Dispatches From The Future

Ten of the brightest minds in science fiction imagine how we will live—on Earth and beyond—in the decades and centuries to come.

War

"Air power will become ever more important in war, so troops and hardware can reach the front line with short notice."Richard Tilbury

TRANSPORTATION

Wings of Nothing

By Ian Tregillis

“In the old days,” she said, “we used hydrogen. The lightest gas in the universe. But,” she added, lighting a cigar, “not without drawbacks.”

She puffed. Smoke jetted from her nostrils. Wind pushed it ahead of the lumbering airship into a sky crowded with freighters, transports, and leisure craft—like this one—all made buoyant by nothing. Biomimetic chromatophores in their skins shifted through the spectrum, optimizing the photovoltaics in response to changing light conditions: The airships became a school of cuttlefish.

“Next came helium. Heavier, but incombustible.” She lobbed her cigar toward the hexagonal facets of the vessel’s shimmering wall. It rained embers and ash. The ship didn’t explode; the cadre of investors issued an anxious sigh. “Useful stuff, but we ran out. People never appreciated how Earth’s helium had accumulated via eons of radioactive decay. We can’t make enough to matter. Not even by fusion.”

She opened the gun case. “The next element that’s gaseous at these conditions is nitrogen. Useless in this atmosphere.”

A passenger asked, “So what’s up there?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing at all.” She brandished a shotgun, her favorite part of the demonstration.

“Vacuum lifts better than anything. And you can’t run out of nothing. But it requires a strong skin to armor that vacuum against outside pressure. Took decades before something suitably strong and light came along.”

Nervous laughter took hold as she aimed at the airship's ultra-
high-tensile nanocomposite skin. On cue, the chromatophores beneath the vacuum envelope blinked into transparency. It was hollow: no internal supports—just a paper-thin sheath enclosing fifty thousand empty cubic meters.

“Like this,” she said, and fired.

AGING

Happymart

By Ann Leckie

According to ShelfWatch, this HappyMart has seventeen sale-price automotive power supplies. I see three. I message Happy- Mart, but my Strip, unobtrusive along one cheekbone, whispers in my ear, Message undeliverable.

People go out of their way for a price this good. If they rely on ShelfWatch, they'll waste their time. And just this morning, I was explaining to my neighbor the importance of being an informed
consumer. I want to do something about this. I always try to help where I can.

At customer service, I’m behind an old man. No Strip. Clunky, scratched iGlasses instead. Paying cash—cash!—for a bag of lentils. Why not use auto-debit? It’s so much easier to just take what you need and go.

He probably just looks old. Age and obesity are curable. I’m 146, but I take care of myself. He’s probably half that. Less.

The employee who takes his $15.38 is young and fat. Her Strip is a bright HappyMart orange. “They say lentils are a superfood,” she says. “I can’t cook them. Power got cut off.” She has a job. Where does that money go? But she’s obviously uneducated. Weak-willed. “And they cost so much. But they’re supposed to be good for you.”

“Here’s hoping,” he replies. Prevents Aging, Heart Disease, and Cancer! the lettering on the label proclaims.

Heartbreaking. A pound of lentils won’t counteract a lifetime of poor decisions. Like not saving up for preventive treatments when he was young.

My turn. “You know,” I say, “you can sprout lentils.” Or grow them, if they’re so expensive. All you need is dirt, sunlight, and time. Easy. Any well-designed building has green space these days. “Sprouted lentils make a nice salad.”

“The ones we sell don’t sprout, ma’am.”

I smile brightly. “Well, the important thing is to save for treatments. Meanwhile, get plenty of exercise and keep your stress down.”

“I’ll try that, ma’am.”

She doesn’t seem to mean it. But I always help where I can.

ENTERTAINMENT

The Power Of Tomorrow

By Melinda Snodgrass

EXECUTIVE: So pleased to meet you. Ad Astra was a great show, and Distant Suns ran for six years. We’re hoping you can bring us something similar here at SSC.

WRITER: Well, thank you. Actually, I was thinking about doing something a little different with this new show—

EXECUTIVE: We like different. Solar System Communications is known for its out-of-the-box entertainment. Who else would have had a show that starred only uplifted animals? Not a single human actor—and none of the cost too! . . . Uh, sorry. Your husband’s an actor, isn’t he? Blame the orbital lag. Getting out to Mimas is tough, but damn, the view once you are here . . . Let me open the panels so you can see Saturn’s rings.

WRITER: Magnificent, absolutely stunning.

EXECUTIVE: Anyway, I interrupted you. Go on.

WRITER: Well, I was reflecting about how science fiction and fantasy conquered popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. TV, videogames, movies—they all had science-fiction elements woven through them.

EXECUTIVE: Yeah . . .

WRITER: So this new show would be historical. It would postulate a world opposed to the fantastic. Where only reality held sway.

We'd go back to the 1950s. You never get Rocky Jones, Space
Ranger, or Forbidden Planet. Star Trek never starts its five-year mission to seek out new worlds and new civilizations, E.T. never phones home, superheroes never don their costumes and save the planet. Just reality television, cop, doctor, and lawyer shows. And then we would follow the kids from those eras as they grew into adulthood.

