If the medium is the message, as a key contributor to this anthology famously insisted, I'm not sure what it finally means that a collection titled Future Media should take the form of a regular old printed book. As editor Rick Wilber explains in his introduction, the contents of this reprint collection from Tachyon range "from memoranda and addresses to Congress, to performance pieces that are meant to be staged, to short stories, to novel excerpts, to blogs, and more" (p. 11), yet the traditional format in which the anthology presents these new media phenomena has an unfortunate flattening effect on some of them. For example, readers may puzzle over why they have just paid for a printed version of Cory Doctorow's essay "Download for Free," one of several pieces here that first appeared online. Indeed, a curious tension between looking forward and looking backward runs through the entire anthology: rather than presenting the latest cutting-edge speculations on the future of media from a vantage point in the age of YouTube and Twitter, the fiction and essays collected in Future Media instead offer more of a historical panorama of such speculations throughout the past century or so. Only ten of the twenty-four pieces gathered here were originally published in the twenty-first century, and several date from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. The goal in assembling this diverse material, as Wilber frames it in his introduction, is to juxtapose the extrapolations of science fiction writers and media scholars, and invite comparison between how both groups examine the social implications of technological change. Its other stated goal is a related one, namely, "to present readers, especially undergraduate readers taking courses in media studies, with a mix of entertaining, if often quite profound, science-fiction stories centered around the mass media written by important scholars and other thoughtful critics of the field" (p. 11). It is no coincidence that the editor is himself not only a science fiction writer but also a journalism professor and textbook author, and, in the end, this anthology seems likely to appeal more to college-level educators looking for a classroom text than to the general reader. That said, there is also no reason why the various issues it raises shouldn't interest any reader of science fiction, and no doubt that Wilber has collected some top-notch stories that riff on his chosen theme.
After a second introduction by fellow SF writer and professor of media studies Paul Levinson, the anthology opens with a useful excerpt from Marshall McLuhan's classic study Understanding Media (1964), which primarily glosses his famous dictum about the relationship of medium and message: "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology" (p. 19). Passages like this one will immediately resonate with the technological extensions of self introduced, for example, exactly four decades later with Facebook, and both McLuhan excerpts included in the volume hold up quite well. Nearer to the specific technological anxieties of the present moment is Nicholas Carr's provocative essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", a landmark inquiry into the cognitive impact of new information technologies and their increasingly expansive role in our lives. Whether one believes the answer to the question Carr poses in his title to be closer to "yes" or "no," the essay merits thoughtful consideration, although I should point out that it has been frequently reprinted in the three years since its original publication, and also remains readily available via the Atlantic's online archive. Indeed, while the anthology's back cover describes it as "groundbreaking," many of its main attractions in the nonfiction department—commentaries by high-profile figures like McLuhan, Carr, and Doctorow—are arguments most of us will have already encountered, or at least will have heard about.
Even many of the short stories—and particularly the novel excerpts—may strike readers already possessed of an undergraduate education as overly familiar. For instance, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is not only widely read in science fiction circles, but has long since become a standard text on reading lists for American high schools; to my mind, excerpting just a few pages of it here serves little purpose. Of course, the selection may have been included simply to provide context for Gregory Benford's sophisticated piece of homage "Centigrade 233," but it hardly seems necessary for this purpose, as the story can stand alone. Similarly, most readers are likely to have encountered Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in a high school or college classroom at one point or another, and the brief excerpt from this novel again appears to have been included in order to prepare the reader for Joe Haldeman's "Fantasy for Six Electrodes and One Adrenaline Drip (a Play in the Form of a Feelie Script)," a narrative based on the multisensory "fee lies" that have replaced the mere motion picture in Huxley's brave new dystopia. The two short stories themselves, however, are much more obscure and deserve a wider readership, Benford's in particular. In "Centigrade 233," we find a future ravaged by climate change and plagued by oil shortages, but we quickly understand that this world is dystopian precisely to the degree that it is a world without science fiction. At the beginning of the story, the main character receives a bequest of old SF paperbacks and pulps, and he regards them with a complex mixture of reverence, bemusement, and condescension:
Everything in the twencen had apparently been astounding, thrilling, startling, astonishing, even spicy. Heroines in distress, their skirts invariably hiked up high enough to reveal a fetching black garter belt and the rich expanse of sheer hose. Aliens of grotesque malignancy. Gleaming silver rockets, their prows no less pointed than their metaphor.
The pulps took the largest bedroom. In the hallway began the slicks. Alex could not resist cracking open a Collier's with Bonestell full-colors depicting (the text told him breathlessly) Wernher von Braun's visionary space program. Glossy pages grinned at their first reader in a century. To the moon!
Well, Alex had been there, and it wasn't worth the steep prices. (p. 59)
We learn that what Alex really wants to do with the legacy of print science fiction is figure out how to profit from it. When a buyer offers him a much lower price than he had hoped for, he meekly defends the stuff that she has declared useless as, "well, the literature of the future"; she coolly replies, "Their future, our past—what of it? . . . That's not our future" (p. 61). Eventually, Alex lands upon a superb means of profiting from his unreadable science fiction, namely, by holding book-burning parties, both a luxury and a novelty in a bookless, futureless world. Benford's vision of a future that burns its past works of SF, "banish[ing] them forever from a future they had not foretold" (p. 66), will naturally unsettle readers and writers of science fiction, but also raises important questions for how indeed we should read all those lost futures in a present drifting ever farther from them.
