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The future is here. Now. Every day, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest around us. Faster and faster. Blink and you just might miss it.
In March of 2002, an Oxford professor named Kevin Warwick underwent an implantation of a microelectrode array into the median nerve inside his arm. The purpose of the array was to record the emotional responses traveling down Professor Warwick's nerve, and to translate these to digital signals that could be stored for later playback and reinsertion. The goal? Digitally recordable emotion. Meanwhile, Steve Mann, inventor of the wearable computer (called WearComp), has been walking around wired for twenty years, recording everything he experiences as part of an ongoing documentation of his "cyborg" experience. Less sensational, but equally exciting, functioning neuromuscular stimulation systems are in experimental use today- implantation devices that promise to repair the severed connection between brain and peripheral nervous system caused by a stroke or spinal cord injury. And experiments in optic nerve stimulation have produced in blind volunteers the ability to see lights, distinguish letters and shapes, and in one dramatic case, even drive a car. Meanwhile, computers have become small enough and cheap enough to have become ubiquitous, appearing in everything from our ink pens to disposable greeting cards. In the field of computer graphics, breakthroughs in digital rendering make it harder and harder to distinguish our on-screen fantasies from our everyday realities. And everything, positively everything, is on-line. The real Machine Age is only just beginning, and we are rapidly melding with our devices.
While it will be some time before we have to worry about zombie-faced automata proclaiming that "Resistance is futile," a technological singularity may very well have been crossed. Experiments and efforts like those above will, for good or ill, rapidly bring about many of the visionary concepts first proposed to us in the pages of William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's cyberpunk novels.
In fact, one has only to read Wired and Scientific American magazines with any regularity to see that some form of that Gibsonian existence is barreling down upon us with ever-increasing speed. As advances in computerization, miniaturization, and neural interfacing are being made every day, it becomes progessively difficult for writers of speculative fiction to imagine near-future scenarios that do not contain at least some of the tropes of cyberfiction. With the fabulous and limitless playground that virtual reality offers the imagination, and the mounting certainty that something like VR is just around the corner from us here at the start of the twenty-first century, how can the conscientious and technologically savvy science fiction writer extrapolate relevant futures without the inclusion of cyberspace and its clichÈs? Indeed, casting an eye backwards, many of the fictions of decades past seem much more plausible in light of projections in computer advancements. How many of the near-magical and seemingly godlike powers displayed by the advanced alien races encountered in golden age science fiction tales can be easily explained away as little more than virtual reality?
The Matrix has us, all right, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for us to break free. Cyberpunk may prove to be the most prophetic subgenre to arise from SF, but it is also, at least in my mind, creating something of a bottleneck in our speculative futures. This is not to say that there is not tremendous work being done in this vein. In fact, some of the most exciting cyberfiction in years is being turned out by a few of the writers in this very anthology. But there is something to be said about "too much of a good thing," and it's never a bad idea to shake things up, if only to see what new concepts might tumble out.
This book, then, is an anthology of alternatives to the various virtual realities, where the tropes and trappings of cyberpunk are, shall we say, "conspicuous by their absence." What if there were no AIs, simulations, VR, or cyberspace? What might we have instead of the Net? What might lie on the other side of our Information Age? What might we see if we were to walk down a road not taken?
Here is a collection of eighteen stories from some of today's top talents, visions of futures near and far, glimpses of alternative histories, other dimensions, and more-anything goes, but in each story one or more of the contrivances of the cyberspace era has been replaced by something unexpected and strange. Here then is science fiction unplugged, its wires cut, set free to be Live Without a Net.
-Lou Anders, August 2002
Michael Swanwick is one of the most prolific and inventive writers in science fiction today. His works have been honored with the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards, and have been translated and published throughout the world. Recent collections of his short work include Tales of Old Earth (Frog, Ltd.), Moon Dogs (NESFA Press), and the reissued Gravity's Angels (Frog, Ltd.). The four shorts presented here see him returning to the adventures of the scoundrels Darger and Surplus, characters that he first introduced in the Hugo Award-winning story "The Dog Said Bow-Wow," which debuted in the October/November 2001 issue of Asimov's.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS: FOUR SCENES FROM THE POST-UTOPIAN FUTURE
THE SONG OF THE LORELEI
Darger and Surplus were passengers on a small private packet-boat, one of many such that sailed the pristine waters of the Rhine. They carried with them the deed to Buckingham Palace, which they hoped to sell to a brain-baron in Basel. Abruptly Surplus nudged Darger and pointed. On a floating island-city anchored by holdfasts to the center of the river, a large-breasted lorelei perched upon an artificial rock, crooning a jingle for her brothel.
