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Terraform coverIs there a significant difference between near-future science fiction and science fiction of the present? Not always—and this is so often by design, because it’s difficult to speculate about what comes next without explicitly naming the problems that plague us here and now.

This is where an anthology like Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn, edited by Brian Merchant and Claire L. Evans and drawing from stories first published at Vice’s Motherboard, looks to find its audience. The fifty-one stories collected here, divided into three themed sections, are pretty overt about the technologies and contemporary contexts they’re exploring. They include Slack, Amazon, Uber, McDonald’s, Siri/Alexa, OnlyFans, the Sims, COVID-19 denialism in the US, a recent de-extinction proposal around mammoths, and even Motherboard itself. Though the number of stories might seem daunting, the vast majority are slender offerings, each just long enough to raise a whisper of a meditative what-if around its chosen future-tech, then slip out.

Tao Lin’s presence on the contributor list, with a story about how our real world is the most science-fictional premise of all, is entirely fitting for the aesthetics of this collection. Tao Lin first became prominent in the late 2000s, amid a movement of mainstream, self-referential writers known and/or notorious for centering all the materialist brands, moods, and celebrities of the moment in their work. At the time, this caused a bit of a literary stir: was it gauche to hang one’s narrative on explicit engagement with the materiality of one’s own era? Would building a story around too-current tech and infotainment news only make the piece feel outdated faster? Or was there something vitally transgressive about documenting the capitalist commodity culture of our moment as we were living through it?

Speculative fiction tends not to have such permissive hang-ups, thank goodness. For this anthology, the editors offer a straightforward explanation for its three thematic sections:

In Watch, we have gathered stories about living under the emergent regimes of corporate and state surveillance—stories about surveillance capitalism, the platforms that make it possible, and the people trying to survive their churn. … Worlds is about alternate possibilities and dimensions; realities augmented, glitched over, and virtual, and the spaces of resistance being carved out within them. … And in Burn, the world is on fire.

Cory Doctorow also lends the heft of an essay published elsewhere, “Science Fiction Is a Luddite Literature” (Locus Magazine, January 2022), to argue for this collection’s sense of immediacy. In the essay’s opening passages, he revisits the misremembered history of that early 1800s British workers’ resistance movement, arguing that SF writers are Luddites, too, because we also question the dehumanizing potential of new tech—and must continue to do so here and now, in a world especially plagued by corporate and state monopolies in the wake of many political setbacks.

There’s something to be said, then, for the collective case that these fifty-one stories make about the socioeconomic damage that companies and nation-state projects have wrought via current and emerging technologies. Taken together, these stories call upon us to “Watch” more closely as our “Worlds” “Burn”—and then hopefully to take action against the issues raised therein.

But, even though many of these stories share a similar cadence and aesthetics—primarily around humans struggling due to exploited tech—the collection isn’t all so thematically monotonal. In a few tales, like Emily J. Smith’s “Warning Signs,” Sarah Gailey’s “Drones to Ploughshares,” and Shannon Chamberlain’s “Reunion,” some new tech outsmarts its oppressors all on its own.

Other stories lean into artistic play to stand out, including Paul Ford’s “One Day, I Will Die on Mars,” which uses a three-voice structure to juxtapose the experiences of an Uber customer, Uber’s OS, and an exploited Uber driver; Lia Swope Mitchell’s “Plantation|Springtime,” which presents an artificial consciousness through command lines reading like free verse; Rose Eveleth’s “The Exemption Packet,” an application to opt out of tech mods in middle school; Meg Elison’s “Hysteria,” an AI-assistant chat record for an artificial-womb product; Debbie Urbanski’s “An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried,” written as a list; and Mattie Lubchansky’s “Reach,” a comic-format depiction of the first man hurtled into space with immortality in his veins.

However, some of the strongest pieces here explore human frailty without drawing from explicit tech—even if they wander a bit from the collection’s near-futurist framework to achieve this result. In Geoff Manaugh’s “Ernest,” there’s plenty of commentary about our infotainment trap, but the real story is about finding compassion for a ghost already trying to break out of one trauma loop, thank you very much. Similarly, E. Lily Yu’s “The Wretched and the Beautiful” draws on aliens, not tech, to illustrate the failings of our current social contract, especially with respect to xenophobia around refugees. The tech element is also slight in Tochi Onyebuchi’s “The Binding of Isaac,” but the story still offers a splendidly original take on the “companions” trope, with a cyber-enhanced “Master” who psychologically dominates his buyer in the one way no one else ever could. And true to form, Jeff VanderMeer’s “Always Home” feels more like fantasy than hard SF, but that’s because we’re fully inhabiting the perspective of his protagonist, a sentient and ecologically integrated piece of future-tech.

And yet, for all the “worlds” promised here, it bears noting that despite the inclusion of pieces like “The River,” Tori Cárdenas’s look at immigration and conservation in the Amazon, the collection as a whole has, like Vice’s website itself, a strongly US bent. One of the other rare exceptions to this rule, Bruce Sterling’s contribution, is also unfortunately timed for its reprinting: “The Brain Dump,” first published in 2014, depicts a playful hodgepodge of black-market digital dealings among anarchist-hacktivists that would have been easier to unpack before this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. Still, the thrust of this piece highlights an important contemporary concern—namely, how and why so many action groups are involved in cybercrime—so it’s worth trying to read this as a piece from 2014, and using it to reflect on how other cultural milieus struggle toward utopia.

An anthology collection like Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn certainly places itself on precarious ground by aggregating work written for various presentist moments, as per the needs of its parent website—and perhaps, as Sterling’s piece already suggests, this format also risks many pieces feeling outdated faster. Putting aside the gems that shine on their own storytelling merits, then, these “best of” pieces from Motherboard also attest, when taken as a whole, to the seriousness of the task of writing any near-future science fiction. No matter how far ahead we might wish to fling our creative gazes, we still belong to this moment, in this context. How we bear up to its own science-fictional aspects will determine the likelihood of us living to see some better end at all.

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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