As an examination of the relationship of the present to its past—and particularly to the lost futures of that past—"Centigrade 233" is also representative of this collection's broader themes: "Media of Futures Past" might have been a more accurate title than Future Media, although after Benford's story the anthology is largely a celebration of predictions that have come (more or less) true rather than a more somber meditation on futures past like William Gibson's cyberpunk classic "The Gernsback Continuum." Indeed, Wilber has deliberately chosen several stories that appear "accurate" in their predictions, and takes a special delight in identifying them as such: for example, an editorial headnote describes Kit Reed's "At Central" as "disturbingly prescient" (p. 144), and later Robert Sheckley's 1958 story "The Prize of Peril" as "[p]redictive of reality television" (p. 174). Both stories certainly are prescient, and, in a classroom setting, Sheckley's intelligent, accessible narrative—something like the eternal favorite "The Most Dangerous Game" in collision with reality TV—would be perfect for engaging students with works written long before their birth, and for opening up a discussion of broader issues in media studies. Placed near the end of the volume, the excerpt from Doctorow's 2009 novel Makers is (not surprisingly) probably the piece most directly concerned with extrapolating possible future directions for media from our own present, examining, for instance, the implications and marketability of tagging miscellaneous items in the "real" world with RFID technology. Again, it's simply somewhat puzzling for Makers to be excerpted here in the first place, since the complete novel remains available for free online.
The character of the miscellaneous nonfiction selections interspersed among these stories might finally cause the anthology to read a little too much like a condensed syllabus for the casual reader, as there is a clear gesture towards an academic ideal of "coverage" of various theoretical perspectives. Of course, this is not a problem but an advantage if the text is to be used in the classroom, although I might question the utility of including only the new introduction to the posthumous reissue of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), written by his son: it can seem as if Wilber intends the anthology to be read alongside other works like the entirety of Amusing Ourselves to Death, over the course of a semester. I also see no reason why the collection would not also work at the high school level, although the introduction to Allucquére Rosanne Stone's The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1996) would probably be the most challenging text for pre-collegiate readers, and some eyes may glaze over at references to Deleuze and Guattari and allusions to rhizomatic knowledges. With a little guidance, however, this piece can introduce students to a range of interdisciplinary conversations, and remains relatively accessible to the non-specialist. Unfortunately, simply because of the further mainstreaming of electronic communications technologies over the past decade and a half, some of Stone's ideas, articulated in terms of wonder, now risk seeming downright passé, such as the novel observation that some people are beginning to "view computers not only as tools but also as arenas for social experience" (p. 203). Conversely, other predictions are wildly off the mark: "It is entirely possible that computer-based games will turn out to be the major acknowledged source of socialization and education in industrialized societies before the 1990s have run their course" (p. 213).
Some of the other pieces of nonfiction included in the anthology are also rapidly waxing obsolescent, even the selection from Henry Jenkins, another well-known bellwether in conversations about media and technological change: Wilber has elected to excerpt a small portion of Jenkins's 2003 book Rethinking Media Change, while far more recent writings of his can be found disseminated all over the Internet. Although a major work in media studies, Rethinking Media Change already seems somewhat outdated in this particular excerpt because it discusses amateur video production prior to the advent of the epoch-defining platform for the medium that is YouTube. At the same time, reading the piece does offer a useful reminder of just how much has changed in the past few years, when it can seem as if we've always been living under the current media paradigm. In fact, I sometimes find myself forgetting that YouTube was founded as recently as 2005, and I don't think it's only my generation that experiences this technological amnesia: I recall a scene from Kathryn Bigelow's 2009 film The Hurt Locker in which a nervous soldier jokes to another that an Iraqi filming them will be posting the video to YouTube—ostensibly in 2004. Future Media, as a history of media change as much as it is a predictor of future developments, helps orient us going forward partly by reminding us where we've come from.
To conclude, then, that this collection is almost more of historical interest than as extrapolative SF is no criticism: since contemporary mediascapes change so quickly, what else could it be? In fact, some of the best stories in the collection are actually those less accurate in their predictions, and generally less concerned in the first place with rigorous extrapolation about future technologies. For example, today we are effectively no closer than we were in 1967 to achieving the capacity to transmit personal emotions and a subjectively-experienced sensorium directly from one person's brain to another for commercial purposes, yet Kate Wilhelm's "Baby, You Were Great" does not suffer in quality simply because the technology it imagined shows no signs of arriving soon. The story works just as well on the level of metaphor as a meditation on media, celebrity, and the various forms of vicarious pleasure we obtain from our technologies—of the '60s and today—and the fantasies of access that those technologies permit. James Patrick Kelly's "Feel the Zaz," first published in 2000, covers similar ground, with the further twist that it also examines the implications of our constructing apparently "futuristic" and hi-tech virtual worlds that themselves nevertheless reconstruct past worlds: in Kelly's imagined future as in our present, "[t]he myth is the message" (p. 264). And, finally, the best piece in the anthology, long ago recognized with a Hugo, is "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr., a self-conscious revision of the Cinderella story: "(You thought this was Cinderella transistorized?)" (p. 317). In it, a failed suicide, although physically repulsive in the flesh, is given a new lease on life as the "Remote Operator" of a test tube-grown celebrity debutante whose career trajectory is designed and executed from above exclusively for the purpose of advertising selected products. Tiptree's story has only acquired new dimensions of resonance in a world where we have all become "plugged in," in one way or another, and it is just this kind of apparently timeless story about change that can really get us thinking about media and its past, present, and future.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.