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.

The story behind the story: Trading in futures

This week, Futures welcomes back S. R. Algernon with his cautionary tale Trading in futures. 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 Trading in futures

I wrote a story several years ago with the same elements of Trading in futures, in which an unscrupulous trader lures colonists to a bad end at the behest of an extraterrestrial species. With recent events – Brexit, climate change, human migration and other crises – in mind, I wanted to revisit the theme, make it more personal and give it a bit more historical context. It is easy for demagogues to promise simple solutions for political problems if they have a narrow base of support and don’t care about or understand the long-term consequences of their actions. In films and history, we often see tyrants from the outside perspective, as maniacal and histrionic in their cruelty – the abusive face that strong leaders use to cow their opposition. I think it bears noting that dystopian futures sometimes arise in quiet, comfortable offices and conference rooms, where people find reasons to take the path of least resistance knowing that their personal future, at least, is secure. I changed the viewpoint in this story to second person to put the reader in the role of a collaborator.

If we view unjust power structures from the outside, we sometimes underestimate how compelling their offer can be. You matter, the people in power assure you. Your needs come first. We won’t let anyone else take them away. The wants and desires of the main character aren’t invalid, any more than Jae’s or Tabby’s. They deserve to self-actualize as much as anyone else. The system itself, including the contract that the main character files away at the end, channels those ambitions to predatory ends. In the protagonist’s case, there is a conscious moral (or immoral) choice, but Jae and Tabby are complicit out of ignorance. That point is a political bone of contention today. How do we judge privileged people who participate in an unjust system without malicious intent? Is it right to claw back the things they have gained through participation in that system? What about their privileged descendants? What about the future victims of oppression not yet born at the time the bargain was struck. Agreements, bargains and conspiracies have far-reaching effects.

I thought about the Hobbesian view of the role of government and the social contract. A social contract is a better alternative to anarchy, but contracts can be unequal, fraudulent and predatory. Is a contract that secures power for a privileged few – signed only by those deemed worthy of a seat at the table – better than no contract at all? A robust democracy is supposed to prevent us from having to make that choice. It is supposed to allow us to preserve our social contract while amending its flaws and constraining leaders who violate its spirit. I hope that the democratic structures around the world today are up to the task.

As I rewrote this story, I recalled the imagery of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. It struck me that the story wasn’t about time travel but about that timeless tendency of humans to settle into roles and identities and lose track of their overarching humanity. We sacrifice others or let ourselves be sacrificed for a system that can turn self-destructive. New advances in politics, technology and cultural exchange will change us, but human drives will find avenues for expression. It is our responsibility to channel them towards a greater good without turning a blind eye to lesser evils.

If we seek a future only for people like us and only in the short term, we diminish that future. If we seek a future big enough for all of us – for rich and poor, for migrants and longstanding members of the community, for sick and healthy, and for the widest scope of humanity and beyond – we will be stronger as a species and less encumbered by the failings of human nature.

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 | VTE

The story behind the story: The memory lanterns of Loi Krathong

In this week’s Futures, Preston Grassmann returns with a story about the importance of memories: The memory lanterns of Loi Krathong. Regular readers will remember Preston’s previous pieces for Futures (there’s a list at the foot of this post if you’ve missed them). Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The memory lanterns of Loi Krathong

A few years ago, I went to the Yi Ping Festival in Chiang Mai (often considered part of Loi Khratong — a festival of candle-lit baskets placed in rivers), where thousands gather to release lanterns into the skies of northern Thailand. When I heard of how this festival symbolizes the release of misfortunes and the painful moments of one’s life, I imagined a sky filled with purged memories – pain and personal trauma floating away in the flaming perch of a paper lantern. A short time ago, I had faced moments of deep sorrow and despair — losing my mother to cancer. Would I have let go of the painful memories if I could, erased the trauma from my mind? As I began to write The memory lanterns of Loi Khrathong, words bearing their own kind of sharing light, I knew the answer would come in the form of a story.

Read other Futures stories by Preston:

Midnight in the cathedral of timeThe vermilion marketBroken maps of the seaVenice, Version 9.0Clocking out

The story behind the story: Into darkness

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome Anike Kirsten with her story Into darkness. Anike is based in South Africa, and you can find out more about her writing by visiting her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her first tale for Futures — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Into darkness

What really goes on in a singularity? Sure, if we happen to get into one, there’d be the spaghettification problem to contend with, but what if the gravitation wasn’t that strong? Perhaps, in some way we’ve yet to discover through a soon-to-be developed theory of everything, controlled micro black holes could be made to exist for exploration purposes? For science. What would we see? These questions, and many other, wilder ones, set the foundation for Into darkness.

If lights bends at the event horizon and time becomes space inside the black hole, would we be doomed to seeing ourselves repeat a grave mistake over and again with no way of changing the outcome?

The physics and speculations aside, the story was also influenced by Dante’s Inferno, in a contemporary subject to create a new form of imagined Hell. While not relateable, at least not directly, I thought such a micro black hole as an excellent metaphor for the problems of living within the Information Age. What better way to highlight that than to focus on the event and object where information is greatly lost? And as the protagonist finds out, the cost may be too obscure to realize until it’s time to pay.

