Interview with Hernan Diaz, “The Generation”

The Generation is a new story by Hernan Diaz. On the occasion of the publication of the story in The Atlantic, Diaz and Oliver Munday, the magazine’s deputy creative director, discussed the story over email. Your conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.


Oliver Munday: Her story, The Generation, follows a 13-year-old into a grim future where the fate of mankind is in jeopardy. The dystopian details are somewhat vague, allowing the narrator’s voice to anchor the story with idiosyncratic details. How did this story come about? And how did you decide how best to tell it?

Herman Diaz: It took a long time to finish this story. I wanted to write something about technology set in the future, but I didn’t want space slang, techno gimmicks, or the hackneyed rudeness of dystopian novels. It helped to see that The Generation deals with issues I keep coming back to. I often write about imprisonment and disorientation, which are also essential in this story. I’m also interested in the dissonance between vastness and claustrophobia, and space provides a perfect setting for that. Still, finding the right shape was a challenge. I love framed stories, and that device is, in a way, the formal manifestation of seclusion (a narrative surrounded by a narrative). It was also important that this story be told by a young person who is being initiated into the true nature of the mission. This allowed me to make plot points less artificial: we learn about the ship and its circumstances together with the protagonist – while emphasizing the generational question at the heart of the story.

Monday: The narrator lives aboard what may be the last remaining container of human life. The crew members are tasked with cataloging human knowledge and history in hopes of eventually arriving at a place where the human species can spread. One is tempted to read this as a warning of the uncertainty of our present time, but I suspect there is 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 that remain were born on the ship – which made me wonder to what extent earthlings is part of the definition of person. Furthermore, their overwhelming collective responsibility (to save humanity) is in direct conflict with their personal destiny (as individuals, they are doomed). Nevertheless, I never set out to write an allegory or a cautionary tale. I’m not into didactic literature. Perhaps my approach is the opposite of what you suggest in your question: I was interested in how large-scale, “universal” problems often begin and end by examining our most private and intimate relationships – challenging our notions of community, love, and self-confidence.

Monday: You are a novelist first and foremost. Your books In the distance and trust both wrestle with the past. In this new story, you sent us into an unstable future. You seem very interested in the concept of time. More broadly, how does The Generation fit into this cause?

Diaz: I am indeed very interested in the concept of time – as a metaphysical mystery, as a physical reality and as a political vector that we call history. It is true that both of my novels have a certain archeological dimension: they examine heavily calcified moments in history. With The Generation I wanted to think about time from a different perspective. Nothing is out of date anymore historical as the way we envision our future. Think of a tale set in the future and you’ll usually find a sharp picture of the time the story was written – with all its hopes and fears. For me, science fiction is the pinnacle of historical fiction. And that brings us to the genre, I suppose. I’ve always been interested in genres and toying with the expectations that come with narrative conventions. My previous books have been about iconic, highly ideological moments in America’s past, but I don’t consider them historical novels at all. And with The Generation I wanted to write something about the future (aboard a spaceship!) that isn’t a sci-fi story.

Monday: One of the ominous inventions in “The Generation” is the concept of “reclicking”. Put simply, it’s a technology that helps people forget in order to move forward. Kind of a reset. For the generation aboard the ship, her role is that of mediator—between destruction and life—which is, in a sense, true of every generation. Is there an innate nobility that accompanies the idea of ​​advancing humanity?

Diaz: While it is overwhelming to think that we might be the only sentient beings in our cosmic neighborhood, and while I obviously love the many ways we have reached for truth and beauty as a species, I’m not sure there is one are inherent Nobility to advance humanity. We are the self-appointed stewards of this planet, but not much better than looters. And finally, The Generation is a story about colonialism – the crew’s ultimate goal is to settle on a new planet. Behind all the exciting stories of “exploration” – of the seas, of the “new” lands, of space – is a single driving force: the exploitation of resources. And that’s what hums behind this story, too. Of course, there has always been a direct connection between colonization and technology, which is also at the heart of The Generation. But in this story, I wanted an analogous, shoddy, DIY feel to the technology – a key conceit being that the crew members actually make their own parts and equipment on board. Perhaps the only high-tech device (apart from the ship itself) is “reclicking” – a treatment that induces partial amnesia if crew members go insane. Incidentally, this device also helps to emphasize an important aspect of the story: the characters are not only limited in space, as I said above, but also in time.

Monday: The focus of the story is the relationship between the narrator and Victor. We know from the start that Victor died, and we later learn that he is the only 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 suggests, this is also a story about family. I can’t say I haven’t thought about my child and the terrible legacy my generation is leaving to them. Of course, the story redefined family ties, but in designing Victor I tried to make him a good caregiver who also embodies the inevitable failure that always, to varying degrees, defines parenthood. So again: family ties, distorted as they are here, are crucial in The Generation. In fact, if I take a step back, I feel like it’s all about the relationship between Victor and the narrator. While The Generation’s reach may seem literally cosmic, it is actually intimate and deeply personal. When I wrote it, I thought of this story (half-jokingly) as “Ingmar Bergman in Space.”

Monday: What projects are you working on?

Diaz: A novel takes shape, but it will wither and crumble as I tell you about it. A few more stories. trust is also being made in a limited series for HBO – and the process that led to it was more time-consuming than I ever imagined.

Monday: In a move that unsettled our editors, you dropped the topic I in many of your sentences. As a result, the voice reads colloquially, but sometimes also as a collective thought representation. How did you make this formal choice? Were his limitations liberating?

Diaz: I am sorry! I also work as an editor and I could feel your, um, “uncertainty”. Thank you to you and your colleagues for cheering me up. There are two reasons for this pronominal deletion. The first is that the story is, among other things, about the obliteration of subjectivity, about impersonality – the perpetually “clicked around” generation was born aboard the ship and will die just 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 subtle linguistic evolution. I didn’t want this to be a gimmick, but I was trying to imagine how the English language might develop under such circumstances, and this erosion of the grammatical subject seemed right. However, I have tried to keep this to a minimum. It’s a fortunate thing that earlier and more radical versions never made it to your copy table.

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