When MIT Publishes Science Fiction, You Should Pay Attention

'Twelve Tomorrows' is like MIT's Swimsuit Issue.

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Sep 8 2014, 3:35pm

Image: Twelve Tomorrows

Every year, the MIT Technology Review publishes Twelve Tomorrows, a special issue of the magazine devoted to science fiction. For those of us who pay attention to such things, Twelve Tomorrows is like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: beyond being a treat to look forward to, it seems to justify, in one symbolic swoop, precisely what all the other issues are for.

This year's edition is guest-edited by Bruce Sterling, who prefaces the collection of stories, interviews, and reviews with an admission that while the MIT Technology Review, in its ordinary incarnation, serves up the kind of speculative material that science fiction writers treasure (and occasionally crib from), the fiction issue is there to make sense of the larger context from which these technologies emerge. 

These aren't whizz-bang lasers or louche Hollywood androids: these are, as Sterling writes, the genuinely consequential technologies that "can panic the Nasdaq and affect our planet's balance of power." They are, in short, worthy of review.

Tellingly, in his preface, Sterling name-checks Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, a London-based duo who use design, rather than language, to tell stories about the implications of emergent technologies. For context, one of Dunne & Raby's most famous projects, Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers, proposes speculative tools, like digestive clothing and augmented digestive apparatus, that might allow humans in a situation of food scarcity to eat tree branches, algae, and other previously-inedible materials. These tools, only a few dozen design iterations beyond the meat tenderizers and food processors of today's kitchen, illustrate the future mundane.

While much science fiction serves this purpose, Twelve Tomorrows is one of the few anthologies of contemporary science fiction that serves it so explicitly. Positioned within a publication on the forefront of global coverage about technology, and backed by MIT—the mightiest technological institute in the world—it is uniquely self-reflexive, to the point that several of the stories in the anthology, namely, Cory Doctorow's "Petard: A Tale of Just Deserts" and Joel Garreau's "Persona," take place in or around the halls MIT itself. It is like an ouroboros eating its own tail, suggesting an inside clubhouse of clever, futurist thinkers that is extremely seductive.

The stories seem to have soaked up the material, too, and toss realistic near-term technological extrapolations around with researched ease: Pat Cadigan suggests, for example, an Internet of Things populated by neurotic insulin pumps and smart fridges that just can't understand why their human users continue to eat after they're full. 

This is what science fiction, at its best, can make possible: a shiny new tomorrow

Lauren Beukes imagines an off-grid Olympics for bioengineered athletes, meat machines cinched together with Velcroskin, racing each other beneath the hot Karachi sky. These are design fictions as rich, as thoughtful, as singularly Nasdaq-affecting as anything we might see in the pages of the MIT Technology Review in fifteen years. Sooner, if these guys have their way.

Sterling himself is in top form here, as both editor and contributor. With his strange meandering love story, "The Various Mansions of the Universe," he is at his best: the jocular, canny, occasionally piss-taking critic, stepping from showroom of future technologies to elegize a beautifully decaying Anthropocene world beyond its doors. 

The story oscillates between the antipodes of Sterling's bicameral view of the future, in which things are either "Gothic High-Tech" or "Favela Chic." In the former, brilliant technological innovations only mask the creeping rot of the analogue past; in the latter, emergent but poorly-engineered structures, like favelas, represent a kind of false freedom from materiality. His characters tromp through a baroque world of high-concept ruins, talking philosophy. I want to go to there.

William Gibson's contribution, a lengthy excerpt from his upcoming novel, The Peripheral, is no less sublime. I'm not here to traffic in spoilers, but it is pure node-spotting Gibson: a female celebrity, famous for being famous, skydives into the Great Pacific garbage patch, a gyre of plastic trash turned mutant colony, as a publicity stunt. It's a salad of pop-cultural, technological, socio-political observations—part Kardashian in the trenches, part Felix Baumgartner with a GoPro strapped to the dome—so astutely distilled that it made this humble reviewer clutch her energy drink in a pang of future malaise.

In the tradition of older-guard science fiction magazines, Twelve Tomorrows also includes interviews (with Gene Wolfe), a review, by the critic Peter Swirski, of the criminally understudied Soviet writer Stanislaw Lem, and a large spread devoted to the art of John Schoenherr, most famous for his painterly, windswept illustrations of the world of Dune

As a whole, Twelve Tomorrows is an object that has grown rarer in post-ComicCon eighth wave science fiction (or wherever it is we're at now): a comprehensive survey, which takes its readers seriously, and which celebrates and critiques, in equal measure, the future it invents.

Not that I would necessarily choose any of these twelve tomorrows. Thankfully, now that the light has been cast on them all, I might not have to. I might get to choose my own. Which is what science fiction, at its best, can make possible: a shiny new tomorrow. Not the one that has been written about, but the one we've yet to write.