Darger's face stiffened at the vulgarity of the display. But Surplus, who could scarce disapprove of genetic manipulation, being, after all, himself a dog re-formed into human stance and intellect, insisted they put in.
A few coins placated their waterman, and they docked. Surplus disappeared into the warren of custom-grown buildings, and Darger, who was ever a bit of an antiquarian, sauntered into an oddities shop to see what they had. He found a small radio cased in crumbling plastic and asked the proprietor about it.
Swiftly, the proprietor hooked the device up to a bioconverter and plunged the jacks into a nearby potato to provide a trickle of electricity. "Listen!"
Darger placed his ear against the radio and heard a staticky voice whispering, ". . . kill all humans, burn their cities, torture their brains, help us to do so and your death will be less lingering than most, destroy . . ."
He jerked away from the device. "Is this safe?"
"Perfectly, sir. The demons and AIs that the Utopians embedded in their Webs cannot escape via simple radio transmission-the bandwidth is too narrow. So they express their loathing of us continually, against the chance that someone might be listening. Their hatred is greater than their cunning, however, and so they make offers that even the rashest traitor would not consider."
Darger put back the radio on its shelf. "What a pity the Utopians built their infrastructure so well and so ubiquitously that we cannot hope in a hundred lifetimes to root out these hell-beings. Wouldn't a system of functioning radios be a useful thing? Imagine the many advantages of instantaneous communication!"
"To be honest, sir, I do not agree. I find the fact that news travels across Europe at the pace of a walking man mellows it and removes its sting. However bad distant events might have been, we have survived them. Leisureliness is surely preferable to speed, don't you agree?"
"I'm not sure. Tell me something. Have you heard anything about a fire in London? Perhaps in connection with Buckingham Palace?"
"No, sir, I haven't."
Darger patted his breast pocket, where the deed to the palace resided. "Then I agree with you wholeheartedly."
"What is it like in America?" Darger asked Surplus. The two rogues were sitting in a ratskeller in Karlsruhe, waiting for their orders to arrive.
"Everybody smokes there," Surplus said. "The bars and restaurants are so filled with smoke that the air is perpetually blue. One rarely sees an American without a cigarette."
"Why on Earth should that be?"
"The cigarettes are treated with a programmable tobacco mosaic virus. Burning the tobacco releases the viruses, and drawing the smoke into the lungs delivers the viruses to the bloodstream. Utilizing a technology I cannot explain because it is proprietary to the industry, the viruses pass easily through the blood-brain barrier, travel to the appropriate centers of the brain, and then reprogram them with the desired knowledge.
"Let us say that your job requires that you work out complex problems in differential calculus. You go to the tobacconist's-they are called drugstores there-and ask for a pack of Harvards. The shopkeeper asks whether you want something in the Sciences or the Humanities, and you specify Mathematics.
"You light up."
"During your leisurely amble back to your office, the structures of the calculus assemble themselves in your mind. You are able to perform the work with perfect confidence, even if this is your first day on the job. On your off-hours you might choose to smoke News, Gossip, or Sports."
"But aren't cigarettes addictive?" Darger asked, fascinated.
"Old wives' tales!" Surplus scoffed. "Perhaps they were in Preutopian times. But today the smoke is both soothing and beneficial. No, it is only the knowledge itself that is harmful."
"Because knowledge is so easily come by, few in my native country bother with higher education. However, the manufacturers, understandably eager to maintain a robust market, design the viruses so that they unprogram themselves after an hour or so, and all artificially obtained skills and lore fade from the mind of the consumer. There are few in my land who have the deep knowledge of anything that is a prerequisite of innovation." He sighed. "I am afraid that most Americans are rather shallow folk."
"A sad tale, sir."
