The story behind the story: A picture is worth

This week Beth Cato returns to Futures with A picture is worth. Regular readers will know Beth’s work well, as well as writing several Futures stories (details at the foot of this post), she has also written the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy. You can find out more about her work at her website or by following  her on Twitter. Here, she reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing A picture is worth

Like so many science-fiction authors, I enjoy playing with ‘what ifs’ about alien life. In this story, I wanted to take on an alien point-of-view, with humans as the accidental aggressor.

To me, that feels more plausible than a flying saucer landing somewhere and requesting, “Take me to your leader.” Because let’s be honest: here on Earth, we don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to meeting other cultures of our own kind for the first time (or the thousandth-plus time). We make assumptions. We judge. We dismiss. We obliterate — both on purpose and by accident.

I can very well see the same thing occurring when we meet extraterrestrial for the first time … and we might not even be aware of the catastrophe we’ve caused until it’s too late. And, as Klatok’s viewpoint demonstrates, we may very well deserve what’s coming.

Read more Futures stories by Beth:

The 133rd Live Podcast of the Gourmando Resistance | Powers of observationExcerpts from the 100-day food diary of Angela MeyerThe human is late to feed the catBread of lifePost-apocalyptic conversations with a sidewalkCanopy of skulls

The story behind the story: Please [redacted] my last e-mail

This week, Futures welcomes back Kurt Pankau with his latest story Please [redacted] my last e-mail. Kurt first appeared in Futures last year with dose of disorientation in the intriguing Papa Bear. This time, he’s suffering from a mild case of censorship… Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Please [redacted] my last e-mail

This story started with the title, which came to me fully formed. It’s inherently silly, but I liked the rhythm of it and the sorts of questions it raised. I landed on the idea of ‘walking back’ a drunken message to a former love because I absolutely love writing about amicable exes. They already have shared history and familiarity, meanwhile they occasionally have intense feelings for each other that fly in the face of their rigidly enforced personal boundaries. The nature of the relationship means that the most pertinent details live in the subtext, and this is echoed in the format of the broader story, a dire warning that has been slashed into something comically tame. And because the ‘e-mail’ was being obfuscated so heavily, I felt like I had licence to really push what the subtext might be. If you read between the lines, there’s a man who has already lost his entire family and any hope for his own future. The only thing he can think to do is reach out to someone he used to love, not just to warn her of a potential threat, but also to apologize for a lifelong regret. He’s trying to convey his sadness and his horrific circumstances, but he has to do so in a way that feels jovial and harmless, and I love that contrast.
There are several layers of obfuscation going on. The unnamed protagonist doesn’t actually know if his previous e-mail got through, so he’s trying to share information while pretending to lie about it, and relying on his ex to be able to read him more accurately than the censoring AI can. On top of that, he’s throwing bones to the censors so they can redact the details that don’t matter and leave the details that do. While working on the story, I discovered that the “redacted” tag is quite versatile: it cues the reader to think about government or military, it lets them know that information is being hidden from them, it hand-waves away world-building elements, it obscures grim and messy details, and it can even work as the punchline to a joke. It was a fun way to tell a story — going out of my way to not tell it and relying on the reader to fill in the gaps.
Thanks for reading,
Kurt Pankau

The story behind the story: The last child

This week, Futures tackles the difficult issues of ageing, care and robots courtesy of L. R. Conti’s story The last child. When not writing science fiction, L. R. Conti writes science fact and has had articles published in multiple publications, including Pacific Standard, The Santa Barbara Independent and Scientific American Mind. In this blog post, we discover what inspired The last child — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The last child

I wrote The last child directly under the influence of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451. Those mechanical dogs and Guy Montag’s need to escape helped me create a world with robot companions and a certain societal repression. Although, in hindsight, it was also born in the context of Atul Gawande’s nonfiction Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I found the question: how will we care for our growing and ageing population when our society puts top priority on personal independence, jarring. I’m worried about our Boomers — and the rest of us.

