Futureshocks will naturally invite comparisons to Live Without a Net, another theme anthology edited by Lou Anders. Live's stories imagined futures without the Internet or machines, while Futureshocks (as Anders writes in his introduction) "is an anthology of science fiction stories that envisions the dangers lying in wait for us on the road ahead or lurking just around the corner of history."
I read Live Without a Net a few months ago and enjoyed the stories individually, but didn't feel that they added up to a cohesive whole. By contrast, all the stories in Futureshocks—even the less successful ones—hew closely to the central theme, and their effect is cumulative. Many of these futures explore the dark side of wish fulfillment ("Slip," "Flashes," "The Teosinte War") but many of the stories feature glimmers of hope within the ugliest of futures ("The Pearl Diver," "The Engines of Arcadia," "Contagion"). Whether the anthology's constructed realities are alien, ugly, frightening, awe-inspiring, or all of those qualities in one, they all made me consider my world—and the future—in a new way.
Futureshocks begins very strongly, with a story by one of my favorite writers, Paul di Filippo. "Shuteye For the Timebroker" envisions a world where sleep has been wiped out with "antisomnolescence drugs." Timebrokers become a valuable asset to the society, mediating "between individuals and institutions, citizens and the government" (p. 9) to schedule work and hobbies. Greed is still a strong motivator (in fact it's pretty much a driving force), and the titular protagonist, Cedric Swann, is no exception. He foolishly gambles and is subjected to a series of degradations until he is at the bottom of the society: people who cannot afford the drug and have to sleep. The story features Di Filippo's usual potent cocktail of black humor, pathos, and romanticism. It's a wonderful piece.
Several stories in the anthology extrapolate horrors based on the current political climate. This is fertile ground: in place of mutually assured destruction and nuclear winters we have warlords, terrorists, and American hubris. Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Pearl Diver" is the most plausible of these stories, and also the scariest. Farasha Kim lives in a society constantly monitored by multinationals and government agencies such as The Homeland Bureau of Casual Correspondence. Her soul-numbed life changes when she receives an email from what may be a South Asian insurgent group ... or something not entirely human. I'm a big fan of Kiernan's work, and this story succeeds because she effortlessly combines social commentary, theoretical biochemistry, and mystical imagery while making us care about the world. We become invested in the outcome, because she makes us a part of it.
In contrast, Alexander C. Irvine's story "Homosexuals Damned, Film at Eleven" is a well written but frustrating story. Donald Baugh is a former scientist living in a part of America ruled by a theocracy. Any thought of his former profession brings him terrible headaches. He is kept in a semi-lucid state, watched at all times, and his son is about to be executed as a terrorist and burned, live on television. His son Stephen is gay, which may or may not be the result of the gene therapy Donald performed on his son. The story moves fast and seems to be the result of a writer so fed up with hypocrisy that he pulls out a giant sledgehammer (especially the closing lines) to drive his point home. Considering the discrimination facing the gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual community, as well as the attack on the theory of evolution in American school systems, this is important subject matter. I'm not sure what I want from the story to make it more satisfying for me. Maybe more time spent on the father and son's relationship? More description as to how the political schism occurred? I've only read five of Alexander Irvine's short stories, and of those five, the ones I thought were most effective were the ones that worked hard at immersing the reader in the story so the dread went just as deep. If he had he taken more time with the plot, as he did in "The Uterus Garden" (Polyphony 2) or "Reformation" (Live Without a Net), I think this story would have had the intended impact.
I admit that I have not been a fan of Kevin J. Anderson's stories or novels, but I had hoped that "Job Qualifications" would change my mind. The story certainly has a fascinating idea at its core. Berthold, a politician seeking re-election, creates clones to lead various lives of hardship, and then literally sucks out their memories. This way he can say he has lived a hard life and has the experiences to back it up. Like Irvine, Anderson uses the potent idea as a bludgeoning instrument, but he lacks Irvine's verve to offset "Job Qualifications'" ham-handed style and plot. On the other hand, Louise Marley's "Absalom's Mother" takes one incident—mothers offering themselves in place of their children drafted to go to war—and makes it sing. The story is emotionally shattering in addition to being extremely well told. Like Irvine and Anderson, Marley doesn't pull any punches, but there is a sad resignation to the story. The mothers know, at some deep level, that they won't stop war. Marley tethers the political ideas and extrapolative qualities to a very well formed and focused emotional core.
There's a quote from Howard V. Hendrix on the back of the anthology: "There is no cure for the future." Hendrix is a charismatic and eloquent speaker (I saw him at a Comic-con panel in 2004), so I had high hopes for his story, "All's Well at World's End." It's another political tale, the story of a soldier always a heartbeat away from starting a thermonuclear war who goes, well, batshit insane. It's more interesting as an abstraction than a story. There are few sensory details, and the protagonist is a remote figure. This is a liability, because the main character's state of mind is crucial to the plot. The ending haunts, but the story felt more like a lecture to me.
Politics is not the only area mined for horrors. Several stories in the anthology deal with technologies that grant access to vistas previously unavailable to us. "The Teosinte War" is another well-written Paul Melko tale. A device opening windows into other realities is exploited by a professor with a God complex. The future is described as somewhat Neo-Victorian with female college students wearing "poodle hoop skirts." Our protagonist, Ryan Greene, wrestles with both his conscience as civilizations rise and fall, and his frustrated courtship of a hot blonde co-ed. Like di Filippo, Melko has a real gift for writing male cretins who are ultimately sympathetic. The story works because it follows its wish-fulfillment plot to its logical conclusion; its hard-won lessons resonate strongly.
