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.

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.