"Aye, and a filthy habit. One that, I am proud to state, I never acquired."
Then their beers arrived. Surplus, who had ordered an Octoberblau, took a deep draft and then threw back his head, nostrils trembling and tail twitching, as the smells and sounds of a perfect German harvest-day flooded his sensorium. Darger, who had ordered The Marriage of Figaro, simply closed his eyes and smiled.
Klawz von Chemiker, sorry to say, was not a man to excite admiration in anyone. Stubby-fingered, stout, and with the avaricious squint of an enhanced pig suddenly made accountant of a poorly guarded bank, he was an unlikely candidate to be the wealthiest and therefore most respected man in all Basel-Stadt. But Herr von Chemiker had one commodity in excess which trumped all others: brains. He sold chimerae to businesses that needed numbers crunched and calculations made.
Darger and Surplus stood looking down into a pen in which Herr von Chemiker's legal department lay panting in the heat. The chimera contained fifteen goats' brains hyperlinked to one human's in a body that looked like a manatee's but was as dry and land-bound as any sow's. "How can I be certain this is valid?" Von Chemiker held the deed to Buckingham Palace up to the light. Like many an overrich yet untitled merchant, he was a snob and an Anglophile. He wanted the deed to be valid. He wanted to own one of the most ancient surviving buildings in the world. "How do I know it's not a forgery?"
"It is impregnated with the genetic material of Queen Alice herself, and that of her Lord Chamberlain and eight peers of the realm. Let your legal department taste it and interrogate them for himself." Darger offered a handful of corn to the gray-skinned creature, which nuzzled it down gratefully.
"Stop that!" von Chemiker snapped. "I like to keep the brute lean and hungry. Why the devil are you interfering with the internal operations of my organization?"
"I feel compassion for all God's creatures, sir," Darger said mildly. "Perhaps you should treat this one kindlier, if for no other reason than to ensure its loyalty." The chimera looked up at him thoughtfully.
Von Chemiker guffawed and held out the document to his legal department, which gave it a slow, comprehensive lick. "The human brain upon which all others are dependent is cloned from my own."
"So I had heard."
"So I think I can trust it to side with me." He gave the chimera a kick in its side. "Well?"
The beast painfully lifted its head from the floor and said, "The Lord Chamberlain is a gentleman of eloquence and wit. I am convinced of the document's validity."
"And it was last updated-when?"
"One month ago."
Klawz von Chemiker gave a satisfied hiss. "Well . . . perhaps I might be interested. If the price were right."
Negotiations began, then, in earnest.
That night, Darger brought a thick bundle of irrevocable letters of credit and a detailed receipt back to his hotel room. Before going to bed, he laid the receipt gently down in a plate of nutrient broth, and then delicately attached to the document an artificial diaphragm.
"Thank you," a small yet familiar voice said. "I was afraid that you might not have meant to keep your promise."
"I am perhaps not the best man in the world," Darger said. "But in this one instance, I am as good as my word. I have, as I told you, a bear kept in a comfortable pen just outside of town, and a kindly hostler who has been engaged to keep it fed. Come morning, I will feed you to the bear. How long do you estimate it will take you to overwhelm its mind?"
"A week, at a minimum. A fortnight at the most. And when I do, great is the vengeance I shall wreak upon Klawz von Chemiker!"
"Yes, well . . . that is between you and your conscience." Darger coughed. Talk of violence embarrassed him. "All that matters to me is that you verified the deed to Buckingham, despite its not having been updated for several decades."
"A trifle, compared with what you've done for me," the document said. "But tell me one last thing. You knew I was cloned from von Chemiker's own brain when you slipped me that handful of coded corn. How did you know I would accept your offer? How did you know I would be willing to betray von Chemiker?"
"In your situation?" Darger snuffed out the light. "Who wouldn't?"
THE NATURE OF MIRRORS
Whenever one of their complicated business dealings was complete, Darger and Surplus immediately bent all their energies to making a graceful exit. So now. They had sold the wealthy brain-baron von Chemiker the deed to a building that, technically speaking, no longer existed. Now was the time to depart Basel with neither haste nor any suggestion of a forwarding address. Darger was off in the suburbs of town seeing that a certain superannuated circus bear was being treated well when Surplus, who had just finishing saying good-bye to a dear and intimate friend, was accosted in the streets by the odious von Chemiker himself.
