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Does Earth have a Future?

Andrew Love is an engineer working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he also runs a science fiction club. He also enjoys giving talks about science at science fiction conventions. This is his first professional fiction sale and he is working on several other stories.

I'll start by being blunt--the answer is no. The shared background for fiction called "Earth" is exhausted. All the good ideas and far too many of the bad ones have used up all the originality that the concept once had, and I see no hope for anyone to write a new story on "Earth" that is both good and genuinely original. If authors and readers face up to this, we can take literature into new and more productive areas; if not, we're doomed to tedious rehashings of scandals, wars, and ever-more-ghastly crimes.
It's worthwhile to look at how we got "Earth" in the first place. It's unclear who first invented the idea of "Earth" as a common background for authors to place their stories in; some argue for Samuel Richardson who wrote his Pamela in what we now recognize as the English "early modern" section of Earth, while others push for Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. It's certain, though, that these two authors did not originally see "England" and "Japan" as being in the same world, but by the time of Austen, the Earth-genre novel was well-established and hugely popular, and the subgenre of "history" had begun to create the connections between various novels in faux-omniscient style. Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was an early foundational work in this area, connecting many other novels into the wider world we now call "Earth"--though even Decline did not manage to connect "Japan" and "England."
Austen's innovation of referring to other novels in her text led to massive fan enthusiasm; fitting the pieces together became a game that anyone could play. To this day, there are still "newspapers" that provide daily "flash fiction" about Earth life, though there are many fewer than there once were. This is another indication that Earth is played out--even garish newspaper stories about terrorist attacks and celebrity gossip aren't creating demands for that niche. Topics that might open up the shared world, like space projects, are attracting relatively little attention, as evidenced by the fact that no one future for "Earth" has been settled on by the writing (or reading) community. It's time to wrap the whole project up with some world-ending catastrophe (there are ample possibilities to draw from the many "What-If" stories written over the years) and do something else.
What kind of "something else" should authors move on to? Well, how about some realistic fiction about the concerns of our own world--like the recent book by Voynich, which has finally broken the taboo against telling stories of the real world. I hope to see many more works like this, telling the stories of long-neglected real people. We've outgrown "Earth," and it's time to admit it.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 14th, 2020

Author Comments

I had read a number of editorials about the impending doom of this or that subgenre, which led me to write this think-piece about a tired shared-universe that turns out to be our world. The basic concept came quickly. Thinking of an appropriate ending was more challenging.

- Andrew E. Love, Jr.
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