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The best science fiction thinks — and looks — slightly beyond the horizon of the possible. Think of Ray Bradbury’s Martian colonists slowly losing their minds and humanity. Or Frank Herbert’s warring houses, corporations, planets and religions 10,000 years in the future, in a macrocosm of our world.
This month, a new science fiction anthology takes the cutting edge science of now — tech like robotics, gene editing and space colonization — around the corner to surprising places.
In "Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow," a disease surveillance robot’s social programming gets put to the test. In a future in which everyone receives universal basic income, it’s still not enough. And in a futuristic sport, all the athletes have been chemically and physically enhanced.
Future Tense is a partnership of Arizona State University, the online magazine Slate and the think tank New America that explores emerging technologies, public policy and society. Beginning in 2016, Future Tense commissioned a series of stories from leading writers that imagined what life might be like in a variety of possible futures. The book is a selection of those pieces.
The book’s 14 stories explore a wide range of ideas about social structures and technologies, viewed through themes of memory, sports, home, work, artificial intelligence and data.
The authors “often look for signals of things that are emerging,” said Joey Eschrich, one of the book’s editors and program manager for ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.
“Because we encourage the authors to think about how we’re going to live in the future and think of these as useful fictions in some way, I think in a lot of cases they’re thinking about that ethical and social landscape and saying, ‘These are things we should probably be talking about now,’” Eschrich said. “These are things that if we’re not armed with some information and some mental practice around the technology, it’s much easier for it to get out of control quickly.”
He pointed to author Maureen McHugh’s sports-themed story centered around human enhancement.
“You can already see these kinds of questions about what makes us human bubbling up in real life, and what’s fair and what are the boundaries of what’s sporting,” he said. “Those are going to start to matter in everyday life, too.”
Initially McHugh was not thrilled with the straw she drew.
“They said, ‘Oh, by the way, the theme for this summer is sports,’” McHugh said. “And I thought, ‘I’m a science fiction writer. Science fiction writers are nerds. We do not play sports!’”
She chose gymnastics, an Olympic sport. She had been listening to science blogs about the gene editing tool CRISPR. She also recalled a story about a young Chinese gymnast who was practicing the day before a meet. She missed her vault and broke her neck.
“The two just kinda came together,” McHugh said. She watched hours of young gymnasts on YouTube to the point where, “If I had a daughter who was really good at gymnastics I’d break her ankle.”
In McHugh’s story, a young gymnast who became paralyzed has her body repaired using starfish DNA. When she reenters competition, the question arises: Is she still human or not?
McHugh doesn’t foresee a future where there are different types of humans in sports, in the same way there are different cars in autosports.
“I actually don’t,” she said. “I think we might start in that direction, but what I think will happen is gene editing will become much more mainstream. Right now, the Olympic committee is in a quandry about intersex and trans people since sports has always been gender divided. It’s built on a model that’s outdated.”
Torie Bosch, an editor in residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, worked with Eschrich and others on the book.
“We were so, so fortunate to have this caliber of writer willing to work with us,” she said of McHugh and the other writers who responded.
“The two stories that are similar in topic and not in theme that stand out to me in a way that’s interesting are ‘Mika Model’ by Paolo Bacigalupi and Annalee Newitz’s ‘When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,’” Bosch said. “I love those two stories and thinking about them together because they show such incredibly different depictions of social robotics, of how humans and robots might interact and the challenges we might come up against. One is sort of a noirish detective story about this robotic femme fatale and one is an epidemic story about a really adorable cute robot. They show the breadth of the futures we’re imagining here.”
Each story is paired with original art and a response essay online, which is penned by an expert in that field.
“Just as we have this really illustrious list of fiction authors in the book, we also have a really illustrious list of experts in fields who have responded to these stories and who have helped contextualize them — to help people think about how these stories might help them think about debates we face today,” Bosch said.
The book showcases a wide range of styles. Some are more contemplative. Some are more action-oriented. Some feel literary, but with a scientific or technologic core.
“Science fiction is a deliberative intervention and a tool for thinking critically, as well as being an entertaining story,” Eschrich said. “We want the stories to be good and to have literary merit, but we also want them to work on people’s minds in a certain way.”
A launch event with a panel discussion will be held at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Oct. 10.
Top: Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Courtesy of Future Tense