The Magazine

Future Imperfect

Science fiction as guide to the stages of life.

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By ANN MARLOWE
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2312, Kim Stanley Robinson’s imagining of a fully inhabited solar system and dying Earth, seems fresh and vital. In this future, humans routinely live to be nearly 200, and those who have chosen to be “smalls” (under a meter high) have never known a natural death. The main character is an immature 135-year-old performance artist, Swan Er Hong. Surgical and chemical augmentations are common in 2312, but Swan has had what even her contemporaries feel is a shocking number of bodily and brain modifications, including taking DNA that gives her the ability to chirp like a bird and purr like a cat, and ingesting the only alien life found in the solar system. She is also a hermaphrodite, who has both given birth and impregnated a lover. 

Robinson, who has published more than a dozen well-regarded sci-fi novels, many with environmental themes, relishes his many descriptions of the artificially terraformed asteroids that house people in this future world and serve as a means of traveling around the solar system. They are fascinating. So is the description of Hong’s home planet, a terraformed Mercury, known for its artistic communities, which have made “goldsworthies” and “abramovics” in its striking, dangerous landscape. Like many locals, Swan enjoys “sunwalking” on the dark side of Mercury, keeping just ahead of the dawn’s deadly heat.

China Miéville’s Embassytown imagines a colony of humans at one of the ends of the universe, set up to interact with a planet of aliens whose language remains stubbornly inaccessible to humans. I loved the playful treatment of the idea of the indeterminacy of translation, and the way the aliens are called Hosts—just as Afghanistan is called the “host nation” for our armed forces, with a similar absence of irony. The heroine, a space pilot named Avice Benner Cho, was a “simile” in her childhood, a resident of Embassytown honored by being asked by the Hosts to act out what will become a part of their language. (Hosts have no understanding of metaphor and are unable to lie.) To express the idea of being “as happy as a pig in mud” they would have to put a pig in mud and watch what happens. And humans call their speech “Language” with a capital “L.” 

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is a thriller set on a far-future Mars, in a solar system caught up in complicated political maneuvering. The residents have near-immortality, but the catch is that not all of their life is spent being human. Everyone is born with an allotment of Time, which they spend for whatever consumer goods they like. They live longer when living frugally. When a local’s Time runs out, his personality is uploaded into a nonhuman worker body, a Quiet, which does repetitive physical work on behalf of the colony until it’s time to get a human body again.  

The hero, Jean, a master thief, has amnesia when we meet him in prison. His feisty love interest, Mieli, from a radically different culture at the other end of the solar system, rescues him to stage a heist. Things get complicated as Jean and Mieli become entangled in an almost-love triangle with Mieli’s spaceship, Perhonen, an artificial intelligence with a personality. Another interesting facet of this far-future Mars is that all information is uploaded into the equivalent of a cloud, called the exomemory, but everyone has adjustable personal privacy shields. You choose who can see you in public, and how much. You can appear as a blur, if you want. Two roommates can live in the same apartment, while keeping their privacy screens on, and each can feel himself alone.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, is the author, most recently, of David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context.