Review: Twelve Tomorrows, ed. Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling needs little introduction and nor does the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Twelve Tomorrows, perhaps, does. It’s a relatively new tradition for the university’s MIT Technology Review magazine, first appearing in 2011 as TRSF, a science fiction anthology containing twelve stories, each ostensibly focusing on a distinct area of technology plus a gallery of one’s artist’s work.
Come 2013, the format had altered slightly; now titled Twelve Tomorrows and in the stewardship of the same editor, it still contained twelve stories and a gallery but also introduced a Q&A with an additional author and allowed its writers to range wherever in the near future they wished. This brings us to last year’s edition with Sterling as guest editor: a Q&A, a gallery and… nine short stories. The twelfth tomorrow is a book review. Irrespective of your thoughts on the non-fiction inclusions, I was surprised that here we have only 75% of the stories one might reasonably expect based on the anthology’s pedigree and title, particularly given the precedent set by the 2011 and 2013 collections.
Let’s look at what we do have. The anthology opens with Lauren Beukes’s ‘Slipping’, which imagines a relaxation of sporting regulations permitting athletes to enhance themselves technologically. This, of course, is driven by the neoliberal impulse to open everything up to markets. Where better to let potential contractors to Big Pharma and the defence industries test zombie mind control, brain-dead soldiers in augmented power armour, gene-spliced furries and pseudo-organic cyborgs than track and field? The concept sounds funny but Beukes plays it straight and lets the humanity of her characters shine through the implicit grimness of her concept.
The big-name draw for this anthology is undoubtedly William Gibson. His writing oozes studied post-corporate cool, very slick and smart; it’s highly readable even as you want to simultaneously throw up and slap his characters (which is fine; I’m sure they’re not intended to be likable). ‘Death Cookie/Easy Ice’ is nominally about a tribe of people who sort-of fixed the Great Pacific garbage patch – that vile maelstrom of plastic particulate and rubbish in the North Pacific Gyre that’s spread at least as wide as Texas – and ended up living on it, and who may or may not be practicing cannibalism, seriously extensive body modification and weirder stuff besides. The next ambassador the outside world is sending down is a performance artist and if she has a plan beyond gliding down there and trying to get naked no one talks about it. This is confusing but no less so than the violence that constitutes a conclusion. It turns out that this story is stitched together from early chapters of The Peripheral, Gibson’s latest novel. Context, I guess, comes later; here we just get opacity. Lovely prose, though.
More sensibly structured but sadly less engaging was Pat Cadigan’s ‘Business As Usual’. Some pleasant and mildly humorous characterisation aside, it’s not got much to say. What it does offer largely concerns the “internet of things” and talking to fridges, which are literally the two public perceptions of this area of tech that a later story jokingly mocks. Unfortunate. ‘Business As Usual’ is supposed to be funny because it is funny for a fridge to ask penetrating questions about human nature because it doesn’t understand the lying and self-destructive impulses of its owners and it can be funny that the default corporate response to ethical problems is usually to sweep them under the rug but it would be nice if the story had either something more to add to these ideas or, indeed, a better joke. As it is, this story is merely cute.
Another story that falls a little short is Warren Ellis’s ‘The Shipping Forecast’ but I liked it a lot more. He’s written special ops espionage, sneaky violence and naturalistic humour many times before and here pulls it off again. He also does a fine line in incidental worldbuilding, economically pulling off a vivid snapshot of a world altered by economic shift and climate change as well as London’s place within that. Overall the tale is a delivery vector for an idea about why corporate power might choose to do something off-grid, which is interesting to read and nod along to but which doesn’t occupy the mind subsequently. Still: an interesting idea packaged in an engaging story is the modus operandi of the science fiction short and therefore why am I expecting more? Because I like Ellis’s work, I suppose.
A number of stories in this anthology can be thematically drawn together, albeit loosely, because all concern the concept of ‘disruption’, a market theory term that’s gained popularity in common parlance, both in that context and in reference to technological disruption. When you’re talking futurism in the Western world, you’re talking both, and so it is with the stories by Christopher Brown, Cory Doctorow and Paul Graham Raven. Happily, none of these authors plump for the tidy, predictable narrative of a new technology disrupting the world and making it better.
Brown’s ‘Countermeasures’ opens with high-tech espionage and follows that with some public/private political collusion, all of which should be exciting but left me cold. I suspect the self-conscious bleeding edge futurist vibe is probably why and that’s just personal preference. Happily, I found something for me once the story developed a little more and forayed into idea territory. ‘Countermeasures’ manages to blend an interesting cocktail from the role of crowdsourcing and social networking in post-internet revolution political consciousness, the labour value of user-generated content on web services built on same and entrepreneurial disruption as personal-political liberation.
