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Issue #126 - February 2006

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Present Worries

By Cheryl Morgan

Iím trying hard to avoid reviewing anthologies these days, but when one comes in with a beautiful John Picacio cover, and is edited by Lou Anders, the book is hard to resist. Anders, of course, produced the highly regarded Live Without a Net, and it is likely that anything new he produces will also contain some very good stories. Also the new book, Futureshocks, has an interesting theme.

In his introduction Anders refers to Alvin Tofflerís famous concept of "future shock," that being the discomfort that arises from the culture one has grown up with being supplanted by a new and more technologically advanced one. There are still people alive today who remember a world where motorcars were rare. My own life has seen the rise of television, space travel and the Internet. And books like Charlie Strossís Accelerando hold out the prospect of even faster technological advances to come. So Anders has got together a bunch of professional futurologists (i.e. science fiction writers) and asked them to speculate about what might produce future shock in years to come.

Of course with any venture like this the vision of the future presented is in part a function of the views of the editor, and of the people likely to submit stories to him. I note, for example, that there are several stories that anticipate the world being taken over by Evil Republican Fundamentalist Christian Monsters who oppress everyone. There are no stories about how the USA is so weakened by the actions of Commie Pinko Faggot Bleeding Heart Liberals that it gets taken over by Raghead Terrorist Fundamentalists who oppress everyone. There is one story about how everyone converts to Judaism when a scientist develops a means to seeing God, but like so many pro-Jewish stories it is as much a self-deprecating joke about Jews as it is propaganda.

With that caveat in mind, what do science fiction writers worry about? Possibly the most interesting aspect of the book is that, although there are no stories specifically about the environment, many of the writers assume that by the time their stories take place the Earthís ecology will have been wrecked, perhaps sufficiently that everyone has to live in protective domes. This isnít the focus of the stories, it is more background, the way that in the 1950ís all stories tended to assume that by the 21st Century weíd all have air cars and household robots, and would take our holidays on Mars.

While political worries affect many of the stories, another common theme is that of increasing social control in the workplace. "Shuteye for the Timebroker" by Paul di Filippo and "The Pearl Diver" by Caitlín R. Kiernan both imagine worlds in which all workers are subject to draconian behavior rules and transgressing them results not just in the loss of your job, but expulsion from middle class society. Sean McMullen in "The Engines of Arcadia" goes further and imagines a world in which Eloi-like humans are programmed to endlessly act out lives from a formula fantasy novel (the romance sub-genre rather than the quest sub-genre) in order to keep society "safe".

Other writers focus on more specific ideas. Alan Dean Fosterís "The Man Who Knew Too Much" speculates about a new sickness called knowledge addiction. If learning can be automated, he reasons, there will be people who simply canít get enough knowledge. Kevin J. Anderson in "Job Qualifications" speculates about how political candidates might make use of clones of themselves to help them get close to the electorate. And Chris Robersonís "Contagion" is about a world in which sucking the blood of certain people makes a lot of sense.

One or two writers looked much further into the future than I had expected given the theme. John Meaneyís "Looking Through Motherís Eyes", while a great story, makes a better dark fantasy tale than a prediction of future biology. Adam Robertsí "Man You Gotta Go", on the other hand, while looking very far into the future, provides an interesting explanation of Fermiís Paradox, and of the likely fate of mankind.

A couple of stories also managed to find news ways in which civil rights would be extended in the future. Paul Melkoís "The Teosinte War" imagines a world in which "alternate history" doesnít mean authors having clever ideas, but rather historians interfering in the timelines of parallel universes, sometimes with tragic consequences. Robert Charles Wilson, in "The Cartesian Theatre", one of the standout stories in the anthology, imagines a world in which it is possible to kill people for entertainment without committing a crime. The background to Wilsonís idea is that the world has become so prosperous, and automation so prevalent, that no one needs to work. This, he speculates, will lead to few people bothering to work, and to those who donít seeking more and more degraded forms of entertainment in order to combat their boredom. It is a much darker vision of Eloi life than McMullen produces, but possibly preferable to having to spend eternity in a long dress and a wimple simpering over the bravery of knights in tournaments.

When you are reviewing an anthology there are two very different questions you need to ask: whether the book works as a whole, and whether the individual stories work in isolation. Up until now I have been discussing the theme of the book and how the stories fit into it. Robert Charles Wilsonís contribution is an excellent example of a story that does both jobs well. It has interesting futurological ideas, and is a gripping story as well. But my favorite story from the book is actually one of the "doom and gloom" political stories that Iím not sure Anders should have included.

"Absalomís Mother", by Louise Marley, imagines a world in which the "War on Terror" has become so all-consuming that children as young as 11 are drafted into the US army and indoctrinated to become ruthless killers of the "enemies of America". Personally I have a fair amount of faith in the good sense of the American people not to let things get that bad, and if things do get as unpleasant as the story suggests I doubt that peaceful protests of the type written about will have any effect at all. But as a story "Absalomís Mother" is particularly powerfully written and so gripping that I actually missed a train because I was so engrossed in it. I only wish we could see more short stories as good.

Futureshocks - Lou Anders (ed.) - RoC - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
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Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee