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MIND MELD: Visions of the Future

For those of you who may not know, the Mind Meld was a staple of the now-defunct SF Signal. In it, writers, editors, and fans from the science fiction and fantasy community are asked a single question and they give their answer. (Simple!)

Because SF Signal shut down before this Mind Meld could be posted, I’m presenting it here with the blessing of SF Signal head honcho John DeNardo.

This Mind Meld is also special for featuring six contributors of the latest “Writers of the Future” anthology. So fittingly I asked them the following question…

Q: What are your favorite visions of the future in the SF genre?

Sean Williams

Sean Williams is the author of 43 novels, more than 100 short stories and the odd odd poem. He writes across the field of science fiction and fantasy for adults, young adults and children, and enjoys the occasional franchise, too, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. His work has won awards, debuted at #1 on the New York Times hardback bestseller list, and been translated into numerous languages. His latest series is Twinmaker. Visit him online at www.seanwilliams.com.

My favourite vision of the future by a very large margin is Iain M. Banks’ Culture, an interstellar anarchic utopia sketched out over several novels and short stories, one populated by humans, aliens, and a wide variety of sentient machines. I say “sketched” because how do you begin to capture such an amalgam of times, places and minds without it feeling pat or dumbed-down? The answer is: you can’t. The Culture stories are keyholes through which we glimpse a universe as large and as rich as our own, only fictional (as far as we know). They are truly staggering science fictional inventions. (Look up the Language page on the Culture’s Wikipedia entry for a hint of the thought that’s gone into it.)

Why do I love it so much? Partly because it’s a universe that’s decidedly artist-friendly, and I am nothing if not selfish. Partly because it feels forever in a state of growth and evolution: its history is never complete, nor completely encapsulated. Partly because it is not perfect. (I don’t think it’s especially heretical to suggest that not all of Banks’ works were brilliant, just like the Culture itself.) And partly, perhaps mainly, because it feels populated by real people, even the ones who aren’t people at all. The inhabitants of the Culture have comprehensible needs, desires and fears. They’re not ciphers drawn to proselytise about one political system or another. They often function in the stories as critiques of the Culture itself, which speaks to Banks’ robust authority as a world-builder.

If you haven’t read any Culture novels yet, I highly recommend them. You may find yourself wanting to move in next to me.

Stewart Baker

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, haikuist, and speculative fiction writer. His poetry has appeared in various haiku magazines, and his fiction in Writers of the Future volume 32, Nature, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, spent time in South Carolina, Japan, and California, and now lives in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.

Two answers from me, because I’m bad with hierarchies.

My first favourite is Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, which Wikipedia sums up as “a Kafkaesque maelstrom of terrifying confusion and utter insanity.” The novel takes paranoia to dazzling heights, as a man tries to act out an exceptionally vague mission in a hyper-bureaucratic underground military complex where everyone may or may not be what they appear. It’s a lot of fun, and pretty clever to boot.

My second favourite is something I’ve (somehow!) only read recently: Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy.  This series of three novels deals with a future where an alien species called the Oankali roams the universe looking to make “trades” with other species they find for bits of genetic material which they use to purposely evolve future generations of themselves to ensure overall species survival. In this case, that other species just happens to be humanity, which has almost wiped itself off the face of the Earth through all-out warfare.

Each of the three novels is told from the point of view of a character in a different generation. Dawn focuses on Lilith Iyapo, a human woman who wakes up a captive on an Oankali ship and must balance her disgust with and terror of the aliens and what they do and stand for with her desire to stay alive. The second, Adulthood Rites, deals with one of Lilith’s human/Oankali children who struggles to reconcile his human and Oankali desires and imperatives; and the third, Imago, focuses on another hybrid human/Oankali who’s also of the Oankali’s third (and sexually non-male and non-female) gender.

Butler’s work is always beautifully written, thought-provoking, and imaginative, and I’d highly recommend the Xenogenesis trilogy to anyone who isn’t already familiar with her novels.

