The story behind the story: Hello, Hello

In this week’s Futures Jeff Hecht puts us in touch with extraterrestrial life in Hello, Hello. Regular readers will recognize Jeff: he has written multiple stories for Futures over the years (you can see a full list at the foot of this post). When not penning science fiction, Jeff writes about lasers, dinosaurs and other science and technology. You can find out more about his work at his website or by following hm on Twitter. Here, Jeff reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Hello, Hello

Hello, Hello came from pondering one of the ‘big questions’ in both science and science fiction: where are all the little green beings, or whatever other creatures we might imagine inhabit other parts of the Universe. Space is big, it’s full of stars and planets, and the Universe was around for over nine billion years before the Sun and Earth formed. It took us only about 10,000 years to go from banging on the rocks to walking on the Moon. Shouldn’t that have been more than long enough for some of those beings to develop the technology needed to drop in for a visit? Either the little green beings must be running very late, or we must be the most technologically advanced civilization in the Galaxy.

Or so we like to think.

We live in an era of astounding technology development, where we carry tiny computers in our pockets that are far more powerful than the much larger computers that got us to the Moon. Yet our technology does have limits. It’s now nearly half a century since a human walked on the Moon, although we have plans to do so again in just a few years that seem within reason. We also have plans to send people all the way to Mars in the not too distant future. Of course, in the 1950s Wernher von Braun had plans for sending people to Mars in the not too distant future, and that seemed like a good idea at that time.

We also have a few other troublesome little problems, particularly in keeping the climate of our native planet in the reasonably habitable range we are accustomed to.

Those thoughts led me to ask the question that has launched countless science-fiction stories: what if? I wondered if the reason no little green beings have dropped in for a cup of tea might be that interstellar travel is impossible, at least for organic life. What if only machines could survive the trip. Then ‘Oumuamua cruised through the Solar System as quickly and quietly as a derelict interstellar spacecraft.

Read more Futures stories by Jeff Hecht

A slice of timeWhen last I saw the starsThe Internet of [Expletive Deleted] ThingsThe speed of dark energyWaiting for ChronomaticEvent horizonClear proofThe Neanderthal correlationQuantum entanglementsDirected energyOperation Tesla

The story behind the story: What must remain

In this week’s Futures, Thomas Broderick takes us to visit a special museum in What must remain. Based in California, Thomas is a freelance writer who has previously introduced us to the Chrysalis — you can find out more about his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — so you should read the story first and then enjoy the trip!

The Aircraft of Modern Antiquity

Here, I saved you a seat. Even on these old electric trains, it’s better to sit than stand.  I’m surprised. These things are usually packed on Saturday mornings – people off to see their grandparents or buy vegetables out in the country. Oh, and don’t be surprised if a guy should start screaming while waving around knives. He’s just an enthusiastic salesman.

Where are we going? Well, it’s where What must remain was born. Like in the story, it’s a place of lost glory and half-truths bordering on lies. We have about an hour until we get there. Enjoy the view. I’m going to take a nap.

*****

Thanks for waking me up. It’s a mile on foot from here. I know, this town needs a lot of love. Most of these apartment blocks were built in the ’50s, and in some cases, entire sections have been reclaimed by nature or squatters. It’s not all bad, though. There are some new homes and a modern grocery store in the town centre. And look at the people. They’re dressed well and look happy enough.

It’s just up ahead on this nature trail. Ah, there’s the entrance. I’ll step inside and get us tickets. One sec.

*****

We give our tickets to the woman at the gate. Just like in my story, she’s a caretaker, one of five, I think. Yes, they do live here – the same little cabins. When I visited, I saw them washing down the exhibits with sponges and hammering out dents.

Surreal, isn’t it? Some of the most advanced aircraft ever built, many of them weapons of war once so secret that if we were standing here the year I was born, we’d be shot on sight. Now anyone can waltz right in and take pictures.

And here it is – the first supersonic passenger liner in the world. Like the Miraz, this plane never carried a single passenger, just mail and cargo at Mach 1.5. The moment it was parked here in 1980, they scrapped the interior. Here’s the picture on this display – just hanging wires and struts. It was only in the last decade or so that the caretakers started raising money to restore it. New paint, original seats, that sort of thing.

