Editor's note: This book brings together 97 short stories that seek to answer the question "what will the future look like?" First published in the leading science journal Nature, these 900-word tales come from scientists, journalists and many of the most famous SF writers in the world. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
Initially published in book form as Futures from Nature, this is the first time this collection has been available as an eBook. A unique blend of satires, vignettes, fictional book reviews, science articles and journalism, Nature Futures offers an eclectic mix of ideas and attitudes about the future.
With contributions from: Arthur C. Clarke; Bruce Sterling; Charles Stross; Cory Doctorow; Greg Bear; Gregory Benford; Oliver Morton; Ian Macleod; Rudy Rucker; Greg Egan; Stephan Baxter; Frederik Pohl; Vernor Vinge; Nancy Kress, Michael Moorcock, Vonda N. McIntyre; Kim Stanley Robinson; John M. Ford; and 79 more. To purchase, click here.
When Vladimir got home, he pulled his robe over his head and cried. Then he cried some more, and after that, he cried again. The robe was red, and the dying daylight filtering through its weave was red. It reddened his already red skin and turned his tears into pink pearls. He cried because Estragon had gone.
His only companion for the past 28 years. After Pozzo left, with his dog, Lucky, leaving Vladimir and Estragon together as the last two scientific editors in the world.
Not that they did very much these days—all the science was designed by computers, effected by their mechanical outriders, and concerned matters so esoteric that neither Vladimir nor Estragon, nor any human, irrespective of expertise or range of knowledge, would ever be expected to understand the half of it. Qbits sent from the outer reaches of the Solar System, the nearby stars, bleeping of the incomprehensibly great; or from super-duper colliders wheedling the secrets of the ungraspably small.
Now there was just Vladimir, and Vladimir was now the last of his kind. Vladimir’s tears were for Estragon, to be sure—but they were also for his own lot. Up here, on the building’s roof (for Vladimir’s home was also his office), the two aged sages would debate, tease, kvetch, doodle and schnoodle; they’d pilpul, pull pills, chop, slice and generally debate the issues of the day, their hubble-bubble puffing between them. But they’d do all these things with hardly more than a grunt, the wave of a hand; telegraphic habits of an old married couple. Vladimir thought of the effort he’d need within his obese frame to be able to start talking, from first principles as it were, with another person. And there’d be nobody. None like Estragon, who was gone, and gone forever. The thought of that effort made him cry. He cried for Estragon. He cried for himself.
There it was again—the irony of it! Sure, Vladimir was obese, and morbidly so. It was Estragon who was the thin, wiry one, the one who had the puff to get to the roof from ground level without having to stop, as Vladimir had to, every few steps. Yet it was Estragon who’d suffered the aneurysm that, so the medroids had told him, had led to a fatal and yet undetected build-up of arterial scurf that had killed him.
And here Vladimir was once again, on the roof. It would be odd—even sacrilegious—to light the hubble-bubble without his old companion, but under his bloated exterior, beneath his butterfly mind, Vladimir had always been a practical man. The walk back from the roof of the Tower of Silence, a finger etched skywards that had once been called the Shard, had been a killer, in this heat, with no tuk-tuks to rent because of the strike (now in its twelfth glorious year), and his not really being the right body shape for a unicycle: and the ascent up the long staircase had nearly finished him off. He didn’t think Estragon would have blamed him for wanting to take a toke. Yes, he convinced himself, it’s what Estragon would have wanted. Vladimir opened an engraved brass box beside the hubble-bubble and took out a ball of tobacco. It was the last of Estragon’s favorite—"Revolutionary Guard"—which he’d gone all the way to Camden suq to buy. He set it in the bowl, lit it with his ancient Zippo, housed the ball in its glass compartment, sat back and took a gentle hit. His tears dried in the dead flat calm of nicotine narcosis.
“Gone forever? You silly ass. Of course I haven’t.” Vladimir turned at the voice, startled. Surely—it couldn’t be …?
“The same. You didn’t think I’d leave you all alone, did you? Not when I could torment you like this.” Vladimir turned, and turned again, taking in the full evening panorama. Yet he was the only person on the roof terrace: indeed, the only sign of life. Revolutionary Guard was strong stuff—perhaps it was the heat, the strain of the day. “But you’re …?”
“Dead, Vladimir? Indubitably so. My fetchingly wizened and yet over-ripe frame, long past its sell-by date, has indeed been reduced to a puff of plasma. And what pitiful particles a body is made of. Makes you think, really. About how things can be so arranged.”
