Stories about the future are often truly about the present day, which is as it should be: today is the seed around which tomorrows crystallize. Despite the profusion of stories set in the future, the genre of speculative fiction does not predict tomorrow. At its best, it uses the distance of the future as a literary mirror, or perhaps a magnifying glass, to illuminate various aspects of our present.
The stories in Twelve Tomorrows, which entirely embraces this approach, are thus in some sense one-trick horses, riffing on issues of the day—not so much timeless concerns like human existential angst (which are addressed here and there), but current issues like climate change and internet privacy. In "It Takes More Muscles to Frown" by Ned Beauman, for example, we are asked, "Who needs a mind probe when you can just profile microexpressions?" That part of the story, though, is already here—papers covering those reactions exist, and they can be read. It's both a plus and minus of our increasing propensity to hide behind text and virtual communications. Beauman just brings the virtual reality literally into his characters’ faces.
To be clear, these stories are important for today's readers, as much as and perhaps even more than ambitious stories about post-scarcity futures or AI shipminds. As much as I enjoy reading about such topics, they are not something I intend to worry about in my lifetime. The influence of present-day capitalism on the next generation of society, on the other hand, is on my mind every single day.
Specifically, I was recently shocked to learn that the tuition at the private university I attended just a decade ago is less than tuition at a state school today. In Daniel Suarez’s "All the Childhood You Can Afford," we encounter a dystopian extreme of that mindset. It genuinely put some fear into my soul. As we see the dwindling nature of what we--or maybe our corporate overlords--consider to be in the public domain, we see this future lurking at the edge of our vision—along with an excellent twist to that adage, "information wants to be free". It’s worth noting that in many of these stories, capitalism and the exploitation that it enables or encourages is a villain, in the same way that the spectre of communism looms in "Western" science fiction and fantasy works from the Cold War era (George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is an iconic example). If one were to judge by this collection, that erstwhile threat has entirely dropped off the radar. However, it’s also important to recognize that this collection only represents a tiny sliver of the world; a few continents are not represented here. If this collection had brought in authors from (for example) China, which is a hotbed of its own SFF, their tomorrows might have been quite different. While that's a danger inherent in any small collection of stories, I want to caution readers against availability bias.
New fears, then, have replaced some of the old ones. If "Childhood" depicts the extreme of capitalism-inspired intellectual property monetization, then Charles Stross’s "Life's a Game" give us the extreme of game theory. This is not a new concept, but one that has never been as powerful as it has until now, a juggernaut fed by the ubiquity of social networks that go above and beyond Orwell’s already dystopian portrayal. This story is Farmville meets the Milgram experiment, meets the gamify-your-life trend—and before you go about thinking that only some other kind of people would get involved in those games, are you sure you wouldn't, if an algorithm handed you a game that perfectly described your desires in life? Those playing games on their mobile devices shouldn't throw stones.
Of course, technology isn't all evil. In "Boxes" by Nick Harkaway, the titular boxes are a medical device combining neurons with electronics, used to augment brain health and longevity. But because they contain memories, they also contain—in a sense—the person. What happens when the person dies? Who owns these organic memories, the company or the next of kin? Is the old saw about "living on" so long as someone remembers you more valid in this circumstance? These questions are not only technological, but intimate and human.
"Boxes" ends with a victory, but we can't all be winners. "In the long run we are all dead", after all, as noted by John Maynard Keynes. A more painful outcome is described in "The Lexicography of an Abusive but Divine Relationship with the World," by Ilona Gaynor, which posits how it feels to be on an abandoned Earth that's going to die. I can't be the only reader to want to know how it feels to not be among the chosen ones—and not to avert that fate, either. It's a hard story to tell, and as different from Stross or Suarez as you might get, but Gaynor’s scenario is one that we're all living with because mortality. Everyone is the hero of their own story, until they stop fooling themselves. It's so hard to step out of that hall of mirrors —to force yourself to wake up from the dream. For that accomplishment, this story amazes me.
While the protagonist of "Lexicography" does not derive any sort of meaning or higher realization from the end of the world, Paola Antonelli offers up a different tactic for dealing with the inevitability of human extinction as well as individual death in "The Design Doyenne Defeats the Dullness." I have read and watched plenty of technological Singularity and/or post-scarcity stories, but I’ve encountered fewer stories that deal with the artistic soul in such circumstances—which is rather odd given that writers ought to be first in line to wonder what happens to the human need for self-expression and connection when we no longer fill our time with working, and have to spend all that time with ourselves. The story is also a larger allegory for how art can give meaning to our present-day mortality.
Most of these stories, then, are bitter; but a few are in a funny sort of way rather sweet: Pepe Rojo’s "The New Us" is a human experimentation story about human organ trafficking. This isn’t new territory, but Rojo’s version explicitly takes social justice issues into account, which I certainly don't remember from similar medical pulp stories on the shelves in the last few decades. I distinctly remember a lack of racial and economic markers in, for instance, Robin Cook's Coma (1977). In the blackly comedic "All-Natural Organic Microbes" by Annalee Newitz, meanwhile, we come to understand that we're changing our environment faster than our environment can adapt. And that environment includes what lives inside of us. The story also makes an excellent satire on the kind of fetishization of the "natural" that is only possible when we're protected and privileged from the very real dangers and ravages of the natural world (I can’t wait to see all-natural organic microbes in Whole Paycheck one of these days). I didn't use this book as bathroom reading, and this story makes me regret it.
Despite all this, only a few of Twelve Tomorrows’ stories are outright apocalyptic. It seems we’re less concerned about being wiped out in a nuclear war, as about surviving the quite robust world that we have built. The future, this collection suggests, is still wide open to us. In "The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You" by Jo Lindsay Walton, for example, the future is memes all the way down. The story is an homage to William Gibson, with its obsessive examination of how technology is repurposed on the margins of society. But it has a raw bloodiness about it that's entirely unlike Gibson's disaffected prose.
After eleven stories about the future, it seems entirely appropriate to end on the collection on its only story that not set in the future, Bruce Sterling’s "The Ancient Engineer" is set in the Roman Empire, and features a man ahead of his time. But Sterling's story, which retroactively predicts computer science, uses that era not to show off how amazing the ancient engineer is for seeing the future. Rather, the story demonstrates just how limited by time and circumstances every person finds themselves, even those who can pull aside the technological veil and catch a glimpse of the future's promises.
The vintage art of Virgil Finlay that supplements the stories remind us of the guesswork inherent in predicting the future. These illustrations from the 1950s and 1960s feature recognizably dated rockets and robots. Of course such things exist today, but perhaps not as writers and artists might have wished: robots are not running for president, but are stocking warehouses; space exploration has more drones than intrepid astronauts; and women are not in distress while wearing spangly strapless dresses, but handling themselves capably in whatever circumstances are appropriate to careers in engineering, astrobiology, and every other realm of space. It's not always bad to be wrong in one's predictions.
In other words, the past and future alike are unknown to us; we can only do the best that we can, in the space and time that we have. This collection is a thoughtful set of stories that explores these issues of our present, without any pretence of knowing the future. But at least we should go to it clear-eyed, when we do.
Z. Irene Ying is a research scientist and science writer. She blogs about the science in pop culture (and every so often, the science in real life) at Aperture Science Journal Club.