Review: Don’t worry. Everything will be fixed by 2037. Or will it?

artwork

Art by Saiful Haque from Seat14C.com

In the year 2037, all the uber-wealthy will be Canadian. Because they will have all the NiceCoin.

In 2037, you earn NiceCoin by being nice. For example, you open the door to let a lady through before you, instead of hitting her up for sex. Canadians, by reputation at least, are the nicest people on earth. Therefore, they will snatch up NiceCoin as if it were poutine.

NiceCoin is a fantasy, one of nearly two dozen visions of the future at Seat14C.com, a project of the XPrize Foundation, best known for its high-tech contests. In 2004, the foundation awarded its inaugural prize to SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded craft to make a suborbital flight.

XPrize wants to encourage ideas, not just firsts, and sci-fi writers love to speculate.


XPrize wants to encourage ideas, not just firsts, and sci-fi writers love to speculate. Last month, Seat14C.com published 22 short stories by science fiction luminaries, including Charlie Jane Anders, Paolo Bacigalupi, Margaret Atwood (in a cameo), and Hannu Rajaniemi, who came up with NiceCoin. Co-sponsored by All Nippon Airlines, Seat14C.com’s stories are based on a single premise: A planeload of passengers flies out of Tokyo in 2017 and passes through a phenomenon (gate, time warp, wormhole, whatever) that leads to a landing in San Francisco 20 years later. Imagine a Rip van Winkle for the 21st century.

According to most of these writers, life will be amazing, and fairly predictable. Self-driving cars dominate the roads, AI lurks in the background of everything, the worst illnesses are cured, and so on. Seat14C.com is a portrait of a techno-utopia, at least in the Bay Area. The stories present technology in the vein of Heiroglyph, Neal Stephenson’s 2014 anthology of “uplifting” sci-fi stories, and Microsoft’s Future Visions project. According to the techno-utopian promoters, we need gee-whiz stories to inspire kids into making a shiny future of silicon and software.

Houston, we have a corporate-driven trend here.

For showcasing some of today’s best published sci-fi writers, the Seat14C stories are often dull laundry lists of coolness. At least half of the stories begin with the same scene: the landing at SFO. The protagonists’ reactions are, by and large, anxiety, disorientation, alienation, and above all, curiosity. Most of the local governments are competent and organized, ready to hand out survival manuals, as if people popping in from 20 years past were a planned-for occurrence. Yeah, sci-fi writers really know how to make shit up.

In a relatively flat narrative landscape, a few pieces shine. James Smythe’s “Catharis” is a heart-rending story of a man forced to deal with the death of his daughter in an atmosphere worthy of the dark Netflix series, Black Mirror. Charlie Jane Anders’ “Trapped in the Bathroom!” is a hilarious satire of a society’s fetishizing of rights and values. Even the rules for wiping your ass after a number two have changed in 2037.

Eileen Gunn‘s “Transitions” is notable for its solo attempt among all the stories to imagine the state of racism and women’s status in 2037, when whiteness is less and less of an advantage. In her world, the US has disintegrated into eight regions. “At least I know which states to avoid, both as a black person and a woman,” says her protagonist. Shades of the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Poverty and war, at least in this group of stories, is barely worth a mention. Perhaps, as in the original Star Trek series, they’ve been banished. These writers didn’t bother to tell us. On the other hand, climate change has fallen under the heel of humanity’s ingenuity.

The takeaway? Don’t worry. All will be well.

Seat14C.com is a work in progress. The organizers have invited writers to submit their own visions of 20 years hence through August 25. According to the site, stories must be “aligned with the XPrize belief that exponential technology can positively impact the future.” That’s easy enough. If you’ve been to Disneyland, you should be brimming with ideas.

Have you read Seat14C.com? What’s your favorite story?

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