Why? Four times a year they let schoolchildren inside to pretend they’re flying. A woman dressed up as a stewardess gives them a snack. Here’s their picture next to the donation box. They look thrilled, don’t they?

Seeing those kids’ happy faces, I thought ‘Well, it’s only a harmless fib. The children make a nice memory and get to tell people that they sat in a plane that carried people higher, faster, and farther than anything that had come before … or since.’

Unlike my story, there’s no dark secret here. It’s just a melancholy relic, something befitting of a Latin proverb or Shelley’s Ozymandias.

But I wondered if there was more to it. Would someone who worked at a place like this do so to honour a loved one? And would that person, because of his love, blind himself and the museum’s guests to uncomfortable but vital truths? Maybe that happens here. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Anyway, that’s enough philosophizing for one day. Let’s head back to the capital and get some lamb dumplings and a beer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story behind the story: Three tales the river told

This week, Futures is taking a trek courtesy of Three tales the river told, the latest story from Stewart C. Baker. Regular readers will recognize Stewart as he has perviously taught us How to configure your quantum disambiguator, revealed the truth about Love and relativity and examined Failsafes. You can find out more about Stewart’s work on his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Three tales the river told

This is kind of a heavy story, in a number of ways. But perhaps it should be: although it’s unlikely that the Yellow River would dry up to such an extent you could walk along its empty river basin for a month, climate change and other human-caused issues are projected to have a serious impact on rivers.

Will it be so big an impact we have to live underground to survive, drinking reclaimed water a la the Fremen in Dune?

I sure hope not.  But since I’m a bit of a cynic, I’m equally sure we’re on a path to find out.

Other than general anxiety about the mess we’re making of our planet, the inspirations from this story came from a number of places.

Rivers, oceans and other bodies of water have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because they’re so vast and ever-changing, and speak to the wanderlust that lives on deep inside my soul even though I’m somewhat of a homebody in practice. Or perhaps it’s just some ingrained awareness of how vital they — and water in general — have always been to the arc of human development and survival.

The title came first with this one. For that, I’m indebted to Vylar Kaftan, who runs an annual Rummage Sale contest on Codex Writers Group where you write a story from someone else’s title, and to Aimee Ogden, who provided the title itself.

For the rest:

Part 0, set in UnderGuangdong, and the general idea for the setting, pays homage to Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, which features a future world where people live in cities under the earth after the surface has been taken over by desertification. Although my story doesn’t have nearly as many aliens in it, of course.

Part 1, with the archaic characters reading “Weep, Mothers, for Your Children”, is from an even stranger source: real life. The only thing I’ve changed is the location. I remember seeing a number of reports about ‘hunger stones’ being revealed in the Elbe river due to a drought in 2018. In real life, although the path of Yellow River has changed many times, as a rule it does so much farther downstream, where it overruns its banks and floods the countryside around it before settling into a new course. These course corrects have literally changed the course of Chinese — and world — history, affecting battles and wars, and the longer, more subtle conflicts that accompany commerce and settlement.

Part 2 looks a little at one of those. Kaifeng is on the Yellow River’s south bank, and was regularly flooded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ming Dynasty river engineers eventually stopped the worst floods, but in 1642 the governor of Kaifeng broke the dykes on purpose to stave off a peasant rebellion besieging his city. Turns out, that was a terrible idea: the resultant flooding, famine and disease killed hundreds of thousands, and severely decreased Kaifeng’s importance. If this sounds interesting to you, check out the excellent Controlling the Dragon: Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China by Randall A. Dodgen, which uses a mix of primary and secondary sources to paint a fascinating, complex picture of China’s relationship with its second longest river.

I’m not sure where part 3 came from, except a belief that gulls are likely to survive just about anything. (My mother, who is a birder, insists that ‘seagull’ is not a type of bird, hence ‘gull’.)

Is the gull’s appearance at the end of the story a good thing? A sign of ongoing life in the face of apparent mass extinction?

I’m ambivalent, but — as above — I sure hope we never get to the point where seeing a single bird is cause for thankful tears.

The story behind the story: I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Steven Fischer with his latest story, I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime. Regular readers will remember Steven’s previous pieces for Futures in which he introduced us to The First Fragmented Church of Entropy, offered A beginner’s guide to space travel and seafood and ran the software routine Query, Queue, Repeat. You can find out more about Steven’s work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about making decisions, particularly ethical ones, and how the right answer to a question can depends on who is answering it.

