Friday, January 8, 2016

Review: Future Visions (anthology)

Speaking of future visions - today is Roy Batty's incept date!
Where are my flying cars? [1]
Back in November, Microsoft came out with a bald-faced marketing vehicle: an anthology of short stories (and one graphic story) written by well-known SF authors following a tour of the Microsoft research labs, available free via a number of ebook dealers listed on Microsoft's own post on the matter. [2] [3]

Now, make no mistake, this is a marketing gimmick.  A number of big-name SF authors had tours of Microsoft's facilities, almost certainly paid for (possibly including an honorarium) in return for which they were expected to provide stories that tied in with some of the things Microsoft showed them [4] - for which you can bet they were paid.

With all this in mind, you could be forgiven for assuming that the stories would be forced at best, half-hearted at worst.  I admit I went into this book with cynical assumptions.

Well, we're all wrong.

There are several very strong stories in this collection that are definitely worth the while of any hard-core SF fan.  It's disappointing that so many of the stories seem to be focused on MS's natural language real-time translation solutions (as impressive as that technology is) but even so there are some really amazing stories here.

"Hello, Hello" by Seanan McGuire.
I'll confess - I haven't read that much of McGuire's work, but this story makes me want to rectify that.  This is an interesting little puzzle story that revolves around real-time translation.  Although parts of it seem a little forced to me, the "big idea" at the core is an interesting one that genuinely surprised me at the end, as I was busy spinning theories to solve the mystery in quite the wrong direction.  It's hard to say how to categorize this story, but I'll call it hard soc.sci SF, I think.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5, I think - definitely above average in terms of voice and engagement with the idea. 

"The Machine Starts" by Greg Bear.
This is definitely one of my two favourites in this anthology - it's a little further out there than most of the others, but the layering and engagement with a difficult idea (quantum computing) is right up where I expect it from Greg Bear (I may be biased as he's one of my top ten authors). In some senses, I suppose the "big idea" here is actually a bit overdone, but I love the way Bear has engaged with it in a solid hard SF of the usual gears and gluons variety.  I give this one at least 4 out of 5, and am tempted to go right to the top of the scale.

"Skin in the Game" by Elizabeth Bear
I spent a lot of this story wishing it was part of something longer - it's hard SF again, but this time it has a strong cyberpunk feel to it.  I confess I found the development of the protagonist a bit lacking, particularly in terms of emotion and relationships (which play such an important part in the story) and can't help thinking it would have worked better as a longer piece.  I do like the idea of the main protagonist though, and although the emotion recording tech that lies at the heart of things is pretty much off the shelf for cyberpunk enthusiasts it gets engaged in an interesting way.  Actually, come to think of it I'd rather like to see more stories in this vein featuring this protagonist.  Another 3.5 out of 5.

"Machine Learning" by Nancy Kress
This one is a tear jerker (or at least it was for me) there are a couple of awkward moments where it's obvious Kress is struggling to tie two parts of the story together - again, I wonder if it might have worked better as a longer piece - but they're fleeting, and they don't harm the story in the long run.  I did wish a bit for a longer run up developing the protagonist's inner state, but the rapid development in the second half of the story does work, and powerfully.  Unfortunately, the other major characters (and the protagonist's relationship with them) really don't get the page time they deserve, which leads to them being a bit cut out in comparison to the protagonist (again, a sign the story might be bigger than the word limit allows for), but in a short this isn't such a major failing for the plot. This is my other favourite from the anthology, so it goes up with Greg Bear's effort at at least 4 out of 5.

"Riding with the Duke" by Jack McDevitt
The idea here is very interesting, and the story is quite well done - but it just doesn't have the power that the earlier stories do and it suffers coming after them.  More importantly though, the ending is unsatisfying, and the tech being presented doesn't have a very important part to play in the story, which is disappointing.  This is one of the few in the anthology that sounds a bit forced, as though the author was searching for an idea that he didn't think everyone else would be doing but didn't quite know what to do with it other than to stick it in an otherwise ordinary story.  As a story it works, but it's just not the kind of "big idea" piece the others are.  I give this one only 3 out of 5.

"A Cop's Eye" by Blue Delliquanti & Michele Rosenthal
I'm not a big graphic novel fan, which probably colours my sense of this story, but to be honest it was disappointing.  The ideas floated are interesting, but the piece almost reads like the kind of illustrated information pamphlets I might find at my town office here in Japan - it really doesn't engage very closely with the implications of the technologies presented, and on top of that the plot itself seems shallow and rushed.  This is of course partly the problem of trying to fit the story into a space limitation, but a large part seems to be simply trying to pack too much into one piece.  Sadly, I'm forced to give it no more than 3 out of 5 - and while I want to be charitable I'm tempted to go lower.

"Looking for Gordo" by Robert J. Sawyer
This is a novel approach to a first contact novel, which scores points for me, but the framing of the story seems very artificial which pulls it back down again.  Likewise, the concept of the alien is by turns refreshingly novel (not just another plasticine-foreheaded humanoid) and stock (interaction is just too human).  The most interesting aspect of the story has got to be the way in which contact gets made, and this is almost certainly the "big idea" that Sawyer took away from his tour at Microsoft.  Like McDevitt's effort, it looks to me like a struggle to find something not everyone would write about gone slightly wrong.  This one, though, is definitely more science fictiony than "Riding with the Duke" and in terms of basic entertainment value it definitely comes through.  Another one at 3 out of 5.

"The Tell" by David Brin
Who doesn't like the idea of a stage illusionist as a combination hoax debunker and Mission Impossible agent?  The ideas here are good, as is the main character, and the story itself seems strong though again it seems shoehorned into a format too small for it.  The main problem I had with this one was the fact the story is slathered over with Brin's own futurism obsessions - this is just too much message for the carrying capacity of a story this length.  As a novel?  Maybe.  But as it is, the messaging rubs me the wrong way.  On top of that, the "big idea" portion comes at us seemingly out of nowhere near the end.  When you sit to think about it a bit, you can see where it comes from, but it still feels too abrupt - again, this might work better as a longer story.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5.

"Another Word for World" by Ann Leckie
I really liked this story for the main fact that it's just the only one that isn't stuck in low earth orbit - Leckie provides us with a real outer space adventure that revolves around wilderness survival on an alien world and translator technologies.  Best of all, the tech turns into a key to one of the mysteries that arises in the story.  Like some of the others, this story feels a bit unsatisfying because the real story is larger than the space allotted to it - but Leckie makes it work by not trying to pack the whole thing in.  Instead, she gives us what feels a bit like a fragment of something larger - and actually it would be interesting to see what that larger work looked like.  The two main characters are interesting, and there's potential for some engaging interaction there that just doesn't have time to develop in the context of this short story, and the hints of the wider world are tantalizing but we never quite get enough information to be satisfied.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5.

So there you have it - all the stories are interesting, and while there are a couple that seem a little flat (and the graphic story really didn't work for me that well) there are also a few that are quite good and two that to my mind are outstanding - in fact, I would considering nominating Greg Bear's story in the 2016 Hugos.  

For the price, you're missing out if you don't put aside the time to read this one, I'm telling you!


1. As it happens: 

2. There are a couple of interesting omissions from that list of dealers, actually...

3. The book itself was produced for Microsoft by Melcher Media according to the information provided to Amazon - Melcher does quite a lot of corporate work, and truth be told they're probably the ones who did all the heavy lifting in deciding who to invite and organizing it all.

4. And if you think the people responsible didn't make strategic decisions as to exactly which projects they would show off in order to give the impression of being a truly cutting edge R&D facility I have a bridge you may be interested in.

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