Futurist as hero

Futurists don’t often feature as fictional protagonists. And there is even an oblique reference to the SOIF Retreat at Hartwell House. This is a guest post by Corinne Roëls, of the French futures organisation, Futuribles. Corinne also attended the SOIF Retreat in 2017.

Photograph of the reviewer, Corinne Roëls, taken at a SOIF Retreat by the novel’s author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

Followers of Futuribles ought to enjoy The USB Key, the new novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. It is set against the backdrop of foresight and futures work, and even features the Futuribles’ former offices.

The hero of the novel, Jean Detrez, is a strategic foresight specialist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Brussels. His backstory: before becoming an EU official, he worked in the 1990s as an editor at the journal Futuribles. He was based in our Paris offices, then located at 55, rue de Varenne, just next to the Prime Minister’s residence at Matignon.

On pages 147 and 148, the reader is given a guided tour of the site: the meeting room and its moldings, the old bathroom converted into an office on the ground floor, and the Gaston Berger archives in the cellars. Toussaint, who also wrote La Salle de Bain (The Bathroom) (1985), Fuir (Running Away) (2005) and Made in China (2017), has immersed himself in the world of foresight to write his novel.[i] He has read a lot, and he has participated in several editions of the Retreats organised each summer by the School of International Futures. He has also interviewed many futurists.

The new novel falls into three parts, the first two of which feel like a spy novel. The last part, which is more personal, tells us about the hero’s father.

Futurists

In the first part, the protagonist, Jean Detrez, who has worked as a futurist for more than 20 years, tries to dispel the misunderstandings that the job always engenders.

“How many times, at dinners in town, in Paris and in Brussels, had I been asked, since I was an expert on the question, what does the future hold for us?”

He then describes, wryly, the disappointment that follows when he replies that he does not know.

“How could we predict something that does not exist yet?” “No, strategic foresight does not predict the future. The future, simply, is its subject of study, and we have to explore it with an extremely elaborate methodological toolbox.”

There follows some pages describing the genesis of modern foresight and its methods in the wake of the Second World War. Perhaps these will help to inform those who are not already initiated into futurist circles. The description here includes the scenarios method developed by the American Herman Kahn, its implementation by the Frenchman Pierre Wack at Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the Delphi method and real-time Delphi.

Blockchain

But the issue that has captured Jean Detrez’ attention for some time now, and which is the start of all of his adventures, is blockchain. Its most common use is for cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, but the technology can be used in other areas of strategic importance, such as energy, health and security. Detrez wrote a report that was in favour of developing a European version of blockchain. That report means, on the one hand, that he is solicited by lobbyists, and on the other, earns him an invitation to an international conference in Japan.

The lobbyists will take this European civil servant, in possession of a supposedly ‘forgotten’ USB pen, to China to visit some blockchain mining facilities at the heart of the whole blockchain infrastructure. For the lobbyists, it’s about demonstrating to Jean Detrez the performance of these mining machines, which are about to be financed by the EU commission via a Bulgarian company. For his part, Detrez seeks to confirm the suspicions aroused by the information found on the USB pen. And what if the Chinese machines include a ‘backdoor’, a concealed door that enables the embezzlement of money and information without anyone knowing?

China

The second part of the action unfolds in Dalian, China, on a mining site populated by thousands of overheating and obsolescing machines. His stay in China lasts 48 hours, while Detrez’ colleagues and family think he is already at his colloquium in Japan. It is an exhilarating 48-hour gap in the hero’s schedule, almost unthinkable in an age when everyone is supposed to be reachable and findable at any time. These hours, however, are not exempt from the pettiness of everyday life. Detrez is particularly riled by the design of the hotel chain clothes-hangers, with “a simple nail, that can not be hung anywhere,” intended to prevent theft. Detrez plans to launch a crusade on social networks, to encourage customers to steal such hangers systematically.

Finally, the third part takes us first to a chaotic conference in Tokyo and then a hasty return to Brussels, prompted by his father’s deteriorating health. This final part draws on elements of the author’s autobiography, with a shift in tone. It becomes a fitting tribute to Yvon Toussaint, Jean Philippe’s father, a fine journalist who was the Paris correspondent of the Belgian daily Le Soir.

The final impression one takes away from the novel is of the lucidity of its author, as he ranges across the life of European official in Brussels, the dependence of Europe or the power of China, loneliness, or the meaning of family.

English translation by SOIF in London. Thanks to Sylvie Gagnot and Eleanor Cooksey for their assistance.

[i] These novels are all published in French by Les Éditions de Minuit. The Bathroom and Running Away, among other of Jean Philippe Toussaint’s works, are published in English translation by The Dalkey Archive Press. Sadly, La Clé USB is currently only available in French.

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