Thu
Oct 27 2011 6:00pm
When MIT’s Technology Review Does Science Fiction

The MIT Technology Review recently released a special-edition issue focused on, as the cover says, “12 Visions of Tomorrow,” written by some of the top names in contemporary SF. The issue is labeled TRSF, costs $7.95, and can be ordered here.

The editorial introduction by Stephen Cass lays out the idea behind this new, to-be-annual special edition: to continue in the tradition of “hard SF,” inspired by actual science and scientific advancements, while improving on the issues associated with the genre, like the predominance of white male writers and flat plots or characters. Matching their editorial assertion, this issue is extremely varied in its contributors, with plenty of women, writers of color, and one work-in-translation from a Chinese SF author. That variety shines through in the stories, providing a much more expansive set of speculations than it might otherwise have done with a narrower, more stereotypical TOC.

The actual table of contents includes Cory Doctorow, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Bear, Ken Liu, Vandana Singh, Gwenyth Jones, Pat Cadigan, Paul DiFilippo, Tobias Buckell, Geoffrey Landis, Ma Boyong, and Ken MacLeod — with stories ranging between topics from energy to computation to biomedicine to spaceflight and plenty of things in between.

 

Story by story:

“The Brave Little Toaster” by Cory Doctorow – The opening story is a goofy, satirical short by Doctorow in which the main character receives a trick-item which interferes with all of his household “smart”-devices from the fridge to the garbage to the microwave, even interfering with public safety modules when he tries to take it out of his house. Finally, he digs out an old, “dumb” toaster and melts the thing to death. The critique of potential problems with smart-networked tech is witty and pointed, while the story remains deeply amusing in a slapstick way. (Plus, the allusion the title makes adds a level of cuteness to the whole thing.)

“Indra’s Web” by Vandana Singh – The personal, the social, and the global all interweave in a lovely, intricate web (like the titular one) in the Singh contribution, in which an energy scientist and her team work on developing an energy system which works in the same way the network of chemical plant-communication in nature does. That system will be used to power their newly designed eco-friendly city, built using a mix of very old tech and new tech to be healthier and self-sufficient. At the same time, her life is explored, out of the slums and to her position as a pioneering scientist, up to the end of her grandmother’s life. The emotional and personal — “Mahua has finally seen it. Her grandmother wants to die.” — intertwine beautifully with the public and scientific. Singh’s story is fascinatingly extrapolative, also, with the possibilities of bio-engineering and energy production. The “hard” SF element is certainly in play, but in a balanced way; this story absolutely fulfills the directives of the editorial introduction.

“Real Artists” by Ken Liu – The Liu is one of the cautious and critical extrapolative stories, on movie-production and the death of art as a human creation. It is the only story in the bunch which suffers from a moderate info-dump of its scientific portion, received by the reader as the protagonist would receive it and so slightly better than the usual info-dump, but still present. However, it does have one of the sharper lines of the bunch, which packs quite a punch coming as it does after the protagonist has just found out that the company she loves won’t be hiring her to actually script or make digital movies, just to be a test audience so a computer program can make movies based on her responses: “So this is what it’s like to fall out of love.” Yet, the ending implies that she will take the job anyway, even if it means giving up the idea of making the art herself, because she will still be contributing to those “perfect” movies. It’s a rather grim story, but emotionally resonant, especially to an audience of folks who also are members of the creative field.

“Complete Sentence” by Joe Haldeman – The Haldeman is shallower, though well-written as one might expect from him. It has a plot-twist which I saw coming from the beginning, as it’s hardly a new idea — being trapped in the digital, mental prison by a fault in the person combined with a fault in the software. “Complete Sentence” is the story I cared for least out of the bunch.

“The Mark Twain Robots” by Ma Boyong – This is another satirical short piece, this time by a popular Chinese SF author (translated by Liu, also a contributor to this issue), and it does exactly what it needs to do — provides a commentary on the laws of robotics, while also providing social insight about the nature of humor; it leaves the reader both amused and thoughtful. I enjoyed the interplay between the team and the single professor who understands what the problems will be with trying to make a funny robot.

