The Year in Telling Stories About the Future
Image: Glenn Harvey/Motherboard
Hell year is over. One of them, anyways—if we’ve learned anything by this point, it’s to never say, well at least it can’t get any worse than that. When it feels like we're constantly teetering on the edge of many actual, multifaceted apocalypses, thinking about the future can seem exhausting or pointless or both.
Fortunately, here at Terraform, we feature authors and writers who render those futures (apocalyptic or otherwise) so compelling and urgent that they can’t be ignored. Good thing, too: I happen to be of the mind that these are more than stories or stabs at mythmaking—they’re that, sure—but also a sort of blueprinting. We’re filling in the future we want to see one tiny aspirational sliver or harebrained ideation at a time.
Our stories this year careened from inflight nuclear apocalypse to the dream app economy to the last stand against megafires to militant sponsorship platforms, and it was a diverse, exhilarating array. In addition to original short speculations, we reran a lost all-time classic, conducted an extensive, reported thought experiment about nationalizing Facebook, ran a killer excerpt or two, and debuted some great speculative short films.
As always, it’s a pleasure to edit and curate this mothership. I would love to hear your thoughts too, so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about our futures.
What follows are just some of the speculations that were distilled during a very wild and chaotic year and broadcast out for us all to make use of, in rough chronological order. Here’s to hoping. Enjoy.
Dream Job, by Seamus Sullivan.
In this future, overworking means oversleeping—and literally surrendering your waking life to the app economy.
Behold a cutting parable for a generation that undersleeps and overworks to get underpaid—where paying your student loans is quite actually a waking nightmare. Pls enjoy this dispatch from the not-too-distant future of late, late capitalism.
Airplane Mode, by Kelsey Atherton.
In a world perpetually on the brink of nuclear destruction, there can only be so many false alarms—right?
Today, thanks to the escalating threats by the nuclear armed nations of North Korea and the United States, the Bulletin of Atomic scientists set the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight—"the symbolic hour of the apocalypse"—marking a world perilously close to annihilation. With that in mind, we turn to today's story, by defense tech writer Kelsey Atherton, pondering one such outcome of those tensions.
The Last Rites of Quotient Lorenzo-Lochbaum, by Claire Phillips. Soon, the rich will extend their lifespans by purchasing immortality credits in a cap-and-trade system. Read the last rites given to a daughter who has agreed to die to add years onto her parents' lives.
Longevity and death are no longer mutually exclusive. A new Y Combinator startup won a sizable government grant for their brain-uploading enterprise, guaranteed “100% fatal.” Who would sign up to live forever, if it meant they had to die first? Years of life remaining are the last great commodity, priceless and non-transferable, and if we are to give them up, then we better do so for a very, very good reason.
WATCH: The Shocking Assassination of President Guy Fieri, by Hudson Hongo.
Behind the scenes of the all-consuming future of online content creation.
Good luck finding someone who's actually optimistic about the future of online entertainment, given that major platforms like YouTube and Facebook are currently locked in a death race to the bottom to win meager slices of our attention. Certainly not Hudson Hongo, who, as news editor of Gizmodo, knows as much about this algorithmically mediated, brain-flattening future as anyone, and who brings us a dispatch from the only logical conclusion to the content wars. Enjoy. -the ed.
Music for the Underworld, by E. Lily Yu.
His lover locked in a private prison, one man attempts to use the language of music to bridge past and future—and help a corrupted, mechanized city remember what life was supposed to be.
There is so much packed into this rich, moving, and darkly plausible story that it's just about pointless to try to cleverly sum it up here—just enjoy this epic from emerging master E. Lily Yu.
Under the Sun, by Gavin Schmidt.
One of the world's leading climate scientists has written a work of fiction about his latest blockbuster paper—on the possibility that intelligent life may have preceded humans on Earth.
This is a very special edition of Terraform—esteemed scientists Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank have just published what may prove to be a blockbuster paper about the possibilities that intelligent life forms may have existed on Earth long before humans. To accompany the paper's release, Schmidt wrote a short work of fiction exploring both the process of publishing and the potential ramifications of their nonfictional findings. It's just the sort of experiment we seek to embrace here at Terraform.
#CivilWarVintage, by Nan Craig.
