On predicting the future: Thoughts after reading 2084.

2084Science fiction shouldn’t necessarily be about predicting the future. First and foremost, it should be about telling a story. With interesting characters. In science fiction, there is a usually some form of social commentary or maybe a warning. If we as a society travel down path a. them the future may well look like scenario b. Some science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to push technology and knowledge in certain directions. It is therefore impossible to tell whether any given prediction is indeed that, or an inspiration. So we come to 2084.

Inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949), 2084 is a Kickstarted book of short stories published by Unsung. Declaration of interest: you’ll find my name in the back as I contributed and received the paperback edition. According to Unsung:

“Fifteen predictions, seventy years in the future. By 2084 the world we know is gone. These are stories from our world seven decades later.

In 1948 George Orwell looked at the world around him and his response was 1984, now a classic dystopian novel. Here fifteen writers asked themselves the same question as Orwell did – where are we going, and what is our future?”

I am a fan of both Nineteen Eighty-Four specifically, and dystopias in general, so there is a lot of appeal in the ideas of 2084, which is why I contributed. I think it is important that great writers embrace a particular vision. I’m just a tad uncomfortable with the term ‘prediction’. And there are some great writers and some terrific stories on display here.

So what do we have?

The collection gets off to a cracking start with the brilliant Dave Hutchinson. Each story takes a different view of the future, and in just about every case, extrapolates from our world today:

Babylon by Dave Hutchinson tackles immigration from war-torn nations, and the search for a new world. Europe’s borders are sealed up. Maybe Brexit is just the beginning?

Here comes the flood by Desirina Boskovich is about climate change and environmentalism, with a touch of reality TV thrown in for fun. There is a sub-plot about over-population too.

Fly away, Peter from Ian Hocking is set in a Germanic future and is a comment on education, discipline and control. It has an unsettling climax that won’t be for everyone.

A good citizen from Anne Charnock takes the ideas of democracy, reality TV and referenda to extremes, and is perhaps the closest in tone to Orwell.

The Ending Market by E.J. Swift (perhaps my favourite of the stories on show here) is a horrific vision of endangered species and capitalism. A natural progression of the free-market economy where everything has a price.

Glitterati by Oliver Langmead is an odd little take about the obsessions of the beautiful elite, the powerful and the fashionable, with a particularly icky ending. Which I really enjoyed.

Room 149 by Jeff Noon is a suitably weird tale actually set 10 years after 2084. Like Hocking’s story, Noon’s is fairly Orwellian, as the title suggests. People are arrested for crimes against the state and ‘stored’, terminated or sent back to Earth.

Percepi from Courittia Newland examines the future of robots and ends with the inevitable rise of the machines. There has to be one, but this is the least successful story in the collection for me.

Degrees of elision by Cassandra Khaw has a prose style unlike anything else in the collection; and one I totally appreciate. Observe: truth is subjective and relationships are fragile. Life can be edited. Very Black Mirror.

The Infinite Eye from JP Smythe is all about surveillance and in a nod to Philip K Dick’s Minority Report sees drones and other tech assisting police in finding crimes that have not yet happened.

Saudade Minus One (S-1=) by Irenosen Okojie (btw, Saudade is a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament) features stillborn children brought to life by technology.

March, April, May by Malcolm Devlin is a great tale of defiance in a world dominated by a Facebook-type environment where everyone is monitored by their posts and habits. The modern filter-bubble gone to the nth degree. And how news is controlled by those in power. Damn those algorithms.

2084 Satoshi AD from Lavie Tidhar extrapolates bitcoin and it’s mysterious inventor into a branded future. Celebrity culture and media dominate life.

Uniquo from Aliya Whitely is the story of an augmented reality rollercoaster, and the power of dreams.

Shooting an episode by Christopher Priest, the final story in the collection, features the world of interactive gaming and extreme violence. Everyone is sheep. Again, reality TV is the big bad.

There isn’t really any duff stories in this collection, but none are outstanding. It is a solid and enjoyable (?) collection of short stories. One thing that stands out in this collection is there is very little that these 15 authors see as positive in our future. AIs and technology are out of control. Those in power keep those without down. Everyone is rated, policed and subjugated, often by their own actions and thoughts. It almost feels like there is no future.

Obviously, these stories were meant to reflect Orwell’s vision of the future. They are meant, as science fiction, to be predictions. But in the loosest sense possible. I can’t imagine for a second that Priest is actually predicting that we would happily watch a person being blown up in front of them, for entertainment, or Swift believes that humanity will end up buying the last Sumatran tiger for prestige. And if any of these futures comes true, for sure, we’re screwed.

George Sandison, editor of the collection, writes “There are warnings in this book – we would do well to heed them.” Indeed.

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Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

Haunted FuturesHaunted Futures is a KickStarter-ed (is that a verb yet?) multi-genre anthology of what might be described as weird fiction, taking a look at life, and sometimes more importantly, death, in a variety of futures. And maybe one present. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: To the future – yours, ours, everyone’s. May it be haunted by only the delightful specters. [sic]

The idea of being haunted is an interesting concept. Haunting usually has negative connotations. Someone who looks haunted might be anxious or distressed or worried. A place that is haunted is associated with death, often tragic. But it can also mean to be pre-occupied or obsessed with a memory or an emotion. So who and what has Jones compiled here with this crowdfunded collection of short stories.

Well, there are a couple of headline acts: Warren Ellis, Tricia Sullivan and Jeff Noon. And a bunch of writers I’ve not come across before. Let’s have a brief look at each of these stories and see what they came up with under the banner concept of haunted futures:

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

The collection begins with the story of a mother whose daughter has left home and is thinking of getting a dog. Darla, the daughter, disappears and Marit, frantic, tries to piece together the mystery. She uses a system call Genie (which I guess is the future version of Amazon’s Alexa) that provides for you using algorithms. This is an interesting take about control, and getting on with life. Shoulders’ writing is engaging and draws you into the story.

