[Unnamed Press; 2019]
Future Tense Fiction, a new science fiction anthology from Unnamed Press, brings together a number of highly respected contemporary writers and offers fourteen stories spanning several genres of science fiction. The book grew out of a joint project between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. Each of these stories previously appeared in Slate where they were paired with essays by scientists commenting on the scientific themes in the fiction. If you pick up Future Tense Fiction, I would suggest checking out the corresponding science articles on Slate. Perhaps we could hope for a special edition with both? Though the collection is enjoyable reading, pairing the stories and articles together added another layer of depth to the project that is absent in the book.
It is difficult to capture the breadth of this collection, but in the midst of the many visions in Future Tense Fiction, two thematic movements emerge – transhumanism and artificial intelligence. However, those are not the only themes present / explored in the collection, and the diversity of the science fiction genre is well represented here. We have post-apocalyptic/ post-industrial (“Burned Over Territory” by Lee Konstantinou), time travel (“Mr. Thursday” by Emily St. John Mandel), and alien/human hybridity (“Safe Surrender” by Meg Elison). “The Minnesota Diet” by Charlie Jane Anders imagines new disasters, food shortages, and malfunctioning automated supply chains. Carmen Maria Machado’s “A Brief and Fearful Star” pushes the boundaries of science fiction by embedding a scientific concept – genetic memory in animals and, by extension, people – in a non-futuristic setting. Mark Stasenko’s “Overvalued” imagines a future where investors speculate on people in a “Prodigies market” and people regulate how they portray their potential in much the same way publicly traded companies behave today. Eerily, the story is told from the perspective of a trader shorting a young girl’s stock. “Domestic Violence,” Madeline Ashby’s contribution, illustrates how people will find ways to use personal security technology to facilitate their basest intentions, no matter how advanced that technology becomes.
The transhumanist thread in the anthology asks how our knowledge of, and ability to manipulate, our own biology will transform what it means to be human. Mark Oshiro’s “No Me Dejas” focuses on the mind, whereas Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Lions and Gazelles” and Maureen McHugh’s “The Starfish Girl” explore the body.
In “No Me Dejas,” Oshiro creates an industry that capitalizes on intergenerational memory transference. When Gabriela agrees to inherit her grandmother’s memories she encounters the complexity of a life unknown to her or her father. The story is tightly told and gripping. As they are preparing for the memory transfer, Yasmin, the technician performing the procedure tells Gabriela, “Most patients are aware of what’s happening. It’ll feel like you’re in someone else’s body as the memories are cycled through your own brain . . . Just roll with it.” Unsurprisingly, like many real life industries, the memory transfer clinic does not adequately consider the ethical implications of giving an older person’s memories to their descendent, and Yasmin’s description fails to prepare Gabriela for what she encounters. If the next season of Black Mirror doesn’t dramatize this story, it will be a grave oversight. It has that Black Mirror feel and ranks with the best that series has to offer.
“The Starfish Girl” by Maureen McHugh offers an engaging and realistic biotechnological and posthuman dilemma: can an athlete healed with non-human gene therapy be considered human, and, if so, is their nonhuman DNA performance enhancing? McHugh’s characters graft closely to people we recognize. For example, Jinky, the gymnast protagonist whose spine was repaired with starfish DNA “was always compared to Simone Biles – muscular and athletic” and she is coached by Gabby Douglas. Both Biles and Douglas competed for the US Olympic gymnastics team in 2016, and Jinky coexists with more mature version of our current gymnastic elites.
Starfish can regenerate their arms, and the technology used to modify Jinky’s DNA with the echinoderm genetic material is CRISPR, a recently developed technology for gene modification. McHugh ties in contemporary bioengineering dilemmas, such as whether runners who run with carbon-fiber blades have an advantage over runners with flesh and bone feet. Near future science fiction can make us question our current decisions, and “The Starfish Girl” does this very well.
“Lions and Gazelles” ties capitalism to bioengineering. In imitation of Africa’s plains hunters who stalk animals to exhaustion, the story’s superathletes, enhanced by their own creations, stalk mechanical prey in an attempt to prove the worthiness of their biohacks to would-be investors who are themselves superhuman. The main character, Jyri, tracks down goat-bots in an attempt to save his start-up company, CarrotStick. The harder an athlete works their body, the more CarrotStick tells their brain to produce pleasure chemicals like dopamine. Things are not what they seem in the race, and Jyri must learn to think beyond market-focused motivators to succeed. Will CarrotStick help him overcome the obstacles or will his inherent, biological humanity carry him through?
With four stories dedicated to artificial intelligence, AI is the most pervasive theme in Future Tense Fiction. We encounter stories that imagine what types of beings we will create and coexist alongside in the future. Writers in this vein offer varying glimpses, some more original than others, but all tied to decisions we are making now in 2019.
Paulo Bacigalupi’s “Mika Model” presents the most traditional vision of transcendent artificial technology. In that story, Mika, a cyborg woman, turns herself in for murdering her master and demands a lawyer. The investigating officer, Detective Rivera, must determine if she acted in the capacity of a liable individual or a malfunctioning machine. Mika is programmed to appeal sexually to human men, a factor that clouds Rivera’s judgement. As if Rivera didn’t have enough to figure out, a representative from Mika’s manufacturer intervenes and further complicates the situation. “Mika Model” is a quickly paced story that will feel familiar to science fiction readers. It’s cut from Blade Runner’s cloth and reminiscent of Bacigalupi’s titular sexbot from The Windup Girl.
