Like many who believe science fiction is a critical tool for engaging, head-on, our most pressing and complex issues, we are both baffled and depressed by the recent sabotage of the Hugo Awards ballot. The Hugos have honored some of the great progressive voices of the 20th and 21st centuries—Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler, Philip K Dick, Ursula Le Guin—and science fiction has always been a tool for the marginalized to imagine new worlds beyond the limitations of the here and now. This story, by the Hugo winner Kameron Hurley, does what SF does best: it uses speculation to shed light on the problems of the present, which, in this case, are the problems of science fiction itself.
We won the revolution of ethics.
What have you done for us lately but live?
Bev tried to fist bump one of the holograms blaring corporate slogans on thirty-first street. Sorva did not. Sorva kept her gaze straight ahead, so she didn’t have to see the leering pale faces that looked like they were trying to devour her. She’d been writing their catchphrases all her life.
Bev gave her a sidelong look. Stuffed her hands back into the pockets of her trench coat. It covered the skimpy outfit she had to wear at her corporate job. Unlike Sorva with her flat chest, short cut, and designer suits, Bev had never been able to pass for male. It narrowed her prospects with the Corporation.
“It’s easier to go along with it,” Bev said when Sorva didn’t react to her gesture. “Easier than having a SWAT team sent to your house for 'insulting' a Corporate man on PublicaNet, you know?”
Sorva knew Bev only said those things because she felt guilty for rolling over when the Corporation took over. Now Sorva had an appointment with the Development of the Future Team—her first official meeting after four years of submitting increasingly off-brand work alongside her approved stuff. It had only taken them this long to call her in because there were so many others like her to deal with.
“This isn’t some communist gulag, you know,” Bev said, still looking for tacit approval of her fist bump. “There are worse things they could have done. Could do.”
“You know how those rich young Corporate sadists took over?” Sorva said. “A bunch of people like you said it could be worse. They’re just boys being boys. No use in fighting them. It’s easier to stay quiet than get harassed. Now we’re fulfilling their little perversions and writing their brand messages. You know eventually they come for everybody, right? Not just the ones who speak up. Everybody.”
Bev shrugged. “I haven’t been fired yet. At least I can work.”
Sorva held her tongue. She had once watched a colleague of hers, a female developer, stripped bare by her male colleagues and doused with a keg of beer. They threw ping pong balls at her until they got distracted by some reality TV lynching show on PublicaNet. After she complained, the woman was fired for being "too sensitive." That’s when Sorva took on her male identity. Because if that could happen to the best developer she’d ever met, Sorva didn’t stand a chance.
They came to the end of the street and halted before the broad, imposing gate marking the entrance to the Department of Future Development.
“Well, good luck,” Bev said. “If you’re doxxed tomorrow, I guess I’ll know what happened.”
“I’m just asking them to let me write a different future,” Sorva said, only half lying.
Bev laughed. “Is that all? Sorva, that’s everything.”
Sorva entered the gates of the Corporation, waving the verified appointment tag on the subcutaneous workspace embedded in her arm. She sweated heavily in her suit, just as she did every time she went through this charade. If they found out she was a woman, and not as pale as she pretended, they could, by law, strip her and flog her in the street. They'd say it was just guys blowing off steam.
She imagined she was the 18th century female British officer she’d once read about, who was allowed to captain her ship so long as she did the same as Sorva did now—dress as men of a certain class did, act as they did, pretend, as they did, that she was an exception and not a rule. Because if she was not just an exception, the whole system was built on a lie. Sorva did not believe in a future built on lies.
The Director of Business Development and the Master Creative Guru met her in one of the lesser meeting rooms on the second floor. Standard decor: a foosball table in the corner and a tired young woman, dressed in a ludicrous parody of a maid’s outfit, crawling around on the floor picking up beer bottles.
Sorva took her seat on the other side of the table and waited. Both men could pass for Caucasian, as if that even bore mentioning, and sat in stuffed leather chairs. They wore extravagant codpieces that matched their suits, their members so cartoonishly large she could see the tips peeking up from the edge of the table. They both wore backwards caps.
It was the Director of Business Development, Marken, a lanky man with a sincere, pudgy face, who spoke first.
“Do you understand that when we choose the very best forward-looking brand messages each year for the Business Development Award ballot we open to our corporate writers, it must adhere to certain standards?”
“I do,” Sorva said.
“Yet this is the fourth year you’ve submitted ineligible work,” Marken said. “Are you stupid? Were your parents poor or gay or something?”