Robotics isn’t a field that I generally follow, but I know that automated machines are emerging daily. And that recently scientists engineered a small, soft-robot propelled by heart cells1. The first time I saw cardiac cells beating on a Petri dish, my own heart skipped a beat. And now, strategies to 3D-print biomaterials, such as bones2, as well as methods to grow cells in 4D systems3 (think growth in all directions that can change with time), is setting the stage for larger, cell-based structures. With the additional possibilities of using donor tissue to establish stem-cell lines that can differentiate into any cell type4, ‘cellular robots’ emerged as a concept in The last child.

Although the query ‘cellular robot’ on Google shopping doesn’t conjure images of android-caregivers, I find the current availability of technological-social products intriguing. AI text-based chatbots, such as Replika, Wysa and Woebot, are marketed to provide mental well-being or even therapy. A while back, I downloaded Wysa as an app to my phone. A blue penguin told me that my secrets were safe and asked me what I was grateful for. Then it told me a knock knock joke, prompting me to interact. “Who’s there?” it suggested. It wasn’t Phillip or Anette, but maybe with some time, I’ll grow to love that little penguin.

A few years ago, I saw a YouTube video about PARO, a robot-companion in the form of a cuddly big-eyed seal. Patients in a dementia facility smiled and petted the fluffy animal. Although the research shows that PARO is good for the elderly as well as their caregivers5, I had a heartsick reaction to the story; a feeling that still lingers.

Of course, my own caregiving experiences contribute to the heart of The last child. The intimacy and burden of caring for ailing parents is rich terrain, woven with logistically and emotionally shrouded trails. Now, as a parent of adolescents, I’m observing my own children explore their boundaries. I know their newfound eagerness to break away is a genetic story that plays out generation after generation; a story, I imagined we might impose onto our robot caregivers of the future.

1. Park, S. J. et al. Science 353, 158–162 (2016). Article

2. Ashammakhi, N. et al. Adv. Healthc. Mater. (2019). Article

3. Schöneberg, J. et al. Mol. Biol. Cell 29, 2959–2968 (2018). Article

4. Hilderbrand, A. M. et al. Curr. Opin. Solid State Mater. Sci. 20, 212–224 (2016). Article

5. Lane, G. W. et al. Psychol. Serv. 13, 292–299 (2016). Article

The story behind the story: The tentacle and you

This week, John Wiswell makes his debut in Futures with an intriguing tale about human … evolution: The tentacle and you. John is a disabled writer who who lives “where New York keeps all its trees”. You can find out more about his work at his blog or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the genesis of the tentacle and how he came to write his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The tentacle and you

I began this story with a voice — what an early reader called “Billy Mays here, for the Tentacle!” It’s a commercial tone, enthusiastic for all that users are about to be subjected to, without any interest in actually filling you in. The perfect product was a baffling new appendage that did much more than hold your beer.

I have a lifelong fascination with consumer electronics. Such devices have been popular for my entire lifetime. Wear a band that tracks your heart rate and the number of steps you take, put these over your ears to hear different things, and these glasses will project things you’d rather see over your environment. As devices are tailored to better suit our biology and chemistry, it’s fun to imagine form factors for if consumer electronics ever graduate to consumer biologics.

Will you have a USB tentacle to put into your spine? That’s unlikely.

Will prosthetics for amputees further imitate biological forms? That’s more likely. In fact after Nature accepted this story, an animated gif started circulating Twitter of a prosthetic vine arm.

The notion of prosthetics immediately brought the mood of the piece to me. Disabled people will tell you about brutal physical therapists, nurses who weren’t properly trained to assist or interact with our specific conditions, and intrusions into our medical records and privacy. Often we are made to feel like a problem in need of a solution. Science fiction and medical tech frequently view disabled people as needing to be restored to normalcy and thereby be erased, regardless of what disabled communities want.

