Is the Future Optimistic or Pessimistic? N.K. Jemisin, Paul Tremblay, and More Look Forward in New Sci-Fi Collection

Black Crouch, author of Dark Matter and curator of Amazon Publishing’s new sci-fi short fiction collection Forward, had a pretty winning pitch to convince authors like N.K. Jemisin and Andy Weir to sign on: “You all have these incredibly high-pressure gigs you’re doing—this is no-pressure,” he recalled saying, at New York Comic-Con’s Forward panel. “This is just pure fun. Don’t you kinda just want to write something crazy that you would never think of writing as your next novel?”

As it turned out, those authors and more—Veronica Roth, Paul Tremblay, and Amor Towles—were very interested in dipping their toes into near- or far-futures for the space of a short story or novella. And so the collection, with six installments that each turn on a pivotal technological moment, was born. At NYCC, all of the contributors (minus Weir, who moderator Jason Kirk joked “had to science the shit out of something”) discussed the freedom to experiment with short fiction and what to pass on to future generations.

The other half of Crouch’s pitch was the lower-stakes appeal of the short fiction sphere: “You get to take more chances. You get to write some crazy endings; you get to write some crazy beginnings.” More about each story, from Amazon’s initial announcement in April:

  • Weir’s “Randomize” imagines a high-tech Las Vegas casino heist; the audiobook is narrated by Janina Gavankar (True Blood)
  • Tremblay’s “The Last Conversation” immerses readers in a patient’s mysteriously slow healing process; narrated by Steven Strait (The Expanse)
  • Towles’ “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” explores a fertility clinic’s god-like abilities to alter an unborn child’s life path; narrated by David Harbour (Stranger Things)
  • Roth’s “Ark” spins a story of finding connection in the face of our world’s certain destruction; narrated by Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld)
  • Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin” subverts all expectations when an explorer returns to the ravaged Earth his ancestors fled; narrated by Jason Isaacs (Star Trek: Discovery)
  • Crouch’s “Summer Frost” follows a video game designer whose character Maxine unexpectedly “wakes up”; narrated by Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel)

“Any media format can tell stories about people,” said Jemisin, “depending on whether the author chooses to tell stories about people. But the short fiction format is a nice little taster versus the whole smorgasbord of the human condition that a novel can give you. A lot of time for people who either don’t have the time or maybe they’ve got a commute to go through—I got into short stories mostly because I had to commute back and forth to work, and a short story was just the perfect amount of time for commuter rail in Boston in the cold.”

It may not be a Boston winter, but Jemisin’s story “Emergency Skin” puts readers into the position of an unnamed explorer who has returned to old Earth, after humanity left to create a new colony on another planet. Though the explorer never speaks on this journey, he’s not alone—he’s got an Alexa-like virtual assistant (voiced by Isaacs) as his companion for his interstellar commute.

Roth praised the narrower focus of a shorter piece and the freedom “if I want to talk about one emotion more deeply, one character, without thinking of the currency of my made-up world, the plumbing. … [It’s like] ‘OK cool, let’s focus this one person, one moment, dealing with one thing… Thank goodness!'” she laughed.

Despite the varying range of settings (both physical and spatial) among the six stories, Kirk identified a fascinating thematic thread: the literal or metaphorical relationship between parents and progeny, whether receiving the past through a parental figure or giving the future to the generations who come after.

Tremblay built upon the more figurative version of this in “The Last Conversation,” noting that “you only know who you are by what other people tell you, or your memories, which change over time.” He delighted in experimenting with second-person perspective in the exchange between another unnamed protagonist, in a dark room, receiving instructions from a voice beyond the room to help them restore their lost memories.

Roth’s “Ark” seems to address this relationship the most literally, as it takes place on the eve of an imminent apocalypse: with an asteroid approaching Earth, a young woman considers not evacuating, in order to watch the apocalypse happen, even for just a few moments. In reflecting on her short life on Earth, she recalls a moment in which her father apologized for giving her a life. “[It’s] relatable to a lot of people because the world is a difficult and painful place,” she said. “Even though we would all prefer to exist rather than not exist, there’s something complicated about giving birth to a child knowing that destruction is on its way. …My story’s real upbeat.”

It would seem the most relevant question to ask this group is: Are they optimistic about the future?

“I am a staunch pessimist,” Roth said, “but when I write, it’s usually to challenge myself, challenge my own assumptions about the world and people. And so I end up with optimism in my work even though I experience almost none of it in my life.”

Crouch mentioned the Fermi Paradox, the prevailing theory regarding when a species reaches a certain level of intelligence and self-awareness to either make their lives inherently better or wipe themselves off the map. “I think the Fermi Paradox is a terrifying harbinger for maybe how the rest of the universe has dealt with that moment of power,” he said. “I hope that we make better decisions.”

Tremblay pointed to what he calls “weird horror optimism” in the form of “the hope of horror”: “What I mean by that is, the best horror stories—and genre stories, in general—there’s a reveal of truth. In horror it’s typically a personal truth, a societal truth. The recognition of the terrible truth, there’s value in that. We know something is terribly wrong. I take comfort and value in that.”

“I think the creation of art is an intrinsically optimistic act,” Towles said. “Even if pessimistic while building it, you’re assuming you’re creating something that will affect somebody—touch them, give them a glimpse of the world. I find my optimism is grounded less in what’s going to happen a thousand years from now. I find comfort in the idea of the galaxy going on without us. But on the opposite end, I take comfort in the fact that as humans we can experience beauty on a daily basis. We can experience passion, joy, laughter, even under trying circumstances.”

“I don’t think about it as pessimism or optimism,” Jemisin said. “I think about it as relativism.” Climate change isn’t necessarily a harbinger of the apocalypse, she said, and humans are extremely adaptable as a species. What it comes down to is that “everyone’s utopia is someone else’s apocalypse,” she said. “We keep talking about the world as if it’s idyllic and safe now, and it’s not.” Looking ahead to hypothetical futures, she went on, what each of us is concerned with for ourselves, and what aspects of ourselves might change, makes us afraid of change. “But the change will come, and someone will survive. The question is, how will we do that.”

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