Stephen Merlino

Stephen Merlino lives in Seattle, Washington where he writes, plays, and teaches high school English. He lives with the world’s most desirable woman, two fabulous kids, and three attack chickens. Find him online at http://stephenmerlino.com or @stephenmerlino.

When I first considered the question of my favorite scifi vision of the future, I went straight to Stations of the Tide, by Michael Swanwick. As I think of my love of it, however, I realize it is Swanwick’s craft, as much as his vision of the future, that makes the book special. What inspires me in particular is the restraint he shows in revealing backstory and world building details through his point of view character. Far from limiting the way this future world comes alive, this restraint brings the vision alive in ways a more indulgent narrative description could not.

Economy & POV in Stations of the Tide, by Michael Swanwick

One of the cardinal rules of fiction writing is this: The reader experiences only what the point-of-view character experiences. A corollary to that is that the reader only gets to notice what the point of view character would notice. It follows that anything routine to the point of view character is below that character’s notice, so the reader doesn’t get any explanation about it.

The challenge for scifi writers is that so much of their world is alien to the reader, but not to the point-of-view character. Nevertheless, the character simply wouldn’t “notice” things that are routine for him/her, so they won’t appear in their point of view. In these cases the writer must trust his/her reader to be able to piece things together through mere hints and clues filtered through the character’s perspective.

Michael Swanwick does this masterfully in Stations of the Tide.

Check out this passage from the first chapter. In it, the protagonist, known only as “the bureaucrat,” is off on a space ship, skimming over the surface of distant planet on a mission for his department.

“Smell the air,” Korda’s surrogate said.

The bureaucrat sniffed. “Could use a cleansing, I suppose.”

“You have no romance in your soul.” The surrogate leaned against the windowsill, straight-armed, looking like a sentimental skeleton. The flickering image of Korda’s face reflected palely in the glass. “I’d give anything to be down here in your place.”

That’s all you get for the explanation of what the hell a surrogate is, or who Korda is, because we are experiencing this passage through the bureaucrat’s POV, and to him a surrogate’s as common as a cordless phone to us, and he knows Korda well. The bureaucrat will neither pause to reflect on the marvel of surrogate technology for our benefit, nor on his relationship with Korda, both of which he takes for granted; we are therefore left to piece it all together through his perspective as the story unfolds.

Their dialogue stretches over four pages, and it’s pretty easy to figure out that Korda is his boss, but we only get one small clue on each page as to what a surrogate is. Here are the clues, excerpted from the action of the dialogue.

…”Korda moved away from the window, bent to pick up an empty candy dish, and glanced at its underside. There was a fussy nervousness to his motions strange to one who had actually met him. Korda in person was heavy and lethargic.  Surrogation seemed to bring out a submerged persona, an overfastidious little man normally kept drowned in flesh.”

…”The surrogate reopened the writing desk, removed a television set, and switched it on.”

…”They shook hands, and Korda’s face vanished from the surrogate. On automatic, the device returned itself to storage.”

In the end, I’ve pieced something together about this wonderful piece of world-building known as the surrogate, and what I come up with is pretty damned cool. But Swanwick never explains it to us. He sticks religiously to what his POV would notice about the situation.

This sort of writing relies on me, the reader, to do some of the lifting, and I dig that. It engages my imagination, and is a big reason I buy everything Swanwick writes. There aren’t a lot of writers who do it as well as he does, and if I ever do it half as well I’ll be pretty damned proud of it.

Matt Dovey

Matt Dovey is very tall and very English, and is most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where the Inquisition cut the corruption out. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer, he still hasn’t found the right words to properly express the delight and joy he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey”; any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. You can find out more at mattdovey.com, and follow along on Facebook and Twitter both as @mattdoveywriter.

When I say, in my author bio, that I’m “very British,” it’s not an exaggeration. Most of the clichés probably do apply to me (especially the tea drinking). And so, like so many other middle class boys going through adolescence in the 1990s, I had a Games Workshop problem.