The pitchman voice was a great opportunity to share some of that feeling of being disregarded in the middle of a story that’s about yourself. In that way, the tone and creeping scope of the tentacle’s biological and social changes can be metaphors for much more than disability. Which is just what the tentacle would want.


The story behind the story: VTE

In this week’s Futures story, S. R. Algernon makes a welcome return to discuss the pitfalls of scientific progress with VTE. Regular readers will undoubtedly have read some of S. R. Algernon’s other pieces for Futures (there’s a full list at the foot of this post). You can catch up with his latest 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 VTE

The inspiration for VTE came when I noticed a conceptual similarity between the ‘vicarious trial and error’ experiments (done by Muenzinger in 1938 and discussed in Tolmans’s influential 1948 paper on cognitive maps1), the double-slit experiments (such as Taylor, 1909)2 and the more famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment from 19353. It occurred to me that each allowed an entity to pursue both paths at a decision point. What if, I wondered, quantum computing could allow people (and rats) to learn from all possible outcomes of an action by somehow yoking their outcomes to a quantum event?

I confess that I am not a physicist and that what I propose in VTE might be utter fantasy. However, I think the metaphor itself is compelling. Who among us wouldn’t want to be able to feel regret or loss at the point of a major life decision, when there is still time to choose a different path? I decided to set the story at a scientific conference because it was an appropriate place for characters to explain scientific theories. I introduced the poisoning to provide a concrete threat, inspired by some of the horrifying real-world incidents of poisoning in recent years.

This story owes a debt to many other ‘many worlds’ stories, in particular Sarah Pinsker’s And Then There Were (N-One)4 and Ten Sigmas by Paul Melko5. I like to think that my story draws from the scientific literature in a different way than the earlier works, but VTE undoubtedly stands on the shoulder of literary and scientific giants.

1. Tolman, E. C. Psychol. Rev. 55, 189–208 (1948). Article

2. Taylor, G. I. Proc. Camb. Philos. Soc. 15, 114-115 (1909). Article

3. Schrödinger, E. Naturwissenschaften 23, 823–828 (1935). Article

4. Pinsker, S. ‘And Then There Were (N-One)’ Uncanny Magazine (2017). Article

5. Melko, P. ‘Ten Sigmas’ in Ten Sigmas and Other Unlikelihoods (Fairwood Press, 2008).

Other Futures stories by S. R. Algernon

A time for peace | Planetary defences | Cargo cult | A pocket full of phlogiston | The chains of plenty | Asymmetrical warfare | In a new light | One slow step for man | Genius loci | Legacy admissions | In Cygnus and in Hell | The palimpsest planet | e-PLURIBUS | Home Cygnus

The story behind the story: Cold memories

We start 2019 with a glimpse of the future courtesy of Cold memories by Laurence Raphael Brothers. Laurence has appeared in Futures before, when he introduced us to an alien lifeform in between two voices talking. You can find out more about his work by visiting his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, Laurence reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Cold memories

In Cold memories we have a traditional climate-disaster backstory. I feel this is something of an obligation for a science-fiction writer to put out at present, although I generally prefer to present more positive futures. I don’t expect the entire planet will be ruined as in the story, but I do believe greenhouse-gas emissions will continue unabated for far too long due to the intransigence of the major industrial and consumer nations. I imagine some kind of too-late technological intervention such as atmospheric particle release or catalytic carbon sequestration to be attempted eventually, with real effects. But because such interventions will probably be enormously expensive, I doubt they will occur in time to prevent hundreds of millions or even billions of deaths, upsetting the entire order of nature and horribly disrupting civilization and the survivors’ quality of life for many generations.

In this story I feel I’m being extremely optimistic about our space travel and planetary colonization capabilities. It’s been more than 60 years since the first Sputnik was launched with no great technological advances for getting off the ground since then, and for 45 years no human has travelled beyond low Earth orbit. And yet, in just over a century I’m suggesting viable asteroid colonies as far out as Neptune’s trojans. I should say that science fiction is in my view primarily the literature of optimism, and despite everything, I see this story as optimistic in its way. But, of course, I would happily trade a few million colonists on the Moon, Mars and in the asteroids for billions of lives on Earth, if only it was within my power to preserve our ecology.