Individuals and groups make judgements in drastically different ways, and the moral principles an individual is obligated to uphold can be separate from, or even at odds with, those that a group needs to examine.

Although principles such as justice, deterrence and efficient use of resources can be major priorities for governments and societies as a whole, these more nebulous concepts don’t often find their way into our individual decision-making on any appreciable level. On the other hand, empathy, compassion and many of the other qualities that make us human seem to disappear (or may even be impossible to reproduce) when large groups of humans start making decisions together.

Truth be told, I think that might be a good thing. Individuals and societies make different types of decisions on vastly different scales, and maybe a different approach is required. But I wanted to explore that contradiction a little bit in this story, and look at the tradeoff between those methods and the times when we might lose something in the process.

I’m not sure what the right answer is, or even the right way to go about reaching it. But I know what I’d say if I was the one designing the system, and I know what I’d do if the decision was up to me alone. And frankly, I don’t think those two answers would be the same.

The story behind the story: Breadcrumbs for an alien

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Bo Balder with her new story, Breadcrumbs for an alien. Bo has previously introduced us to Skin hunger and the story I die a little, and in her latest piece, she wrestles with some curious communication difficulties. You can find about more about Bo’s work and her novel The Wan at her website or by finding her on Facebook and Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her latest story — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Breadcrumbs for an alien

I wrote Breadcrumbs for an alien while thinking about communication.

I grew up with Star Trek the Original Series, where aliens are just human actors with bits of rubber stuck to their faces. Everybody spoke the same language, American English, and the problem wasn’t usually understanding each other’s goals and desires. Klingons wanted to fight. Starfleet officers wanted peace. The humans always won.
Jabba the Hutt was a bit uglier and more alien than Spock. And sure, aliens have become more complex and more alien since. The movie Arrival is a great example of that.
But still, it’s usually clear that there are sentient aliens, that they understand we are sentient, and that both sides are trying to bridge the communication gap. It’s only a matter of movie time and the heroine’s insights to get there.
And  yet human beings don’t really need to meet aliens to experience misunderstandings. Isn’t trying to get our meaning across and ourselves understood what we do every day of our lives? And isn’t it usually hard, even between persons of the same species, language and culture?
I think when we meet real aliens, if we meet them, the gap we need to bridge is a bit wider than an episode of space opera or the length of a book.
Suppose we managed to meet aliens living concurrent with us in this Universe that is vast in both space and time, would we be able to communicate with them? Would we even recognize them as sentient beings, and they us?
What if a human astronaut landed among a civilization so different to her own she couldn’t even recognize its existence? No matter how hard the other party tried to signal to them, how willing and eager they were to find common ground? There is both tragedy and comedy to be found in such a situation, and that’s where I went with this piece.

The story behind the story: Proxima junk

This week, Futures welcomes new writer Mark Vandersluis with his story Proxima junk. By day, Mark is an IT manager for a telecoms company in the UK. By night, he writes, and we are pleased to present the fruits of his labour. Here, Mark reveals the inspiration for his story — beware, this post contains spoilers, so please read the story first!

Writing Proxima junk

I’m old enough to have grown up feeling terrified by the ever present threat of nuclear Armageddon, and old enough now to fear the catastrophic consequences of climate meltdown for future generations.  In this story, I decided to look at what might remain of humanity’s greatest achievements should such planet-wide catastrophes occur. How might we be remembered or understood some centuries later? I wanted to consider these questions by taking an outsider’s viewpoint; in this case, the narrative would be delivered by an alien with no real knowledge of our history or motives. Wanting to set the story at a nearby star, the ‘Proxima’ part of the title came first; I have no idea why the word ‘junk’ then spontaneously came to mind, but in that moment, the exact setting for the story crystallized and from that, the whole the story quickly followed. For me, this is not the first time that a seemingly random process of title selection has been the catalyst for the production of a complete story. Are there any explanations out there?

