Imagining Rochester in 2034 and beyond

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Now that the period for community feedback on the city’s draft 15-year-plan, “Rochester 2034,” has ended, Rochesterians might turn to the similarly titled “2034: Writing Rochester’s Futures.” 

An anthology published in 2009 by the Rochester Speculative Literature Association, the book offers entertaining, thought-provoking, and sometimes unnerving reading as we move closer to the city’s bicentennial. It underlines the value of fiction—including nonrealistic fiction—as a method for mapping out visions of the future and anticipating the consequences of those designs.

Design by Alan Vincent Michaels 

R-SPEC was established as a nonprofit organization in 2008. The purpose is “to promote and nurture Rochester-area fantasy, science fiction and horror fiction,” says Ted Wenskus, the group’s president.

Speculative literature encompasses those three wide genres with a helpful efficiency. 

“Let’s face it,” Wenskus says, “it is much shorter phrasing.” 

R-SPEC holds monthly meetings that include presentations, opportunities to share writings and feedback, and workshops on topics ranging from character development, to creating fantasy worlds, to writing cover letters for submitted works.

Speculative fiction is not just a catch-all term. In his foreword to “2034,” R-SPEC’s founder, Jonathan Sherwood, describes it as “a type of fiction that uses unrealistic elements to explore very real issues of the human condition.” 

Adds Wenskus: “Using stories of the far-flung future, alternate realities, or modern urban fantasy … to delve deeper into contemporary issues of society and the human condition is at the very core of speculative fiction.” 

Writers use different strategies to explore these complexities. 

Design by David Pascal

“Some writers take a very serious, literary approach. Some view these issues through a comedic/satirical lens,” Wenskus says.

This variety is apparent in speculative series on TV: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Westworld,” “Black Mirror,” and “The Good Place,” to name a few. It is also evident in “2034.” 

With different viewpoints, styles, and experience levels, contributors to the anthology—“local scientists, professors, business owners, doctors, playwrights and artists,” Sherwood says—have all fixed their gaze on Rochester. 

High-tech world

The story “GeneLove,” by award-winning writer Nancy Kress, opens the anthology. It incorporates Rochester in perhaps the most organic, multifaceted way: The first-person narrator, CeeCee, runs a matchmaking service that has sprung out of University of Rochester Medical Center research on sexual attraction and genetic disorders. 

When a couple sues GeneLove, believing the company is responsible for their child’s autism, CeeCee delves into genomic research. She consults the vast genetic records held by the Mormon Church, which by 2034 has moved its headquarters to Rochester (and close to Palmyra) due to the scarcity of natural resources in Utah. “GeneLove” imagines Kodak reemerging as a powerhouse in the virtual-reality sector in time for the bicentennial, and it deftly weaves in a ghostly element, best left a surprise, connected to Rochester history.

Other authors imagine what workers’ lives will be like in a high-tech, resource-scarce future. In “Interesting Times,” for example, Eric Scoles presents a Rochester dominated by pushy “bots” and the competitive “virch” (VR) industry. L.S. Gathmann’s “Want Not” shows a grandmother’s drastic method of conserving resources for a younger generation that faces exhausting schedules and an ever-higher cost of education. Craig DeLancey’s “One City at a Time,” which addresses water pollution in Lake Ontario, celebrates youthful innovation and the value of having space and time to invent creative solutions.

Several stories refer to the “Fast Ferry,” which is probably less on writers’ minds today (though we can speculate about what new endeavor will take its place). Some stories were less to my taste—I don’t have much patience for macho narrators these days, for one thing. But that’s to be expected with an anthology, where some stories will resonate more than others. I suggest diving in and jumping around; an easy place to begin is the excerpts on R-SPEC’s website

Checking out “2034” or R-SPEC’s second anthology, “Rochester Rewritten: Rochester in the Alternative”(2013), may inspire readers to fill in gaps with stories of their own—portraying experiences and perspectives that have not yet been represented. Both anthologies can be purchased from R-SPEC or as e-books, and “2034” is available through the Monroe County Public Library. Wenskus, who also serves as editor-in-chief of R-SPEC Press, says the group is starting to think about its next book. 

Science-fiction writers tracking developments in science and engineering can draw inspiration from Rochester’s rich participation in those fields. A recent R-SPEC meeting highlighted the interdependence of science and sci-fi—an influence that works in both directions. Frank Glover, an R-SPEC member who says he has been a “space buff” since the Mercury program, presented a third installment of “The Future of Manned Space Exploration.” Glover, who is writing a novel in the space-opera subgenre, described spacecraft like the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon. Looking at images of real designs, the group noted how these sometimes echo science fiction—whether aesthetically or allusively (e.g., a crash-test dummy called Mannequin Skywalker). 

Rooted in Rochester

While looking skyward, R-SPEC is rooted in Rochester—building connections with other local organizations and artists. It has a longstanding relationship with Writers & Books and has contributed to the Rochester Reads program, teaming up with local actors to present staged readings. With actors and musicians, R-SPEC has created a podcast called “Disturbing Frequencies.”  Its audio productions, which range from haunting tales to comic plays, have been recognized by the national HEAR Now audio festival. 