The story behind the story: Solstice

As the end of the year approaches, Futures is pleased to welcome back John Gilbey with his timely tale, Solstice. John needs no introduction, as he has been a regular contributor to Futures for many years (you can get to his other Futures stories from the links at the end of this post). If you would like to catch up with the rest of his work, then you can try tracking him down at the University of Rural England — or maybe just follow him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the seasonal inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Solstice

Like most folk who have spent much of their careers sauntering around the foothills of academia, I have been to a lot of parties. Some have been good, some bad, some indifferent and some extraordinarily memorable.

Across all these categories, however, some things seem to be universal constants:

• Nobody really understands what the strange protein at the centre of the vol-au-vent actually is.

• Humanity has sent spacecraft beyond the heliosphere but can’t find a way of juggling plate, glass and cutlery.

• There are some folk you ONLY meet at parties, as if they have no other existence …

This last one got me wondering. What if the academic party is only a protrusion into our reality of a hugely complex multi-dimensional intersection? What if you could compare notes and exchange information across the gauzy membrane of space-time that should logically separate the zillion streams of existence? How would you curate such a portal, what would be the constraints on its activity and how would it operate?

I suspect a few of us have stayed at parties longer than we should have, and drunk too deeply of the senior-managements’ munificence. If so, you may recall experiencing the worrying quasi-rotation of the room, the inevitable disorientation and the improbability of walking in a respectable straight line to the exit — assuming you can even find your way out of the room. Add some potentially quantum effects to the mix and you get some idea of how extraordinary our hero found his exposure to the uniquely pan-dimensional architecture of the Council Chamber at the University of Rural England.

I have suggested in the story that the Chamber is a natural phenomenon pressed into the use of humanity – perhaps initially by the adherents of ancient shamanic rituals who chanced upon some of its traits (think standing stones and landscape alignments) — but who knows? Perhaps a distantly benevolent civilization has made it available to us as part of a coaching exercise? Or maybe it only exists because it exists?

Perhaps on another occasion I might try to establish who the elderly gentleman is — and I certainly haven’t excluded the possibility that he is an older incarnation of the narrator. This would probably involve building a narrative structure that would equal the complexity of the portal itself, so could potentially take some serious planning.

Time, as they say, will tell. In the meantime, try to make sure you always leave an academic party by the same door you entered it through — unless you actively want your life to become suddenly, wildly more confusing. Thinking about it, this might explain so much about my career …

Happy Solstice!

Read more of John’s Futures stories

It never rains in VRFinding a happy mediumSafety criticalBig Dave’s last standMeeting with MaxPermanent positionCommitmentFinal protocolUnfinished businessCorrective actionThe last laboratory | Killing timeInterventionVisiting BobCommunicantReview of the year 2062Deep impressionsInfraction | Citadel | Geode | Breakthrough

The story behind the story: A beginner’s guide to space travel and seafood

This week, Futures is pleased to offer some advice to early adopters courtesy of Steven Fischer and his incredibly useful story A beginner’s guide to space travel and seafood. Regular readers will know that Steven has previously introduced us to The First Fragmented Church of Entropy as well as guided us through the syntax of Query, Queue, Repeat. When not writing, Steven is a medical resident in the Pacific Northwest. You can find out more about his works of fiction by visiting his website or following him on Twitter. Here, Steven reveals the origins of his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing A beginner’s guide to space travel and seafood

I’ve always been a late adopter. I didn’t buy my first smartphone until 2014. My watch can’t do anything other than tell time. My friends make fun of me because I’m barely midway through my twenties, but I own less tech than my father-in-law. Part of that is because I’m a cheapskate (I prefer the word ‘thrifty’, but let’s not kid ourselves), the other part is because I’m playing the game.

