipatory movements. They meet regularly to find out how the timeline is developing because only the time travelers who are present at a particular switch point know both realities, the old and the new future: “‘I remember abortion being legal in the United States.’ […] There were a couple murmurs of ‘me too.’ […] I wasn’t one of them. Like nearly everyone on the planet, I had no memories of legal abortion in the United States.”27 On the other side are reactionary chauvinists who manipulate past events to nip historically won rights for women and LGBTQIA+ persons in the bud—they will not have happened. The Future II perspective that the novel unfolds aims to expand the future funnel of possibilities as opposed to narrowing it. The future appears to be malleable and mutable, but not just because of the technological possibility to change the past. “I’ve made a resolution to … to try to change the timeline for the better. Even though nobody knows how history works,” says Beth at the end of the novel, whereby her intention is to shape her timeline for the better not through time travel but through political work in the present. In a similar fashion, Connie in Woman on the Edge of Time realizes after her visit to the dystopian future: “So that was the other world that might come to be. That was Luciente’s war, and she was enlisted in it.”28 Connie’s role in this war is set not in the future but in her present, in her everyday life.

Saved from Perfection
Woman on the Edge of Time is a SF story that has accompanied Donna Haraway for a longer time. Already in her writings in the 1970s, the novel is present. In Primate Visions (1989) she consults it to formulate a biting critique of the culture surrounding National Geographic:

As in the National Geographic world, the “past” is the contested zone in Woman on the Edge of Time. The “past” is the time of origins, when possibilities are set. But the past of the possible future in Piercy’s novel is the actual present for Connie, site of her struggles in the mental hospital, and by extension the historical struggles of all oppressed people, embodied in the “crazy” brown woman confined and subjected by “science.”29

Once again, the future perfect time loop is applied to actuate both fatalistically fixed futures and seemingly fixed pasts. It becomes apparent that the writing of history also implies a writing of stories. (Feminist) SF is here, too, a learning and practicing of possibilities, whereby its task is not just to introduce more or less desirable scenarios but to create characters and worlds (keyword plasticity) that stimulate the reader to contemplate things on a personal as well as on a social and structural level. Haraway describes it less as a reading experience than as an attitude: “I am interested in feminist sf that proposes and tests worlds so as to render readers more attuned to difference, to possibilities, to other ways of living and dying not trapped in the endless cyclopean war story from above.”30 In Carrier Bags for Critical Zones she writes a public letter to Bruno Latour in an effort to convince him of the value of speculative literature. And here, too, she elaborates on Marge Piercy’s SF, stressing how the visions of the future in Woman on the Edge of Time, per Future II, demonstrate urgency in the present: “Piercy’s story proposes that from the future, the past, which is our present, is the contested zone.”31

These passages and references are insightful for reading Marge Piercy; but Haraway’s in-depth and enduring engagement with certain science fictions also provides valuable clues about how to think and act productively with SF, speculative fabulations, and feminist speculations. How, for example, a narrative in the future perfect can inspire as well as deter in a multilayered way; how criticism, diagnosis, and reverie can be cultivated together on one level; how not everything has to be pigeonholed from the outset; how to actuate an “interplay of negativistic-destructive and affirmative-constructive world references and practices”,32 as Katharina Hoppe formulated in Die Kraft der Revision [The Power of Revision]. There is no formula to this end, but there are choreographies and exercises. “The speculative, for Haraway, is not a telos that will come to pass or to aim for.”33 Rather, speculation is a form of exercise.

Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity.34

Erich Fried’s lyrical I tries to get used to the uncanniness of anterior future by reciting it loudly over and over again. Hans Jonas and Günther Anders use Future II for conjuring particularly chilling, catastrophic scenarios. The exercises of feminist speculation train the step-by-step construction of better worlds. Future perfect as a tense and a mode of thinking is ultimately called upon to save the future from its perfection. (“If these bastards succeeded, they would destroy time travel, locking us into one version of history forever.”35) Something is called perfect when it has been completed, but also when it is flawless and unsurpassable. Clearly, these two meanings are closely related—there are no doubts about the completed; it is finished because it is incorrigible—and in the classical form of utopia they coincide in an interesting way. As a perfect socio-political-bureaucratic system from a single mold, which precludes any revision because, by definition, it requires no improvement, utopia has earned itself a bad reputation. Systems that claimed to be perfect were rigid and totalitarian. When the concept of utopia is adhered to today, it is always coupled with a renegotiation of the term. Utopia is set in plural and becomes a playground: “Utopias are exercises in joined-up thinking. They are not generated as blueprints, but rather as provisional hypotheses for debate and judgment.”36 Like Ruth Levitas, Tom Moylan identifies a new phase of utopianism beginning in the 1960s. He speaks of a “critical” utopia or dystopia: “[…] destroying the traditional utopia and yet preserving it in a transformed and liberated form that was critical both of utopian writing itself and of the prevailing social formation.”37 This form of utopianizing is closely related to (feminist) SF—Moylan, too, refers extensively to Woman on the Edge of Time in this context.38

Similar to how future perfect dynamizes the notions of the future and the past, it also seems to be helpful in keeping notions of a good life in motion. The speculative exercises of a future (never) -perfect train the fabulators to dribble from the general to the concrete and back again, to let the big success be interrupted by small successions, to assume other positions and stay awake, and sometimes to also jump to particularly desirable futures, but in any case, to use the present as a springboard to do so.

