How We Made Dispatches from 2120
A conversation with author Josh Kramer on his speculative journalism series
Right now, we all have every reason to want to escape the present. I know I will be eager to revisit the world we’ve created in this project, and I interviewed Josh about it as a way to wrap things up. But more than anything I hope that this project, however obliquely or directly, helps us meet this moment in all its challenging fullness.
Because we couldn’t meet in person, Josh and I met on Google Hangouts and talked (typed) about his inspiration for the project, our collaborative process, climate change, technological and social change, Frederick Douglass, and…rom coms.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Josh Kramer, Dispatches from 2120 author: whenever you’re ready
Hayden Higgins, 730DC: I was ready, and then i spilled some ramen
HH: very 2020. ok, ready. so I guess the place to start is, of course, the beginning, when we “received some messages from the future,” which is to say that you and i and lily sat downtown and ate pizza and drank beer and talked about some wild ideas for an hour. that was…early february?
JK: um let me look. we did Jan 21. the email is called “brainstorming about an 730DC idea”
HH: so, it’s not like we didn’t have things to worry about in january 2020, but prospects for the immediate future, anyway, would darken a bit just a month later
JK: and more so each month probably
HH: did we change things at all as that happened? i know covid is mentioned once or twice, with the memorials. notably IIRC there’s a COVID-25
JK: yeah I think we did. there are a few mentions, like the “winter school at home season,” but I intentionally pushed some of those things to the backend
HH: i think one of the coolest things about this project was the way we improvised as we went along. you made the story bible, but we also sort of learned things about the world as we wrote it into existence
JK: I didn’t want for people to start reading and get bummed out immediately
HH: “hi sorry the future is you’re dead”
JK: haha yeah
HH: getting the balance between optimism and pessimism was i think a big question that came up in early reads.
JK: we were on the same page from the beginning, luckily
HH: but it didnt’ always seem like all readers were. some people expected a utopia
JK: well we knew that going in. And I would say I’m more optimistic than the average person, probably. but there are reasons you don’t see a lot of sci fi stories about utopias. well, at least not now
HH: of course many of the famous ones contain seeds of dystopia. where does this project fit with some of the science or speculative fiction we might both enjoy?
JK: I love thinking about a movie like Tomorrowland, which is based on a theme park ride, but has Brad Bird, one of my favorite directors, and George Clooney, so it could have been great. but that movie just does not work
HH: narrator: reader, it was not great.
JK: ha. but let’s see. I think we both like Ursula K. Le Guin? I have read a few of her novels in the last few years, and I love the broad scope of the Hainish novels, especially the Left Hand of Darkness
HH: definitely. if anyone has $4m to give me i will be buying her old house in Berkeley
JK: seems like a good use of money
HH: for those who don’t know, the Hainish novels sort of postulate lots of human-ish species living around the galaxy. and one of the really cool things about them is the way that, as in most great science fiction, it’s really about different ways of arranging society
JK: yeah, they are also insanely grounded in character
HH: Kim Stanley Robinson, who was LeGuin’s student, is really good at this as well, and has written some of these near-term sci-fis that definitely were in my mind as we embarked on the proejct
JK: that’s right. I got about 1/3 through NY: 2140, but that’s on me. I liked what I read quite a bit
HH: he is a bit lengthier on the science, for sure. if you finish the Mars Trilogy you officially have a PhD in geology
JK: you also had me read that newsletter series
HH: YES. i’m blanking on the name now, of course, but it was really cool to see email used as a fiction publishing platform
JK: Ah yeah I’m trying to find it. But yes this brings me to another key point. one of the best things about 730DC is that it’s not about the capital of the US and/or the administrative state. and so we knew early on that the actually newsletter content would be about THE CITY and the people who live here, which you almost never see in science fiction. it’s about the city and not about the government
HH: totally. which, in fact, is gone! and there’s a sort of crisis of identity which plays out, of course, in our comics lead
JK: that’s true. people love to talk about how when you meet people here you ask, “what do you do?” And depending who you are, that’s either great or awful. but I do think a fundamental truth about D.C., which can coexist with many other truths about the city, is that lots of people come here because they want to contribute to something good in the world. I admire that, and think it’s interesting narratively
HH: so when the government goes away, what are we left with? one another!!!!
The Future of Media
HH: obviously we have the column from Professor Mellody (Michael Mellody, co-founder of 730dc, not actually a professor, though maybe by 2120 he will be), about the resilience of email. What was it like to publish fiction on email?
JK: well I don’t do a ton of fiction normally. but I love it, and thought I could probably handle writing it in bite-sized chunks, so the email blurbs were perfect. And it starts with the fact that I like the 730DC format and know it pretty well. Social media sucks, so it was nice to get away from it. I like the intimacy of email when it’s done well. I think it goes …1) podcasts 2) regular mail 3) email 4) writing in dirt 5) social media
JK: something like that. podcasting you get the human voice
HH: do you think email is going to last?
JK: hmmm it might. it’s weird to think we’re like 50 years on already
HH: we had this public messaging thing in the newsletter
JK: so I’m working for a nonprofit right now, and I started while I was working on this, that is pushing for social media to be better. More like a functioning public place with norms and expectations where everyone can feel safe to participate. a safe space if you will. public messaging is an idea that I had for the future, where instead of social media being entirely run by private companies, it is a utility run by the government.
so there are civil servant moderators, and it is free speech, but regulated in the way that PBS or NPR are. and each state has its own way of running its own public messaging forum. but this is waaaay too nitty gritty and besides the point for our purposes, so we just kind of elliptically mention it a few different ways.