There’s a fundamental strategic question to adopting new technology in a world of ever-quickening progress: if I wait a little longer something even better will be available.

That’s not a big deterrent for most people when it comes to a gadget like a phone or a smartwatch, because those pieces of technology take almost no time to implement. But when we’re talking more durable goods (like spaceships or self-driving cars) it can be a huge incentive.

On the one hand everyone wants the newest and best, but if the newest and best isn’t very new or very good by the time you get it home and learn to actually use it, why not wait a little longer and buy the next edition?

The obvious answer is that if everyone thought that way, then no one would adopt new technology at all. Eventually you just have to jump in and go for it, recognizing you’re always going to be behind the ball. That said, there is an unmistakable benefit to not being the first penguin into the sea. So, to all the early adopters out there, thanks for being more courageous than me, and for working out all the bugs by the time new products fall into my *ahem*, ‘thrifty’, hands.

The story behind the story: How it feels to be swallowed by a black hole

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Gretchen Tessmer, who reveals the truth about How it feels to be swallowed by a black hole. Gretchen, an attorney/writer based in the US–Canadian borderlands of northern New York, last year introduced us to the Hive. You can find out more about her work by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing How it feels to be swallowed by a black hole

I’ve always been fascinated by black holes. I mean, who isn’t? There really could be anything in there. Or nothing, I suppose. Or everything! Your guess is as good as mine.

Well, honestly, yours is probably better…considering I’m going to die on the gravitationally time-diluted hill that says we’ll be able to crest the event horizon without spaghettification (what a word, right?) and see what’s happening in there.

Because otherwise, what a disappointment. Not to future scientists, who will probably have a much better grasp on what to expect once they get to the point where it all becomes knowable. But rather, for present me, who has a brain that loves unknowns and possibilities and kind of wants the other side to be a punchline or a black screen of infinitely rolling credits – With Special Thanks To Our Special Effects Department and Apologies, As Always, To The Dinosaurs…

This story originated as part of a writing contest. The prompt I was given led me to a sentient radio (à la the one in The Brave Little Toaster – anyone remember that cinematic semi-nightmare?)…but in the middle of writing that story, I suddenly became fixated on the idea that even radio waves can’t escape a black hole and had to write this one down instead.

So I typed “How It Feels To Be Swallowed By A Black Hole” at the top of a blank page and just went from there.

The story behind the story: Say it with mastodons

This week, Futures is dipping its toe into the world of romance with Marissa Lingen’s story Say it with mastodons. 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 at the foot of this post. Here, Marissa reveals what inspired her romantic tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Say it with mastodons — or The romance of dirt

I like flowers.

I like them, but I don’t love them, mostly. Tiger lilies are my favourite. Of the traditional romantic gifts, give me chocolate any day, the darker the better. Books and fountain-pen ink are even higher on the list. A bouquet of roses will make some people feel seen and cherished; others will feel like the giver was just checking off a box on the Romance List, not valued at all. Romantic gifts are not just in the eye of the beholder — they’re in the eye of the beheld.

Which brings us to the mastodons. What makes a person a science-fiction writer is a pretty open question, but I think that you’re at least inclining that way if you start to think about the shape of love story people would have to have for mastodons to be a romantic gift — what kind of people they would have to be, what else that would say about their surroundings. But who could resist mastodons? I mean. I suspect that a large portion of the readership of Nature Futures are exactly the kind of people who would be bowled over by that gift.

I’ve also been thinking about dirt a lot, about soil health. I feel like it’s a topic we haven’t written enough science fiction about. Last month — after I wrote this story, before I write the next five stories — I was fortunate enough to attend a soil-science conference, and the speakers kept returning to themes of interdependence. The benefits of large browsing/grazing mammals to soil health fascinate me. It’s part of the way that environments can’t successfully be taken apart into pieces, part of how everything is dependent on everything else. So it all got wrapped up together: love and dirt and hope and mastodons, and the way that we work together for the benefit of things — and people — we love.

Other Futures stories by Marissa Lingen

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