Jonathan Strahan’s newly edited anthology of stories, the fourth in the series, hinges itself on a not-terribly-novel science fiction premise. The journey toward meeting infinity, avowedly the modus operandi of the anthology, is in part the exploration of one specific concept the anthology examines thoroughly: the velocity of the future. The rendezvous with "Infinity," Strahan believes, has to do with experiencing the future at a hitherto unprecedented pace: not so much a sustained encounter with the future, but rather a sporadic, continuous engaging and disengaging that appears to define his anthology. The stories briskly ride the delicious and unnerving experiential wave triggered by the mercilessly unrelenting onslaught of the future.
"Future-shock"—disorientation at excessive, rapid change—has gained a new dimension in the current world, Strahan claims in the introduction. Strahan contends that Alvin Toffler, who wrote Future Shock almost half a century ago, also wrote that "the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn (p. 15)." The future shocks in each of these stories are such both in terms of eternities and infinities, not bound by concern for spatial or temporal constrictions. The thing to be alert to in the experience of future-shocks, one deduces, is to being deceived by the sound of the temporary in the term: each change might be rapid, seemingly transient, until the next; but each change is sweeping and thorough, creating newer histories of moments.
Although this might not be a particularly mind-blowing premise about forms of change, or of conceptualising the future, the fact that it is a short story collection which illustrates these claims seems pertinent. The short story might just be the most appropriate vehicle to transmit the future-in-rapid-succession. The reader becomes giddy not just at the range of stories presented, but also at the range of answers to questions of form and content that emerge through the course of reading them—whether appearing as sudden, almost annoying interruptions in the process of reading, or as earnest, heartfelt sentiment, originating from an honest attachment with some of the better-etched characters.
The short story, for me, has always been an enigmatic, elusive creature. Some are wispy things, floating in the air, leaving warmth on the skin when they pass through you like ghosts. Some are shocking bursts of flame; your eyes sting. Some are dancing things, neither here nor there. Not so much a science fiction short tale consumer as a devourer of the longer genre novel, though, I grappled with questions of how these short stories sought to consciously distinguish themselves formally from their lengthier counterparts. Why and how are these science fiction tales pitched differently to a novel; how are they structurally dissimilar; was the content largely dictated, commonsensically, by dint of the shift in length? I was intrigued to see how these stories in particular would allow the attachment of an avid reader to the characters that appeared and disappeared within a short fraction of time, when that acquaintance was further troubled by the insistent, intermittent, "future-shock" logic of the anthology.
The stories hop from people adjusting to newer prosthetics vastly outside of the typical or machine-based ("Rates of Change") to juxtaposing the worlds of AIs with the residual humans asking questions of difference in autonomy and agency ("Outsider"). There are dystopic worlds that have killed most of its women to facilitate a terrifyingly regressive feudal-patriarchal world order ("Drones"); there are stories in which obsolete humans achieve medical breakthroughs in redressing obsolete human ailments ("My Last Bringback"), where people have been literally turned into networking systems—and not in the quaint old socio-cultural sense ("Body Politic"). In another, people are gradually transforming into moths—cell, brain, corpuscle, and all ("Cocoons"); in another, individuals, as specific conscious-sentient codes, can be uploaded and downloaded ("Emergence"). Others still are set in spaces where people are singled, doubled, multiplied incessantly (All the Wrong Places"), where they are turned into vestibules of ailments or stranded in space ("Exile from Exitinction"), and where moon-people test their own peculiar constraints of gravity ("The Falls: A Luna Story").
There lurks a nagging sense that the central question underpinning the entire anthology is about the flux of strangeness and intimacy precipitated by the dominating logic of the future. The shock at rates of change appears to be shock at the malleability of the world, not purely in terms of textures and substances, but in terms of affect. The movement of strangeness and intimacy ensues in complicated ways. Strangeness does not necessarily mean cold abandonment to newer states and situations. Intimacy does not merely manifest as an unadulterated indication of continuation and affirmation. The performance of these fluctuations, unlike the size of ambition in the universes created, is finite and scaled down to the reader’s size, and the affective registers are human and bite-sized—but explosive nonetheless.
The anthology appears to contemplate whether—despite science fiction’s purported radicalism—the genre is inexorably condemned to the qualities of the present. After all, to perform successfully as a story, it appears, is to conform to a certain antiquated idea of the human that is encoded within the expectations of the form. Would the science fiction story, then, have to rupture the limits of familiarity and intimacy, to truly disturb, unsettle, de-anthropocentralise? One wonders what the right question would be to ask of this utopian story-form. Whether, tongue-in-cheek, one might ask if a truly radical science fiction story would be one set in an anomalous world of complete anomie—and thus a completely unintelligible story by human standards.