“Cody” by Pat Cadigan – Cadigan’s contribution is strong and evocative, both extrapolative and personally centered. While it features an idea that has been done before — data-couriering, using one’s own body to do so, this time the plasma in blood — it manages to take it to a new level. The nature of the job, and the protagonist’s blasé way of dealing with being kidnapped and having his blood forcibly filtered to try and steal the data he’s carrying, add a level of personal realness to an otherwise scientifically interesting story. (The world-building matches the major extrapolative cue of the story, which adds a definite concreteness; extrapolation continues to travel, food, hotels, et cetera.) The conclusion is particularly sharp, culminating in a dialogue exchange: an offer for a position away from the courier’s guild is made by a government official, and then he makes his own demands in return, because he’s a very special kind of specimen and has that leverage. Cody is a protagonist whose voice comes straight off the page; between that tonal resonance and the suspenseful nature of the plot, with its teasingly delicious bits of extrapolation, the story is particularly memorable.

“The Surface of Last Scattering” by Ken MacLeod – This is an emotional kicker of a story, the sort of socially aware narrative with underlying commentaries that MacLeod tends to do so well. The young-adult (convinced he’s a real adult) narrator is meeting his father, who was accused of releasing a bioweapon (deemed “the Rot” for its destruction of paper and paper-related products) and imprisoned for fifteen years, for the first time — in between his release from prison and his trip out into the world for good. The son is convinced his father didn’t do it; the truth is that he did, and he had good reason for it. He doesn’t regret his decision a bit, and thinks it’s done real good. Then, he leaves, and there’s a connection formed with a young woman the protagonist met earlier in the station. The transitory nature of the father-son connection, the catch-and-release aspect of it and the difficult truth the son must accept, are handled sparsely and perfectly by the prose.  The speculative element, again, is a fascinating one handled from an interesting angle. The other bits of science explored in the world-building, too, are fabulous — especially the metamaterial dome the title comes from, a visual representation of the cosmic microwave background. Good stuff, well-written.

“Specter-Bombing the Beer Goggles” by Paul Di Filippo – Another intriguing take on the dangers of the extremely interwoven, uploaded nature of the potential future, more personally connected than the satirical Doctorow story. In this case, the humor is still definitively present, but is situational in nature, as the narrator — whose job is to capture irradiated and evolved sewer monsters, effectively — tries to use an app to make all women look like elves. He meets one young lady who doesn’t use the overlay contacts in a bar and is chatting her up when a hack hits his app, presenting visions which aren’t there. The hack spreads through the bar and the city; when things go crazy, the analog girl is the one who can get him to safety, and their romance comes to fruition on the basis of her rescuing him. It’s not a story with deep content; it’s mostly surface commentary, but it’s comedic and strange while still retaining the necessary extrapolative element.

“Lonely Islands” by Tobias Buckell – Buckell’s contribution is a very short story which follows the meeting of a man with a woman his recommendation algorithms set him up with, in the middle of an energy protest in Ohio, where cars are being banned. It turns out that she’s a vehicle engineer, likes building fast cars and whatnot, and they cannot connect. The extrapolation is both about social networking software taken to a whole new level and an energy crisis, yet it’s a story about a man, not about the science. Its tiny size doesn’t take away from its effect in the least; if anything, that’s what makes it function.

“The Flame is Roses, The Smoke is Briars” by Gwyneth Jones – Jones’s prose is fabulous, no less so in this story than elsewhere; “The Flame is Roses, The Smoke is Briars” is beautiful from beginning to end. It’s almost painful, it’s so sharply evocative of both emotion and extrapolation. That sense of wonder so idealized for “hard” SF is present here, with the staggeringly excellent climax of the story after the initial prospective failure of the mental-communication experiments. The beauty of the ending imagery, the flaming roses, and the protagonist’s own reaction to what it means, are stunning:

“Yet still she wondered, did we destroy a universe today? Is there a lag, will we wink out of existence?

