What the Future Will Feel Like

1. How We Will Sleep

In the future we will sleep for two days at a time, and the days will be longer, thirty-eight hours—not really days at all. We will be awake for ten hours, working at our jobs, caring for loved ones, watching shows on our televisions—just like we do now—but at the end of those ten hours, everyone will climb into our beds, administering ourselves drugs that make us fall asleep and stay asleep, still and restful, for two full days, meaning seventy-six hours. Nobody will refer to these periods of time as days anymore—how could they when periods of wakefulness and sleep are ever shifting through different moments in the sun’s presence in or absence from the sky, relative to the planet’s rotation? The periods of sleep will be referred to simply as Sleep, and each unit of being awake will be referred to as an Active Period, followed by the number of the Active Period, which is determined only by how many Active Periods preceded the current Active Period. If I were scheduled for a meeting at work to review my performance on Active Period 94, I would check my phone’s screen upon waking to see if that day was Active Period 94, or perhaps Active Period 93, but hopefully not Active Period 95. I am loathe to miss important meetings. It’s worth nothing that everyone who lives in a specific Time Zone will follow the same schedule of Sleep and Activity. Entire sections of whatever is left of our world will be silent for seventy-six hours at a time, followed by a ten hour burst of activity, in which all the business of maintaining what remains of our lives and livelihoods must necessarily be enacted. This will allow the land and roads and buildings to rest. Somewhere, a sink in an office park will drip, drip, drip into its basin; a traffic light will whip in the wind of what will once have been considered an unseasonably strong storm; a lost dog, not found before the next Sleep, will learn to hunt squirrels and other small animals, then fall asleep on its owners front lawn awaiting the next owner to awake at the next Active Period—but otherwise, there will be peace during Sleep.

2. How We Will Work

In the future, we will work much as we do now. Bankers will safe-keep customers’ assets. Teachers will instruct students about the finer points of a given subject. Chefs will prepare food in hot and chaotic kitchens. Cab drivers will drive customers to their destinations. Journalists will report on the events of the day, global and local. Carpenters will sand and cut wood to make useful objects. Dog walkers will walk dogs. Salespeople will sell. Advertisers will sell. Marketers will sell. Police officers will reinforce state hegemony and protect the assets of the elite. The pay for all of these tasks will be minimal, with little variation in pay. Most of us won’t mind because homes will be provided to us, as will medical care and transportation. All that most workers will buy is food and subscriptions to various entertainment services. Outside of dining at a nice restaurant, high end spirits, and the occasional collectible, there won’t be much in the way of luxury on which we might spend our money. Because of the balance between Active Periods and Sleep, we will work fewer hours overall, but it will feel like we are working more, because we will work for eight of our ten active hours, for six consecutive Active Periods, before receiving a Day Without Work on the seventh. We will feel tired all of the time. Our shifts will begin forty-five minutes after we awake, and end one hour and fifteen minutes before Sleep. But this will all be inevitable, immutable, and will be necessary. This is what is required of all of us if our economy and society are going to survive, if life as we know it is going to continue. Most everyone will accept always feeling tired and working eighty percent of their Active Time. Those who don’t will only feel worse than the rest of us, more tired and less happy. I am sorry if this sounds unpleasant. I’m not this future’s architect, I am merely here to describe what is coming.

3. How the Lights Will Work When Sometimes We Are Awake and the Sun Is Out and Sometimes We Are Awake and the Sun Isn’t Out