The story behind the story: Twenty-six seconds on Tetonia-3

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Wendy Nikel with her story Twenty-six seconds on Tetonia-3. Regular readers will remember Wendy’s previous stories Cerise sky memoriesLava cake for the ApocalypseThe Memory Ward and Let me sleep when I die. You can find out more about Wendy’s work — and her latest novella The Grandmother Paradox — at her website and by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration for her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Twenty-six seconds on Tetonia-3

This story began — as many of mine do — with a writing prompt or, in this case, a mixture of two writing prompts. Sometimes, trying to fit multiple ideas or concepts together helps me to see things in ways that I wouldn’t normally and come up with unusual combinations.

The first prompt was the painting Funeral in Chernobyl Zone by Viktor Shmatŭ. In this image, a truck hauls a casket along a path through a run-down village, with mourners following behind. A sign with an orange triangle warning of contamination hangs on the building in the foreground.

The second prompt was a song by one of my favourite bands, Sparklehorse, entitled, ‘My Yoke is Heavy’. The band uses a lot of surrealist imagery in its lyrics, which inspired things like the animals that inhabit this post-disaster world.

Once I had the world built, all I had to do was ask myself how it came to be that way and what the characters were going to do about it, and the rest of the story fell into place.

The story behind the story: In the spaces of strangers

This week, Futures is exploring the murky world of mind transference courtesy of In the spaces of strangers by L. P. Lee. An English Eurasian writer based in London,  L. P. Lee splits her work between fiction and screenwriting. You can find out more about her work at her website. Here, she reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to the read the story first.

Writing In the spaces of strangers

The story came about when I started looking into the idea that we’ll one day be able to upload our minds and live outside of the bodies that we were born into. It’s fascinating that there are neuroscientists and start-ups exploring how to turn these ideas into reality.

It makes you wonder how people, with all the baggage that they bring to the table and their varied ways of navigating society, might put this kind of technology to use.

I was curious about how it could play out if people from different backgrounds in British society started transferring across to each other, as opposed to uploading to a computer. It’s a flight of fancy, where brains are bits of machinery that can be emptied and refilled again. In my story, I wanted to explore what could happen in a relationship of power imbalance between two individuals.

Although there’s the potential for mind uploading to move us forward and be the next step in human evolution, possibly it will enable baser, more vampiric instincts too.

The story behind the story: Remember

This week Futures is delighted to welcome A. J. Lee with her story Remember — a cautionary tale about cryogenics. Here, we discover what inspired this piece — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Remember

Despite the scepticism about cryonics, people have been freezing themselves in the hope of future resuscitation since the mid-1960s. We don’t yet know enough about the human brain to revive these frozen people. And we certainly don’t know enough to create brain-accessible memory storage that mimics real memories. But it seems likely that the two could go hand-in-hand.

And, it seems to me, one of the two is more likely to be adopted quickly: the one that helps us, personally and immediately. If you could have Remembers, wouldn’t you? Of course, people are desperate to live forever — but who would want their loved ones to be the first to be thawed? Knowing how the first version of any current tech product looks alongside its later version, and knowing you’ve only got one shot at it … wouldn’t you rather wait?
In 2016, a court ruled that a 14-year-old girl, who was dying of cancer, could be cryogenically frozen. I read that piece then, and since then the ideas in it have been percolating in my (warm, unpreserved, entirely fallible) brain. The same questions that I think we all ask when we hear about cryonics (Will she ever be thawed? What will the world look like when she is? Is this even possible, or is it a scam?), but also a new-to-me thought: she was so young, young enough that unlike many of the other people who turn to cryonics on their deathbeds her peers may still be alive when she is revived. What will they be like when she returns?
These two separate lines of thought — the scientific one about all the other possibilities brought up by a more thorough understanding of the human brain, and the human one brought up when we apply those scientific concepts — brought me to Jen and Dan’s story. Just like many of us today, Dan lives in a space in between technologies — he has Remembers, but he isn’t quite sure how to use them, and he’s aware of cryonics without fully knowing what’s possible. How could he not long for a clear representation, a clear reminder, of his own half-remembered youth?

The story behind the story: Without access

Futures is delighted to welcome back Deborah Walker this week with Without access, her story about the need to stay connected. Regular readers will be familiar with Deborah’s work (there are links to her other stories at the foot of this post), but you can find out more about her writing at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Without access

I like my phone, but my teenage daughter really likes it. It’s so important to her. Access is everything. When my teenage niece was denied Wi-Fi access on a recent holiday to Croatia (the brochure had promised access), she had a meltdown. For many of the younger generation access to the Internet has become part of their identity.

Concerns about the time we all spend on our electronic devices have recently resurfaced. Are we enslaved to access? What does this mean for our productivity? For our mental health?

It’s not just parents who are concerned. Half of teenagers think they spend too much time on social media. Teenagers also think that parents are spending too much time on their phones. (But let’s gloss over that.)

People can’t seem to stop checking their phones. A recent survey reveals people checking their phones in the most inappropriate situations: during sex (7%), on the toilet (72%) and even during a funeral (11%). Nearly two-thirds of people said they felt anxious when not connected to the Wi-Fi.

I seem to recall that the social-media giants are implanting measure to help us manage these issues, although I don’t recall what those measures are.

These issues inspired my story. I take my teenage hero to a planet where access is denied. A nightmare planet, inhabited by underground dwellers. Bored out of her tiny mind, my hero goes where she shouldn’t go: into the night of the living dead, except the dead aren’t flesh and blood, they are personalities, and they have access to a horrifying amount of data.

More Futures stories by Deborah:

Contagion in tranquil shades of grey | When the Cold comes | Good for something | Face in the dark | Sybil | Surrendered human | First foot | Glass future | Ovoids | Green future | Auntie Merkel | The frozen hive of her mind