“Mother of Invention” by Nnedi Okorafor opens the collection, and for good reason. This is a truly innovative story. Anwuli lives in a smart house called Obi 3. The house is located in western Nigeria’s New Delta, a land currently exploited for oil. At the future time of the story, the delta has been converted to grow periwinkle grass, a superfood. The problem with the genetically modified grain is that it produces immense pollen storms and some of the local residents, including Anwuli, suffer from a deadly allergy called Izeuzere. Just as oil and mining corporations exploit western Nigeria without regard to local health today, Izeuzere deaths are not enough for invested interests to abandon periwinkle grass.
Anwuli’s former partner, Bayo, built Obi 3 as their home, but he was secretly already married. At the time of the story, Anwuli is pregnant with Bayo’s child. The community ostracizes her as if she were responsible for Bayo’s subterfuge and infidelity. Anwuli finds herself seemingly alone and ready to give birth right at the cusp of a deadly pollen storm. She does not recognize Obi 3 as a companion and feels isolated though “her smart home spoke (and sometimes sang) to her.” The house’s programming makes it act very differently than the humans in Anwuli’s life; Obi 3 acts with compassion.
“Mother of Invention” is powerful and moving. Bayo designs the house for Anwuli because he loves her, but, because of culture and custom, he abandons her and their child. In Obi 3, he creates an intelligent being that achieves a level of ethical and moral goodness Bayo could never live up to. Anwuli is somewhat without agency and the house is the more active character, but she’s pregnant, crippled by social conditions, and about to die from a pollen allergy, so readers still sympathize with her struggles. In contrast with more famous AI-equipped dwellings (Kubrick’s HAL comes to mind), Okorafor imagines the consciousness of Obi 3 as a way for people to overcome their weaknesses and connect with a technological being in a meaningful way.
Like “Mother of Invention,” Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “When We Were Patched” introduces a technologically intelligent being, Theodophilus, a disembodied referee in a futuristic game called FogoTennis. When Theodophilus finds itself paired with a human official named Malik for an important match, their differing values and perspectives on the game put them in conflict with one another. The story is told from Theodophilus’s perspective as a retrospective explaining its actions in the match that caused it to be patched with new programming after it challenges Malik in an attempt to keep the game fair. The frailty of human justice, corrupted by a variety of social and emotional consideration, is contrasted with a barer form of mechanical justice. Theodophilus presents the match as a case to the reader, one in which we see AI subjugated to human judgement to protect humanity from a perhaps superior model. The story is reminiscent of Major League Baseball’s traditional reticence to use instant replay to overturn calls by professional umpires.
Finally, “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis” by Annalee Newitz offers what in my opinion is the collection’s best example of science fiction combining relevant contemporary scientific research to create a plot in which our future is transformed by what we know today. In this story, a CDC disease scanning robot, known only as Robot, travels around the greater St. Louis area collecting samples from potentially sick people and reporting them to a central command center that can produce antidotes before a sickness can become and epidemic. Due to budget cuts, Robot is disconnected from the CDC and left to its own devices. Programmed for one specific task – finding disease – Robot is still motivated to hunt pathogens. When it finds a virulent sickness, it uses a natural language learning program to continue its mission. Robot is not human and not limited to interactions with the beings that created it. In a surprising turn, it learns crow language and manipulates crows to help it track down disease.
Newitz brings together several disparate contemporary movements in science and tech to create this unusual, fun, and forward-looking story. Robot reminds us of the creations we see coming from Boston Dynamics, bodies reminiscent of people and animals and designed to interact with living things. Unlike many science fiction stories that militarize robots, this one is put in the service of protecting public health. This must remind us of the continued threats we face from disease as antibiotic overuse leads more powerful strains of disease. Climate change is also pushing us further into a world of pathogen uncertain as permafrost release ancient microbes and changing temperatures threaten to bring insect-born disease into contact with larger populations that were previously insulated from those sicknesses. Robot learns to speak with people and crows with a natural language processes program. Readers intrigued by Robot’s linguistic abilities might check out the Natural Language Toolkit for Python, a platform that allows coders to write programs that interact with human language in novel ways. It’s very fun to think of such a program leading to a machine decoding an animal language. With all the levels of technological advancements in “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” Newitz’s clever inclusion of developments in animal intelligence studies rounds out her brilliant amalgamation of scientific discoveries. Recent research has demonstrated that crows and ravens are extremely intelligent birds capable of using tools and solving relatively complex problems.
Future Tense Fiction is an exciting and self-conscious celebration of what science fiction has often done best – predict the future. Readers who appreciate Arthur C. Clarke and William Gibson’s attention to science and Ursula Le Guin and Ted Chiang’s beautiful literary voices will find a lot to love here, in the stories I’ve discussed and the many others that make up the collection. Each story takes some element of our current scientific or technological moment and follows the thread in to believable future, one refreshingly free from aliens and spaceships and superweapons.
Eric Aldrich‘s recent work has appeared in Hobart, Weber: The Contemporary West, Manifest West, The Worcester Review, and Little Rose. He reviews books for Heavy Feather, Full Stop, and Terrain.org. He lives in Tucson, Arizona where he teaches writing and literature at Pima Community College. You can follow Eric via ericaldrich.net or @ericjamesaldrich on Instagram.