“But if you’re dead, how are you talking to me, now? Are you a hallucination? A construct? A djinn?”
“If you really want an answer, then the answer is ‘yes’. Haven’t you been keeping abreast of what you’re publishing in Nature?
“Well, I …”
“I know, old friend. Too little time; too much to do. Same old, same old.”
Vladimir pulled himself together and wiped away a final, stray tear with a corner of his robe. Estragon, whether here or not, was clearly settling down for a session, and Vladimir knew that any attempt at interruption, when he was in full flow, would be met by either blistering sarcasm or thundering silence. Vladimir arranged his abundant backside on a thick, brocaded cushion within easy reach of the hubble-bubble. “I’m sitting comfortably,” he said.
“So I’ll begin,” said the invisible shade of Estragon. “A few months back, when I felt I was ill, I found a paper about how it was possible to upload one’s brain-state onto a microdot. To archive oneself. We’re good at archiving, we editors, as you know, as there’s bugger all else to do, and so I made a few enquiries. I got in touch with the research group responsible, and offered myself as a test subject. They were only too happy to oblige, so that day when I went to get some more tobacco and didn’t come home for a couple of days, remember that?”
“I do—I was worried sick.”
“Sick? You certainly were. You had to go to the hospital. That was my fault too. While you were under they implanted my microdot into your right cochlea and wired it into your auditory cortex. How about that? My beard in your earhole, every waking moment. They wanted to link up the visual cortex, too, but I told them I didn’t think your ticker could have stood a visual hallucination, too.”
Vladimir sighed. “I fear you’re right, old friend.”
“Well, in that case, what are you waiting for? The medroids said you probably weren’t long for this world. A man like you, longtime smoking habit, more than 120 years old and seriously packing the poundage. Get yourself uploaded. Do it soon.”
Vladimir took another puff. Languorous bubbles flopped and floated to the water surface. “Very good, Estragon,” he said. “But how will we—um—keep in touch then? How will my microdot talk to your microdot?”
“I’m glad you’ve been paying attention,” said Estragon. “They told me—this research group—that they can upload people into the noosphere like any old packet of data. You don’t know this yet, but they’re coming to get you, in about a week, in a special ambulance, so they can upload me into the noosphere from your microdot. Unfortunately the procedure will be fatal. Sorry about that.”
“Oh. Will I get uploaded too? To the noosphere? So we can be together?’”
“Only if you’re very, very good.”
“But will I get a funeral?”
“If you like. But who will come? By the way—I’ve been meaning to ask you—my last few days haven’t been backed up. Did I get a good send off?”
Vladimir looked back at the day. At the morning, when his companion’s body had been zapped into nothingness. The process had been entirely automatic. Vladimir had been the only one present. Vladimir hated to lie. But Estragon—even Estragon—had feelings.
“Oh yes,” he said. “The very best.”
Amazing how time flies when you’re having fun. And how technology flies, too. Not six years have passed since the publication of the dead-tree version of the book whose constituent electronic states you hold in your hand (or claw, or manipulator, delete as applicable). Back in the good old days of 2007, when dinosaurs walked the Earth, nobody had really heard about eBooks, less still grasped how popular they’d become, allowing old books a new lease of life; and how devices capable of holding entire libraries in their diminutive frames, and still capable of being used as—of all things, telephones—would be ubiquitous.
So, while you’re here, an update.
Back in early 2007, the Futures series in Nature had ended, although its avatar was being pursued in Nature Physics. But we at Nature felt the need for another fix of Revolutionary Guard. The column was revived in mother Nature, and has continued ever since, becoming what we like to think of as a cult column. Most readers of Nature probably don’t know it’s there, and when they do find it, profess puzzlement. But a sizeable minority of Nature readers turn to it before they read anything else in the journal and devour every morsel.
Other things have changed, too. In 2011, I passed the editorial baton to my indomitable, redoubtable colleague Colin Sullivan, though he keeps me on as a microdot wired into his cochlea. Together we stride on to greater heights. Or that’s the intention.
This issue contains nearly all the stories in the dead-tree edition—three couldn’t be included for contractual reasons I won’t bore you with. But that leaves a goodly 97, which should keep you amused should you find yourself in an airport check-in queue, or waiting for a date, or loitering while your kid comes out of class—any one of the many tiny spaces of nothingness found in every daily round, if you look hard enough. For this issue, I thank my publisher, Sarah Greaves, who, with a number of our colleagues (you know who you are) pulled this all together.