No other invented world holds sway in my imagination like the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. When I say my favourite architecture is English gothic, it sounds very highbrow of me, but the truth is it appeals because it reminds me of the Imperium of Man. There’s a sense of enormous scale to everything 40k, as if the final step in designing any part of it is to make it ten or a hundred times bigger, until you end up with floating conglomerations of ancient spaceship wrecks the size of planets. (And then you send in five blokes in walking tank armour to clear it of aliens. As you do. Of course that’s the best tactic. Are you questioning the Emperor, heretic?)

That sense of scale extends to the conflict, as well: this is a galaxy that has been at war for literally ten thousand years, with alien threats on every side: Chaos and its mental corruption; Genestealers and their physical corruption; ancient Egyptian terminators that are basically invulnerable; the threat of Orks and their bodged together warmachines (painted red to go faster, of course)… if it moves, it’s a threat to you. If it doesn’t move, it’s probably an heretical relic and the Inquisition will be taking it, and you, thank you very much.

The good guys are genetically modified fascist pseudo-Catholic battle monks stolen during childhood and indoctrinated into war. I mean, I say good; we’re talking in context here. There is no respite in 40k; a thousand people are sacrified every day to keep the near-dead Emperor clinging to life, possibly against his will, because the Imperium worships him past the point of insanity. Technological progress is dead, and the machines of the old world are kept running through bizarre religious practices administered by Tech Priests more machine than man. If you’re conscripted into the Imperial Guard, foot soldiers of the Imperium, you’re sent out with little more than a flashlight and a flak vest and told to die where you stand so you can slow down the monstrous ten-foot alien bearing down on you and give the Space Marines one more second with which to arrive and save the day.

But you could be lucky, and be one of the Eldar, cultured and ancient Space Elves! Who, er, unleashed an enormous cosmic horror through sheer debauchery and indulgence, an event that instantly consumed the souls of the overwhelming majority of the race and left the only survivors clinging to existence on planet-sized spaceships, having to capture the souls of their dead in stones to stop them getting eaten by said cosmic horror.

Or you could be devoted to Chaos, banished to the void, risking madness and corruption for power. Or you could be slowly twisted by alien DNA as the herald of a monstrous invasion. Or you could be burnt by the Inquisition for being suspected of either of those. Or be a space dwarf, and be completely forgotten and written out of the background. Poor Squats.

And I love it. I love it all. Because the only overriding concern in any of this is is it awesome? Great! Make it ten times bigger and add it in. It’s an enormous grab bag of every influence in sci-fi, from Alien to Terminator to World War I. And it plays it all straight — it knows how ridiculous it is, and takes itself absolutely seriously at the same time.

There’s some wonderfully British subversiveness in it as well, in the uncomfortable obedience to the insane Emperor and the paranoia about rooting out unclean influences, in the irredeemably inefficient bureaucracy that cannot organise anything or change course at all, and above all in the sheer pointless grind of it all. Nothing will ever get better, there’s no possible victory, all this toil is for naught. In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.

War, and overgrown teenagers like me lapping it all up.

Jon Lasser

Jon Lasser lives and writes in Seattle, WA. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Writers of the Future, Volume 32; Untethered: A Magic iPhone Anthology; and Penumbra Magazine. Find him on the Web at http://twoideas.org/ and on Twitter as @disappearinjon.

In Science Fiction, the future’s almost always a funhouse mirror held up to the present, twisting wherever we live so we can truly see it, as with H.G. Wells’s Victorian inversion in The Time Machine, Delany’s burning Harlem in Dhalgren, Margaret Atwood’s Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale, and every post-apocalyptic tale written.