In the future, the interiors of buildings will be lit as they are now, but outside spaces will be engineered to produce more light for times when the sun isn’t out. For the Active Periods that occur partially or entirely during what we have historically called nighttime, large lights known as Sun-Real Lanterns (SRLs) will be installed at regular intervals around city blocks, along highways and interstates, throughout neighborhoods in the residential zones and in the few zones located in non-automated rural areas. These lights will not realistically recreate the appearance of day, but will provide an amount of light sufficient for citizens to go about their business, be it work or leisure. The light from the SRLs will be dull and yellow, how the sun looks through a window stained with grease. The light will help alleviate the burden of darkness, but will neither feel like the sun nor provide the same level of nourishment, emotionally or physically. Somewhere, in an office building in our city, a business executive will stare out of his window and watch the familiar slow death-flicker of an SRL in need of replacing and think about catching tadpoles in a creek, scooping up handfuls of water in his cupped hands and watching the creatures wriggle and squirm. What are they feeling? Discontent? Confusion? Do they feel anything at all? Out in the suburbs, a woman on her Day Without Work will look out her kitchen window while chopping celery and onions to prepare a mirepoix. Though it is the middle of her day, she will be listening to a stream called “Night Time Piano Jazz,” which will sound almost like Herbie Nichols or McCoy Tyner, but not quite, because the algorithms that create the music won’t be good enough yet to fully replicate such classics, and she won’t care enough to pay for the streaming service that owns the licensed originals. She will stare straight into the bright and strong SRL positioned in the corner of her yard that meets the three corners of her neighbor’s yards, and when she feels the knife blade on the flesh of her fingertip, she will not stop chopping. Even when the pain hits, and she can feel the slickness of her own blood running pulling under her hand, she will keep chopping. The onions and celery will be ruined. The SRL will continue to shine.

4. How We Will Dream

In the future, we will dream as we always have, presumably, but we will not remember these dreams. I would like to say that we will dream about better futures where we might sleep more naturally and go about our days in sunlight, away from the murky glow of SRLs, that we might dream of a future in which we are allowed to reclaim the natural rhythms of bodies. Or, barring that, I’d like to say that we will at least dream of the past we’ve lost, our unconscious thoughts heaving with nostalgia. I’d even like to say we might dream of flying, or losing our teeth, or arriving at school late for first period and realizing we aren’t wearing clothes. We may or may not dream of any of those things, but we will never know. Because dreams will have been irrefutably linked to the unrepressed unconscious of our earliest moments alive, and because there will be concern that revisiting those unconscious memories might awaken repressed feelings of discomfort toward the unnatural state of our current future lives, the injections we take to initiate our Sleeps will also prevent us from remembering our dreams. We will be allowed to dream because dreams are important to the health of the brain, but the content of those dreams will be considered dangerous when our existence is so fragile, so predicated on intricate systems and procedures. I wish this weren’t how it’s going to be. I wish we there were some way we might prevent or somehow prepare for this future.

5. How We Might Prevent or Somehow Prepare for The Future

There is no preventing or preparing for this future. I do not know what will bring this future into being. I might speculate that it’s brought on by a global environmental disaster, or depletion of natural resources, or perhaps even a radical fluctuation in global population. Perhaps it’s a combination of these various scenarios. But from what I can see of this future, its arrival is gradual, almost imperceptible. There are gaps in what I know, of course, but I can discern no evidence in this future of catastrophe. Perhaps as likely a scenario as those previously mentioned is that the need for this new future arises out of the necessity of more carefully managing and maintaining the existence of a consumer class to prop up and justify the continuing control of a wealthy elite. What I can tell you about the future, though, is that nobody will be surprised by it, as if our lives will continue looking a lot like the present, and then a little less like the present, and then a little less still until suddenly this future is everywhere around us. I don’t see the years between now and then. I see only then. Here is how I know the future can’t be changed: four weeks ago, a child ran into the street in front of my car, bounced off the bumper, and rolled on the asphalt. I dialed 911 and waited with the boy until the ambulance arrived. I gave a statement to the police, but I wasn’t cited. They—they examined my tires, reviewed the footage from my dash cam, saw the truck parked on the side of the road from behind which the child appeared, the angle of my car where I swerved to avoid the child. They heard from a witness, a mail carrier who was two houses down at the time, that the accident was unavoidable. The child died en route to the hospital and I blame myself. I tell you this now, because even though it happened four weeks ago, I knew it was going to happen, exactly how it happened, for a decade. I saw it exactly as it occurred. I didn’t know it was a vision of the future at first, and even if I did, I had no way of knowing when the event would occur. But I knew as soon as I turned down that street and, saw the truck parked on the side of the road. I wanted to turn around.—I couldn’t. I tried to pull over to the side of the road and wait for the child to run out into the street, return safely to his yard, at which time I could safely proceed on my way—but I couldn’t. My foot wouldn’t budge from the gas, and my hands wouldn’t move from the steering wheel, pointing me toward to this cruel destiny. I could only watch it happen:, the child, the swerve, the dull thump, and there he was, splayed across the pavement. This future I’m describing, it will come to pass and there is nothing we can do to stop it, like how I couldn’t stop from hitting that boy with my car, and like how I won’t be able to stop the decline of my marriage caused by my inability to cope with the grief and guilt of having hit that boy with my car, and like how I won’t be able to refrain from my admittedly upsetting desire to constantly talk to my wife about how I knew I was going to hit the boy but couldn’t prevent it, and also like how I will, starting after the accident, talk frequently about other memories of the future that will undoubtedly come to pass, and like how I won’t be able to stop my wife from leaving me and getting sole custody of our daughter four years from now, or like how I won’t be able to stop the workplace accident that takes my arm two years after that. The future is written. It is what it is.

