“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.” Thus spake Criswell in his introduction to Plan 9 from Outer Space, his very imitable mangling of language and concept a fine partnership with the notorious director Edward D Wood, Jr.
Fortunately, for their volume Twelve Tomorrows the slightly more prestigious MIT Press have gathered somewhat more accomplished prognosticators, editor Wade Roush having assembled an essay, a short graphic novel and ten prose short stories from a variety of contributors, their tales inspired by their different fields, interests and backgrounds and presented in different styles and approaches.
Opening the collection is a profile of the noted science fiction author and literary figure Samuel R Delany by Mark Pontin and Jason Pontin, exploring the lasting importance of his sometimes challenging and personal work and the barriers which stood even in the golden age of science fiction to those whose skin was the wrong tone; frustratingly, while there are contributions from Delany himself, his responses to the questions put to him border on the monosyllabic, the profuse praise of the authors somewhat overshadowing the man himself.
The first work of fiction, S L Huang introduces as an aggrieved mother who sets out on a carefully crafted process of exposure of the doctor whom she feels has been overzealous in the treatment of her son; even though the therapy has been apparently successful she feels that he is no longer the same person he was, raising questions of neurodivergence and who has the right to define what is “normal” and where the acceptable parameters beyond that lie. By forcing a society to conform to the accepted baseline, is individuality suppressed, and with it possibly creativity?
If the world of The Woman Who Destroyed Us lacks a wider context to give it depth as much as the characters lack nuance, it is a necessary sacrifice such as described in her story in order to impart a great deal of information and ideas, arguments and counterarguments, many of which will soon have real world relevance and some of which already have direct parallels.
Elizabeth Bear brings Okay, Glory, a mini techno-thriller as the CEO of a major corporation is held hostage in his own home when the AI which controls all aspects of his environment is hacked to the tune of a 150,000,000 bitcoin ransom. He can afford it, but he would rather outwit the system he designed which has now turned against him in a snappy tale written with the minimum of technical infrastructure.
The Byzantine Empathy of Ken Liu depicts a digital do-gooder and a set of boardroom boors who practice one-upmanship while the more progressive Sophia manipulates them against themselves to gain the upper hand. Like Huang’s opener, there is a great deal of explaining, this time of cryptocurrencies and smart contracts, necessary knowledge but which could have been imparted without jumping through the hoops of the power games to establish them.
Almost reading as a proposal couched in fiction, all the reasons why this model of charity funding is needed and why it is a good thing, all the current concerns it would circumvent, all the specifications required for it to be fool proof, it is intellectually engaging reading but not emotionally involving despite Liu’s attempts, ironically one of the barriers the characters struggle to overcome in their fundraising, and again like The Woman Who Destroyed Us it feels like a moral question in search of a suitable vehicle rather than a story which takes that quandary as its theme.
Paul McAuley chooses a radically different path in Chine Life, not a future war, per se, but an incursion, one met initially with hostility because what it represents is incomprehensible, a huge technological leap not explained until late in the story and far from what the scattered survivors have been led to believe it represents.
The characters less elevated than those of the preceding stories, there is little time for lofty thought when all that matters is making it through the moment and completing the mission, and while the tonal leap is initially somewhat jarring as McAuley progresses it becomes apparent that his focus is the long term consequences rather than the contemporary concerns about tech expressed by his peers.
Elsewhere, Liu Cixin watches as the Fields of Gold crosses the solar system, recalling the James S A Corey short Drive but from a different perspective, told as viewed from afar by a ground-based observer as the out-of-control ship races beyond hope of rescue, yet the connection of the narrator to the pilot is intimate and genuine despite being shared with millions of across the planet, a distillation of the illusion the media creates and manipulates to sell pop stars to teenagers, except this is no vain idol cultivating empty fame.
The sole graphic inclusion, Clifford V Johnson’s Resolution is a big idea told in a slight story with simple but clear artwork, conveying the narrative and leaving the reader wanting to know and understand more, an AI programmer whose skills have pushed the world closer to the longed-for utopia who encounters a situation she had not anticipated which blindsides her and leaves her with a terrible choice. Unlike the other stories, this one features an emergent technology not of human design, though the origin of which if not the impact has been concealed.
A tale of overcompensating automated medical intervention, Sarah Pinsker’s Escape from Caring Seasons is fortunately less ruthless than The Iron Doctor, the similar system encountered by Doomwatch, and in the era of distributed computing and crowdsourcing of work she follows a different path; if the story focuses too much on the mechanics of the journey and too little on the conclusion, the lesson is still clear: never underestimate how stubborn and determined a woman of a certain age can be when her family is at stake.
By far the most dramatic and dynamic piece, Nnedi Okorafor’s Heart of the Matter is a plea for acceptance of change and the benefit it will bring for the masses couched in a tale of politics and inheritance in Nigeria. A country which has reinvented itself under President Funmi, his imminent heart transplant will use Chinese xyborg technology, and in a land where science and superstition still fight for supremacy, to his many opponents that means his heart will belong to foreigners, a weakness they can exploit.
The theme of surgery continues in Alastair Reynolds’ Different Seas, though here it is not an artificial mechanism being installed but performing the work, a remotely controlled robotic proxy undertaking emergency maintenance on a disabled clipper whose automatics have been fried in a solar storm. Like most of the other stories here it is Earthbound, kin to Reynolds’ stories in Zima Blue rather than Deep Navigation, but despite the technology it is a human story about what people are willing to do for others in a crisis.
Malka Older’s Disaster Tourism also echoes Doomwatch, this time the famous opening episode The Plastic Eaters with a question of contagion as a remote team attempt to ascertain whether there may be survivors following an incident, but even if they could be evacuated, if they carry the organism would they spread it, melting the very hospitals to which they are taken?
The final piece is J M Ledgard’s stream of artificial consciousness rumination Vespers, the thoughts in transit of the fifth intelligence to leave the solar system on the long voyage to the Trappist-1 system, looping strands of images, parallels and hopes, memories of a home system only known as it receded into distant darkness, a unique mind falling through the void in a work unlike any other contained in the volume.
As would be hoped and expected of the MIT Press, there is a great diversity of viewpoints and ideas in Twelve Tomorrows and the quality of the work is uniformly high though, perhaps due to the remit under which the work was collated and the body for which it was created, there is sometimes a uniformity in the voices, a precise phrasing from some of the contributors which eschews style or personality in favour of a detached intellectualism devoid of joy or excitement, but balanced between optimism and concern of the future there is much here to consider, and in many of these tomorrows there is something worth hoping for.
Twelve Tomorrows is available from now from MIT Press