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Book review: ‘Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene’

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This new collection of science-fiction shorts exploring the near future with ‘rational optimism’ is a thoughtful anthology, despite having a tendency to lose sight of the human.

‘Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene’ (The MIT Press, £15.99, ISBN: 9780262544436) is the latest in the 'Twelve Tomorrows' series, an annual anthology of sci-fi short stories published in partnership with MIT Technology Review that explores the application and impact of emerging technologies in our future. This instalment has a noble aim: to use fiction to examine visions of life in a world reshaped by climate change and other forces, while avoiding hopepunk or ‘material for doomscrolling’. Instead, it takes the welcome approach of ‘rational optimism’.

Editor Jonathan Strahan has brought together high-calibre contributors. The writers (who span many continents) include Hugo Award winners, plus a Philip K. Dick Award winner, and the collection opens with an interview with science fiction maestro Kim Stanley Robinson. This interview – in which Robinson compares how the events of the past few years have shaped attitudes compared with what he imagined in his works (that the early decades of this century would be characterised as ‘The Dithering’, for example) – is a highlight. Sean Bodley’s illustrations are charming and full of character.

In the scenarios imagined in the short stories, life is lived increasingly under extreme weather, digitally, and according to the whims of tech giants. The growing dominance of Amazon-like mega-corporations over every aspect of their employees’ lives is a common thread running through several stories.

Three short stories stand out. Tade Thompson’s ‘Down and Out in Exile Park’ centres on a society of exiles sprung up on a sort of shanty town on an island of floating ocean plastic near Lagos, and evokes a brilliant, believable sense of place. Sarah Gailey’s ‘When the Tide Rises’ is a chilling look inside an aquaculture corporation that keeps its employees in semi-indentured servitude by offering them loans for surgeries essential for continuing to do their jobs. The third particularly memorable story is Chen Qiufan’s ‘Do You Hear the Fungi Sing?’, beautifully translated by Emily Jin. This original, quite magical, story is set in a remote Chinese village where a predigital fungal network is the foundation of the community. It examines – with a light touch – folk traditions and the birth of new myths which supplant them.

Many of the stories in ‘Tomorrow’s Parties’ seek to examine fundamental aspects of humanity, such as our relationship with death or the obligation we feel towards our parents. However, many of the stories lack compelling humans at their core; the characters tend to be ciphers reacting to their surroundings (whether conforming or rebelling). This may be considered typical of so-called hard sci-fi, which puts ‘concept’ first, but it is a weakness nonetheless. It would be nice to be able to invest in a character and understand how their fundamental desires, fears and prejudices are shaped by their speculative surroundings.

Though few among its stories are especially moving or memorable, the collection is nonetheless packed with solid stories, including a handful of gems, and succeeds in its aim to explore our future with rational optimism.

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