“I understand the rules,” Sorva said. She took a deep breath, and launched right into it. “But there’s a whole world outside the thirty-six contiguous incorporated states of the American Conglomerate. There are other ways to govern, other ways of marrying. Of carrying on commerce. Of living. Many of them right here in our own country, right beneath our noses, and we never acknowledge them—not in our future-forward newsletters and not in our Business Development briefs for stockholders. If we’re going to create and showcase the best possible thinking to inspire the Corporation’s future, we must present the most inspirational ideas. My colleagues and I cannot do that with—”
Marken said, “We’ve never had trouble filling our ballots with eligible work. My cousin Nero has six eligible pieces this year. And the Master Creative Guru’s father edited works on half the ballot, every single one adhering to our standards.”
Taddeus Ik, the Master Creative Guru, nodded sagely. “Do not mistake us,” he said. “We understand that you need a break from pure corporate work, which is why we created the Business Development Award. We absolutely support diverse ideas. You are absolutely free to write about whatever religion you’d like. There are a half dozen Christian denominations that are CEO-approved. There are over thirty-six incorporated states of the American Conglomerate which you could use as the setting for your work, across 150 years of approved history.”
He scrolled through the misty projected workspace on his table; from Sorva’s angle, it was opaque. “And yes, I see here we have approved very diverse living arrangements for depiction as well. In addition to married households consisting of one man, one woman, up to three mistresses, and six children, it is also permissible to include families with just four children now. Very generous, that change.”
Marken leaned across the table, self-satisfied. “What future needs more diversity than that?”
“Mine does,” Sorva said.
“Well, this is the only one you have,” Marken said sharply, gesturing at his workspace.
“It’s not the one the people want.”
“On the contrary,” Tadeus Ik said, “the people voted for the future they wanted. They voted, overwhelmingly, for a future that looks very much like this one. How can you argue with corporate democracy?”
“Democracy? A few hundred people create dummy accounts and thousands of fake digital IDs, blowing themselves up like pufferfish to look larger than they are, terrorizing the opposition with threats, the Corporation buying votes from those who haven’t even considered the issues, and ensuring the only choice the public can really make is between a bunch of approved cronies on the final ballot? That’s not democracy.”
Taddeus Ik said, “It’s all perfectly legal.”
“If you cannot write an approved work,” Marken said, “we will reject it. We could have your account suspended and indenture you to some mining operation, you know.” He gestured at the maid, who was hauling the beer bottles to the door. “Or maybe something more entertaining.”
Taddeus Ik held up his fist. Marken bumped it with his.
Sorva had a moment of real fear, then. Did they realize she was a woman? She screwed her courage. “They say using the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah, you can beat him temporarily at his own game,” Marken quoted, and Sorva was surprised he knew the banned saying, “but you will never achieve genuine change.” He nodded. “You all worked so hard to win fairly, which was cute. But we built the system, remember. When you started to win, all we had to do was change it."
Sorva rose from her seat. She tapped the surface in her forearm. Her misty workspace appeared. She slid the content she intended to share away from the other clouds of data and pushed it toward them. It floated, waiting to be accepted.
“What did you do?” Marken said.
“I wrote the future,” she said. “A future that doesn’t make you or me fit into some terrible box. It gets rid of the box. ”
Taddeus Ik snatched the misty data from between them. It diffused across his projected workstation; Sorva could gauge his level of comprehension by the widening of his eyes.
“Four years,” Sorva said, “burrowing into your little state system with my entries, each one of them carrying a code I crowdsourced with hundreds of thousands of others you'd call whores and slaves, just like me, that would slowly but inevitably write the destruction of the very system you released it into. If I had uploaded the full program all at once, it would trigger your system’s security. But I was patient.”
Taddeus went even paler. She half expected him to grab at his codpiece. “People…like you?” he said.
“Women like me,” she said, “with mothers who didn’t live in one of your rich white enclaves. That cloud of data you just uploaded to your workstation is the fifth program. The key. It’s opening the others as we speak. One by one, every security measure you put into place, every wall you built, every barrier you put up, is being shut down.”
“You’ll destroy everything!” Marken cried. “In any successful society, any successful corporation, everyone must know their place!”
“I already know my place,” Sorva said. “When this is over, we’re not going to build another master’s house. We’re going to build something else entirely.”
Marken began to cry. “The revolution restored everyone to their proper place, just the way it was for our fathers. It was never about stifling diversity. It was about ethics in revolution. It was ethical!”
“That past never existed,” Sorva said. “Your future won’t either. Too many of us know the truth behind all your lies, and you can’t stop that signal.”
Outside on thirty-first street, the writhing hologram on the corporate sign winked and juddered. The great pale mouths became distorted, indistinguishable from white noise.
The slogan on the bottom blinkered:
We won the revolution
What have you done but live?
Won the revolution
Then the sign, like all the other corporate ads in the thirty-six incorporated states of the American Conglomerate, blinkered out. And in one future they were painted over by many hands, making pictures as broad and deep and strange and new and terrifying and joyful as their many visions of what was, and what could be, and what could have been, because they had never been cowed by fear. They had never stopped raising their voices. They had never given up their place in these multiplicities of futures.
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.