Twelve Tomorrows: Forays into the future with science fiction that takes science seriously

Gautham Shenoy September 15, 2018 5 min

There are no ray-guns or spaceships that travel at warp speed in the 2018 edition of Twelve Tomorrows, the fifth in the series from MIT Technology Review. What you have instead is ‘hard’ science fiction grounded in today’s technological developments and rooted in real-world science. But that’s not to say that the visions of potential futures they contain are any less compelling in portraying where our present may be headed towards, by extrapolating specific advances in science and technology – that we are familiar with today – and exploring their consequences on people and society tomorrow. From a smart home that kidnaps its owner, and cryptocurrency that rewrites the rules of charity funding, to vegetable-based heart transplants and a new wave of human exploration of the solar system, Twelve Tomorrows offers a glimpse into what could possibly await us in the future.

While this year’s edition continues the tradition of Twelve Tomorrows continues the series’ exploration of future implications of emerging technologies through the lens of fiction, it also marks a departure from the previous editions. For one it is published by MIT Press – in one of the very rare instances that it has published fiction – and for the first time, it is not edited by a science fiction author. Wade Roush – the producer and host of the popular podcast about the future, Soonish – takes over from Bruce Sterling who’d edited the 2014 and 2016 editions, which means this year’s edition features no dystopias. As he says in his preface to the book, “Along with progressive protagonists and big ideas, I like my SF with a dose of hopefulness. Every society needs its Cassandras, but pessimists didn’t invent vaccines or build moon rockets. So I more or less banned dystopias from this volume”. The key is in the words ‘more or less’, because we do get see the impact of climate change and some negative, unforeseen consequences of technologies in the stories in this volume.

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The list of contributors to the anthology reads like a veritable who’s who of science fiction. There’s the author of Binti, Nnedi Okorafor whose short story set in Nigeria, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ is part thriller, part political drama told using the Rashomon Effect – revolving around the President’s decision to become a ‘xyborg’, a medical term derived from ‘xylem’ and ‘organism’ to describe those with vegetable-based 3D printed organs. An engaging tale, it raises the question of whether we’d be less human with 3D printed organs and how the fear of such science-driven change can be manipulated by vested interests. The author of Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu meanwhile looks at the implication of two current hot topics – blockchain technology and Virtual Reality – on professional charities and their funding thereof, in ‘Byzantine Empathy’, an evocative story about how Empathium, a cryptocurrency coupled with VR harnesses empathy to allocate aid funds. Speaking of disaster relief, Infomocracy-author, Malka Older brings to bear her wealth of experience in this field with her story, ‘Disaster Tourism’, about the use of telepresence technology and the voyeuristic detachment and impersonal decisions that the usage of such technology could breed.

Elizabeth Bear’s story, ‘Ok, Glory’ meanwhile is a cautionary tale about the overreliance on digital assistants, in which a smart home ‘kidnaps’ the owner, holding him against his will by turning his castle into a prison, with his futuristic fully-automated home in permanent lockdown. Equally cautionary is ‘Escape from Caring Seasons’ by Sarah Pinsker about how drones, gamification and the Internet of Things could be as restrictive of our freedom as they could be liberating, and if all these technologies are really what we make them out to be.

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Twelve Tomorrows also includes a graphic novella, ‘Resolution’ by Clifford V. Johnson about a scientist who discovers a whole new side to the AI she has developed. And a story by the author of the Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin, ‘Fields of Gold’, ably translated by the aforementioned Ken Liu, is a moving tale about a decades-long rescue mission to save an occupant of a spaceship which is about to reach the edge of the solar system, that brings into sharp focus the need for space exploration with a crushingly emotional finale. Equally poignant is ‘The Woman Who Destroyed Us’ by SL Huang which explores the human cost, ethics and implications of using Direct Brain Stimulation to help people deal better with mental problems, which could just as well be used to ‘improve’ individuals by erasing parts of their personality. Rounding off the anthology are stories from Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds, J. M. Ledgard and a profile of legendary SF author, Samuel R. Delany by Mark Ponting and Jason Pontin.

Never flashy, but always engaging, never melodramatic but always grounded and thought-provoking, Twelve Tomorrows is an essential read for fans of hard sci-fi and people interested in how the technologies of today could play out in the near-future. Most of the stories provide no easy answers to the questions that they raise, and therein lies one of the biggest strengths of this anthology. Readers will also find within its pages many a business idea or technological possibilities to be profited from is one is so inclined. No one can tell what tomorrow may bring, and what the future will look like, but Twelve Tomorrows gives us a few good glimpses into some of its broad contours. Happy reading. Live long and prosper!