6. How We Will Procreate

In the future we will not make love. We will not have sexual intercourse, or sexual liaisons. We will not fuck. We will no longer experience the electric pleasure of feral grinding, hips on hips, the pelvic pulse. But what am I doing, talking like some hack poet. The point is, in the future, there will be no more sex. I am unaware of an official reason as to why, but the consensus among the public will be that sex is too imprecise, too reliant on chance. The equilibrium of a meticulously curated society will be at stake, the systems of commerce, infrastructure, and life will be so precarious that an unexpected increase or decrease in birth rates would risk upending our entire society. So how will we procreate? During Sleeps—not all, but some—the med-pods that administer our sleep drugs will harvest reproductive materials from our bodies through a process that also creates the sensation of sexual satisfaction. Though we will be unable to remember the feeling of that satisfaction consciously, our bodies will remember it and will therefore not crave such satisfaction during our waking hours. The collected materials will be combined in whatever way necessary to produce offspring. If one’s genetic material is successful, the subject will become a parent, and will, without question, be appreciative of the honor. In the future, at my advanced age, none of this will be my concern. This might all seem unpleasant, upsetting, even, but many will not mind. Many of us will, in essence, feel freed from the needs of our bodies, will feel a sense of relief, even, to not walk around all day thinking about having sex and how good it will feel and how satisfying it will be. And yes, maybe sometimes we will miss it, the way, say, an ex-smoker sometimes misses smoking despite appreciating the ways that they feel better after having quit—the missing will be soft, a subtly nostalgic longing for something that was once nice to do, but which we will generally feel better off without. Most of us will generally feel better not having to worry about the grinding and panting and moaning. Won’t have to worry about the exhilarating rush of letting go and feeling every nerve ending in our bodies seemingly rushing through and out of us. We won’t have to worry about that at all.

