Sometimes the best and worst thing you can say about a piece of writing is that it does what it says on the tin.
Women Invent the Future is an anthology that does exactly that. It’s a short anthology, consisting of six stories and a poem, and they are indeed written by women and set in the future. That’s about where it ends. And yet here I am, looking askance at Women Invent the Future, because something in me is expecting more.
In fairness, both the Foreword (by Maggie Aderin-Pocock) and the introductory “Why do we need this book?” (by Doteveryone’s Rachel Coldicutt) have deliberately primed this expectation. They’re both very clear on the reason why this book has come to be. They haven’t gathered together seven suitable pieces and noted that, by chance, all the authors are women, and come up with the title in consequence. There’s a specific motivation, and it’s closely tied in with the role of the publisher.
That publisher, Doteveryone, is an organisation dedicated to getting more women into technology. As Coldicutt states, “Doteveryone champions responsible technology for the good of everyone in society—and to be responsible, the technology industry must represent the people it’s serving. Gender equality is a vital first step towards that” (p. 8). Aderin-Pocock is equally plain, describing times in her career when she was perceived as not being part of the science and tech industry because of both race and gender: “I have met people who have assumed that I must be a member of support staff, either the cleaner or the secretary, and a few people have told me: 'I’ll have three sugars in my coffee, dear'.” (p. 6). This is clearly unacceptable, but as real life has shown, it’s not enough to get women and other minorities into tech. They have to stay there as well, and that’s another challenge altogether. “If women are to stay in these jobs,” says Coldicutt, “then the culture needs to change too. And rather than insisting on changing women, we can change how technology is imagined: the myths, stories and clichés that help to create technology can start to include and represent more of us” (p. 8).
Technology, and the tech industry, needs to be more aware of its base, in other words. It’s inescapable that some demographic groups have different experiences of technology than others. Women who use technological spaces, for instance, are often subject to threats of sexual violence at a rate above that of male users. How technology can be used to respond to this disparity is an ongoing and difficult conversation. Getting more minorities into the tech industry is a way of increasing the spotlight on possible problems while simultaneously increasing the potential for solutions to those problems. This strikes me—as someone who’s particularly interested in getting more women in STEM industries—as being a valuable focus for an anthology. In Women Invent the Future, however, despite the stated goals of the Foreword and editorial introduction, there’s really only one story that engages with this idea in a strikingly constructive way.
“There are Wolves in these Woods,” by Cassandra Khaw, takes the potential dangers of dating in the technological age and spins them into the fairy tale and metaphor of hunting. Recent SFF has explored predation and dating, most memorably in stories such as Alyssa Wong’s Nebula Award-winning story “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers.” In that story, protagonist Jen uses Tindr to find suitable dates, picking out men from the herd and taking them to dinner before devouring them. “Wolves” is a more technological take, and the hunting goes both ways:
Back in the twenty-first century, there’d been a push to standardize access to sex, terrorist action under the banner of enforced male virginity, and some corporations had caved. Nickel and dimed the resentful pursuant then outfitted them with an armoury of augmentations; nothing illegal, no sir, just tool-tips for three-dimensional reality: matrices of pheromone readers, mimicry software, subvocalization amplifiers, whatever they needed to get ahead in the war of the sexes.
So, women pushed back. (p. 49)
“Wolves” describes a single date, one that’s apparently typical for such a world. It’s told from the point of view of Selene, and comes across more as a painstakingly coordinated campaign than any enjoyable sort of social interaction. (Dating can be a stressful thing, fair enough, but at least today we’re not quietly plotting to get hold of some of our partner’s saliva for genetic analysis.) But Selene isn’t alone in the stalking of her nameless companion. She has a pack with her, other women commenting on and investigating her date in real time, courtesy of an app called Reds Riding—an app that’s both incredibly popular and incredibly hated. “The women loved it. Reds Riding was revolutionary” (p. 52), and it’s not cheap but its possession is prioritised: “Mothers pass down memberships to their daughters like titles, sisters come together, and friends raise hell and crowdfunding campaigns, all to keep their girls safe” (p. 52).
But unlike the “helpful” apps designed for the men, Reds Riding causes an uproar. Men like Selene’s date don’t take well to being interrogated about the darker points of their life, having all their secrets upended and brought out for public consumption. “You never told your wife about that weekend fling, did you?” (p. 55) Selene asks, and the man fires back. “You’re one of those” (p. 55), he says, the sneer apparent in his voice. Comments from the rest of the pack, siphoned secretly through to Selene through the Reds Riding app, are from women all waiting to pounce, to react if violence is the outcome. Some of them are already stationed nearby and ready for blood.
