Is this my future? A big stinky onion future?
There has been a lot of talk about the pervasive pessimism in science fiction recently. Notably in the last couple of years, but there have been grumblings on the subject all the way back to the dawn of Cyberpunk with its dreary skies the color of television tuned to a dead channel. You know, before a dead channel was an eye-searingly vivid blue.
The dawn of science fiction tended to be pretty upbeat. Yes, there was rampant sexism, pretty much every important character was an heterosexual, able-bodied, highly intelligent, male Caucasian, imperialism was the savior of space civilizing exotic alien noble savages, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was a nice automated house with a yard and a white picket fence in the suburbs, or at least within flying-car range of the suburbs. But it was upbeat. Medical science was constantly solving inconveniences like infectious disease, cancer, and aging. Easy travel to friendly worlds around other stars relieved the problems of population pressure and resource wars–or at least moved the wars to desolate asteroid belts and the deeps of interstellar space where the collateral damage was lighter. The average schlub on the street, if we saw him, was educated and clean and on his way from his nice safe 9-to-5 where his wife would cook dinner by pressing a button and afterward tossing the dishes into a receptacle to be disintigrated and reconstituted sparkling clean in the automatic dispenser for the next meal. There were no worries about the electric bill or rising gasoline prices or the wholesomeness of food and water being compromised by deregulation.
Everything in the life of the USA, which is and was the author of the bulk of science fiction collectively, seemed to be on an inevitable upward trajectory that would easily carry the future into a better and more expansive place.
And then things stopped peaking. They started heading downward in many regards, and the longer this reversal continued, the more people–including writers of science fiction–noticed it. The point of view of the US science fiction writer wasn’t naturally upward anymore. It was downward. Imagine the view from a car on a rollercoaster. Heading upward, you’re looking to the sky. Once you roll over the top, pause, and then plunge downward, you’re looking down the hill. And you’re screaming; even if you can see you’re not likely to plunge straight into the ground and die, it feels like you will.
The US middle class has been shrinking for a while. The space program has contracted; we don’t talk about when we will build a colony on the moon anymore, not seriously. We talk about the next automated probe we’re going to land on Mars for a look around the dust. When Kennedy said we’d go to the moon, people mostly believed him. When Obama said we’d go to Mars, even enthusiasts said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We don’t feel secure in our jobs anymore, if we have them. Our incomes have gotten smaller after inflation adjustment over the years, not bigger as we once, in the halcyon years of optimistic science fiction, assumed they would continue to grow forever.
Maybe when we find the bottom of this decline we’re in, in terms of the collective prosperity of ALL US citizens, US writers will cheer up a bit and science fiction will grow an upbeat consensus again–hopefully with the racism, sexism, and imperialism absent. Or perhaps the heart of science fiction will shift.
Science fiction, after all, has been a world literature from the beginning. US writers may have and may still comprise the majority, but if SF is to teach us anything, it is that the future always brings change. And SF has been growing, I understand, not just in other English-speaking nations, but also worldwide and outside the traditional Western bastions.
Literature belongs to the world and all its people. I welcome all the cheer the other writers of the world can lend us US writers in climbing out of our funk.
For centuries, they sent missionary after missionary to help the rising young intelligence see past the biological heritage of survival as battle, to pursue empathy, cooperation.
After enough missionaries were pierced with arrows, burnt, nailed to trees, poisoned at dinner, beaten with clubs, enslaved, drugged, mocked, impersonated for material gain, and made figureheads for war, they stopped sending more.
A twist of space-time delivered the young intelligence and its world to a lonely universe with no other intelligence to harm but itself.
Perhaps one day they will relent and send missionaries again.
But not yet. It is still too dangerous.
With this latest, I have published 40 titles through Smashwords. Generally, one number is as exciting as another… at least in absolute terms. But this is a round number, and people love round numbers. We all freaked out for the year 2,000. When people own cars they tend to notice when they hit 10,000 or 50,000 or whatever (personally, I’ve owned exactly one car in my life that had mileage under 100,000… and I noticed when I hit 100,000. Because it was a big round number.)
I think round numbers feel like completion to us. They have a certain symmetry to them that tickles our sense of esthetics. They’re psychologically satisfying, much like a good slice of pie after a meal.
So here’s my latest slice of pie. I think you will find it both bitter and sweet, so maybe there’s a cup of espresso on the metaphorical side.
Here’s Pixel People, prequel to Adversary—you can explore that aspect of it in the post before this one.
Find it on Smashwords (and additional outlets to be updated below as distribution proceeds).