7. What We Will Eat

In the future we will eat similar foods to those that we eat now, but we will eat fewer meals, obviously, because we will sleep more. We will not eat much meat, with most food being produced from plants. At first, the authorities will attempt to prohibit all meat consumption, but we will have a hard time adapting;, we will not get enough protein, we will be unhappy, so they will allow each citizen to purchase a limited quantity of meat. Soon interest in the meat will wane as it becomes clear that the meat is of lesser quality than what was previously available. Some will say this is because there is so little space left that animals raised to be meat aren’t given room to roam. Others will say this is because the meat is genetically produced to be meat and it was alive only as grotesque, meaty versions of the animals with which we’re familiar. They—they will be cows, yes, but monstrously large cows, their bodies warped and bulging in the most edible areas. Regardless, the meat will be gamey and tough, lacking flavor, and so all but the most ardent carnivores will slowly give it up and grow accustomed to getting protein from lentils and beans. There will be rumors that the wealthy among us—no one in your inhabited zone or mine, so not truly among us—will have access to meat like what we knew before. The implications of such class divides in a world like the one in which we’ll be living would be astonishing, but nobody will know who these wealthy are, or where they might live, or why they’d even be allowed such a privilege, so it will likely be untrue, and anyway, would it even matter? It’s not like this future of ours will be all that bad. Whatever we eat though, we will plan our meals, make dishes that save in the refrigerator for up to seventy-two hours, or that freeze well and thaw quickly. The woman from before, preparing the mirepoix—that’s what she will be doing when she slices her finger, making a soup she would enjoy upon making, fresh from the stove with a quantity of bread for sopping, and that she would then freeze for consumption during later Active Periods. Stews with beans will be popular, and pumpkin soups. Soups and stews will be common because their preparation requires only intermittent attention, and they save well. The bread for sopping will come from the bread deliveries we will receive at the start of each active day, a service provided to all inhabitants of our residential zone because nobody will have figured out a way to keep bread from getting moldy or to make frozen bread thaw quickly, so we will need to have it delivered. This will be a small, but appreciated concession to the strangeness of the times, especially for those of us who will still enjoy using toast to scoop up our scrambled synthetic egg whites. There will be whispers that real eggs exist, somewhere in the world, but for whom? The synthetic eggs will be fine. I will miss fried eggs, dipping my toast in a runny yolk, but the synthetic egg liquid will cook nicely, and scramble fluffy and moist. The woman who will who cut her finger and bleed all over the diced vegetables for her mirepoix will have been making a tomato basil soup to enjoy with a toasted cheese sandwich made with bread she saved from breakfast. We must all understand: she will not cut herself and keep chopping because she is unhappy, her actions will be because sometimes moments, sometimes Active Periods, sometimes entire seasons don’t seem entirely real anymore, and she won’t realize what she’s done, and will continue to not realize what she’s done until she collapses on her kitchen floor, leaving a red and green and white mess on her cutting board. The woman will live alone, so no one will know what has happened to her until her presence isn’t registered at the start of her sleep period, at which time a wellness check will be made, and her body found. She will still be alive, won’t have lost too much blood, but will have given herself a knot on the head. She will stay on her kitchen floor, sometimes sleeping, sometimes awake—I wonder if she will dream, and what she might dream, and if she’ll remember the dreams if she has them—until our wellness team shows up. When we find her, because I’m on the team who makes wellness checks, she will say only, “Is it Tuesday?” And we won’t exactly remember what that means, but we won’t exactly not remember either—regardless, it won’t feel bad, either way. It will just be. But maybe it will actually feel a little unsettling, maybe a little bit shocking, just because none of us will have thought about Tuesday in so long, and I will think about how balanced this new world of ours is, and I will think about how meticulously organized it is, and I will wonder why I’m even here at all, old and frail and with only one arm.