It's only a matter of time, really, before we're crowd-funding guerilla wars.
In the day of Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Patreon, it's only a matter of time before crowdfunding platforms diversify their targets even further. Today's Terraform is a grim look at where they might be headed next..
Posey Girl, by Julianna Baggott.
Tomorrow's automated sex workers may be designed to simulate the first time, in perpetuity, for the benefit of men.
Even amidst a future where infinite cruelty is perpetrated on automated sex workers, somehow, there may prove room for small human kindnesses—or at least kindnesses to humans.
A Most Elegant Solution, by M. Darusha Wehm.
I always said I wanted to be one of the first to die on Mars.
Colonizing Mars is usually coded either as a grand ambition for humanity, the next Moon landing, or an escape hatch for a species on the brink, a plan B for a people spoiling their planet with climate change, war, etc. Yet we haven’t given much thought to the unintended consequences of the technologies that might make either leap possible. Today’s dispatch does exactly that.
The Narcissus of Titan by Tyler Wells Lynch.
What if the future sees us submit wholly to virtual, social media-riven worlds, where we act as gods to an endless coliseum of bots?
Today's Terraform explores that question, and more—considering a tomorrow where social media and virtual reality collide to further blur our dedication to reality, and massage our already swelling egos.
Take a front row seat to the ugly future of automation.
Whatever future comes, one thing is fairly certain, excepting total American collapse—the goods will continue to flow. By human, by vehicle, by automaton, or by some combination of the three,stuff will be distributed, sold, and speculated upon across the land. This story, an exceptionally vivid, harrowing, and potent vision of one such tomorrow from two of our leading arthouse dystopians, charts that flow, up close and personal, alongside the poor souls who make it possible. I'd call it cyberpunk, but we're way past that now; this is whatever comes next, or after that. Enjoy the ride.
The Worst Commute, by Aaron Gordon.
A snapshot from a future in which a billionaire tech guru has bought and "disrupted" the subway in New York City.
The subway is in a perpetual state of slow-motion collapse in New York, so one of the nation's most reputable magazines saw fit to publish a proposal to replace it with luxury autonomous cars, scooters, and an endless stream of advertisements. Aboveground traffic is worse than ever in LA and Chicago, so both those cities' mayors called in the preeminent CEO of for-profit future tech ideation to fix the snarl—Elon Musk's Boring Company is already drilling tunnels underneath Los Angeles, and has just won a contract to connect O'Hare Airport with central Chicago. The company insists the massive project will cost less than $1 billion, and is reportedly building it free of charge to the city, provided it can reap the revenue from "the system’s transit fees and any money generated by advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales."
Believe it or not, that last bit of news dropped long after the author of this week's Terraform piece— Aaron Gordon, the Village Voice's transit reporter and the scribe behind Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the New York Subway—submitted this story, which, chillingly, imagines a near future in which the subway has devolved from reliable public good into a private, tiered subscription model service where, well, you'll see.
VRtual, by Rose Eveleth.
We are unprepared.
Virtual reality stands to let us convincingly experience things we would otherwise never experience—and perhaps, might never want to. As is often the case, the less revealed here about Rose Eveleth's story about VR, the erosion of digital content-free reality, and consent, the better. Read on. -the editor
CONTENT WARNING: this piece contains description of and discussion of sexual assault.
2157, by Grant Maierhofer.
Our world had prioritized meat and work and thus within cities rooms were made to great efficiency and factories churned out cloned, replicated bodies to eat. Leave them and you would starve. I opted.
Content farming, mass inequality, collapse. Then, maybe something like this. A word of warning: Grant Maierhofer's unsparing vision of this future is visceral and disturbing; violence, sexual assault, and brutality reign here. -the ed
Redlining at the End of the World, by Blake Montgomery.
In this piece of speculative fiction, Texas officials discriminate against black residents in favor of white ones when deciding which Houston neighborhoods would receive protection from rising oceans.
Archived from the Houston Chron, August 19, 2190.
The Treatment, by Koren Shadmi.
The perfect drug for these times is the one that makes you feel like you don't exist. Today's epic Terraform is about a catastrophic epidemic of invisibility.
Robot Story II, by Sheaquan M. Datts.
A story about going to the beach in the future, in the days before integration.