The potential angry reaction of Selene’s date is the reason that Reds Riding has been forced underground. Court orders have banned it, but the app keeps going, passed on and passed silently. I note that there’s no mention of the apps that help men turn into hunting creatures being squeezed in this way, but then again that is the expectation of story, and those expectations upended are the cause of the backlash against Reds Riding in the first place. “Where was the sport in this? Where was the game? What was the point in paying those annual fees if the girls wouldn’t behave, if they wouldn’t play by the rules, if they wouldn’t place their throats on altars and wait?” (p. 52). There’s no conception, of course, that if women are made into huntswomen then they might have their own idea of sport and gaming, but that’s what happens when the creators of technology are limited by demographic. Their temptation is the belief that the goals of that demographic are the goals of all, and all the potential markets are shrunk thereby into what that demographic will bear.
“There are Wolves in these Woods” isn’t what I call a pleasant story—the gender relations are too uncompromisingly hostile for that—but it is an effective one. It’s confronting and questioning; it takes the sometimes unsavoury elements of social interaction today and adds technology to give a possible future world, one that reflects the goals of those introductory pieces, illustrating what might happen when more women take their places in the tech industry. Some wolves get their teeth blunted, some women hunt together. I didn’t expect every story in Women Invent the Future to be so vicious, but I did expect them to be so apt. That’s not always the case, however.
Take, for instance, “The Cure for Jet Lag,” by Madeline Ashby. This isn’t a bad story, not at all. The characterisation of the central character Kristen, and her exhaustion and irritation in her role as essential sidekick to the deeply condescending and far less apparently competent Sumter, is very well done. They’re off to a party to make a pitch for funding to an enormously rich recluse. Kristen’s role in this pitch, as she cynically understands it, is “Emotional labour” (p. 22), and it’s very easy to get the sense that, if she were allowed to work the room without Sumter hanging over her shoulder, whining about people flirting with her and the confiscation of his electronic devices, she’d be far more effective. But he’s the boss, and it’s her job to keep him calmed down as well as productive. And, you know … eh. There’s some futuristic trappings here—a fake lawn, pixel-disrupted to show as trees to surveillance systems—but really, this is a story of women in tech today transplanted into the future. It doesn’t re-imagine as Khaw’s does. The future it invents is no different, fundamentally, to the present. (“I’ll have three sugars in my coffee, dear.”) And I read it, and I sympathise, and I think it’s a decent story … but I also wonder what it’s doing here.
Frankly, it’s not the only piece in this anthology that prompts this reaction. “In the God-Fields” by Liz Williams is an interesting story of a religious woman, sent by her order on a trip through the galaxy to deliver a scroll to another seminary. During the trip, the spacecraft she’s on passes by the god-field, an area of space that produces these immense, eternal beings: “beyond the ship I saw this huge glittering ray, its folds and wings millions of miles long, stars embedded in its shining shifting flesh” (p. 65). The travelling priestess essentially becomes one of these creatures herself, and there are long lyrical passages of her enjoying her new life floating through space and observing the universe, and as a sci-fi-brings-a-sense-of-wonder story it’s a success. As a story about women in tech who are inventing the future it’s entirely irrelevant.
Again, it’s the gap between expectation, primed by foreword and publisher, and the result. Stories like Khaw’s—and there are others in the anthology which fit the brief, “A Darker Wave” by Molly Flatt, “The Adoption” by Anne Charnock, and Walidah Imarisha’s poem “Androids Dream of Electronic Freedom”—are written around the given theme, in mild sorts of ways, though they lack the sheer force of “Wolves.” Overall, though, that focus could be far stronger than it is, and that’s a little disappointing.
I want more than what it says on the tin.
Finally, interestingly, the story I personally enjoyed the most in this anthology, the beautiful “Chrysalis” by Becky Chambers, sits in a space of ambiguous suitability. It’s a very short piece about a mother and child, where the child wants to change her body so that she will be better suited for a future colonising other planets. The mother relents, eventually, and the child is changed—and changed substantially:
The woman who boarded the ship looked nothing like the girl I remembered. A silver carapace sheathed her hairless body, too thick for radiation to penetrate. Her breaths were slow, and few—she didn’t need as much oxygen as me. Her hollow bones would lose little density out there, and meals would be a monthly occurrence. She was something beyond human, engineered for the long dark between worlds. (p. 59)
I love this story. I really do. And because the focus of the story isn’t on the transformation-into-alien as much as the desire to change into other, and to do it soon, before puberty makes the transformation more difficult, I read it partly as a metaphor for trans children, wanting to recreate themselves and go out into the wonders of the universe in the bodies that they want for themselves. This is technology and gender bound up together, fertile ground for an anthology such as this, and it presents a kinder, more optimistic future than the rest of the stories. The story itself isn’t really about women inventing the future—more about how the inventions of the future can affect the bodies of the future—but it does reflect in itself Coldicutt’s previously stated desire for the new myths and stories of representative technology.
As an addendum I should point out here that Women Invent the Future is available for free at Doteveryone, and print copies may be ordered for the cost of postage. The desire to make this anthology as accessible as possible is rooted in the desire to make technology as accessible as possible, to increase the presence of minorities in tech. And, lack of focus aside, that’s always worth reading about.
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