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The Future We Wish We Had by Martin H. Greenberg and Rebecca Lickiss, editors

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I was a kid first discovering science fiction in the 1970's, I had a fairly clear view of what the future was going to be like. I fairly took it for granted that the moon landings were a prelude to the establishment of permanent bases on the moon and giant wheel in the sky space stations in orbit, just like in so many books I loved to read. But as the 70's gave way to the 80's and the space program dwindled away to a Space Shuttle that never quite seemed to work as advertised, it became increasingly obvious that the glorious vision of space travel as common as air travel wasn't happening any time soon, and quite probably not in my lifetime. And certainly I wasn't going to be among the elect who got to go up there.

It seems that I'm not the only person with a certain sense of letdown about the future as it's come to pass. Not just the abandonment of the glorious dreams of space exploration in favor of more mundane earthbound benefits of the space program like weather and communication satellites, but the other things promised by the science fiction of our childhoods: the flying cars and household robots, the breakthroughs in medicine that were just around the corner, the whole package of dreams that grew out of post-War optimism about the bright, shining chrome-plated world of the future.

Take for instance the fully automated house, in which all the unpleasant drudge work of housekeeping is done by machinery at a push of a button. Of course in a cartoon version of this trope, things never quite work as planned -- after a brief honeymoon period in which the cartoon character is enjoying the pleasures of having everything done for them, something goes wrong and our hapless cartoon hero is suddenly the one being floured, kneaded and put into the oven. Given that it's a cartoon and cartoon physics applies, the character suffers no long-term harm.

However, things aren't so funny when it's actual people rather than 'toons, as Esther M. Friesner shows in "A Rosé for Emily." The title character feels that her family is being condescended to because of their small-town Southern background, and has become particularly convinced that the automated kitchen in their new home despises their tastes. However, when she arranges a public demonstration, she gets a little more than she bargained for.

Suspended animation is another of those tropes of The Future we used to take for granted, but proved more difficult to attain in practice. However, Sarah A Hoyt suggests in "Waiting for Juliette" that things still might be complicated if the medical issues were resolved. The two star-crossed lovers of this future spend the entire story trying to figure out how to synchronize their time of awakening from cryogenic suspension when privacy regulations prevent the clinic staff from simply telling them the other's scheduled emergence date.

In "Boys" Dave Freer gives us another take on the perils of a fully automated house. When the protagonist is suckered into buying an upgrade to her self-configuring nu-home by a particularly vigorous salesdroid, the AI of her antique Harry's Bar takes offense. Suddenly she's trapped in a nightmare, and only a memory of a youthful search for "boys" in her math module at school provides a key to escape.

BTW, a Boy's surface is an actual topological construct, related to the Mobius strip and Klein bottle, which was developed by mathematician Werner Boy.

Undersea cities were another of those elements that we sort of took for granted as part of The Future. Of course in stories like the old Saturday morning cartoon Sealab 2020, which I regularly watched as a kid growing up, the protagonist was always well-placed socially and had the wherewithal to explore and have Adventures. But as we grow up, we learn that not everybody gets to have the cool jobs where they're working on the cutting edge of discovery -- a lot of us are going to have to lower our sights to something that pays the bills, however routine and boring it may be. And as Brenda Cooper shows us in "Trainer of Whales," there's no reason to believe that the society of an undersea city will be any different.

Her protagonist grew up wanting to train whales, a high-prestige line of work in that imagined society. But a couple of youthful indescretions left Kitha with diminished prospects and now she's stuck doing routine work as a kelp harvester in order to support herself and her son somewhere well removed from the lad's problematic father. But the dream never completely died, and although she's never been able to obtain formal training, she's become a compulsive autodidact, spending every spare moment studying every book she can find and practicing on the dolphin-bots that patrol the edges of the kelp fields.

Then comes the day when an undersea earthquake strikes, and she's the only one who can summon the great whales to rescue her undersea home. A protocol intended to protect the city from further air loss during a crisis is instead keeping the technical staff from getting out to resolve the problem, so they can only offer advice via radio while she does the actual work. The ending focuses primarily upon her happy reunion with her son, but it doesn't foreclose the possibility that she will finally get to pursue her career dreams as reward for her heroism, rather than being told "thanks, now go back to your old life like nothing ever changed."