EXECUTIVE: God, that sounds more like horror.

WRITER: Yeah, it’s certainly a cautionary tale. I want to show how a rejection of imagination could have derailed our modern world. We so easily could have closed the door on tomorrow, but instead we embraced it. That’s why we’re meeting here, on one of Saturn’s moons, why we have colonies on Mars and Io, why we’re preparing to launch our race into the galaxy. There is always another tomorrow.

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Entertainment

"More and more connected, and more alone than ever, diversion will become illusion, the illusion of a better place."Bastien Lecouffe DeHarme

FOOD

Wild Food

By Elizabeth Bear

Marta is one of the lucky ones. Not the luckiest: She can’t afford to pay to block personalized ads from her mail and streaming, and they all want to make her feel guilty for not feeding her family Wild Food—but the prices at the faddish “evolutionary diet” store are astronomical.

She sticks to peasant food. She lives in a right-to-farm town, so there’s local produce, eggs, dairy, and the occasional chicken. The co-op stocks vat meat, and once a year, Marta takes her bow into the woods and bags a whitetail.

There were times when the produce bins were empty, but Marta’s town, with its local agriculture, did better than those with only supermarkets and just-in-time delivery.

When she was a child, there were cherries in December, mangoes even here in Vermont. It’s not cost-efficient to ship food from Chile anymore; the carbon cost is withering. When the climate crunch came, there were shortages and riots in Las Vegas and Phoenix, before they were abandoned. Terrifying.

She’s also glad she and her daughters are not stuck eating tube food—nutritionally balanced manufactured diets. Some people seem to like being freed of the fuss of feeding one’s self. But even if Marta’s not a nutritionist, she’s pretty sure that stuff is entirely devoid of flavonoids, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.

Only occasionally can she afford chocolate or coffee, again as expensive as tropical spices. But the wine from New York isn’t bad, you can make ice cream sweetened with maple syrup, and the local beer and cider are wonderful.

WAR

In Roses

By Seanan McGuire

“This isn’t going to work.”

“It has to work.” David dragged the last pallet of papers into position over the ship’s hatch. “If it doesn’t, we’re done. So call it a Hail Mary, and flip the switch.”

“Move,” said Irene tightly.

David moved.

Irene flipped the switch.

Those who witnessed the event—those who survived, after the neurotoxins had done their work, after the seizures had shattered their nervous systems and the oxygen deprivation had stolen their sight—would remember it as something out of a fairy tale: On the fifth anniversary of the war’s beginning, paper roses rained from the sky all over the world. Each had been soaked in chemical agents. Each had a victim’s name written on its petals.

More people died that day than on any day before, but when it ended, the American/Canadian War was over, and the border was awash in roses.

ENTERTAINMENT

Failure Of Flappy Bird

By John Scalzi

May 30, 2029:

Dear Antares Corporation:

I am writing to complain about the Imprint 3S phone I bought last week. It is, without a doubt, the single greatest hunk of junk I’ve ever owned. Let me count the ways:

1. The Imprint does not slide easily onto my ear rail. I had to jam it in before it clicked, nearly pulling the rail out of my skin. That’s a failure of ergodynamics right there.

2. It took five tries to get the Imprint to connect to my neural network despite the fact that my neural network is from Verizon, which you supposedly support. I finally had to go into the Verizon shop and let their technician fiddle with my network. I don’t like letting retail workers into my head.

3. The synesthesia module sucks. Not every letter, number, and emotional state should smell like oranges. Only the letter A, the number 6, and “Happy but Wistful.” That should be obvious.

4. Russian Viagra spam. It’s in my brain. It won’t turn off. And no, I didn’t go to “one of those sites.” And even if I did, maybe, once, TOTALLY BY ACCIDENT, I was assured the Imprint’s antivirus program would catch this stuff. Now I have to make an appointment to get that neural path excised. That’s expensive, and also, someone has to cut into my brain with lasers, which I don’t enjoy.

5. I was told that Flappy Bird would come free with this phone. It didn’t. I am especially upset about this.

Please fix all these things. Also, I would like a refund. Also, Flappy Bird. Thank you.

Yours,

John Scalzi

FOOD

Expensive Tastes

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Renee scowled at the vertical garden lining the promenade of the space station. Plants twisted out of the walls in a dense, glorious chaos. Passersby steered clear of the gnawed carrots littering the walkway, afraid of being fined for poaching.

Admiring the greenery was a perk of living on the resort station Juvela. Eating it was reserved for the wealthy. And as head gardener, Renee was responsible for protecting the greens.

With a silent prayer, she pushed aside a curtain of pole beans to check her trap. It had taken a chunk out of her budget to have the wire cage shipped up to orbit from Earth but . . . Renee grinned.

A plump escapee from the cuniculture habitat on level seven stared back at her innocently from within the trap.

