Twelve Tomorrows

The end of literature, the end of reading, the end of culture, the end of history: we read about these things. He's a pretty great scholar, Randy Malamud, even if I don't know that I trust his book Poetic Animals and Animal Souls, but his recent story in the books section of Huffington Post (to which I REFUSE to direct you) is really just linkbait, and there's no other word for most of these stories.

Mind you -- times are seriously hard in some publishing circles, and for booksellers. These are my people, and I hate that their futures are so unstable, that their commitments to literate and literary culture are so unpleasantly at tension with profit-taking corporate behaviour. Because I can't see that the MIT Technology Review is likely to be suffering, I don't like their decision to publish the occasional SF short-story anthology: it's poaching.

But it's also terrific, their efforts in this area.

Every short-story collection has its weak links, and Twelve Tomorrows is no different, but a half-dozen of these are outstanding. The opening piece is well worth your time, a Q&A with Neal Stephenson, on stage at MIT, on ideas of futurity and art and big data and writing while walking on a treadmill, and the clear majority of the fiction ranges upward from merely insightful. Some highlights for me:
  • Ian McDonald's "The Future Will Not Be Refrigerated," which explains why one future revolution's statue will commemorate a satellite dish, a game console, and a refrigerator;
  • Allen M. Steele's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," a barely updated old-school story on the collision between religion and space travel;
  • Nancy Fulda's "The Cyborg and the Cemetery," an intimate look at an elderly man whose prosthetic leg, long ago, accidentally became sentient;
  • Peter Watts' "Firebrand," which ingeniously manages to blend spontaneous human combustion with both greenwashing and green technology, including an explosion in a Burnaby Starbucks; and
  • Justin Robson's "Pwnage," which might be the smartest story in the collection, about an MI5 agent in a near-future where we've become our phones, who spends her time provoking forms of insurrection so they can be squashed -- who inadvertently witnesses a miraculously subversive networked use of the new technology against corporate domination.
From the must-read site Mind-Blowing Science
My favourite paragraph is one of Robson's, where her narrator explains the future Cloud:
As the codesmiths in the foundry that underlies all communications forge the codes of law into the Cloud itself with their programming skills and their government mandates, there is still conviction that solid matter can be manufactured out of vapours in the air. The Human Cloud is nerdvana. The Cloud is the natural evolved result of human minds soaring toward the singularity, but--oh, hold your bated breath, cherubs--together. (p.169)
The best SF reframes your own world, and gives you a perspective from which to consider the one that's coming. Each of these five stories does that, Justina Robson's best of all in my view (today, at least!), but I've got terrible news: this collection's going to drive you to add a half-dozen MORE BOOKS onto your reading list. And when the singularity comes, we're going to have even more books uselessly on our bedside tables than we were going to have before we picked up Twelve Tomorrows.


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