Harry Turtledove and Mike Resnick's "Before the Beginning" is the only collaboration in the collection and the only completely light-hearted tale, as well. A "time-viewer" allows cops and scandalmongers to look at any moment in the past with perfect clarity. When scientists get the idea to look at the moment before creation—presumably seeing the face of the Creator—they die. There's a certain amount of glee in the way these two titans of science fiction play with a machine that allows them to debunk every sacred conspiracy theory (J.F.K.'s assassination, UFOs, etc.). They also do not shy away from paying off the story's premise. Unfortunately, they do it in a rather obnoxious way, and the story flirts with a shaggy dog joke of an ending. I was disappointed, considering the level of talent involved. Similarly, "The Engines of Arcadia" by Sean McMullen is a clever take on The Time Machine. The hero uses a time machine to escape a totalitarian Earth only to emerge into a vegetarian utopia where the denizens are four feet tall and have a lot of sex, but never progress beyond sensual pleasures. They seek no meaning to their lives or deaths. A story like this would have been provocative in the 1970s, but by now this kind of utopia has been derided many times (and probably rightly so). Taking such a utopia seriously would actually be a fresh approach. But like Resnick and Turtledove, McMullen enjoys skewering political correctness; if that's your bag, then you'll get more mileage out of these two stories than I did.
"Slip," by Robert A. Metzger, is an excellent story featuring another kind of wish fulfillment technology. Turlow has a "slip-chip" implanted into his brain, which allows him to section his perspective to the point where he can see several seconds into the future. He lives in a world where people see what they want to see, which means decay and poverty and homelessness are literally out of sight and out of mind. As in "The Pearl Diver," the protagonist's gradual awakening and disillusionment illuminate the story, allowing the reader to hope.
Other stories in Futureshocks combine abstraction with sheer enjoyment. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Alan Dean Foster is one such story. I once watched a stand-up comic who imagined a future where books were considered as illicit as some drugs. Dealers would be on the streets, trying to entice wide-eyed kids to get the "good stuff" like Tolstoy and Vonnegut. That's what came to mind with Foster's tale, in which stories can be absorbed right into the brain. The main character is addicted to books; he literally gets a headache if he doesn't read. The story is actually a frightening look at addiction, but it's handled in a deft and serio-comic way that is utterly affecting. Chris Roberson's "Contagion" is another strong entry. Roberson takes a potent idea—humans paid to be living transporters of viruses—and wraps around it a solid and entertaining tale. He deftly weaves the terminology of biological viruses with computer-based ones ("Vaxine," "antiviral wetware," "security updates") with a sympathetic protagonist—the Vector, Hark—who would just like to give up his life of constant low-level fevers. Of course, he's pulled into a plot that will make that goal difficult. Roberson, whose Here, There and Everywhere I've previously praised, knows how to create a rollicking adventure with genuinely original ideas. "Contagion" is a story I think about often and is one of my favorites from the anthology.
Of the other entries, "Looking Through Mother's Eyes" by John Meaney is an excellent story featuring a society that exists thanks to a unique—and disturbing—kind of reproduction. It's a story that requires multiple readings to fully understand the power and shock of the ending. "Man You Gotta Go" by Adam Roberts is a tale of an A.I., "Greensilk," initially created to discover life on other worlds. Instead, she discovers the secret to faster-than-light travel. It's actually a brilliant story, highlighted by Roberts's ingenious "solution" to the FTL problem. The story, however, has a coldness to its center, and the abrupt ending leaves a hollow feeling. That may have been the point. And "Flashes" by Robert J. Sawyer uses The Encyclopedia Galactica (as envisioned in Carl Sagan's series Cosmos, referenced in the story) to explore the "knowledge is power" trope. "Flashes" is tethered by a police procedural plot, which gives the story a necessary emotional core, but The Encyclopedia Galactica is the true antagonist. When the knowledge of all the alien races of the universe is beamed to Earth, it has a profound effect upon humanity, but not in a good way. Sawyer suggests that the extraterrestrial contact would give humanity a species-wide inferiority complex—for starters. The theme gets bleaker when followed to its conclusion. Like in "Man You Gotta Go" and even "The Engines of Arcadia," Sawyer's story lists humanity's great strength as its drive to progress toward realms both physical and mental. Deny us that, and deny us hope that we can discover anything new, and we will die.
The collection ends with "The Cartesian Theater," a thought-provoking and extremely well done take on the nature of consciousness by Robert Charles Wilson. In a future where a population crash has led to an economy where no one has to work, androids called aibots do all of the (literal and figurative) heavy lifting. It may be the strongest entry in the anthology, exemplifying what makes Futureshocks work: it develops its core idea into a gripping, unsettling tale that serves as a springboard for further thought.
I've spent the past couple of months thinking a lot about these stories, even the ones I didn't feel were completely successful. That speaks highly of the authorial passion driving the stories and the editorial vision guiding them. Futureshocks is well worth your time, and highly recommended.
Mahesh Raj Mohan is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Sara Strohmeyer. He is working on a novel and several short stories. He can be found on the web at http://moksh.blogspot.com.