Kevin J Anderson made his reputation doing media tie-ins, so it's quite appropriate that his "The Good Old Days" should draw upon one of the iconic cartoon representatives of The Future for an entire generation. It's interesting to see how he places us firmly in the world of The Jetsons without ever using any trademarked or copyrighted names. At the same time, he manages to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the present, even parts of our daily lives that we find distasteful. It's appropriate that George's elderly anachronophilic uncle should be named Asimov, since the whole story feels much like Isaac Asimov's "The Fun They Had," which evokes much the same nostalgia for present-day schools in a society where all children are schooled at home via computer and distance learning.

The bridezilla is a common figure in wedding horror stories. Obsessed with having her perfect dream wedding, she drives everyone else in the wedding party to distraction with her It's All About MEEEE antics. In "Kicking and Screaming Her Way to the Altar," Alan L. Lickiss has a bride whose perfect fantasy wedding absolutely has to involve her father giving her away. Her father who's been dead for years -- but robotics can come to the rescue with a perfect android replica programmed to act just like him. There's only one problem -- her memories of her father are all from the perspective of the girl she was back then, and she just can't seem to understand why the android doesn't match them because she can't see that she's changed since then. The harder the programmers try to improve their modeling, the more displeased she becomes, until the final meltdown. It's a funny story with a wryly happy ending.

Nanotechnology is one of the more recent developments, but already people are starting to feel disappointed that it's not living up to its promoters' ideas. In "Alien Voices" P. R. Frost gives us the story of super-advanced medical nanotech that can rebuild joints from within. Only one problem -- it's still experimental and the developers are on the verge of shelving it because the previous recipients claimed they heard voices before taking their own lives. But the protagonist sees it as her only chance to continue her career in ballet, and pushes the doctor to go ahead.

As it turns out, the nanobots comprise an artificial intelligence, and they begin restricting her activities for her own good, making it impossible to perform at a professional level. While another might despair, she intuits that true intelligence implies an aesthetic sense. Thus she sets forth to teach this AI-cloud to appreciate the beauty of the dance and understand why she cannot live with it, with surprising and transformative results.

Virtual reality and direct computer to brain interfaces are another of the newer tropes of science fiction, dating back to the mid-80's with works such as Tron and Neuromancer. In "Inside Job," Loren L. Coleman reminds us that the more technology changes, the more certain less pleasant parts of human nature stay the same. Things like professional jealousy, and the problem of who will watch the watchmen. When somebody does a hack on a police data vault accessable only from a single secure terminal, it's pretty clear the culprit has to be a disgruntled cop. But the protagonist has to have a solid case before he can point the finger at anyone, and the devil is always in the details. It's an interesting example of a science fiction mystery, and I think the author's trying to make it a fair mystery (one which the reader can solve from the clues given), but I'm not quite sure that the critical clue is clearly linked to the culprit before the big reveal (although it's clear in retrospect).

When radio and television were first invented, their creators and promoters imagined that both would be used for high-culture materials like symphonies and lectures that would elevate the tastes of listeners and viewers. In "A Small Skirmish in the Culture War," Mike Resnick and James Patrick Kelly imagine a world in which low-brow entertainment was kept confined to the movies and vaudeville. It has some elements strongly satirical of present-day culture, particularly in the use of the names of historical and living high-culture figures.

Another science fiction trope that has always seemed to be just around the corner but never quite arrives is contact with intelligent aliens. Lisanne Norman's "Dark Wings" does move it to a distant planet, but by weaving into it bits of traditional fairy lore manages at the same time to suggest that our ancestors' tales of fairy hills may have been encounters with aliens, understood in supernatural rather than scientific terms.

In "My Father, the Popsicle" Annie Reed gives us another look at cryogenics and suspended animation, this time closer to present-day actuality. The protagonist is struggling to make ends meet when she suddenly gets a letter from a legal firm dealing with the disposition of a trust fund related to her father's cryopreservation now that the company is going bankrupt. Which comes as a surprise because she's never had a father, except in the abstract biological sense. Her first reaction is anger at the rich louse who abandoned her and her mother to a life of crushing poverty, which ultimately destroyed her mother's health. Let him thaw and she'll take whatever's left of that trust fund so she can finally have a life instead of just existing. But then she gets to view a video from her father which puts everything in a different light. Now the lines of victim and villain aren't so simple any more.