HH: this is the path not taken. but we could still get there!
JK: yeah, I think we could. a more concise explanation would be a govt run Nextdoor that’s not racist
HH: so we have public messaging. any other favorite innovations, social or scientific, that you enjoyed cooking up for the letter?
JK: aha let me look for a sec. Bubbles obv
HH: i for one would love to worship a sepak takraw star
JK: street scallops, whether or not it makes sense. yes me too
HH: it doesn’t need to. does one eat street scallops on a stick?
JK: yes, as pictured in the beloved chapter 5 of the comic, in which the main character, Jesse, is drunk!
HH: the better to enjoy the scallops
JK: let’s see. the InstaCensus would be great to have
HH: as we are seeing this year, it would be *very* great to have
JK: And [to come in a few weeks in an opinion piece at DC Line] a full legislature with representatives enough for everyone who lives here
Let’s Talk About Statehood
JK: I have had an awakening that has progressed like this…I noticed that a mayor and 14 councilmembers and hundreds of volunteers at the neighborhood level is not an effective government for a city of 700k…and then I learned how a racist and reluctant congress gave us that government in the first place…and now I am more confident than ever that statehood is the only equitable remedy
HH: whispers: it’s all true
so speaking of statehood, and structural racism
JK: as we should
HH: we did not always plan for douglass commonwealth to be the name of this new state
HH: but if i recall you did some reading that convinced you otherwise
JK: yeah. well I thought, and still kind of think, that “Douglass Commonwealth,” to stand in for D.C. is kind of cheesy, because I grew up in PA, which is a commonwealth — and no one calls it Pennsylvania Commonwealth
HH: that would be PC [groans]
JK: ha. but…I was reading the Frederick Douglass bio that came out a few years ago, and found out that he picked his name, based on the Douglas clan in Scottish eric poetry, and he just added an ‘s.’ and that’s tremendous. and of course the man was incredible. it’s hard to imagine a better namesake
HH: i completely agree
JK: there’s something elegant about the fact that we’re following his example and picking our name in freedom, just as he did
HH: meta. ok so, backpedaling a moment, the reason we are not sure about the scallops is climate impacts, which brings me to another question, which is about how prominently the natural world ended up figuring in the series
HH: and like, notably…a lot of the contributors were interested in expanding on that theme. did you expect that? did it figure largely in the story bible?
JK: yeah, I’m always thinking about it lol. but to be honest I think being stuck inside had a lot to do with it
HH: truly. readers, again: we were making this up as we went along
JK: which means writing from total social isolation. perhaps distortionary, but like…nature/human conflict *does* seem pretty hard to avoid over the coming century
HH: even COVID can be characterized as such
JK: I love it, because flipping the script about climate change and imagining all the good stuff we’ll get in post-fossil fuels, decarbonized world, is a beautiful contrast to all the things we’ve been told we’re going to have to give up in the future
again, I think being stuck inside had a lot to do with it … we were all inside yearning to be in nature or at least outside our homes. and the climate problems are so daunting. but I do have the sense, and I think a lot of people share this, that nature will be a large part of the solution
HH: i work for a climate think tank, and it’s true: nature-based solutions are a big thing! and other contributors wanted to game that out a bit, and talk about about some of the wackier stuff that might happen, which was a lot of fun
JK: I heard Saul Griffiths on the Ezra Klein show, and his thinking about electrifying the country was a significant influence on the way I tried to imagine a somewhat more sustainable future
HH: the comic, i want to say, is beautiful
HH: and not just visually, but in terms of what it does for the story. i mean, in some ways, it takes the newsletter (just the facts) and brings that world alive
JK: that’s kind, thanks. I’m a cartoonist (went to school for it, have been doing it professionally for about a decade). but I don’t really work in fiction much. and so writing it panel by panel was managable, in the same way that the newsletter was.
HH: we talked about inspirations in sci-fi, what were some of your inspirations for the comic?
JK: a podcast called Blank Check has made me fall in love with movies all over again, and they do one director at a time, including some rom com biggies like Nora Ephron and … who is the other
JK: more recent. nancy myers!
HH: aha. something’s gotta give
JK: so I have lots of comics inspirations, just tons, but narratively I really honed in on what I liked about those movies
HH: the story totally is a rom com
JK: I mean, I wish it was funnier. but there’s not a ton of narrative real estate. 6 chapters, nine images each, some split into two
HH: someone, option this movie. nancy meyers, is she available?!
JK: ha. but also to tell you the truth I draw a lot on the computer these days and missed getting my hands dirty, drawing something on paper. but yeah it was really fun to sit down and decide what the next panel was going to be, which I’ve never really done at this length
please make me rich hollywood! even an indie!
HH: 2020: teaching us all to improvise
JK: in my case literally ha
HH: so okay, what’s next? should we schedule these emails for august 2120 and see if they get delivered to our great-grandkids?
HH: should we forget about them? i mean, i don’t know. we have seen the future and the future is us.
JK: I do like this little universe we’ve created here. I’m thrilled that other people have come in and given their own hopes and ideas to it. and we can find a sponsor or something *wink wink* I’d love to do another, to dig a little deeper, and find out what happens to Douglass the year after statehood
Who could say no to Dispatches from 2121?