Though captivated like many others by William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, the future I can’t forget is from his short story “The Winter Market.” Written in the mid-eighties and set in a relatively near-future Vancouver, it tells the story of Lise, an artist who works in sensations—heavily edited by professionals—sent directly to the mind of the audience. Lise’s debut, Kings of Sleep, is a smash hit, and she chooses to upload her mind and leave behind her disabled body.

For decades, Gibson’s vision of the driven artist and her chosen medium has haunted me:

There’s a segment on Kings of Sleep; it’s like you’re on a motorcycle at midnight, no lights but somehow you don’t need them, blasting out along a cliff-high stretch of coast highway, so fast that you hang there in a cone of silence, the bike’s thunder lost behind you. Everything, lost behind you…. It’s just a blink, on Kings, but it’s one of the thousand things you remember, go back to, incorporate into your own vocabulary of feelings. Amazing. Freedom and death, right there, right there, razor’s edge, forever.

Who doesn’t want the power to project their sensations directly into the mind of an audience? As a writer, I strive for creating those deep emotional connections with readers. There’s always some gap between the translation from words on a page to images in the reader’s psyche, but the best pairings between writers and readers close that gap, and work the magic Gibson imagines.

Is life better in the future depicted by “The Winter Market” for this seemingly transparent art? Perhaps not: although hungry street kids are desperate for Lise’s vision, those resonances don’t change the material limits of their lives. Another artist, Rubin Stark, achieves somewhat more conventional success with robotic sculptures and their more opaque psychic ripples. And yet there’s a glimmer of Utopia in Gibson’s vision of what the new art allows:

It was like she was born to the form, even though the technology that made that form possible hadn’t even existed when she was born. You see something like that and you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in….

In this world, untold numbers of artists have been given the only medium in which they could ever express themselves. What writer wouldn’t want to live in that future?

Christoph Weber

Christoph Weber is a certified arborist and author in Nevada. You can find him on Facebook and at christophweber.com

A month ago I’d have given a very different answer, but I just re-read Brave New World and Huxley’s vision was so far ahead of its time I’m going to give old Al the nod.

Lest anyone think I’m a twisted madcap who wants to live in that nightmare, I’m picking a favorite based on accuracy of predictions and ability to raise questions we are or will soon be facing.

In 1931 (!) Huxley envisioned his future of engineered humans. Eighty-five years later, as CRISPR/Cas9 enables us to edit genomes with unprecedented precision, we’ve got our toes in a brave new world.

Part of what’s so disturbing about BNW is that in several places I started to wonder whether certain aspects of the World State are really all that bad, and this uncomfortable ambiguity made me to ask myself some of the very questions new gene-editing technologies are now forcing us to answer.

For instance, CRISPR presents the possibility of eradicating genetic diseases. Imagine a future where no one need suffer from muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s, and other heritable diseases! And who wouldn’t want even more for their child? A healthy heart, strong bones, no predisposition to cancer? Why stop there? Don’t we all want our children to be intelligent and happy? Or, as a molecular biologist I recently interviewed wryly put it, “with nice skin and no back hair?” The booming field of genome editing may enable a future where parents can give their children all of these traits.

It may enable the creation of Huxley’s Alphas.

We’re already one step on this path with preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and I suspect we’ll keep walking. When we do, there will be those children whose parents lacked the access or means to make them Alphas. They will be left to the genetic lottery, and they will become Betas through Epsilons.

But hopefully soma will be accessible, so they too can be happy.

Okay, my tongue’s in my cheek a bit. Genes, while important, are of course not deterministic for most traits, and I’m actually quite excited about the potential benefits of human genome editing. But I think we need to answer a number of questions before we keep walking into this brave new world. For raising some of those questions, we can thank Aldous Huxley.


  1. I’m with Sean on wanting Banks’ Culture future!


  1. […] Sean Williams and four us 2016 Writers of the Future writers explain our very different picks in this special valedictory SF Mind Meld.  […]

  2. […] were still at work on installments of its popular “Mind Meld” feature. James Aquilone has now posted the one he was curating, that asks participants the […]

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