Louise Erdrich’s Future Faith

Between nuclear-button-measuring contests that have our collective doomsday clocks perpetually set to midnight and legislative coups d’état that have ...

Between nuclear-button-measuring contests that have our collective doomsday clocks perpetually set to midnight and legislative coups d’état that have stripped fundamental rights and protections from everyone but those making the decisions, it’s little wonder our nightstands and best-seller lists are bursting with dystopia and apocalypse. At its finest, contemporary near-future science fiction is reparative.1 It offers the opportunity to see our current trials in an energizing new light, to recognize the insidious infiltration of new and unacceptable definitions of “normal” into our everyday lives, and to use the conviction they inspire to fuel persistence and resistance at a time when these forms of engagement demand enormous emotional stamina. At its worst, however, contemporary near-future science fiction is a doubly dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing, presenting itself as a form of activism while functioning as just another vector conveying those new norms and snuffing out what little fighting flame still burns.

The latter kind of fiction—call it “depressive dystopianism”—often valorizes the motifs of tragedy and inevitability that we too often and too hastily equate with art’s highest aspirations. For over a decade, novel after novel has presented a disintegrating future circling the cosmic drain in which the protagonists’ only chance at development or redemption involves nobly resigning themselves to a species-wide extinction they can’t avert, only witness.2 Who, after all, in the dire circumstances outlined by Karen Thompson Walker, Chang-rae Lee, and Emily St. John Mandel, would be caught dead hoping, dreaming, and working for a future, only to be labeled escapist, delusional, or naive?3

In the depressive dystopian tradition, the science-fictional elements of our everyday lives—everything from sudden leaps in technology to the environment turning against us—are nothing more than harbingers and catalysts of encompassing doom, and it’s all we can do to fondly remember a time before these elements arrived to seal our fate. If this branch of literature focused on the near future has a thesis, it’s that there is no future. The sooner we accept that and let the present proceed unchecked while we daydream about the past, the better and more noble our exit from this world will eventually be.

The reparative branch of near-future literature, in contrast, is a hybrid of two genres: high-culture dystopia, which emphasizes the tragic, tempered by mainstream science fiction’s native optimism about the future. YA dystopias such as The Hunger Games, for example, represent one result of grafting dystopia onto mainstream sci-fi. In these books, supposedly average teens use taboo, “unnatural” forms of power to singlehandedly topple corrupt governments. Applied to the sober elements of a grim view of the near future, the teen protagonist’s chipper “can-do” attitude dilutes dystopian melancholy and reintroduces the possibility that we as a species might still have a future.

Granted, the calculating MacGyverism characteristic of science fiction’s Golden Age—the conviction that any problem could be solved with emotionless empirical reasoning and a bit of elbow grease—has long since fallen out of fashion. But contemporary science fiction is willing at a basic level to consider the science-fictional elements of our lives as solutions to problems, not just sources of them. The result is a body of fiction that does not guarantee our future but makes space for a germ of hope that may well grow if we work tirelessly to cultivate it. In short, this near-future fiction asks us to live improbably and innovate unexpectedly rather than to die nobly.


A Handmaiden’s Tale

By Patricia White

Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is a celebration of reparative near-future fiction’s hallmarks: hybridity, uncertainty, and contradiction; science-fictional solutions; the power we wield to shape our narratives; the many forms and uses of optimism; and, above all, the growing need for faith and open-mindedness as we face unpredictability.

In Future Home’s world of tomorrow, evolution is seemingly running backward. Without warning, plants and animals begin reverting to earlier forms, from crops and farm animals producing less food to birds turning into giant omnivorous saurian predators. Characters debate the phenomenon’s direction. Between the gaps in the fossil record and the artificial neatness of the narrative derived from that record, baffled scientists admit life might also be “skip[ping] forward, sideways, in unforeseen directions.”

When reports of unusual newborns begin to surface and the human race discovers that their own next generation has been somehow affected, America’s already crumbling centralized government devolves quickly into a sinister totalitarian state. That state’s dystopian playbook includes capturing pregnant women, confining them to penitential “birthing centers,” confiscating what few babies survive in the name of scientific research, and forcibly re-impregnating many with stored sperm and embryos. The premise takes more than a few pages from that ever-popular reproductive rights nightmare, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a combination apocalypse/dystopia that hits all the usual notes—a sudden change, a ticking clock, unforgivable desperate measures, and the seemingly inevitable extinction of the human race as we know it.

In the chaos, few consider that this new generation—the newborn not-quite-humans whose existence sets off the hysteria—might be different, but not less, than human. One exception: protagonist and first-person narrator Cedar Hawk Songmaker, who, four months pregnant when the novel begins, is convinced that, whatever her baby is, it is “wondrous, a being of light, and I am not afraid.” Cedar’s willingness to accept the new and different nature of her child as potentially positive stems from the two characteristics that most define her: her unusual cross-cultural upbringing and her Catholic faith.

Cedar is the product of two sets of roots: the reservation-based Ojibwe family to whom she was born Mary Potts, and the white suburban Minneapolites who, committed to preserving Cedar’s connection to her heritage, raised her as Cedar Hawk Songmaker. Cedar is an active Catholic, her choice of religion originally an ironic teenage rebellion against the “uncomplicated love” and New Age positivity of her adoptive parents. Her adult faith is marked by a deep (if occasionally mocking) fascination with angels, saints, and obscure scripture, which she expresses through a self-produced Catholic zine, Zeal. Cedar’s combined identities produce what she herself, analyzing a text about the Virgin Mary for Zeal, calls “the romantic dissonance that occurs when one attempts to comprehend the unknowable. … For here I am, maybe a walking contradiction, maybe two species in one body … an insecure Ojibwe, a fledgling Catholic.”