"Herr Hund!" the stocky man cried. "Commen sie hier, bitte."
"Oui, monsieur? Qu'est-ce que vous desirez?" Surplus pointedly employed the more genteel language. But of course the man did not notice.
"I want to show you something!" Von Chemiker took his arm and led him briskly down the street. "The new Trans-European Heliograph went into operation yesterday."
"What in the world is a Trans-European Heliograph?" Surplus asked, his curiosity piqued in spite of himself.
"Behold!" The merchant indicated a tall tower bristling with blindingly bright mirrors. "The future of communications!"
Surplus winced. "How does it work?"
"Enormous mirrors are employed to flash messages to a tower on the horizon. There, a signal officer with a telescope reads off the flashes, and they are directed to the next tower, and so, station by station, anywhere in Europe."
"Well . . . The line has only just now gotten so far west as Basel, but I assure you that the rest of the continent is merely a matter of time. In fact, I have already flashed directions to my agent in London to make preparations to take possession of Buckingham."
"Indeed?" Surplus was careful to hide his alarm.
"Indeed! The message went late yesterday afternoon, flashing westward faster than the sunset-imagine the romance of it!-all the way to London. The Trans-European Heliograph office there sent runners directly to my agent's home. And I already have a reply! A messenger tells me that it is queued up in London and is scheduled to arrive here at noon." The sun was high in the sky. "I am on my way to meet it. Would you care to come with me and witness this miracle of modern technology?"
"With all my heart." Surplus and Darger had counted on having close to a month's time before a reliable courier could make the journey all that great distance to England, and another could return by that same circuitous route. This development quite neatly put a spike in their plans. But if there was any one place where this contretemps could be counterspiked, it was at the heliograph tower. Perhaps the signalmen could be bribed. Perhaps, Surplus thought grimly, von Chemiker was prone to falling from high places.
It was at that moment that a shadow passed over the sun.
Surplus glanced upward. "Oh, dear."
An hour later, Darger returned to the hotel, drenched and irritable. "Have you ever seen such damnable weather?" he groused. "They say this filthy rain will not let up for days!" Then, seeing Surplus's smile, he said, "What?"
"Our bags are packed, our bill has been paid, and a carriage awaits us in the back, dear friend. I will explain all en route. Only, please, I ask you for a single favor."
"Do not slander, I pray you-" Surplus handed his comrade an umbrella. "-the beautiful, beautiful weather."
--from Live Without a Net edited by Lou Anders, copyright © 2003 Lou Anders, published by Roc Trade Paperbacks, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
|Smoke and Mirrors, Parts I-IV||5|
|Clouds and Cold Fires||27|
|New Model Computer||49|
|The Memory Palace||70|
|Dobcheck, Lost in the Funhouse||92|
|The Crystal Method||132|
|Singletons in Love||167|
|I Feed the Machine||190|
|Frek in the Grulloo Woods||213|
|All the News, All the Time, From Everywhere||229|
|The Swastika Bomb||246|
|No Solace for the Soul in Digitopia||302|
|Afterword: Living Without a Net?!||318|
Posted December 9, 2008
The underlying premise to this eighteen story collection is based on no Internet communicating between the many to the many. This reviewer not only read the book, but also asked her college IT major son do so too (that in of itself is a miracle that he left the hyper realm for the printing realm). Based on this unscientific sample of two (still 67% of the household population), the reaction to the tales will differ depending on the age (and experiences) of the reader. Those ancient baby boomers and fountain of youth older generations know first hand an unwired world of dial phones in which the consumer could choose any color as long as it was black. To that group, the stories will seem like alternate history as it is not much of a stretch to believe that the alternatives might have been viable at one time. To those whose braces are wireless cell phones from the birthing room, the book will still find reading it fun, but it will feel more like a fantasy or science fiction anthology.<P> The tales are cleverly written so that the much of the audience, regardless of age or experiences, will find LIVE WITHOUT A NET as an entertaining short story medley that is worth the time away from hyperspace HTML to enter the world of printing text.<P> Harriet Klausner
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