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

We’re now in alien invasion territory. There are ships from somewhere else, but no actual aliens. Rawlik’s tale is like a disaster movie from the point of view of reasonably ordinary folk. There are plenty of ideas from the movies, such as the Mechs and the interiors of the space ships. The theme seems to be about population control. There is talk of terraforming Mars. A fun and satisfying read.

Split Shadow by SL Huang

Huang has written a powerful story about something you don’t usually come across in science fiction; mental health. This feels like a very honest telling. The story concerns friendships amongst what might be perceived as the underclasses – the mentally ill, the addicted, the homosexual. In the future, people can be split into the good parts of themselves and the ill or depraved part. That part doesn’t usually survive, but sometimes… Dora sets up a support group for the splits and finds friendship and hope. It is a very human story that reminded me of Never Let Me Go and Spares.

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

What is art? What is life if not art? I really like the premise of this tale, although the execution isn’t quite there. But that’s a personal preference as I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction. A serious of letters from a man to his wife interspersed with her coming out of some kind of medical condition. The slow reveal through the letters is great and the payoff is terrific and quite heart-breaking.

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

I’m quite a fan of Sullivans. She tends to have pretty sharp takes on technology. In this story she takes a look at the future of augmented reality. There is some proper darkness here, as the AR people use has attracted their dead relatives – who won’t leave our protagonists alone. How do we think about death and the dead, when they can still exist with us – but they’re not ghosts! While the previous stories have been good, Sullivan’s skilled prose really stands out in the collection (only really matched later by Noon).

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

I didn’t quite get this one. Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books but this is the first time I’ve read his prose. It is good, but left me a little cold, despite having an absolute cracker of an opening line. It reads like a fairly dry, almost technical story of death and doing a job, as the Exotic Crimes Squad goes about its business. It sounds intriguing, but it lost me a little.

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

Another epistolary tale; diary entries from someone who might be described as a network engineer. There are cameras everything and data on everything. Someone has to watched. But there’s a glitch. A ghost. But is it in the network or is it in the person? Half way through, this short also becomes a comment on celebrity worship, as the engineer spots the odd and repetitive behaviour of one of the most famous people on the planet. There’s interesting traces of past and/or future for the reader to ponder. My thoughts are that the ghost is more likely to be in the person than in the machine.

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

Another issue not normally found in speculative fiction (unless you’re Neil Gaiman): homelessness. This is an enjoyable story of how a rich and successful salesman of wonder footwear ends up on the streets. In this case, amusingly, he jumps on a health-food bandwagon which has an unfortunate effect! He tells the story to another successful protagonist…and has he infected her too?

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

This is the second story in the collection that I just didn’t get. Again, more of a preference thing. This is a second person grand vision of ancients and abysses and galactic gates. I’m not even sure that the story is here as I was totally disengaged.

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

Meanwhile, this was proper fun. A very short story about the titular drug. I love Stolze’s idea of a drug that can give you the confidence of a Bond-like spy. This is about infidelity and the very nature of existence told via the medium of drug control – or the lack thereof. A confident and entertaining read.

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

Shift is another entertaining piece; this time about a civil war. Humanity has been split into two – the pure humans and animal-human hybrids caused by the integration of animal DNA. More spying and suchlike too. I think that this is also a story of teenage love in adversity. And with the graffiti too, just the struggle of being a young outsider… I love the idea reveal of the gran character. Lots to like here, although I’m not sure of the science in this science fiction – a human to a wren?

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

A real oddity in this collection. Reppion’s story feels like an old-fashioned horror. Set in an abandoned railway station in the middle of a cemetery it is creepy and surprising. The theme turns out to be plants versus animal and it so very effective – especially the scenes ‘out of time’. Readable and enjoyable as a standalone, and while the theme might just resonate with the idea of haunted futures, the style and tone are out of place here.

Future Noir by Michael Grey

The title says it all. This is science fiction noir at its most entertaining. The afterlife has been proved. So how does that affect religion, technology and life itself, when everyone knows that there is more after this existence. But there’s a problem. Of course. How do you solve the first murder in 20 years, when you can communicate with the dead. Grey handles the dilemnas well. A great read.

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

I have no idea what happens in this story. There are at least two Arks. People want to see the sky. There are leaders. There are population issues. Each passage starts with a meaningless date and population numbers, which don’t seem to relate to the prose. Either I’ve completely missed the point or this is too smart for its own good. I could not find a way into this story at all. Not for me.

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

Back on deliciously safe ground with Noon. Nobody writes quite like him. We’re in a post-human world. Mind-body duality is considered alongside machine-flesh duality. Technology has failed, so what happens to the technology within a person? And what happens when someone dies and someone loves that person? A key to the success of this story is Noon’s descriptive prose, and his integration of music and the emotions it engenders. Powerful stuff.

As usual with any collection of short stories, some stand out and some simply don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. Tastes vary, but there’s something for most fans of speculative fiction here. And the best thing about collections like this is that they give voice to new or unknown names. I’ll be looking up Greg Stolze, John Reppion and SL Huang for sure… Alex Acks is definitely one to keep an eye on too. For me, the best in this collection come from Noon, Huang and Reppion. Nods to Schwarz, Sullivan, Grey and Stolze.

Haunted? In some case I think these stories hit the brief. The stories about death are particularly germane. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but maybe as a species, optimism is undeserved. I think this is an interesting collection of ideas and styles that, with the one contextual misstep, is worth any fan of speculative fiction’s time.

 

 

Note: I contributed to this project via KickStarter. Find out more: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/960264226/ghostwoods-books-our-2014-15-list-of-6-to-8-books