8. And Why Will I Even Still Be Here at All?

In the future, I will not know why I am even here at all. For some unknown reason, I will still be alive in this future, at least for some of it. When I see myself in the future, I am an old man, seventy, maybe, according to how we count years now. When I see this future, I am unclear how we will age—if the Sleeps will slow the deterioration of our cells, or if we will age like normal. Maybe when I see myself in the future, it is twenty-five years from now, or so, or maybe it is fifty and we will age more slowly. I’d have thought for a society so painstakingly engineered there would be no place for a tired old man like myself, who lost—will lose—one of his arms six years from now while touring a warehouse for work. The warehouse will belong to a client of the logistics company I work for, will still be working for. There will be a massive shelving unit, overloaded—against the recommendations of our company—with generic corporate art sculptures, and there will be an errant forklift, driven by an undertrained employee. I will trip on a colleague, both of us trying to get out of the way. After, I will be lauded as a hero for what my company, my colleague, and the client will all perceive as a selfless act, pushing said colleague, a lovely man named Breyt who will walk away from the accident with a bruised knee and both of his arms, out of the way. I will know the truth—Breyt probably would have been fine whether I was there or not, and my falling into him was an accident. But the story will be accepted as fact by the time I’m out of the hospital, and everyone at the company I work for will see me as inspirational, and so I will not correct them. Instead, I will try to kill myself several times, always unsuccessful, obviously. Not because I lost an arm, but because I will be tired of having memories of a future that I can’t change. Some of the attempts will reach the execution stage and fail, like the time I will gag on the twentieth pill I take and vomit the nineteen, barely starting to dissolve, already in my stomach, but most of the efforts won’t make it so far, will be more like how I know what it will be like to watch the shelving unit start to fall, or my marriage starting to crumble, or what it felt like to be unable to stop my car and wait for that kid to get his ball out of the goddam street—that is, I will want to poison myself with carbon monoxide, and I will want to throw myself off a building, and I will desperately want to tie a noose around my neck and kick a chair out from under me, but my body will not let me, and so I will survive for however long it will take me to inhabit this future I am foretelling, where, because I have suffered a trauma and am still respected by my colleagues, and, too, because this future will have little need for the style of warehouse logistics in which my company specialized, our civilization’s resources already being so thoroughly managed, I will be placed on a trauma and wellness team that checks on citizens when they are not where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. Sometimes I will have to report that a body has been found, and sometimes I will have to call for medical help, and sometimes I will have to report that a fellow citizen was found shaking and crying in the bathroom, wishing they could remember their dreams. On one occasion, at least, I will have to report that a subject is nowhere to be found at all, has somehow disappeared. Of course, any loss of life, or disappearance, will be a blow to the community. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe that’s why I’m still around in this future—because there won’t be so many of us left and every body counts.

9. And What Will Become of the Executive Who Will Stare Out of His Window and Watch the Familiar Slow Death-flicker of an SRL in Need of Replacing and Think About Catching Tadpoles in a Creek, Scooping Up Handfuls of Water in His Cupped Hands and Watching the Creatures Wriggle and Squirm?

In the future, many of us will accept the way things are. In the pieces of the future housed already in my memory, I am content. Though I have future memories of the times I will try to kill myself between now and this future, I will no longer be trying to do that when I am sleeping for seventy-two hours for every hour I’m awake, and working on a wellness team for a modest but sustainable wage, and spending some Active Periods lit only by SRLs, and with little time to myself, and without the constant burden of deciding how to waste the time I’m not sleeping or eating or working. I will be of the mind that in the old world, choice was but an illusion, anyway. To the best of our ability, we chose where to live and work, and what to consume, be it food, culture, or merchandise, and when we go to sleep, and who we spend our time with—not that any of those choices are particularly meaningful. This new future will be the same, but with fewer of the stressful choices we make daily, now. And maybe for some, those choices aren’t stressful, might even be pleasurable, and those citizens will miss the smaller, less significant choices of today, prompting them to do things like chop off the tips of their fingers and lie on their kitchen floor for hours. Or, in the case of the aforementioned business executive watching the flicker of an SRL from his office window and imagining himself scooping tadpoles from a creek and watching them wriggle and squirm in the water cupped in his hand, to simply disappear. In the future, I will have heard tell of citizens disappearing from other zones, but the executive will be the only one I know of who goes missing from ours. The investment firm he works for will call to request a check-in when the executive doesn’t appear at work for his first Active Period after taking four Active Periods off for vacation. Our team will travel to his house and, finding him not there, look for anything that might indicate his whereabouts. I will read from his diary, in which he describes himself imagining the creek and the tadpoles. We will identify creeks within our zone to search. Then we’ll search ponds and other small bodies of water. Eventually, the search will include the police, will extend to shops, restaurants, bars, cafés—anyplace a lonely man might duck inside to spend time and money. We will search for three Active Periods, each one diminishing the odds we might find the executive. Though there will be no evidence that he left our zone, on the third Active Period the executive’s image and description will be transmitted to other nearby zones so that they might join the search. On the fourth active period, we will receive a notification that the missing man has not been found, will not be found, and so we should stop searching and resume our normal duties.

