The Future Is a Foreign Country: On “Twenty-First Century Science Fiction”

By Damien BroderickNovember 3, 2013

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and David Hartwell

 THE FUTURE IS a foreign country. Not only do they do things differently, the things they do are often incomprehensible, wildly exciting or profoundly horrifying. And the locals won’t stop to translate for you. The only effective way to cope with the shock is through immersion, the way a child learns. Luckily for some of us, childhood was the time when we became honorary citizens of the future or its many simulations, via delight in science fiction. For the others, the future is pretty much a lost cause, until it jumps off the calendar and clobbers them. Worse still, the rate these days at which the seasons flicker past on the smartphone display is speeding up, accelerating, and you can find yourself choking.

A serious drawback to the future-proofing virtues of SF, though, is that used futures get rusty and badly out of tune. Science fiction from the 1950s and ’60s, let alone the 1940s and earlier, often features whimpering females who need to be saved, manly men who don’t seem to want the women around anyway, trips to the moon or far galaxies in space jalopies, phones anchored to the wall, slipsticks with nary a computer in sight unless it’s that gigantic thing filling a whole block. (Curiously, this kind of anachronism becomes a feature if you push the future back far enough, so 19th-century Jules Verne gets a new lease on life as a harbinger of zeppelin-decorated steampunk.)

The timely gambit adopted by veteran editors David Hartwell (now in his 70s) and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (two decades younger) is to gather a swag of 34 stories published between 2003 and 2011, from the finest SF writers who “came to prominence since the twentieth century changed into the twenty-first,” and exhibit them as the current window into the future. Well, windows, plural; the ambition of SF is to valorize difference and variation (although you’d never know that from TV and the movies, which endlessly recycle boisterous yet soothingly familiar inanity from previous generations of dumb tomorrows).

It’s worth noting at the outset that this anthology does not boast The Best Science Fiction Of in its title. Partly because it would be ridiculous; we’re only an eighth of the way into the 21st century, and such a claim would risk the derision captured by B.S. Johnson’s title Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? More than that, I suspect, it’s meant as a representative rather than definitive selection, although most of the entries have won or been shortlisted for major awards. Many are indeed found in Year’s Best anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, Jonathan Strahan, Rich Horton and Hartwell himself. That might imbue them with a certain déjà vu quality, but it’s a risk any anthology runs. What’s more, in a striking divergence from earlier decades, provenance has shifted drastically away from the classic SF magazines. Although seven entries are from Asimov’s, three from Britain’s Interzone, and two apiece from Analog and F&SF, no fewer than 10 stories are from original anthologies or single author collections, with another 10 from websites. This is, indeed, a shift into the twenty-first century. As the sassy website io9’s banner boasts: We come from the future.

Here’s a little more background, by no means self-evident: of the authors who allow their birth dates to be made public, three were born in the 1950s (the oldest was the lamentably late Kage Baker), three from the 1980s (the youngest, Madeline Ashby, born in 1983), and the rest fall about equally in the sixties and seventies. So while this is, indeed, not quite your parents’ or grandparents’ SF (Heinlein, Brackett, Clarke, Tiptree, Asimov, Le Guin), all of these writers could by now comfortably have kids of their own.

What’s especially gratifying about this anthology is its variety of voices, even when they tells tales that seem to overlap. Women writers are no longer marginal: 15 women, 19 men. And while SF has never been entirely monoglot and pale-skinned, it is pleasing to find fiction here from Finnish Hannu Rajaniemi, Grenadian Tobias Buckell, Indian Vandana Singh, Chinese-American Ken Liu, Korean-American Yoon Ha Lee, African-American Alaya Dawn Johnson, perhaps others.

Because it’s a representative assortment, the voices are as divergent as their several futures, so only the most omnivorous reader will find every flavor enticing. The longer pieces tend to be exemplary and ambitious, dense with implied and explicit worldbuilding, populated by characters sometimes dazingly strange. Other items seem to be there to acknowledge, or perhaps placate, the great mass of SF readers who like their fiction pre-chewed. John Scalzi inexplicably won the Hugo Award this year from his Star Trek-like soufflé Redshirts; his “The Tale Of The Wicked” is also 1960s’ Star Trek meets 1950s’ Robert Sheckley. David Levine’s “Tk’tk’tk” is precisely a Sheckley parable, and astonishingly it won a 2006 Hugo, presumably with the votes of readers too young to recognize the bland recycling, or maybe those for whom a version of an old Australian radio soap opera ad is appropriate: “For all those who can … remember.” These are not bad templates, in their way (certainly Sheckley was fun and often brilliant, but that was then, not now), and it proves beyond doubt that 21st-century SF can sometimes fit easily into the red shirts or white button-down collars of the 20th.

