Terraform, November 17, 2014
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
On November 17, 2014, editors Claire L. Evans and Adam Rothstein launched Terraform, an online-only near-future science fiction publication soliciting stories up to 2,000 words. At launch, Terraform offers four original pieces of fiction: two by established authors and two by Terraform’s own editors. The fact the inaugural authors include Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling certainly suggests the caliber of story Terraform intends to publish. At 20¢ per word, Terraform will likely become a market of choice for near-future writers with pieces under 2,000 words. For comparison, the Science Fiction Writers Association of America defines “professional” payment rates for short stories at 6¢ per word. I expect writers of short-short science fiction to beat down the gates.
If you struggled to enjoy the Terminator movies because you found the time travel hard to believe, then Adam Rothstein’s “Targeted Strike 2: Judgment Database” may be for you. This story-within-a-story begins with a near-future movie, then pans back to a theater in a police state that hasn’t yet been overrun by the robot masters. The movie shows a John Connor that must be saved from the merciless machines, but he doesn’t program his protector by sending it from the future. Instead he’s helped program it by contributing code to the open-source project that allows his protector to target his attackers. At it turns out, government data-mining machines have decided his software project could become a national security threat and has entered his termination sentence into its eponymous Judgment Database. And they’ve got his mom.
When the movie stops – early, because it’s more important to oppress clueless innocents in the name of law enforcement than to finish showing a movie after selling the tickets – we see just what kind of place the narrator lives in. The theater in which the film is shown seems filled with subjects of an oppressive police state that feels like a close guess at the result that would follow the RIAA and the film industry getting authority to set priorities for street-level police activity. The narrator’s advice, suggesting where readers should catch the film, is a delightful sketch of the dismal near-future world.
Rothstein’s piece has an especially near-future feel because it is filled with elements we already know exist. Not only are we familiar with entertainment-industry intellectual property giants that employ hamfisted IP enforcement tactics, but the world within the film feels close, too. We all know about drone strikes. The outgoing Attorney General has, in our world, already publicly stated that using drones to kill Americans without trial based on a belief the target is an enemy is authorized – almost as if the Constitution didn’t provide a definition of (and standard of proof for) treason, or a Sixth Amendment right of trial by jury in criminal cases. And since the U.S. government already kills people based on metadata how much of a stretch is it, really, to suppose a predictive algorithm would populate a database of threats to the state before the involved individuals actually completed the overt acts required to prove treason? Predictably, those who learn their names have entered the database have little alternative to revolt: like the Terminator movies, the machines’ actions actually help create their foes. The movie’s plot hangs together nicely. When the movie stops, we find the narrator in a world even closer to our own.
I think the genius of “Targeted Strike” is that it presents an obviously-fictional world in which we immediately prepare to suspend disbelief to enjoy heroic action-movie sequences, while filling it with elements so clearly drawn from our existing world that it’s hard to tell just how far in the future it must be. The story-within-a-story is plainly fictional in its presentation of functional AI, but the story-within-a-story structure effectively prevents the AI from being depicted as an available technology. The narrator’s actual world contains elements that are distinguished from our own only by such thin fabric as law. And how thin a fabric that seems to be. Given what we know people have attempted in the name of controlling entertainment content … just how far away are we from Rothstein’s crazy world of “Targeted Strike”? It’s a fun question that clearly places his story on the near edge of fictional futures. If you like dismal future SF, Rothstein’s “Targeted Strike” is for you.
“Targeted Strike” weighs in at nearly 3,000 words. This is pretty darned short. In considering the question whether future publications will demonstrate comparable quality, it’s worth noting that the submission guidelines invite only “up to” 2,000 words. Other authors must be more thoughtful to deliver as much story with so many fewer words.
Cory Doctorow’s “Huxleyed Into the Full Orwell” announces its dismal near-future setting right in the title. At 1,385 words, it’s a lightweight in physical dimensions. But in the dimensions that matter, it packs a punch. It’s not some cheery piece about an alternate world in which we never stopped flying moon missions. Rather, the story is a call to arms against threats that exist in the real world right now. Like Rothstein’s “Targeted Strike,” “Huxleyed Into the Full Orwell” spotlights absurd regulations intended to increase intellectual property profits at the expense of common sense and traditional civil liberties. Unlike “Targeted Strike,” it calls out a specific existing statute: the DMCA. Doctorow spends a significant fraction of his word budget on worldbuilding, providing demonstrations of the outrageous and offensive things authorized by, or forbidden by, the statute. On the bright side, the story depicts several sharp-witted, motivated, self-directed, and responsible female computer engineers in what seems a timely portrait of female power – at least, if you’ve noticed the recent review of Mattel that inspired the intelligentsia to create Feminist Hacker Barbie in backlash against a cartoon girl who couldn’t code, but happily took credit for the work of boys who could. (Read about the debacle here. I’d post a link to the book’s reviews, but in the last couple of days Mattel has apparently gotten Amazon to take down the book’s page. I see this as a good sign: Mattel’s marketers might actually feel shame for having authorized the thing.)