Design by Alan Vincent Michaels

For the Strong National Museum of Play’s “In Another Galaxy” event in 2017, R-SPEC provided “a table where kids could hear how their voices sounded as a robot or space demon,” Wenskus says. The group also is looking ahead to the local Astronomicon in 2021 and participates regularly in Flower City Comic Con.

Science-fiction and fantasy conventions may seem a far cry from the pressing concerns of Rochester citizens. We may be reluctant to see fiction as a tool for change, associating it instead with escapism. There’s certainly reason to be careful: fiction can entice us away from our obligations. But stories, including ones with magical elements, can also be good at reminding us of our responsibilities to each other and the repercussions of selfishness and inequality. Speculative fiction—which in its breadth and unflinching examination of past, present, and future has been employed by such Nobel-prize-winning authors as Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro—can trigger serious reflection and demand that we chart an ethical course.

Asked how speculative fiction can contribute to dialogue about Rochester’s present and future, Wenskus says it “allows us to imagine the future we want and consider ways to work toward it—or make us more aware of futures we wish to avoid. It’s a sandbox for extrapolating ideas or potential solutions to contemporary problems. 

“Speculative fiction writers ask us to imagine a world different from the one we live in,” he adds. “They ask: ‘What if?’—and each what-if creates a springboard for discussion on the subject of the story—whether about potential conflict over our region’s fresh water or what might come out of … mergers of some of the city’s top tech companies. It is a very powerful form of literature that, at its best, can help enact actual change today.”

By reading stories about Rochester that ask “what if?” and by creating and sharing our own—about our schools, housing, economy, transportation—we can generate ideas that work alongside the city’s essential research and strategic planning, enriching our discussions about the future.

Esther Arnold is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

One thought on “Imagining Rochester in 2034 and beyond

  1. The first thing that came to mind when reading your article was the social problem/protest novels which, similar to speculative fiction, served to make a writer’s audience understand, accept or support an author’s opinion on a particular topic. The “Want Not” story in particular reminded me of the social novel Oliver Twist, as well as other proletarian literature, in that the story highlights the very real and occurring issue of the younger generations who cannot cultivate various resources due to the obligations of exhausting schedules and education costs that keep them from exploring other passions/pursuits.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed reading the various short stories and poems in Rochester: 2034. Rory Gillett’s line, “The lilacs didn’t bloom/as if to spite/those who exploit them/ the flower city,” painted a vivid picture in my mind without weigh down his message with needless words. And they came from a senior in High School. I also was delighted to learn about the term “Literary Engineer.” The thought of an RIT professor who specializes in aerospace engineering committing to writing about Rochester in his spare time delights me.

    At first I was thought that these writers were using Rochester as a backdrop for their speculative fiction and that these stories could happen anywhere. But after going through the catalog of stories written by the people of Rochester and seeing how meticulously a lot of these writers tailor their stories to specifically highlight Rochester and its culture/community, shows me how invested these people are in the long term outcomes of the city and the specific problems and boons that lie therein. This type of speculative fiction seems like a form of accessible activism to me. It’s like you said, speculative fiction is “a tool for change,” making the broader public aware of what changes should (and should not) be considered for the happiness and well being of those in the future.

    Have you ever watched a Lindasay Ellis video? I don’t know if you would like her or not, but she has done some (imho) phenomenal literary video essays on various topics, including how certain movies mirror social problems occurring real life and what that says (or is supposed to say) about the current state of humanity. One of my favorites is one where she contrasts Independence Day and War of the Worlds. Independence Day is seen as a feel-good movie occurring in Pre-9/11, with people banding together in the wake of tragedy and destruction. While Ware of the Worlds is a post-9/11 movie looking at human interactions with a more pessimistic view, due to the audience having first hand experience of what it’s like to live through terror and destruction.

    I wonder why it’s easier for people (including myself) to see these real life issues played out through fictional lenses? I have theories of course, some of which you touched upon, such as escapism. Maybe it also has something to do with fear? Of course, these writers in Rochester:2034 are writing on a much smaller scale compared to the dystopian novels about whole worlds and solar systems, which also have elements of speculative fiction.
    Your comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld and The Good Place made me think of the ways in which we see the numerous possible futures that lie ahead of humanity and how we address them in literature. The Handmaid’s Tale is a rather dark and fairly realistic portrayal of future events, as it keeps mostly within the same technological restraints as we have or will have in the present and near future. Westworld’s dark, sci-fi portrayal is also playing more on the “making us aware of future’s we want to avoid” side of things. The Good Place stands out in this trio, as it is the only one that focuses on the issues of the human condition with a happy and vibrant lens.
    I really enjoyed being introduced to your writing style and content. I look forward to reading more in the future. This was a fun read that also let me know about a sub-culture of Rochester that I didn’t know about before. I learn something new everyday.

    Thanks Esther.

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