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Don’t Worry About the Future

By Anna Aslanyan.

Beta-Life, edited by Martyn Amos and Ra Page (Comma Press, 2014)

“Futures involving teleportation, adjustable gravity, truly immersive games, driverless cars. They never arrived!” These reassuring words are from “Bruno Wins!”, a short story by Frank Cottrell-Boyce included in Beta-Life. Subtitled Stories From an A-Life Future, the book is the result of collaboration between writers and scientists, each story set in 2070, focused on some example of artificial life and accompanied by an afterword by an academic working in a related field. As Martyn Amos and Ra Page say in their introduction, the writers’ brief was “to follow the research itself into the future, rather than reflect purely on current concerns; to regard the scientists as guides”.

The future that does arrive in “Bruno Wins!” involves an “ultimate cleaning system” called the Flock. Not only does it keep everything (except light fittings) spick and span, it eventually takes matters into its hands to arrange a happy ending. These are rare in the book, most of its stories being dystopian visions, recognisable to the point of making you believe the world has already ended. “Luftpause”, the title of Annie Kirby’s story, is the name of a group of “urban breath-guerrillas” fighting against democracy of the kind that for some means “no jobs, no welfare and no voice”. Joanna Quinn’s “The War of All Against All” is set at a security agency resembling a prison and an IT company’s office at the same time. The boss of a data mining team tells his staff, who are sitting in a glass-walled room in front of a huge screen, strapped into their chairs: “These days, we know everything about everyone.” In “Swarm” Robin Yassin-Kassab imagines a society where insectile nanobots are deployed to resolve any problems, personal or political: they have conquered all physical deficiencies and, in addition, “revolutionised intelligence work on an international level.” Reading about the insects’ magic properties, you breath a sigh of relief as you calculate that it’s all still 56 years away, but then Lenka Pitonakova tells you in her afterword about the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, “a facility designed to assess whether current or future technology will pose a threat to the human race” opened at Cambridge last year, and about her own PhD in a subject called “swarm intelligence”, and 2070 suddenly looms large.

Several pieces in the anthology revolve around love affairs. The individual’s ability to cheat on, watch or manipulate their partners by means of technology has inspired some of the writers, while others are more concerned about the state’s ability to do the same to the nation. “Certain Measures” by Sean O’Brien, where all public protests get banned, is the most convincing variation on the latter theme. The contributors interested in relationships don’t expect 2070 to be a good year for adultery: even an innocuous self-driving car in Margaret Wilkinson’s “The Quivering Woods” is able to ruin its owner’s love life. This is hardly what J. G. Ballard meant by the formula “Sex x technology = the future”.

One of the book’s truly thought-provoking themes is the tendency of gizmos to quickly go out of fashion. In “The Longhand Option”, Dinesh Allirajah’s satirical take on the future of writing, a granny coming to visit her family sends her luggage ahead. “The blimp contained one item of office equipment: a pen. There was also an electronic breadmaker – ‘That thing was an antique when she bought it,’ – Dill eventually managed to say – and sixteen bags of flour.” You sense that the breadmaker must have been bought new. As for the pen, it can be programmed to guide the user’s hand, yet fails to overcome that ancient, never-ageing condition, writer’s block.

To remind the reader they are facing the future, the stories are often crammed full of hi-tech paraphernalia. While it’s hard to keep track of various inventions showcased here, their new features are seldom striking: you think of them as something being developed now, hence readily available tomorrow. Twitter, GPS tags and other newish things are scattered around for the sake of contrast, but their ubiquity today makes the miracles of the future look equally mundane. Martyn Bedford deals with this problem elegantly in “The Sayer of the Sooth”, one of the best stories in the anthology. Its 21-year-old narrator is reading his great-grandfather’s sci-fi short story set in 2070, commenting on what the author got wrong. Here is his reaction to one cutting-edge gadget: “The glasses I mightve believed. But lie detection contact lenses with invisible miniaturised components? From a writer who cant even imagine the details of a 2070 bathroom.” In his afterword James O’Shea describes the story as “lovingly grounded in the British Pessimism School of science fiction” and reveals that, although he is not sure about the lenses either, a lie detector similar to Bedford’s was developed by a research group at Manchester Metropolitan University and patented in 2002.

O’Shea’s piece is one of the few successful afterwords in the book. The majority of them do little to enrich the story they follow, being either too general, full of sentences like “The human brain is probably the most complex biological system ever studied”, or too specialised, mentioning such indigestibles as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Their style could also do with some polishing: most of the academics, presumably to demonstrate how closely they collaborated with their sci-fi counterparts, refer to them by their first names – “Adam’s story is an example of ‘wet’ nanotech” – which looks odd next to scientific journal-style bibliographies; many slip into the worst mode of litcrit, explaining the stories’ subtexts to the naive reader. For example, Christian Jantzen writes about Stuart Evers’ unambiguous “Everyone Surveys”: “The price of following David Collins’ life increases […] as more and more people link to him, but the physical and psychological cost to David himself is the burden of knowing they’re linked.” A bit of editing would have helped here, but the editors appear to have taken a back seat, ignoring typos (even on the cover, where the title has lost its hyphen) and inconsistencies throughout. Thus, the popular, overburdened David Collins briefly becomes Robert Collins. Upon turning back into David, Collins, asked why he is playing this game, says: “To be certain that I am here”, perfectly capturing the spirit of reality shows.

I tend not to look into the future through rose-tinted Google Glass, and yet I found Beta-Life rather pessimistic. Reflecting on it, I tried to think of something to look forward to in 2070. In “Blurred Lines” Julian Gough pictures a brain exchange device that allows a screwed-up pop star to read the thoughts of an Egyptian mathematician, an experience he enjoys more than any of his past pleasures. Well, I wouldn’t mind having that, or one of those futuristic bathrooms, whatever they might look like, especially if they came equipped with the Flock. My optimism waned again as I remembered the protagonist of “Luftpause” walking at night, being stalked by a driverless taxi: “Would you like to go to Oskar-Oskar? Would you like to go to Elsa’s apartment?” I clung to the hope that this future, like many others before it, would never come. Then I glanced at my iPhone, a dilapidated thing that looked quaint when I first bought it, saw a message from Twitter urging me to “Find more people you may know”, and realised it was too late.

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 14th, 2015.