The less I give away about Sheaquan M. Datt's wonderful, future-pointed parable, the better, so I'll just exhort everyone to grab a portable and some sunblock and bask in its rays.
Across the Border, by Sahil Lavingia.
A story about the distances technology fails to bridge.
There are some borders technology cannot help us cross. In today's dispatch, Sahil Lavingia the founder and CEO of Gumroad, paints us a future that demonstrates why. Enjoy.
Con Con by Russell Nichols.
The hijacker landed Amazon. The letter bomber got Verizon. But Nate Campbell couldn’t find a sponsor to save his life.
Without giving too much away, today's story is a brutal, razor-sharp satire of brand consumerism, institutional racism, the private prison complex, and well, you'll see. Thrilled to share this killer dispatch from a fast-rising talent on the speculative fiction scene, Russell Nichols. Enjoy.
Death on Leda by Eric Bosse.
The rumors are true: on Jupiter's smallest moon, crystal miners die and return to life with remarkable consistency.
Today's dispatch from the future takes the form of a corporate memo penned by a company flack who stumbles upon a bizarre and profitable disruption to the human workforce on a distant mining operation.
Wake, by Anna Cabe.
They said it was a new treatment. The doctors took long rolls of scales, pressing them to her skin, which was alive with angry, red rashes.
Anna Cabe's beautiful tale—a science fictional parable about pain in one's own skin, adolescence, and about transformation—feels especially important now.
One Thousand Cranes, by Zora Mai Quỳnh.
A tale befitting the power and tragedy of the age of climate change.
At the beginning of the week, when the IPCC's latest climate report was published—and articulated that we have around 12 years to meaningfully draw down carbon emissions or face runaway global warming—it hit like a ton of bricks. Then, I read this story, and I was devastated all over again, on another, more human level. This is why we do Terraform, stories like these, that offer us a compass for the days ahead, that force us to internalize what they may feel like, to consider their weight. Stories like this, even, may yet inspire us to avoid the worst.
Molli's Oggles, by Rich Larson.
She’s always got her Oggles on anyway. You know how kids are.
The next next thing is augmented reality, or so the Silicon Valley investors are hoping and betting—but even the nascent medium's prime movers have little idea what everyday use of such a potentially distracting and disfiguring technology might yield. In today's story, Rich Larson reveals, in devastating detail, one such future of which we should be wary.
One man, alone on an island amidst a terrible storm, is about to receive visitors.
In the spirit of Halloween, we're pleased to announce a special event—a suitably horrific epic from Geoff Manaugh that will be running in two parts, beginning below. Tune in tomorrow for the finale. Saying more would risk spoiling things, so, enjoy, and happy All Hallow's Eve. -the ed.
I Like Your Bangs by Lilian Min.
When we finally meet in person, years after I abandoned my account, I have to rub my eyes to make sure I hadn’t just blinked through a particularly vivid afterimage.
Today, a poignant story of identity, internet friendship, and coming to terms with the contours of our adolescent digital footprints.
The Last Stand, by Christoph Weber.
A thirty-foot wave of flame roars toward us over the grassy plain. We stand our ground. We were soldiers once.
Some of the most destructive and tragic wildfires to hit California in the state's history are burning even now. Thanks to climate change, this is, sadly, the new normal. The question is whether it will continue to worsen—and how much of the state will burn. Which is why it's a fitting time to run Cristoph Weber's deeply researched speculative piece about the future of fire in California. What begins as an homage to military SF quickly becomes something more. Continue reading after the story for an author's note that details the interviews and research that went into forging this piece.
Mammoth Steps by Andrew Dana Hudson.
A strange trek through a future whose fate depends on whether humans can coexist with intelligent, de-extincted mammoths.
There are plenty of reasons this story is sadly timely, from climate change to advanced genetic engineering, but I won't get too pedantic here. Suffice to say that this is a strangely beautiful and important story for this particular point in time, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Warning Signs by Emily J. Smith.
What happens when a predator abuses a powerful and popular piece of technology?
There's a lot to be said about this brutal, disturbing, and all-too feasible story about tech culture, misogyny, predators, and how one of those things supercharges the other two. But I'll leave it at that, except to say this is a chilling story that may nonetheless help defuse the toxicity it attacks. Assault and abuse against women are described below, so be forewarned.