10. How the Future Will Feel

In the future, nothing will feel right, just like nothing feels right, now. Everything will just feel different. Even those of us who accept, or even appreciate this future will walk around always with tired knots tightening inside them, squeezing and weeping. And we won’t know how time is passing because outside will almost always feel like summer. Over time, we will remember less and less exactly how old we are, or how many years we’ve been living in this future—we’ll simply continue along, Sleep into Active Period, Cycle into Sleep until eventually we all die, whether at once in some cataclysm I can’t foresee, or over time, gradually replaced by offspring, until they’re ended by cataclysm or die naturally and are replaced by their offspring, and so on. Nothing will feel permanent, and nothing will feel real—but when has anything, ever? And so we will all still mostly go about our business, sleeping and waking, eating and defecating, working, watching programs on the entertainment services, listening to music, spending time with friends and loved ones if we are lucky enough to have friends and/or loved ones. I have not made mention of friends or loved ones here because I will not have any in the future. I will get on well with my colleagues, and I will have acquaintances in my neighborhood who I see at the bar, and sometimes invite over to play pinochle, but my ex-wife and daughter, before the zones were created, they will have moved back in with her parents out west somewhere, part of what used to be Nevada, making it clear they didn’t want to hear from me. But I’ll be fine on my own. In my future memory of reading through the executive’s journal, there is another passage that will catch my eye, his second to last, a long, descriptive entry, from only three Active Periods before his disappearance. In this entry, the executive will describe, in rigorous detail, his desire to eat meat. The entry will describe the fibrous exterior of a well-seared steak, red in the middle so its juice spreads across the plate and drips down the chin, hearty charcoal flavor of a hamburger grilled just right, the crisp edges of a well-seasoned pork chop, the way delicate, succulent flakes of Chilean sea bass practically melt off the fork. The executive will imagine himself eating piles of meat, one plate served after another, stopping to vomit, even, so he can eat more. For his final entry in the journal, the executive will have written simply, “I have a hunger.” These entries will feel almost spiritual. Were they to be shared, they might even find an audience among some of the less comfortable among us, become a new kind of contraband, some radical tract for the miserable few among us. Not that there will be anything to take back. We are safe here. And I’ll continue to appreciate the warm glow of the SRLs and the relative quiet of my days. I will enjoy cooking on my stove, the soft sizzle of oil and vegetables. And I will enjoy the change of seasons, increasingly brief except for summer, their novelty enhanced by sleeping through so much of each, especially winter which will grow shorter every year, until, eventually the cold season will last for only six active periods, and on the last one, looking at a forecast predicting seventy degrees the next time I wake up, I will open the sliding back door of my house and stand in the backyard wearing flannel pants and a coat with no shirt underneath, and I will enjoy the cool, dry air on my face. I will be streaming a piece of avant-garde music from one of the free services, an outré composition made by an algorithm to replicate what humans once did. The entire song will be a single note plunked once on a synthesized, but very real sounding, piano, again and again, each note allowed to fade and wobble into nothingness, followed by increasing durations of silence. I will think about how I no longer have visions of a future after the one in which I’ll be living. The fake piano’s notes will rattle, that muted thrum inside me, push out against my wrinkled skin and ribs—and that piano will be the only sound worth hearing.

JAMES BRUBAKER is the author of five books, most recently the novel We Are Ghost Lit (Braddock Avenue, 2023). His work has appeared in Diagram, Puerto del Sol, Laurel Review, Zoetrope: All Story, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Collagist, and Booth, among other venues. He lives in Missouri with his wife.