Most of us have at some time or another browsed around a curiosity shop, a junkyard or car boot sale, looking through bric-a-brac for something of interest, or of enough value for us to consider making a purchase. So here we find ourselves somewhere near Proxima Centauri, a bit of a galactic backwater, in a scruffy little junk shop with one alien salesperson and just one prospective customer. The salesperson must use all his finely honed skills to keep the customer engaged and interested, in order to achieve a sale. Reading between the lines of the salesperson’s (mostly incorrect) speculations on human artefacts, we learn that humanity’s greatest achievements have either been destroyed by ourselves or ended up in this second-rate junkyard. Most of what remains from Earth seems destined to become a ‘coffee table’ curiosity (or even worse, eaten!). We also learn that after damaging our planet irreparably, things rapidly went downhill for us as a species.

So what is left that aliens might consider worth buying? Sadly, in my eyes, the answer is ‘not much’, unless you have a taste for radioactive metal, or would like that last remaining Voyager disc as a talking point in your home. This future is a bleak one for us, one which we must absolutely strive to avoid.

As readers, we do also get to glimpse some of the wonders of our Universe, which unfortunately our own species never managed to behold: advanced spacecraft, exotic lifeforms, advanced artefacts and energy sources, alien art. By contrast, our technologies are dismissed as ‘primitive’. In the partial descriptions and conversations of salesperson and customer, we get a hint of the diversity of races in the Galaxy. We also see that many of the traits and behaviours (some positive, some less so) which we identify as ‘human’ might well be universal: special offers and discounts, guarantees and loyalty cards, mailing lists, limited edition collectables, accidents, haggling, inane questions in second-hand shops. The importance of family. The likelihood that salespeople will be salespeople the Galaxy over.

And of course, we learn never to underestimate the universal comfort of dunking a biscuit into a nice cup of tea or coffee (or slime!) at break time.

The story behind the story: How we know they have faces

This week, Futures considers the world of aesthetics with Marissa Lingen’s story How we know they have faces. Regular readers will be well versed in Marissa’s work, but if you’re new to her writing, please check out her website and Twitter feed — as well as the other stories she has written for Futures (handily collected at the foot of this post). Here, Marissa reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing How we know they have faces

Once upon a time there were three little girls — two sisters and their cousin — who loved stories about aliens and spaceships.

The oldest little girl grew up to be a nurse educator, the kind of nurse with a couple of master’s degrees and heaps of opinions about whatever brand-new drugs and medical equipment came along. She still loved science fiction, and lots and lots of science fiction stories had medical themes, which made her pretty happy, although she liked the stories that didn’t have those things, too.

The middle little girl, cousin to the two sisters, grew up to study nuclear physics, then diverted into a career in writing science fiction. (Spoiler alert: this one is me.) And sure, she was writing the stories herself, but even when she was ‘just’ a reader, she could find lots and lots of stories that touched on the physics she loved. And that made her pretty happy too — although if you paged through her work it went outside the bounds of physics just like her cousin went outside the bounds of medicine for her reading joy.

The youngest little girl grew up to be an aesthetician. She thought about aliens and the big wide universe just as much as she ever had, because being an artist with make-up and other visuals of the human face wouldn’t have any reason to change that, but for some reason there weren’t a lot of stories that combined her professional love with her science fiction joy. She was willing to step outside her own field and enjoy other people’s interests, which is a good thing, because she had to be. Because despite the near-universal human interest in modifying and decorating our own forms, not a lot of science fiction gets written about it.

Mary, this one is for you.

Other Futures stories by Marissa Lingen

Say it with mastodons | My favourite sentienceSeven point twoPlanet of the five rings | Running safety tips for humansThe most important thing | The many media hypothesis | Boundary waters | Maxwell’s Demon went down to Georgia | The stuff we don’t do | Unsolved logistical problems in time travel: spring semester | Entanglement | Quality control | Search strings | Alloy

The story behind the story: Shipmaster’s scalp

In this week’s Futures, Jeremy Szal returns with his mind-bending story Shipmaster’s scalp. Jeremy is, of course, no stranger to Futures (you can see a list of his other pieces at the foot of this post), and you can catch up with his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the genesis of his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Shipmaster’s scalp

Being able to access anything, from anywhere, at anytime, via the Internet, is a great thing. The only catch is that someone, somewhere, at anytime, can access you back.

I’m talking about the usual suspects: Google, Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter: and hundreds of other apps, services and browsers that we happily feed our personal data, credit-card information, passwords, search results and more, into on a daily basis. It may seem innocent at first, but when we start seeing ads targeted towards something we’ve said in passing conversation on the phone, then things get frightening. Even more when the videos we watch, the places we’ve been, and the things we’ve purchased, are used by the Faceless Big Corporations to paint an online picture of us, selling that data onwards to third-party marketers for profit.

