Comma Press, 2014, 390 p. Reviewed for Interzone 257, Mar-Apr 2015.
This anthology is an unusual endeavour in which each of the nineteen stories (all set in the year arbitrarily chosen by the editors, 2070) has an afterword written by a scientist researching in the field of the main topic the particular story covers. These collaborations arose from an initial meeting between authors and scientists at the 2013 European Conference on Artificial Life. The authors’ brief was to follow the research into the future, rather than reflect purely on current concerns.
The editors’ introduction to all this first suggests that, due to entropy, complexity and futurism don’t mix, the world becomes ever more complex and less capable of being encompassed by story, before arguing that the notion of the individual saves the day, the protagonist – against surrounding circumstance – is the essence of all stories, the short form of fiction being the most capable of encompassing putative futures.
Be that as it may (and it might misunderstand entropy,) a collection stands or falls on its components and must transcend the bittiness engendered by its varying subject matter. A themed collection even more so. The possibility of cohesion is complicated here by the scientists’ contributions. There is a further mental leap involved in travelling from fiction to fact and back again. The thread is occasionally broken and though the essays are themselves informative enough they do not necessarily illumine the stories they accompany. Each is referenced as in a scientific paper – though in footnotes, except in the one case which followed the more usual practice of an appendix. Then there was the odd editorial decision to have three stories in a row having scientists as parents being an important aspect of the narrative.
It is perhaps in the nature of the premise that ideas and themes may recur, so what in general does this brave new world of 2070 have in store for us? Well, if it’s not synthetic biology or enhanced means of social control then in the main, it would seem, it is robots – or to be more precise, robotic objects, small machines dedicated to particular tasks.
We start strongly with The Sayer of the Sooth1 by Martin Bedford where an inhabitant of 2070 looks back at, and criticises, a Science Fiction story written by his great-grandfather wherein lie-detecting technology is embedded in contact lenses. Robin Yassim-Kassab’s Swarm2 dwells on the possibilities for social control of nanobot sized AIs. Growing Skyscrapers3 by Adam Marek is a tale of the scientists behind the semi-organic buildings of the title and the people who live in the rogue results grown from stolen seeds.
The Loki Variations by Interzone’s own Andy Hedgecock envisages a new computer game so immersive it changes people’s attitudes to, for want of a better term, “the underclass” – and leads to revolution. In Everyone Says4 by Stuart Evers linking of brains to provide direct empathic experience has been monetised but induces dependency on the linker and imposes increasingly debilitating psychic drag on the linkee.
The seemingly ubiquitous Adam Roberts gives us A Swarm of Living Robjects Around Us5 wherein a man lies down and dies on entering his home despite (or is it because of?) the plethora of living robotic objects it houses. There is more than an echo of Ballard about the ending to this story – and not only due to its mention of a swimming pool. In Annie Kirby’s Luftpause people have been imbued with a prophylactic against a deadly disease with the consequence that they leave pheromone trails behind them – but there are still dissidents.
The main futurism of The Quivering Woods6 by Margaret Wilkinson is driverless cars – which frustrate the protagonist more than assist him. Appearing too are holographic simulations but everything is tied round a rather conventional story about infidelity. In Certain Measures7 by Sean O’Brien crowd “control” techniques have become so precise they can be used to engineer deaths to provide a political excuse for banning large scale protests. (In this case might we perhaps be forgiven for thinking this sort of thing has happened already?)
Julian Gough’s Blurred Lines8 has a long washed-up pop star so mired in degradation that he resorts to hiring out his brain (for use at times when he is asleep) to a mathematician. He does it as cheaply as possible so the safeguards are ignored. Given his condition it did feel a touch unlikely that he would then come to feel the way he does about his hirer, an elderly woman called Jane; or indeed anyone. Synthetic biology is all-pervasive in The Bactogarden9 by Sarah Schofield. Our protagonist uses it to repair buildings while her former schoolfriend earns much more by constructing customised restaurant dishes.
In Keynote10 by Zoe Lambert two scientists experiment using implants on their own children to create a group mind. The story is delivered by one of the children as if in a symposium lecture. Lucy Caldwell’s The Familiar has another pair of scientists form a company to build an eye-controlled flying dragon to give their handicapped son the experience of freedom. In Making Sandcastles by Claire Dean two more parents conspire to use their (unlicenced) Maker to change things in a society where use of such personal fabricators is reserved to the elite.
Dinesh Allirajah’s The Longhand Option11 features household robots as a commonplace, and a device called a Megastylus speeds – and draws – a writer’s thoughts onto the page. It doesn’t help with the writers’ block though. In Fully Human by K J Orr the discovery of mental organs has led to people opting for more logic rather than empathy and compassion.
Joanna Quinn’s The War of All Against All12 is very Cold War in feeling. A condemned man is used as a processor of metadata to try to locate those who have dropped out of the system. He tries to maintain his humanity even so. Bruno Wins!13 by Frank Cottrell-Boyce has a man create unfulfillable expectations of a new robot cleaning system. His dog equally inadvertently puts, not a spanner, but hair in the works. Lastly Toby Litt’s A Brief History of Transience is narrated by a disseminated consciousness which lingers through the decay of the house in which its original once lived.
Each of the stories in Beta-Life has its merits but some of the developments envisaged in the fiction seem likely to come about long before 2070 and others will perhaps never see fruition. But that was ever the condition of SF.
Pedant’s corner:- These comments did not appear in the published review:-
1The 2070 sections are told in an apostrophe-less style for possessives and contractions – dont, hes, Logans – but not consistently.
2 uses the horrible construction “X metres squared” instead of “X square metres”.
3 laying for lying
4 a character’s name morphs from David Collins to Robert Collins and back.
5 miniscule (minuscule)
6 punctuation is all over the place.
7 a car’s index number? her’s?????
8 Champion’s League (Champions)
9 smoothes (smooths,) borne from for born from.
10 multidimentional (multidimensional,) Lamdda calculus (Lambda,) sooth for soothe.
11 this for his
12 full-body dilapidation laser machines???? (I suspect depilation was meant,) Rhianna (the context suggested Rihanna)
13 “compliment” where “complement” made more sense.