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

The story behind the story: A billion dots of light

This week, Futures is pleased to welcome back Matt Thompson with his story A billion dots of light. A London-based experimental musician, Matt brought us the intriguing story Ded-Mek last year. You can catch up on his other work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, Matt reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing A billion dots of light

Generation starships, one of the mainstays of SF, never seemed entirely plausible to me. Who would volunteer to live out their entire lives in a tin can (or even a hollowed-out hunk of space rock) just so that their descendants could form a colony? No one, most likely. But while the solution proposed in this story has a certain elegance to it (leaving aside the thorny question of who the original crew might have been), it does raise some delicate ethical questions.

Being a non-meat eater, I’ve occasionally found myself involved in conversations where considerations on the farming and slaughter of animals are countered with statements along the lines of “But they’re just dumb beasts”. It’s a debatable point, true, but seems like a hangover from a waning Judeo-Christian viewpoint concerning the existence of the soul. But can a human being whose higher thought processes were cauterized at birth be said to even have a soul (should such a thing exist)? And, if not, has anyone really been hurt? Do the means always justify the ends? Perhaps our accelerating technological landscape requires a new set of standards.

That’s the conclusion the viewpoint character in the story, an AI that has achieved some level of sentience over the course of its vast journey, comes to when faced with the conflict between the ‘accepted’ humanitarian perspective it was programmed with and the grotesque reality of the charnel-house it’s presiding over. In its decision to set the future colonists free from the moral burden of the past, this tension is resolved only at the cost of forcing those unborn pioneers to start over from scratch.

The human race right now doesn’t have that luxury. The ‘one set of ethics for the rich, one for the poor’ attitude has brought us to the brink of self-annihilation. The free market has, in the end, proved a failure. If the onward march of science is to be undertaken as a process of prising open Pandora’s box we’d better make sure we know what’s inside.

The story behind the story: Amped life

This week, Futures welcomes back John Cooper Hamilton with his cautionary tale about working in a space station: Amped life. John first appeared in Futures last year with his story This big, and you can find out more about his work by visiting his website. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Amped life

Half of Amped life’s inspiration is history. In 1973, NASA faced the first labour dispute in space. Skylab 4’s three-man crew was micromanaged through an over-ambitious schedule, and communication between mission control and the astronauts became so fraught that an unscheduled radio silence in October was characterized by the press as a mutiny. In December, the astronauts and mission control worked out a new schedule. The mission went on to a successful end, after 84 days in space. Future missions were organized using the lessons learnt.

The story’s remaining inspiration comes from the amazing neural-imaging and stimulation methods now being developed, along with an ever-advancing pharmacopeia.

In science-fiction rogue astronauts, like rogue AIs, tilt towards the homicidal, simply because it makes for a good story. But there are always new lessons to be learnt.

The story behind the story: The librarian

In this week’s Futures, Robert Dawson returns with a slightly nostalgic feeling in The librarian. Robert has appeared in Futures twice before, once lamenting the rise of Pop-ups and once experiencing Sparrowfall. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The librarian

When I was a student, in those lost days between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Internet, if you wanted to find me the library was one of the first places to look. Most likely you’d find me in the math and physics stacks, but the whole library was a wonderful playground of the mind. Over the course of a week I’d spend many hours there.

Today, the Internet has vastly increased not only the amount of material available, but the ease of finding it — especially for anybody lucky enough to be searching from a university, or any other site that subscribes to paywalled journals electronically. The time that I would once have spent going between the card catalogue and the stacks, or between the printed Math Reviews and the bound volumes of journals, is now spent at my desk: and the range of journals that I can access from the small teaching-oriented university where I work rivals (it seems to me) what I had access to as a graduate student at Cambridge.

As a result of this, fewer books are being bought. Subscriptions to physical magazines have plummeted (though we still subscribe to Nature) and back issues are often stored off campus, available in a day or so if anybody really needs them. Stack space is slowly being diverted to other purposes.  In many ways, the feel and the smell of books and journals is leaving our lives; this change is likely to continue for some time. Downtown and in the shopping malls, many bookstores have closed.  In homes around the world, the shelves where the family encyclopedia used to stand are empty, the books’ place taken by Google and the Internet. And this makes me sad, though I know that sorrow to be illogical. There are scenarios, I suppose, where a supervirus or EMP weapon could wipe out the Internet and leave us with nothing; but my feelings are based on nostalgia, not (I hope) on any real risk to the enormous virtual library that we all share today.

And yet nostalgia is a real and a powerful emotion. And so I wrote this story of a library closing down; and, in it, I gave a tip of the hat to Ray Bradbury, of all science-fiction writers perhaps the one who evoked nostalgia and simpler days most powerfully.

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