Wisely, the editors keep this sort of reprise to a minimum, and when it does appear it’s always competent. “Bread And Bombs,” by M. Rickert, is rather like an updated Twilight Zone plea for tolerance, better wrought than the kind of humanist preachment Rod Serling and his crew offered fifty years ago but still as familiar as an echo. A different kind of echo is heard in several stories that spookily play variations on a theme, maybe the narrative gadget de la décennie: androids and robots and their human pals, playmates, victims, oppressors. “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky gives us an android in love, a sensitive pre-Raphaelite male version who grows roses, and his owner-wife, and their adopted daughter Rose, and his need to, you know, find himself. It was chosen for a number of Year’s Best volumes. “The Nearest Thing” by Genevieve Valentine is another android in love, and is forgettable. “The Algorithms For Love” by the talented and up-and-coming Ken Liu is a third android story.

In a spin on that transhumanist topic, Tony Ballantyne’s “The Waters Of Meribah” is the first of three tales about augmentation, and offers a dash of strong horror as Buddy Joe is morphed into a creepy alien, while “Erosion” by Ian Creasey rebuilds another guy. In “Evil Robot Monkey,” by Mary Robinette Kowal, an uplifted but caged chimp turns mud on a wheel, shaping a vase despite the derision of zoo onlookers. Compressed, not a word wasted, it is an illuminated moment snatched from a plausible future. A different kind of augmentation, performed by ghostly visitors from the many worlds megaverse of quantum cosmology, gives a Muslim math schoolteacher, trapped by brutal religious conflict between Indian Hindus and Muslims, a glimpse of wonderment beyond space and time and number, in Vandana Singh’s “Infinities.” It’s nearer fantasy than SF, but boundaries are miscible when we approach the mysteries of advanced science. “Savant Songs” by Brenda Cooper is a touching Haldemanesque tale of an autistic genius searching a different kind of multiverse, via AI proxies, for herselves. In “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear, a broken war machine adopts and protects a boy and his dog, with Arthurian filigree (but is the machine Arthur, or the Lady of the Lake, or both?).

For me—and I recognize that this is inevitably partisan—the strongest pieces in this 250,000-word volume constitute more than a third of its bulk; while most of the rest are good solid stories, doing what SF has evolved to do, these by themselves make the book worth purchasing. “The Prophet Of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka is an excellent allohistory of Young Creationism (the world really did begin 5800 years ago) that blends anti-Darwinism ideologically and ferociously triumphant with paradigm-busting Homo floresiensis “hobbits” found, as they were in our world as well as the story’s, on the Indonesian island of Flores. Kosmatka’s 2007 novella has since been expanded into the novel The Prophet of Bones, but the core tale remains riveting, a blend of rich description, hard political realities, and a genuinely confronting premise. “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory is like the philosopher of consciousness Daniel Dennett recycled by Richard Powers, achieved and effective if not quite credible. In a cunningly artful and poignant condensed Hitler-wins tale, “Escape To Other Worlds With Science Fiction,” Jo Walton sketches the deep links between realpolitik and the aching needs to which SF often answers.

“One Of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Cornell is terrific, a splendid example of what Jo Walton, in her critic’s guise, dubs “incluing”—the recreation by each reader of the unvoiced density of an imagined universe, shaped by the nuanced aggregation of new terms for new things and activities, little of it made vulgarly explicit, an architecture of clues. We absorb the reality of Cornell’s alternative history in which the British empire is sustained by Isaac Newton’s investigation of folds, or gravitational wormholes, discovered (of course) after he saw a worm crawling through a fallen apple. The Great Game of competing 19th-century powers persists into the mid 20th, and beyond; derring-do is done by secret agent Hamilton, central figure in a series of stories Cornell is slowly developing.

“Finisterra” by David Moles is a visually superb construction, a vast world with clawing human and alien cultures built upon the back of immense gas-bag creatures the size of small states—Moby-Dick afloat in the dense atmosphere of Sky, a super-Jovian. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “His Master’s Voice” is a tour de force après singularity, effortlessly evoking the barely comprehensible through the machinery of SF’s rich, hard-won, inclued “megatext” or lexicon-cum-encyclopedia. “The Island” by Peter Watts is an equally superb hard SF post- singularity far future, a Hugo winner about a deracinated woman woken again and ever again in an interstellar vessel still falling into the emptiness after a billion years, creating portals for the posthuman gods and monsters at its back. The anthology’s perfect closing story, as finished and inhabited as the Watts and the others, is Cory Doctorow’s near-future “Chicken Little”: knowing, densified, chilling, an explicit tribute to the SF maestro Fred Pohl, with a tincture of satirist John Sladek redux.

The future is indeed a foreign country, but these stories are passports, stamped by the geniuses of their predecessors. Bon voyage!


LARB Contributor

Damien Broderick is a major critic, reviewer, editor, research academic, and fiction writer. Broderick is well-known for the long work of SF criticism Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (1995) and the book of futurology The Spike (1997), a trailblazing nonfiction book about the technological singularity. His novels include Ditmar Award-winning The Dreaming Dragons (1980), Transmitters (1984), a mainstream novel about SF fandom which won a Special Ditmar Award; Ditmar and Aurealis Award-winner The White Abacus (1997); Aurealis winner Transcension (2002); and Godplayers (2005). With Paul Di Filippo, he recently published Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 (Nonstop Press), and with Grand Master Robert Silverberg he created the composite novel Beyond the Doors of Death (ArcManor).


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