Such was the inspiration for Shipmaster’s scalp. A future where privacy has become a luxury only the rich can afford, and anyone has else has everything about them and everything they do, stored online for anyone, usually people with nefarious purposes, to eyeball and exploit for their own gain. In our world, we have ad blockers and proxies to combat this. In Kharrus’ world, an entire network of smugglers exists to get around this act of perverse intrusion of privacy. Because, regardless of the terms of use, sneaking around in the personal data of others is an act of privacy violation, and can be (and is) frequently exploited. It’s why I had Kharrus be tortured with a virus that violates the uttermost private and personal place imaginable: his mind. For months and months and months.

Seems ludicrous? And yet, that’s almost exactly what these corporations and tech companies are doing when they track, quite literally, every step you take, every word you speak, everything you purchase, and sell it on to appropriate people, or utilize for themselves. Who’s to say they won’t corporate with the authorities, or individuals with even worse intentions, if the opportunities calls for it? What if they see you purchasing something suspicious? Or frequenting a seedy place? Or communicating with people with criminal records? It’s the reason I deliberately made Kharrus’ captors more evil than he is: he’s defending the lives of the people he cares about. Their own goal is to root out a bad blip to society. Because, on the Internet, that’s exactly what you are: a faceless, soulless, blip, nothing more than a fistful of megabytes, a handful of search results and a potential for exploitation and profit.

More Futures stories by Jeremy Szal

Daega’s test | System reboot | Walls of Nigeria | When there’s only dust left | Traumahead | Tomorrow, the sunset will be blue

The story behind the story: Faulty machines

This week, Futures welcomes back Gretchen Tessmer with her conflict-weary story Faulty machines. Gretchen has previously introduced us to a hive mind and revealed how it feels to be swallowed by a black hole. You can find out more about her work by following her on Twitter. Here she reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Faulty machines

This story is what happens when you’re casually watching a random online argument flame itself into a raging wildfire of petty nonsense (i.e. why is a raven like a writing desk? — but with more politics) … while simultaneously half-listening to the random Transformers movie that’s playing on the television in the background.

Which Transformers movie, you ask? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. There’s a lot of them. I remember Michael-Bay-grade explosions and Optimus Prime definitely showed up to save the day at some point. But that’s all I know.

So anyway, I started scribbling about battle robots and this story just kind of fell onto the page fully formed. It’s not a new idea obviously (“an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind”) but it’s one that I’ve explored a few times in other stories/poems and will probably continue exploring.

Logic, plans and good intentions — I love how we try to order the world into nice, clean patterns. But then feelings step in and everything starts to melt, or go sideways, or burn the place down. Or turn numb in grief, in Lucy’s case.

Feelings are faulty and unpredictable. But hey, it keeps the story interesting.

The story behind the story: Water seekers

In this week’s Futures, Kurt Pankau returns to give us a taste of a post-apocalyptic world in Water seekers. Based in St Louis, Missouri, Kurt has already written two other stories for Futures in the shape of Papa Bear and Please [redacted] my last e-mail. You can find out more about his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here he offers a glimpse into the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Water seekers

In recent business/tech news I’ve heard more than one story about start-up companies selling survival bunkers to the wealthy. I’m not overly fond of the romantic portrayal of the apocalypse as viewed through the eyes of a lone-wolf survivor who gets back to nature once the distractions of the modernity are destroyed. I can see how that sort of a life might be tempting, but humanity doesn’t really work that way. We are a social species. We depend on our communities. Now that we’re staring down the barrel of climate change — as terrifying an existential threat as nuclear proliferation was decades ago — I get a little contemptuous of people who have means and power but would rather hide from this problem than make any good-faith attempt to solve it. And one can’t help but detect a little classism in that mentality. That’s where the idea for this story came from. Here’s a man who has been hoarding resources in order to keep himself safe and protected, not just from the elements but from the ‘rabble’ as well. He has gone to great lengths to ensure that his needs will be met while the masses struggle. And he dies of loneliness. When our protagonists discover him, they’re faced with the choice to view him as an opportunity or a warning.