7/17/13: It’s on Kobo.
7/19/13: Barnes & Noble has it, too.
I’ve just published this piece of flash fiction on Smashwords, where it makes title #35 I have published with them. Over the next couple of weeks it will percolate through the virtual distribution pipeline to various venues, links to which I keep over to your right, in the sidebar, at the very top. Socrates, Unafraid is short, sweet, and free. Since it is free, I thought I would share it here as well. If you enjoy it… well, I’ve just told you where to find the rest of my work, haven’t I? 🙂
By S. A. Barton
Copyright 2013 S. A. Barton
The cup slips from my fingers, as it always has. It shatters between my feet, losing itself on the marble as the fragments scatter, white on white. For a moment, the shards persist. Then they become faded, then translucent. Then they are gone, and I am alone. There is me, sitting before the garden that wreathes the edges of the portico in flowers, my chair, the table, the empty flagon. Were I solid, the poison would churn through my guts. I sit, regarding the nodding heads of the flowers, and imagine it burning. Instead, unseen, it nevertheless fades into invisibility, into nothingness, as the cup has.
Did it exist? Did the cup? Did I? I smack my lips at the saccharine and heavy aftertaste the poison has left as I watch yellow sulfur moths stitch unsteady paths among the dusty red of the roses. A chime sounds, high and tinkling: once, twice, thrice.
My body is ready. The chime has sounded each day as my body has stood ready, untouched, as thirty thousand days and thirty thousand cups have passed.
It, this body, stands among ninety-nine others; none have stirred. I can sense so. They stand motionless and ready in ranks, in a square, in a ruined acropolis meant to stand at the center of a new and untarnished humanity, spit out at last into the stars from the rotting, collapsing womb of a spoiled and dying Earth, a last paroxysm of the self-preservation urge of a species.
Around the ranks of these carbon-tubule humanoid frames engineered to endure eons and bear the minds of we the last teachers of Earth, arrayed against the smooth concrete walls, are honeycombed a thousand incubators.
Within them, thirty thousand days old, long turned to motes of dust, are a thousand thirty-two-cell human embryos, selected to bear the genetic diversity needed to seed a new humanity from among them. All poisoned by the subtle traces of heavy metals and radioactives in the atmosphere, undetectable from an Earth which sent this last doomed gasp. Perhaps there were a people here once as well, alien and yet enough like us to drown in their own waste and violence as we have. If there were, they have left less of a trace than we have. Only the poisons that have destroyed our final offspring remain.
I stare at the blank marble floor, contemplating the sunset not yet here that my virtuality will bring, and the sleep, the waking, and cup thirty thousand and one.
It is enough. Finally enough. For the first time, I answer the chime.
I have spent thirty thousand days in hiding, in grief, in a solitary despair at the fate of humanity. I sense the others have left their bodies inactive as well, for the same reason, I assume. I cannot imagine another.
But there are still we final hundred. Our bodies, our fleshly human bodies, are forsaken. But our minds, our thoughts: we are human in those. At long last I accept that it must be enough. It must: it is all there is. We still might build and grow, construct new bodies and load them each with one of our hundred minds. Time and experience will change all of us, new and old, and finally as centuries pass we will diverge, until from a hundred seeds there will be thousands and millions of us, different enough in time to be called different individuals, if sprung from the identical hundred roots.
I open my eyes; carbon laminate eyelids unshroud lenses of flawless and smooth diamond. I look out across the ruined acropolis, the still forms of my ninety-nine inert companions, the thousand dust-shrouded incubators become tombs.
None of those things are there. I stand, robotic limbs locked in place but warming with current, loosening, in a cylinder of industrial diamond mounted upon a modest pedestal of plain marble. My eyes, not needing the action but driven by the appendix of a biological reflex embedded in my virtual mind, blink once, twice, thrice in surprise, diamond regarding diamond. And my focus shifts, and I look beyond.
There is the acropolis, clean and smooth, the concrete hidden behind marble façade. Lights, aimed into the great vault above, reflect a comfortable and warm sunlight upon the thousand incubators, standing open and doorless to display the guts from which sprang the last thousand human beings.
Of my ninety-nine companions, no sign at all.
Before me, a dozen children mill about a single adult. One of the children reaches up and tugs at the dusty red rose of her blouse.
“The Unawakened, teacher. His eyes opened. Does that mean he’s not The Unawakened anymore?”
The teacher turns to me, eyes widening, mouth forming an O of surprise. I smile, finally.
Even late, teaching is what I am for. And there are children here after all.
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