Fiction requires a certain amount of work to develop reader connection to a character. What, you may ask, can Doctorow do in 1,385 words? Why would anyone care about his programming wizards? That’s part of his story’s genius, for readers know characters by their enemies. Pitting protagonists against Nazi villains or having them hunted by Darth Vader gives readers a good idea where everybody stands – and quickly. In this case, Doctorow shows a tone-deaf government using an overbroad special-interest statute to imprison citizens for exposing to public scrutiny the kinds of security exploits caused by the ill-conceived DRM tools sheltered by the statute. So it’s easy to get behind Doctorow’s daring, self-sacrificing mavericks in their mission to show Americans that passive complicity by civilians permits absurd government regulations to turn the nation into an Orwellian state. When the narrator follows her mentor’s example – walking into harm’s way to expose the practical problems caused by overreaching regulation of the content-players on our ubiquitous devices – we feel not only a taking-up-the-torch excitement for the narrator and her cause, but keen anticipation for the disaster we know follows the curtain’s close. But, more: we see that knowledge is not enough to solve the problem of awful government. We see the public must awaken to government’s lunacy sufficiently to act in ways that matter.
The real risk in Doctorow’s piece is that unsophisticated readers might assume the fictional parts of the story matter to the conflict: the absurd law that encourages security disasters and prevents people from making audio readers for their DRM-locked ebooks, for example, or the legal feasibility that police outfitted with military equipment could be sent against unarmed civilians whose “offense” consists of making a public demonstration for members of the press. But these elements, sadly, don’t require invention; they’re lifted pre-made from the real world. The biggest thing Doctorow invents? Actors willing to stick their necks out to protest the DMCA. Other fictional parts of Doctorow’s world include the identities of individual actors, the behavior of depicted security exploits, a novel outdoor video projector, and scenery elements like Netflix as a full-on content channel producing its own news and shipping its own DRM-laden content plug-ins. But that stuff, though interesting, is detail. Doctorow’s real invention is a mental experiment: what would happen if someone exposed the DMCA’s true colors, in public, during a trial of a DMCA violation? That Doctorow’s dark answer feels plausible only makes it all the more chilling. By the end, readers find the title tells us what Doctorow fears: the public, passively accepting awful regulation as though sedated on Huxley-esque soma tablets, is allowing government officials to accumulate Orwellian control over a nation founded on the principle that every individual has a right to liberty. Doctorow doesn’t actually come out and tell the reader to dump the soma tablets from their medicine cabinets and take to the streets, but his message seems clear enough. Somebody oughta.
Set in space, Claire L. Evans’ “The Overview Effect” has a further-into-the-future feel than the gritty, earth-bound pieces that accompany it. The setting combines an orbital experiment involving psychedelic mushrooms with an artificial intelligence observer providing real-time reports to ground control. The title refers to a phenomenon observed among spacefarers who, having seen the Earth from orbit, experience a life-altering cognitive shift that has been described as “an increased sensitivity to their place in the universe.” This 1,600 word piece feels less gripping than the other pieces with which it was published: there’s no sense of direct conflict or immediate peril, so the story problem isn’t immediately clear. What the piece does do is suggest the sad discovery a heartsick spacefarer might have about her place in the Universe while looking down (under the influence of mushrooms) at the planet where someone used to love her back.
Bruce Sterling’s “The Brain Dump” is presented in broken English from the perspective of a Ukranian hacker whose country struggles with a rebellion that’s cost his favorite art museums all its best 3D Printers. Self-referentially, the story’s hacker collective gets its news from motherboard.vice.com (which hosts Terraform, where the reader gets the story about the hacker getting his news from motherboard.vice.com). With an attitude reminiscent of Russian nonchalance about ongoing disasters, the narrator relates his colleagues’ doomed efforts to stave off destruction.
The civil war backdrop – and the related risk the Brain Dump collective’s hideout will be bombed as a suspected terrorist headquarters – establish high stakes. The story’s absurd juxtapositions keep readers interested in sections without plot progress or active opposition in a manner reminiscent of Douglas Adams. The story’s real conflict erupts just from one of these absurdities: while preparing to abandon the hideout to avoid being drafted into a shooting war, members of the impecunious hacker collective start finding valuables. Will they stop finding riches before their position is overrun, and flee? And what will absurd wealth do for them when their city burns? That seems to be the conclusion: money doesn’t solve problems, having a clue does. And that’s a wonderful place to bring readers in an SF short.
With these four short stories, Terraform sets a pretty high bar for near-future SF shorts. Avid SF readers must bookmark it: it’s cheap at twice the price. (Note: this is a little math joke. Terraform is delivered online in HTML format, accompanied by color art, for the highly accessible price of $0.) The question is whether paying more than three times the SFWA’s “professional” rate will attract quality stories or merely bury the editors. For that answer, check back weekly.
C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.