Cedar, bolstered by her religion and by her birth family, embodies the novel’s dual commitments to faith in the future and action in the present.

Spurred to action by the impending end of civilization, Cedar spends Future Home’s early pages meeting her biological family for the first time. That sequence may initially strike readers expecting dystopia as beside the point. Eventually, however, the complex relationships she forms with her Ojibwe mother, Mary “Sweetie” Potts; her stepfather, Eddy; and other members of the Potts family help Cedar considerably as she navigates the apocalypse.

Take, for example, Cedar’s mother figures. Sweetie Potts, while far from the Indian maiden with twin braids Cedar’s upbringing has trained her to hope for, shares her Catholic faith. Sweetie is fascinated with Kateri Tekakwitha, Ojibwe Catholic patron saint of “all Native people … ecologists, … orphans, and … people ridiculed for their piety.” It’s at a tribal council meeting where Sweetie argues for the erection of a shrine to Kateri that Cedar first feels close to her biological mother. Others are skeptical of Kateri’s legitimacy, questioning reports of her local apparitions, mostly to gamblers at the nearby casino who’ve incurred large losses; Kateri rebukes them with sardonic comments such as “All of you are nothing but a bunch of idiots.”

Cedar, however, appreciates both Sweetie’s commitment and the apparent absurdity and hopelessness of the cause. Later in the novel, when Cedar’s conviction that her baby is different in a positive or neutral way strikes others as naive or delusional, the faith she shares with her birth mother in the patron saint’s protection of those “ridiculed for their piety” helps Cedar to maintain her beliefs.

Cedar’s adoptive mother, Sera Songmaker, begins the novel with a close relationship to her daughter that gradually deteriorates. Sera’s belief in the future is tentative and situational at best. Dissonance between them manifests early in the novel; when Sera hears news of evolution’s reversal, her first instinct is to eulogize the written word: “Dear god … there goes poetry, there goes literary fiction.” At first Cedar seems to take up Sera’s fear, worrying that “we are heading into a lightless future devoid of the written word.” But the very project of the novel betrays her lack of belief in this pessimistic prediction, since Cedar constructs it as a letter addressed directly to her gestating child.

Sera’s love of meditation is eventually revealed to be a form of escapism and performed optimism. Initially skeptical of the practice itself, Cedar also rejects Sera’s uses for it by literally flushing a “happy pill” that is tempting, but would only induce an artificial euphoria. As the novel progresses and Sera reveals herself to be a devoted mother but utterly incapable of considering Cedar’s child anything other than a threat to her daughter’s life and the survival of the human race, their relationship suffers separations and betrayals from which it cannot recover, yet Cedar holds fast to her faith in the future.


Louise Erdrich’s Hard Facts

By Phillip H. Round

Cedar’s adoptive father, Glen, is similarly ambivalent. He oscillates between arguing against Sera’s reactionary pessimism and accepting that the inevitable doom of the human race is “Mother Earth[’s]” sense of “justice.” This is in stark contrast to Eddy, Cedar’s stepfather, whose defining characteristic is his ongoing book project, a sophisticated daily record of reasons not to kill himself that helps him manage his depression. Upon hearing of Cedar’s pregnancy, Sera bursts into tears. Eddy, by contrast, includes the announcement as an entry in his book—what “should have been a reason to kill myself” instead proves to be “a positive emotion that breaks through the darkness of the veil … as though for a moment the curtain was ripped aside and the light shone lovingly in.” It’s also Eddy, an Ojibwe whose past failure to enact change in the reservation school system once pushed him to a nervous breakdown, who encourages Cedar to maintain faith that the future can be different—not necessarily perfect, not necessarily nightmarish, but different.

As a narrator and a protagonist, Cedar, bolstered by her religion and by her birth family, embodies Future Home’s dual commitments to faith in the future and action in the present. While the novel’s central premise—the apparent reversal of evolution—initially seems “a bitter triumph for secularism,” Cedar never loses sight of the phenomenon’s status as itself a divine miracle. She does not consider humanity’s salvation a matter of traditional scientific research; instead, she proposes that “there will be no true explanation” for evolution’s broken clock.

Erdrich’s novel suggests that only by believing in its manifested future—the new generation—will humanity ensure its long-term future; sacrificing this generation in pursuit of a scientific solution will foreclose it. Future Home’s denouement earns its comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale—an ambiguous reminiscence about the past and a turn toward the future that positions itself as a final test of faith for both Cedar and her reader. Left to sit with uncertainty, will we default to doubt and mourning? Or will we, unafraid to have piety derided as naiveté and belief derided as delusion, dare to imagine a future beyond the final page? As the latest entry in a string of deeply necessary science fiction novels painting near futures with some small chance of becoming far futures, Future Home of the Living God urges us refreshingly toward the latter.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. “Reparative” in Eve Sedgwick’s sense of the term—a form of reading and critique that offers an alternative to paranoid and suspicious protocols. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is About You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 1–39.
  2. For a primer on contemporary dystopia’s “radical pessimism,” see Jill Lepore, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” New Yorker, June 5, 2017.
  3. See, respectively, The Age of Miracles (Random House, 2012), On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead, 2014), Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014).
Featured image: Light, Architecture, Gardens (2015). Photograph by Lee Aik Soon / Unsplash