One of science fiction’s traditional roles in our culture has been to forecast the future: to theorize about what might come next, or what consequences might be imagined for current-day decisions. This is getting increasingly difficult to do with near-future settings, since it appears that the progress of technology and its social consequences outpaces the awareness of many science fiction writers. In particular, stories which attempt to tackle the future of cloud computing, social media, and data tracking tend to fall short – those dystopias are already here, and there’s very little to add. “There is nothing speculative in this story” is becoming a more common critique in reviews and slushpiles.
The tastes of some readers not withstanding, there is no reason a story need be highly speculative in order to be good. The best stories, when examining the consequences of technologies on the cutting edge of contemporary, avoid delving too deeply into the technology and focus instead on the human elements. An insightful, evocative story will be compelling regardless of its scientific basis, whereas a story about technology risks betraying the author’s ignorance.
These different approaches to the same subject can be seen in two recent stories: “Debugging the Ghosts” by Damien Krsteski (Bastion # 6) & “Weather” by Susan Palwick (Clarkesworld #96). Both stories imagine technology by which the recently deceased can be translated into code (a technology which, for the record, isn’t hypothetical. You can already sign up to keep Tweeting from the afterlife and there’s a whole branch of human-computer interactivity that concerns how we use technology to interact with our dead.) Krsteski’s story focuses on the technology, exploring how a bug in the code used to generate a proxy for the protagonist’s dead brother causes the proxy to “live” beyond the original programming specifications. Palwick, on the other hand, explores the grieving processes of two men who have lost children, one of whom goes on to have a digital afterlife. Ultimately, Palwick’s story comes out much stronger because it sidesteps the technological issues.
Told from the point of view of a researcher testing “GrieveNoMo” software, Krsteski’s story is clever, but distancing. Though Terri has lost her brother, Marty, there is very little sense of her grief in the story. The software in her brain makes an avatar of Marty appear to her, apparently a soothing enough “shrine” that Terri spends the majority of the story concerned with football scores and coding glitches. The story’s most poignant moment comes shortly after Marty begins exhibiting some intelligence beyond his original code and Terri is forced to acknowledge her brother’s death as a loss rather than a coding problem, but the story doesn’t revisit that one moment of connection. From then on, Terri (and the story) is focused on the technical problem of why Marty’s awareness is growing. When she eventually tracks down the culprit, the solution is so straight-forward that it erases all of the complexity and nuance of the story’s issues along with Marty’s new personality. The ending offers no consequences for Terri nor the company, serving instead to emphasize how little Marty or his nanotech “shrine” mattered to Terri. While the ending is in keeping with the story’s “report” format, it offers very little closure to the reader.
Palwick’s offering focuses on the decidedly low-tech lives of three people in rural Reno: Kerry and Frank, struggling by after the loss of their daughter, Alison; and Dan, who is desperate to get through an incoming storm in order to be at the deathbed of his estranged daughter, Rosie. Rosie is slated to undergo a process called Translation, in which a person is uploaded to the internet as they die, supposedly to live on in the digital realm.
The strength of Palwick’s story is that it isn’t about Translation. Very little space is expended explaining what it is and how it works, because it does not matter to the characters. Translated or not, this is a story about how the survivors deal with the grief of losing a child – and in Dan’s case, how he comes to realize he had lost Rosie long before she “dies”. By turning our attention to what the survivors learn about their relationships with the dead or the dying through the possibilities opened up by Translation (whether it is “real” or not), Palwick is making the point that the technology doesn’t matter: the relationships do. Certainly, they make better reading.
The strength of Palwick’s story is that it isn’t about Translation. Very little space is expended explaining what it is and how it works, because it does not matter to the characters.
The same can be said about Sam Miller’s excellent story, “We Are The Cloud” (Lightspeed #52). Miller has a nearly unparallelled knack for writing heart-wrenching characters and painful personal attachments, and so when another recent review of this story noted that the “science fiction elements are all but missing”, I can only lament that the reader missed out on everything that is glorious about this story. This is the story of a young man, Sauro, who is about to age out of the foster care system in a near-future New York and doesn’t know what will happen to him next. The “science fiction element”, a cloud port in Sauro’s skull that makes him – and just about every other person who grew up poor in New York – a wireless hub, is both the shackles of his class made physical, and the tool by which he could bring it all down.
Miller has a nearly unparallelled knack for writing heart-wrenching characters and painful personal attachments, and so when another recent review of this story noted that the “science fiction elements are all but missing”, I can only lament that the reader missed out on everything that is glorious about this story.
Sauro’s port could have been the crux of the story. This could have been another story about a poor kid who figures out he has this great power and uses it to bring down an evil empire, Skywalker-style; but it isn’t. In Sauro, Miller has created a character who is in many ways powerful: big, strong, conscientious, and capable of “diving” into the datastream that passes through his head. But Sauro is just as reluctant to use the power he has through clouddiving as he is to use physical power. He’s seventeen, a confused young man who has never really known what it is to be safe. He is hopped up on hormones and desperate for love and affection. He, true to his character, isn’t interested in saving the world. He is interested primarily in Case, another young man in the House, and in all the things that Case makes him feel.
Sauro’s devotion to Case is pitch-perfect, a classic case of cautiously and unwillingly falling in love, despite knowing better, despite the obstacles. Case is a schemer where Sauro isn’t, full of plans for what they will do once they are out of the system. Beguiled by Case, Sauro reluctantly agrees to go where Case does and to do what Case says, ignoring and concealing his ability to manipulate the data in the cloud. Even as Sauro starts to learn there is more to Case than meets the eye, the raw honesty of their romance blinds him – and the reader – to the realities of his hard situation. The Chekhov’s gun that is his cloud port isn’t needed so long as Case is there.
By vesting Sauro with all this power and then showing both why he doesn’t use it and what might make him use it, Miller is telling the story of all power, regardless of how “speculative” it is. Power dynamics are forged by class, money, personality, hate, and love. Technology is the last factor on the list.