Indeed, there is a certain kind of craft at work in the anthology’s more impressive stories. Kameron Hurley’s "Body Politic," John Barnes’s "My Last Bringback," and Nancy Kress’s "Cocoons" in particular are superbly rendered odes to strangeness. When these stories work, they do so because of their uninhibited exploration of strangeness. They succeed largely because of the subtle shift in the lens, the capturing of worlds that might have, at a distance, appeared not very different to one’s own. I’m reminded of one of the more tense scenes of the film The Secret of Kells (2009), in which its child protagonist, Brendan, seeks the magical Eye of Colm Cille—a magnifying lens crucial for the completion of the titular illuminated manuscript. Its intricate illustrations are the book’s soul, and the magnifying lens facilitates the exquisite fashioning of these illustrations. This is a book that is believed to turn darkness into light. The better stories in this book, too, have the exciting property of illuminating strangeness and transforming it into luscious and gripping voyages. Alternate presents or alternate futures, the stories claim, are not envisioned by an act of blurring what is already known, but by acts of subtle rearrangement, by recreating worlds that appear familiar at the outset but on closer inspection reveal that there is something amiss, a little off-kilter—a strangeness generated by a consequence of a difference of light.
The radicalism of the genre as evidenced in this anthology is almost wholly a function of language. If there was one title amongst the lot that were to be held as representative of the character of the stories, it would perhaps be "Desert Lexicon" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. The title signifies the preeminence of language in the construction of the tale—or rather the world the tale seeks to create. Isyavan, the story’s hard-nosed, ruthless protagonist, leads her team, in the absence of their deceased commander, into the heartland of the desert where dangers—only vaguely comprehended—await. Ruminations about the ephemeral stud the fast-paced story, interweaving its stark plotline and framing Isyavan’s crystal-clear inner monologue, even as her companions on the journey fall one by one. Her fallen companions’ left over, partly mechanised organs are harvested by Isyavan for later transfer into other entities. Bodies, landscape, thought, and ultimately language, are here all equally temporary and recyclable, acting only as perfunctory documents of the changing moment. "Desert Lexicon"’s meditations on language seem to suggest that a single turn of phrase, poised and efficient, might possess the power to dictate or belie the temporal structure of the new world of the future. A future-shock, therefore, is intimately aligned to brisk spins of language and the contraction of time—the progressively shrinking provision of time to absorb the relentless new.
It is necessary to admit, though, that the stories are far from perfect. It’s hard not to notice some of them leap too enthusiastically onto this language bait, chomping on it far too enthusiastically than is good for craft. The momentum of the first story, "Rates of Change," flags in parts, dialogue turning flimsy, and, one suspects, the treacly bits could’ve been polished up better. "Aspects," muscled with spirals of compound metaphors and quirky, tight sentences, may enamor at first but quickly becomes wearisome. Two stories in particular are stationed in that uncertain liminal space between representing a patriarchal universe gone horribly wrong, and unwittingly replicating some tendencies of this world at the cost of critical awareness about gender representation. The story "Drones" depicts an apocalyptic society which skews the ratio between men and women. Its protagonist longs for the erstwhile world where women were available in a number which made couple-hood possible, instead of select men exercising the rights of procreation over others; the narrator’s pining is finally rewarded at the conclusion of the story, as he ends up becoming one of these men allowed sexual freedom. There’s nary a whisper regarding women’s sexual agency.
"Aspects" (by Gregory Benford), meanwhile, has the character Mina in an oddly muted relationship in her "Family" as she struggles through Mech-dominated wastelands which are gradually being extinguished of oxygen and other human life support. Her mother Erika’s observations about the world around are embedded staunchly in a heteronormative familial matrix, as the predominating role of the "Family" in the story hints at. Erika’s dead husband is a lacuna to be filled to restore the patriarchal parental relationship that existed before, for Mina’s benefit. "Ever since Mina’s father had died years ago she had sought a man who could fill that role. Always better to have somebody instruct the young who was not Mom (p. 232)," Erika thinks once, gazing at her current lover, Kirchoff. In fact the idea of the stronghold of the "Family" acting as a vanguard of the human race against the apocalyptic Mech-reign prompts questions of the definition of the "human" that the story—perhaps unwittingly—establishes, seemingly founded on a nostalgic backlash into a pre-mechanised heteronormative societal impulse.
Some of these stories betray their own strengths by trying too hard to prettify the new and defamiliarise the old: severe linguistic innovation, clichés of plot, and nearly invariable cliffhangerish conclusions can encourage a jaded appraisal of each. For all the blurbs and gushing, the best of these stories function, more than anything else, as a collective primer to bring a reader up to speed with the latest thematic explorations in contemporary science fiction. Not all are perfect. But this is nevertheless a worthwhile set of stories attuned to the swiftly changing contemporary calibrations of the genre, assuredly propelling keen readers to refine their science fiction palate.
C.S. Bhagya has recently completed an M.Phil from the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her writing has appeared before in Queen’s Political Review, Muse India, The Ladies Finger, and Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, among others.