I went into Doctorow’s ‘Petard: A Tale Of Just Deserts’ with reservations: I like Doctorow because his bouncy writing tends to carry you along but I find his politics suspiciously neat (if, in essence, agreeable). Happily, while this tale opens up with a plucky young techhead who is working to #changetheworld with his open source #TechActivism that could be a business but doesn’t need to be because #OldModelsAreStupidAndObsolete, it wrongfoots you and darts into less travelled territory. Rather than simply being about the smart young things beating the dinosaurs of big business and changing the world for the better, it looks instead at how existent power structures could seduce the smart young things with the appeal of clever modern business models and exciting problem-solving challenges. It draws a potentially uncomfortable link between the sociopathy of corporate structure and power, and techheads who are more obsessed with problems than people. It’s one of my favourites from this collection.
Another favourite, Raven’s ‘Los Piratas Del Mar De Plastico’ appears right after Gibson’s contribution and, given the title, I worried that it would also concern the Pacific garbage patch. Happily the plastic ocean in question is a vast field of greenhouses in Southern Spain, an impoverished region which receives the bounteous gift of piratical entrepreneurs swanning in to disrupt and profit. Raven’s prose is dense and chewy – in stark contrast with Gibson’s sharp, fragmented style – but his voice soon establishes itself. The story concerns the confluence of technology, business, grey/black markets and, more importantly, what’s left behind after they move on as well as alternatives to the meta-narrative of ‘wealth creation’. I enjoyed it for its earthiness, empathy and thoughtfulness, even if it does commit a minor sin with one character’s slightly cringeworthy Glaswegian dialect.
Joel Garreau’s ‘Persona’ is about the bifurcation of personalities into clone receptacles – to facilitate multi-tasking, basically – and their subsequent re-integration, all through the prism of academics and academia. The experiment is all going reasonably well until the media catch wind of it. ‘Persona’ could easily be a ‘science gone wrong!’ or ‘conservatives hate science!’ story but after leading you up that road it surprises you with an ambush. The concluding events failed to convince me – they don’t at all follow from the characters as previously established – but I still liked the tale for its clever ideas and sleight of hand.
Finally we have Sterling himself. It is generally frowned upon to include yourself in an anthology you’re editing but this is Sterling so I’m sure we’ll all forgive him. ‘The Various Mansions Of The Universe’ follows an older married couple, one of whom has died and been brought back thanks to some advanced medical tech. The other underwent the same procedures in an act of solidarity. Now they’re hunting for a place to live that fits them psychologically and grumbling about the world as it is and was along the way. It’s largely an excuse for Sterling to explore and expound upon some of his ideas, on which your mileage may vary (I find it frustrating that he doesn’t bother reiterating his conceptual frameworks; you just have to run with him, though it is a fascinating run) but either way the story is carried by the emotional warmth of its protagonist duo.
As for the non-fiction components, the Gene Wolfe Q&A is interesting and ranges widely for a short interview, offering lots of tidbits to chew on, though I’m not sure how it connects with the general thematic territories the collection otherwise explores. It leaves me wanting to read more Wolfe, though, which is inherently good.
I was similarly puzzled by the John Schoenherr gallery, much as I enjoyed the prints of his Dune work. There’s no introduction to contextualise the art included, and the obvious argument – that it represents ‘futurist visions of antiquity’ in an effort at juxtaposition – doesn’t stand as that’s not what any of the pieces present are about. Still, they’re nice pictures and the ‘Jaenshi Warrior’ illustrations introduced me to a new source of George Lucas’s rampant plagiarism, so I learned something too.
We end with Peter Swirski’s review of Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae, which – you may sense a pattern – also threw me a little. It left me wanting to read this fifty-year old book, which is wonderful, but why is it reviewed here? It’s not a 2014 connection as it was translated into English for the first time in 2013; Swirski’s other review of this book (available online at Skefia and io9) even describes its publication as “one of the main literary events of 2013”. The closest I can come to a convincing theory is that it demonstrates how a thoughtful scientist and writer can imagine futures that need not date quickly.
Twelve Tomorrows is a strong collection of stories, perhaps largely because MIT and Bruce Sterling carry such substantial SF cultural cachet, and their professional interests lend the solicited writers some thematic common ground. I’m perturbed by the reduced number of stories, as well as the selection process for the non-fiction inclusions. Concerns aside, this book offers a good mix of entertaining reads and food for the grey matter, comprising a respectable variety of both cautionary and hopeful visions of tomorrow.