2036: A Space Odyssey

In the twenty years since 2016, the world had undergone momentous change. By 2036, it was easy to see how and why things had altered, but two decades earlier, in ‘the first year of Brexit’, the future world had appeared unclear and, most commentators agreed, difficult to anticipate.

Some analysts had predicted, for example, the break-up or fragmentation of the United Kingdom, and so few were surprised when in a referendum – Indyref 2 – the Scottish nation had pulled away from rest of the UK. Harder to anticipate, of course, was Scotland’s membership of the recently formed Nordic Federation, generally referred to as ‘Nordopia’.

The European Union continued to exist, but was slimmer. The Netherlands departure from the EU in 2025 and the subsequent dissolution of Belgium had been fractious at a political level, but most folks just seemed to get on with their everyday lives. Moving the European Parliament to Germany was, in most people’s opinion, an obvious decision, and the EU was now, metonymically speaking, referred to as ‘Berlin’.

And what of England (and for that matter Wales – European football champions of 2032 – and Northern Ireland), the original catalyst for much subsequent change?

Well, although there remained rumblings of ‘London going it alone’, it was widely argued that the UK – or what remained of it – had flourished since the Brexit decision all those years ago. Money previously channeled to the EU had been invested in new hospitals and housing, and the education system had become the envy of the world, far eclipsing Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai. The nationwide adoption of the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme was, it was often said, the turning point in the nation’s educational fortunes. And, with the ‘oil issue’ in the North Sea still unresolved, the UK would, some time around 2050 it was claimed, have a budget surplus not dissimilar to Norway’s.

With money flowing through the nation like never before, a range of spectacular – cynics would sometimes say ‘narcissistic’ – projects had been developed. Amongst the more surprising, and certainly the most costly, was the British Space Station (BSS) with its headquarters sited in Rochdale.

And this, in a sense, is where we pick-up the story. Only a few years earlier – in 2033 to be specific – at a G20 cocktail party, the ageing and increasingly corpulent British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson had mooted the idea of launching an unmanned spacecraft into outer space, carrying with it, as Boris himself had said ‘all that is good about humanity’. It was hoped that, one day perhaps, the spacecraft would be intercepted by aliens who would have the opportunity to learn something about planet Earth and its inhabitants.

Some onlookers at the G20 cocktail party had remarked that Boris was particularly animated on the subject of which literary works to send into the universe. He was keen, it was said, that the ship should contain ‘at least some Kipling’ since he had 'rather enjoyed him as a wee lad at Eton’. The Russian President suggested ‘as a minimum, Chekov, Tolstoy, Nabokov and – why not? – Gogol’. The American President argued for Mark Twain, Hemingway and, perhaps because he was rather liberal, Toni Morrison. The French President scoffed at the list of ‘intellectual lightweights’ and pointedly claimed that French writers, including Proust, Camus, and Flaubert, wrote in a way that, better than anyone else, fully revealed the human condition.

Fast-forwarding to the autumn of 2036, as you now know, the rocket ship 'CIVILIZATION' – jointly funded by the UK, Russia, the US, France, India, and Canada – currently stands dwarfing the landscape around Rochdale, and the launch date is fast approaching. Whilst the launch of the rocket is, most agree, a tremendous political success for PM Johnson, the issue of what literature to include onboard remains unresolved, and has given rise to some international tension (causing, you will recall, both China and Japan to withdraw their funding for the project at an early stage).

This, quite obviously, is where you come in. Sitting in an office in Ramsbottom, a village not far from Rochdale, you have a very important decision to make.

Your Task:

Choose three literary works that, collectively and better than any others, best reveal an understanding of human civilization. Work with a committee. In your committee you must (i) develop a list of criteria; (ii) select three literary works based on the criteria; (iii) write a one-page report to the leaders of the world explaining your choices.

For teachers: 

This task is rather challenging. You may want to modify it in a number of ways. For example, you may wish to substitute ‘three works’ for ‘three poems’, or ‘three American novels’, or ‘three works of Young Adult Fiction’. Maybe, too, you can reduce the complexity of the task, substituting ‘an understanding of human civilization’ for something such as ‘most exciting’, ‘most suspenseful’ or ‘most romantic’. 

You may like to give committee members different roles. For example, giving roles such as ‘the British representative’, ‘the French representative’ etc. brings ideas of context, culture, and bias to the fore. Alternatively, assigning roles such as ‘the novel representative’, ‘the poetry representative’, ‘the drama representative’ would provide a different slant on this.

Why would you do this activity?

Not least, it gets students talking about books and what they have enjoyed reading. Also, activities like this highlight the role of a priori preconceptions in expressing a perspective; the role of the reader, an important context of reception, is stressed. Students develop an appreciation that, given the open-ended nature of this task, others with their differences may also be right, or may also be wrong. Thus, the idea of a plurality of perspectives is central to the activity. The activity encourages collaboration, and writing a one-page report demands that students summarise and compress complex ideas. The activity may work as starting-point for other lessons such as What is this thing called literature? Finally, there are clear links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK). If the activity does not lend itself to every TOK question on page 7 of the current course study guide (see the OCC), it has relevance to most. And, of course, literature is only one art form amongst many. An activity life this, can precipitate a number of possible knowledge questions such as, is the aesthetic value of literature purely a subjective matter; or, is it possible that aesthetic value is at its base something universal – a fact about human beings?

You may prefer to introduce this activity without the long preamble above; that’s not a problem, Anticipating the future is, in any case, never straightforward, and I won’t be betting my house on the probability that anything written here might actually happen.

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