But everything seemed fine, so she drove on.”

This is one of the best stories in the issue, powerful and powerfully written, with layers of emotional and scientific significance. Jones gets a double-thumbs-up.

“Private Spaces” by Geoffrey A. Landis – “Private Spaces” is another strong story, illustrative of the motivation, high octane emotion, and danger of invention. The three protagonists find each other in college, fall apart, and come together again for a mad, brilliant idea which they finance to the hilt to try and win a scientific contest — but they fail. That ending is what makes the story’s personal, psychological heft really work; the expected success does not come, and the ending is more real-world. They all have to go their separate ways, financially devastated, and back to normal jobs, at the end. Their invention came so close — but didn’t make it. The bittersweet nature of the tale and the impact of the failure, after working so hard, on the characters takes it far and above a simple tale of invention into a different realm altogether. It’s another one of the issue’s top stories.

“Gods of the Forge” by Elizabeth Bear – Closing out the issue is Bear’s contribution, a story about psychology, society, and science that works on the idea of cognitive therapies which alter the mind — an ethically complex issue which the story does not pass final judgment on. (This idea is familiar to readers of her “Jacob’s Ladder” books, seeming to have a similar theoretical line from the planet in the final novel, which also uses this psychological surgery, in both stories called “rightminding.”) The ethical complexities are woven in via excerpted commercials and radio-program commentary, as well as the study that the protagonist stumbles upon by accident — which shows that there are military applications being tested that are effectively mind-control. The story ends with the protagonist conquering her previously explored PTSD-related terror in a climb up the side of her company’s building as she breaks into the scientist’s office to steal the data to leak to the public. The dangers and possibilities of the science are explored through implication and character commentary, while they themselves interact and act on their worlds in unique ways. The focus on climbing as metaphor and physical activity is an interesting angle to take in an SF tale that adds a level of reality to the proceedings. It’s powerful and extraordinarily well-written and coherent, built out of patchwork that fits together to form a strong whole. “Gods of the Forge” is one of the other best stories of the issue, and a perfect ending tale.

 

TRSF is a great first installment of a to-be-annual “hard” SF collection, balancing as it does the sense of possible wonder in future scientific advances with a cautiousness that the current SF field tends towards. That balance makes for a well-rounded and often ethically complex set of stories concerned with global developments and a global world — the prevalence of climate change, economic struggles, and greener futures in nearly all of the stories is proof positive of a more global focus, even if not in the direct extrapolative interests of the stories themselves — that fulfills exactly the directive editor Stephen Cass laid out in the introduction. The worlds in these stories are not narrow; they are wide, and widely concerned with not only invention but the effects of invention, on individuals especially but also on society as a whole.

Perhaps this type of speculation will not be to every reader’s taste, though it strikes me as essentially necessary to contemporary “hard” SF. The stories are to the last intriguing, concerned with the human element of scientific development, with the emotional consequences as well as the future potential. While the best of these stories transcend their material to be not only intriguing but gripping and evocative — “Gods of the Forge,” “The Fire is Roses, The Smoke is Briars,” “Private Spaces,” “Indra’s Web” and “Cody” in particular — nearly every one is a good, potentially even great, story, doing something interesting and worthwhile with its material.

I would recommend picking up a copy of this special issue — it’s a great, small-anthology sort of publication, with a focus that’s just wide enough to allow for variety and unique content between all of its contributors. Plus, the wide range of those contributors is something to encourage, producing as it does such a varied, global and fascinating end result.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

3 comments
PhoenixFalls
1. PhoenixFalls
Ooooo, heard about this a while back but didn't know it was out yet. It sounds fabulous. . . off to the order form! :)
Bob Blough
3. Bob
Brit,
I feel as if you have told me everything that happens in each story. I read the first four reviews and stopped, sampled two more to see if you continued the trend - but still - I have a copy to read but now have to wait to read it (having forgotton what you wrote) because I feel I know what happens in each story. Shouldn't reviews tell enough to entice but not enough to spoil?

Bob

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