How a Simple Question Can Change Your View of the Future

What's next?

I spent this summer’s graduation congratulating my now-former students on their success, wishing them well, asking what lay ahead: What are your plans? What are you up to? What’s next? My questions were met with startled eyes, evasive digressions or meticulous planning. I was only making polite conversation, but I was asking about the future, their future, and that is as terrifying as it is thrilling, to be either avoided or tightly harnessed. I was raising the question of how the past relates to the future, and how we shape that relation in the present.

The following evening I sat on a panel discussing the enduring appeal of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998), a historical novel set in Victorian London. We debated how historical fiction speaks to our society today—to its own future, so to speak. Perhaps the most compelling question from the floor asked what we thought the main protagonist’s life might look like after the narrative of the novel ends: What happens to Nan Astley? Does she stay with Florence? Does her music hall career take off? Does she join the suffragettes? What’s next? There was that question again, an invitation to speculate, to imagine the future of an imagined life. The question from the floor was compelling because it was astonishingly difficult to answer. I didn’t know what Nan’s world might hold in store for her, but I have been wondering since.

The philosophical tradition of Idealism argues that it is important to look at the past because it reminds us that things change, and that it is only through remembering historical change that we can imagine future change. This is one of the reasons historical fiction speaks to its present moment. The driving force behind my question to the graduates, the person at the panel, and the Idealists is curiosity. What’s next? is a question that both invites speculation on the future and makes it possible to imagine one, drawing our attention to the intricate connections between states of time—imagined and real. So as my own birthday draws to a close this evening, I turn the question on myself: What’s next? In this context, as in the others, the question proves astonishingly difficult to answer.

This essay is part of a series written by female academics from Europe and the Middle East. After completing the same doctoral program at the University of Manchester in England, their lives took significantly different turns. Their thoughtful reflections on the future offer deep and varied insights into personal, professional and global matters. Edited by Irene Huhulea.

“Future: Musings” was published in the Future issue in Fall 2015.