“Finders, keepers.” She had a budget shortfall to make up, thanks to the cage and replanting, so this was welcome luck. Someone would pay a lot for a fat carrot-fed rabbit.

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Transportation

"Amidst the carbon scrubbers and water generators of the future, we may still find time for drives in the country."Peter Bollinger

AGING

Icebergs

By Scott Lynch

I’m spending my hundredth birthday on a black-sand beach with no network connections, trying not to turn into an iceberg. That’s one of the kinder things they call us, icebergs, because we freeze in our ways and drift apart from the world.

There are several generations of us now, medically enhanced geriatrics, like electroplated layers around the great mass of poor, young humanity. We don’t mingle as much as I once expected; the pop-culture gap between 120 and 80, if you think about it, is like the gap between World War II and punk rock. We stick to our own layers. We get weirder and weirder.

Yeah, it’s not the physical side of longevity that troubles those of us with money. I’m a walking sci-fi story: I’ve had myocyte regeneration, bone recalcification, and DNA-repair enzyme treatments, not to mention two knee replacements. I don’t get sick much. It’s the mind that goes, even worse than it did back before artificial superannuation. We have so much more time in which to lose it!

We get emotionally brittle, lonely, and paranoid. Everyone we know who couldn’t afford or endure the treatments dies. Entire cultures fade away to scraps of noise in our heads. The shifting facts of life are like a waterfall of information, and we bob and flail underneath it, never actually sinking. We go spooky.

Not all of us chase the cure, but there is one: The big disconnect. The Unplug. The Grand Sabbatical. Leave your empire, your ambitions, your portfolio, and your great-great-grand-liabilities behind for a year. Turn off every datasphere implant, then pay a trained staff to keep you away from TVs and satellite uplinks. No mail, no stock reports, no news.

We live simply here, or on a few similar islands around the globe, relearning patience. Exercising, cooking, camping. We can read from a collection of hard-copy books, each one at least forty years old. The outside world rushes on without us, and all the incremental changes pile up without us to fret over them.

When we go back, we’ll be like aliens. It’ll be vivid and amazing, the sharp, healthy shock of plunging into a novel new world rather than slowly constricting in a fog of little changes. The physics of indefinite lifespan are settled, but if you don’t want to go crazy, you’ve got to do something like this. You’ve got to step out of your life for a while and relearn the art of being surprised.

WAR

Down The Well

By Daniel Abraham

War’s like a mixed drink, only instead of rum and coke, it’s violence and theater. Historians have been telling us that since we got historians, but as soon as you get up a gravity well, it becomes more obvious. There’s not a viable defense against a permanent moonbase or L5 station. They’re the ultimate commanding heights. Look at the meteor strikes we’ve suffered and how well we can defend against them. Then imagine they could be aimed. Plus, rocks are cheap.

But.

The other side is that nothing on the moon or anywhere in the solar system can survive without the biosphere of Earth to sustain it. We don’t know how to terraform anything to the point of real sustainability. Do enough damage to the infrastructure on Earth, and it’s going to be really hard to get new resources up the well. If you break the manufacturing base, there’ll be no pharmaceuticals or replacement microorganisms or rubber seals. If you drown the farms in ash and dust, no food. If you crash the ecosystem, well, then you don’t have much of anything. The threat of space-based weapons can’t be defended against, only brought to equilibrium by the threat of losing the only place that’s naturally hospitable to life. The drive will be toward more theater and less violence. Y’know, barring catastrophe.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

TRANSPORTATION

Five Minutes Or It's Free*

By Karl Schroeder

3:44 p.m.: Okay, you’ve convinced me. Not only does that watch integrate with a phone; it also pulls in the local geo-services in any part of town. So, I’m gonna get one. Let me just pull up the site on my phone and . . . Hey, it says, “Five minutes or it’s free.” (Some rider’s attached, but I never read those things.)

3:47: So, it’s ordered. Since we’re already out in the parking lot, might as well wait for the delivery here. The drone’s got my phone’s GPS location and my ID. Let’s see where it comes from.

3:49: Yeah, I know, it could come from anywhere. Drone delivery’s so common that centralized warehouses are on their way out. You see little black quadcopters carrying boxes out of panel vans parked in public lots, or shipping containers on rooftops. As common as cellphone towers used to be, you don’t even notice them anymore. Haven’t seen too many in this part of town, though. . . .

3:50: Yeah, they call it “forward warehousing.” Some rich guys even carry all their possessions around like that, in black vans that follow them everywhere. Snap a finger, three seconds later you get your Aunt Daisy’s doilies dropped into your hand to show friends.

3:51: Where is it? This is terrible service. Can’t even see the— Oh, wait, maybe it’s that little dot way over there, by the power lines.

3:52: Officially late.

3:55: Dunno, man. I’m tempted to send it back. At least it’s free now. Let’s get into that box.

3:56: Aw, man! They billed me anyway. Oh, I get it. The rider said, “Five minutes or the shipping is free.” Jeez. Talk about poor service. Watch looks great, though.

_This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of _Popular Science.