Julia Grillmayr (b. 1987 in Austria) lives and works in Linz and Vienna.

Published in
Gudrun Ratzinger and Franz Thalmair (Eds.): Kunstraum Lakeside — Vollendete Zukunft | Future Perfect, Verlag für moderne Kunst: Vienna, 2022.

1 Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, trans. Jonas and David Herr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 26–27.
2 Günther Anders, Endzeit und Zeitenende. Gedanken über die atomare Situation (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1972), 98. Translated for this publication.
3 Anders, Endzeit und Zeitenende, 6.
4 Eva Horn, The Future as Catastrophe. Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age, trans. Valentine Pakis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 4.
5 Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction. The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 203.
6 Ursula K. Heise, “Science Fiction and the Time Scales of the Anthropocene,” ELH 86, no. 2 (2019): 275–304, here 301.
7 Jonas, 30.
8 Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2002 [1956]), 273–274. Translated for this publication.
9 Science Fiction als Kunst- und Denkmaschine [Science Fiction as a Machine of Art and Thinking] is the subtitle of Dietmar Dath’s Niegeschichte (2019), a comprehensive study about the specific knowledge forms of the genre.
10 The relationship between SF narratives and thought experiments and, in particular, futurological scenario techniques is the focus of my research project Science Fiction, Fact & Forecast at the University of Art and Design Linz (with the support of a Hertha Firnberg Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund FWF). Cf.
11 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Books, 1969), Ebook, unpaginated, Introduction.
12 Le Guin.
13 Naomie Gramlich, “Feministisches Spekulieren. Einigen Pfaden folgen,” in Feministisches Spekulieren, eds. Marie-Luise Angerer and Naomie Gramlich (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2020), 9. Translated for this publication.
14 Gramlich.
15 Karin Harrasser, “As reality creates itself, unforeseeable and new, its image reflects behind it into the indefinite past,” trans. Peter Blakeney and Christine Schöffler, in Kunstraum Lakeside – Research, ed. Franz Thalmair (Vienna: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2019), 17.
16 Karin Harrasser in the interview “Das Spekulative Zeitalter” [The Speculative Age] with an Ö1 radio station colleague (concept: Julia Grillmayr), broadcasted on September 6, 2021, at 9:05 am, minutes 7:35–8:29. Translated for this publication.
17 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 213. Haraway refers here to Joshua LaBare, who doesn’t see SF as a genre, rather “a mode of attention, a theory of history, and a practice of worlding.” Ibid.
18 Donna J. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 186.
19 Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (London: Penguin, 2020 [1976]), Ebook, unpaginated, chapter 5.
20 Piercy, chapter 12.
21 Piercy, chapter 15.
22 Donna J. Haraway, “Animal Sociology and a Natural Economy of the Body Politic: A Political Physiology of Dominance,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 19–20.
23 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 10.
24 Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline (London: Orbit, 2019), Ebook, unpaginated, chapter 3.
25 Newitz.
26 Newitz.
27 Newitz.
28 Piercy, chapter 15.
29 Donna J. Haraway, Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 2010 [1989]), 402, fn 16.
30 Donna J. Haraway, “Carrier Bags for Critical Zones,” in Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020), 440–445, here 440.
31 Haraway, “Carrier Bags for Critical Zones,” 441.
32 Katharina Hoppe, Die Kraft der Revision. Epistemologie, Politik und Ethik bei Donna Haraway (Frankfurt a. M.: Campus, 2021), 404. Translated for this publication.
33 Hoppe, 167. See also: Julia Grillmayr, “Ein revisionärer Realismus,” a review of Die Kraft der Revision by Katharina Hoppe, Soziopolis, Dec. 14, 2021,
34 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 29.
35 Newitz, chapter 2.
36 Ruth Levitas, “Utopia Matters?” in Utopia Matters. Theory, Politics, Literature, and the Arts, eds. Fátima Vieira and Marinela Freitas (Porto: Editora da Universidade do Porto, 2005), 41–45, here: 44.
37 Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible. Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, ed. Raffaella Baccolini (Oxford/Bern/Berlin: Peter Lang, 2014), 41–42.
38 Cf. Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky. Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000). Demand the Impossible devotes a complete chapter to the novel.