Julie Hyzy's "Destiny" takes another look at virtual reality, not to mention dreams of personal spaceflight, through the lens of our treatment of our aging family members. It too ends with an emotionally satisfying reversal of fortunes.

In "Cold Comfort" Dean Wesley Smith starts with an asteroid mining mission gone terribly wrong. Just when we're bracing to watch the protagonist have to choose between suicide and a slow, painful death as his wrecked spaceship fails, we discover that this isn't just a story about a world in which we as a society didn't turn our collective back on the promise of space. Instead, it's a story of secret aliens who've contacted an elect few, but are witholding full contact until humanity passes their test and satisfies them that we're ready. I do have one technical caveat about this story -- the Asteroid Belt is not nearly so crowded as it's portrayed here. Instead, it's mostly empty space, to the point that probes to the outer planets go right through without any trouble, and NASA has to arrange flybys of specific asteroids.

Television added sight to radio's sound, and many science fiction writers hace suggested adding scent for a fuller experience. But it doesn't turn out so simply in Irene Radford's "The Stink of Reality." Maybe there's such a thing as too much realism.

Often writers trying to imgine the future end up projecting present-day society forward wth a thin veneer of futuristic gadgetry. Cars fly instead of rolling, but people have all the same roles and relationships of a 50's or 60's family. Sometimes it's humorous, to stand a satirical mirror up to the writer's contemporary society, but there are also times when it seems like it's the result of the author not thinking through the social implications of the technologies in the story. In "Yellow Submarine" Rebecca Moesta plays with the idea, transporting modern car culture, and particularly the shady used car lot with its pushy salescritter and questionable vehicles, to an undersea city.

Eugenics was one of the big things of the future worlds portrayed in some of the earliest science fiction. However, the horrors of Nazi racial hygiene policies with their forced sterilizations and mass murders of those they considered inferior brought the original forms of eugenics into disrepute. When birthright-licensing schemes and the like are portrayed in post-War sf, it's almost invariably in the context of an unjust and often outright corrupt regime, viz the UN in Larry Niven's Known Space.

However, other authors suggested a more positive approach to eugenics. Instead of trying to stop people with "bad" genes from procreating, why not offer incentives for people with "good" genes to have more children than they might otherwise have. We see this approach in Robert A Heinlein's Howard Families, who were selected for genes promoting longevity, but the secrecy surrounding the project meant that when they were discovered, they were met by hatred and jealousy. In "Good Genes" Kristine Kathryn Rusch suggests that there might be other problems with such approaches, including issues of consent, privacy, and the commodification of human life to the detriment of individual freedom.

Overall, it's a good selection of views, ranging from the nostalgic to the wryly doubtful. There may have been some questionable science here and there that didn't seem to be done for deliberate effect, but I don't think there was a single clunker in the lot.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Rebecca Lickiss
  • "A Rosé for Emily" by Esther M Friesner
  • "Waiting for Juliette" by Sarah A Hoyt
  • "Boys" by Dave Freer
  • "Trainer of Whales" by Brenda Cooper
  • "Good Old Days" by Kevin J. Anderson
  • "Kicking and Screaming Her Way to the Altar" by Alan L Lickiss
  • "Alien Voices" by P. R. Frost
  • "Inside Job" by Loren L. Coleman
  • "A Small Skirmish in the Culture War" by Mike Resnick and James Patrick Kelly
  • "Dark Wings" by Lisanne Norman
  • "My Father, the Popsicle" by Annie Reed
  • "Destiny" by Julie Hyzy
  • "Cold Comfort" by Dean Wesley Smith
  • "The Stink of Reality" by Irene Radford
  • "Yellow Submarine" by Rebecca Moesta
  • "Good Genes" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • About the Authors

Review posted July 21, 2011

Buy The Future We Wish We Had from Amazon.com

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