Hernan Diaz on Erasing Subjectivity

Editor’s Note: Read Hernan Diaz’s new short story “The Generation.”

“The Generation” is a new story by Hernan Diaz. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Diaz and Oliver Munday, the associate creative director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your story “The Generation” follows a 13-year-old in a grim future where the fate of humanity is in peril. The dystopian particulars are somewhat vague, which allows the narrator’s voice to anchor the story with idiosyncratic detail. How did this story emerge? And how did you decide how best to tell it?

Hernan Diaz: It took a long time to finish this story. I wanted to write something about technology set in the future but didn’t want any space slang, techno-tchotchkes, or the hackneyed grittiness of dystopian fiction. It helped to realize that “The Generation” was related to issues I find myself returning to over and over again. I often write about confinement and disorientation, which are essential in this story as well. I’m also interested in the dissonance between vastness and claustrophobia, and outer space offers a perfect setting for this. Still, it was challenging to find the right form. I love framed stories, and this device is, in a way, the formal manifestation of seclusion (a narrative encircled by a narrative). It was important, too, that this story be told by a young person who is being initiated into the true nature of the mission. This allowed me to present plot points in a less artificial way: We learn about the ship and its circumstances together with the protagonist—all while stressing the generational issue at the heart of the story.

Munday: The narrator lives aboard a vessel that may be the last remaining container of human life. The crew members are tasked with cataloging human knowledge and history, hoping, eventually, to arrive somewhere the human species can propagate. One is tempted to read this as a warning about the precarity of our current moment, but I suspect something more universal at play. How important are the things we leave behind?

Diaz: The story begins with the death of the last earthling on board; all those who remain have been born on the ship—which made me wonder to what extent earthling is part of the definition of human. Additionally, their overwhelming collective responsibility (saving the human race) is in direct contradiction with their personal fate (as individuals, they are doomed). Still, I never set out to write an allegory or a cautionary tale. I’m not into didactic literature. Perhaps my approach is the reverse of what you suggest in your question: I was interested in how large-scale, “universal” issues often begin and end with the reexamination of our most private and intimate relationships—with questioning our ideas of community, love, and selfhood.

Munday: Primarily, you’re a novelist. Your books In the Distance and Trust both contend with the past. In this new story, you’ve sent us into an unstable future. The concept of time seems to deeply interest you. How does “The Generation” fit in with this preoccupation more broadly?

Diaz: I am, indeed, deeply interested in the concept of time—as a metaphysical mystery, as a physical reality, and as the political vector we call history. It’s true that both my novels have a certain archaeological dimension: They examine highly calcified moments in history. With “The Generation,” I wanted to think about time from a different perspective. Nothing is more dated or historical than the ways in which we imagine our future. Think of any narrative set in the future, and what you’ll usually find is a sharp picture of the time during which the story was written—with all its hopes and anxieties. Science fiction is, to me, the culmination of historical fiction. And this brings us to genre, I suppose. I’ve always been interested in genre and playing with the expectations that come with narrative conventions. My previous books are about iconic, highly ideological moments of the American past, but I don’t consider them to be historical novels at all. And with “The Generation,” I wanted to write something about the future (on board a spaceship!) that was not a science-fiction story at all.    

Munday: Among the ominous inventions in “The Generation” is the notion of “reclicking.” Simply put, it’s a technology that helps people forget in order to forge ahead. A kind of reset. For the generation aboard the vessel, their role is intermediary—between annihilation and life—which, in a sense, is true for every generation. Is there an inherent nobility that comes with the notion of carrying humanity forward?

Diaz: Although it’s overwhelming to think that we may be the only sentient beings in our cosmic neighborhood, and even though I obviously love the many ways in which we, as a species, have grasped for truth and beauty, I’m not sure there’s an inherent nobility in carrying humanity forward. We’re the self-appointed stewards of this planet but aren’t much better than pillagers. And in the end, “The Generation” is a story about colonialism—the ultimate purpose of the crew is to settle on a new planet. Behind all the exciting stories of “exploration”—of the seas, of “new” lands, of outer space—there is one single driving force: the exploitation of resources. And this is what’s humming behind this story as well. Of course, there has always been a direct correlation between colonization and technology, which is also at the core of “The Generation.” But in this story, I was going for an analog, scrappy, DIY feel of technology—a central conceit is that the crew members do, in fact, make their own parts and gear on board. Perhaps the only high-tech device (aside from the ship itself) is the “reclicking”—a treatment that induces a partial amnesia whenever crew members are going stir-crazy. This device, by the way, also helps highlight an important aspect of the story: The characters are not only confined in space, as I said above, but also in time.

Munday: The center of the story is the relationship between the narrator and Victor. We’re aware, from the outset, that Victor has died, and we later learn that he is the sole remaining crew member who was born on Earth. What draws the narrator to Victor? How doomed is human connection in such an uncertain world?  

Diaz: As the title indicates, this is also a story about family. I can’t say I wasn’t thinking of my child and the horrible legacy my generation is bequeathing her. Of course, family ties in the story have been redefined, but in shaping Victor, I tried to make him a good caregiver who also embodies the inevitable failure that always, to varying degrees, defines parenting. So again: Family bonds, distorted as they are here, are crucial in “The Generation.” In fact, when I take a step back, I feel the whole thing may just be about the relationship between Victor and the narrator. Although the scope of “The Generation” may seem, literally, cosmic, it is in fact intimate and highly personal. As I was writing it, I thought about this story (only half in jest) as “Ingmar Bergman in space.”

Munday: What projects are you working on?

Diaz: A novel is taking shape, but it’ll wither and crumble if I tell you about it. A few more stories. Trust is also being made into a limited series for HBO—and the process leading up to that was more time-consuming than I ever thought.

Munday: In a move that unsettled our copy desk, you dispensed with the subject I in many of your sentences. As a result, the voice that emerges reads as colloquial, but also at times as a collective representation of thought. How did you make this formal choice? Were its limitations freeing?

Diaz: I’m so sorry! I, too, work as an editor, and I could sense your, um, “unsettlement.” Thank you and your colleagues for humoring me. There are two reasons for this pronominal deletion. The first one is that the story is, among other things, about the erasure of subjectivity, about impersonality—the generation, “reclicked” again and again, was born and will die aboard the ship only to keep the mission going: Its existence is predetermined and merely instrumental. People almost become things. I has been weakened. The second reason is that I was trying to signal a subtle linguistic evolution. I didn’t want for this to become a gimmick, but I tried to imagine how the English language might evolve under such circumstances, and this erosion of the grammatical subject seemed right. I tried to keep this to a minimum, though. It’s a lucky thing that earlier and more radical versions never reached your copy desk.

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