Windows into the future

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

December 08, 2015

The jokes write themselves. Shortly after the publication of Future Visions: Science Fiction Stories Inspired By Microsoft, a friend posted a graphic about it. In the image, Clippy, the infamous animated paperclip/Microsoft Office assistant, is saying, "Hi! It looks like you're trying to dock over Alpha Centauri! May I suggest reverse thrusters?"

There's just no way to resist poking fun at any company publishing a book "inspired" by itself. Imagine "Caffeinated Comedy: Knock-Knock Jokes About Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte," or "Tape-Filled Tomes: Adventure Stories In Which 3M's Post-It Notes Save the Day."

And full disclosure: As with almost anyone living in Seattle, I have Microsoft connections. My husband and I have both worked there at various times, and I used to work in the same newsroom as one of the editors of Future Visions.

But I'm also a science-fiction fan whose first literary idol was Isaac Asimov, and I swear on a battered old issue of Amazing Stories that Future Visions doesn't read like a promotion for Microsoft technology. Brighter minds than mine could probably go through each of the nine stories (one presented in graphic-novel format) and pick out which elements of Microsoft Research inspired each one, but most of us won't bother. The chosen authors are amazing, the stories engaging, and the ebook's price is certainly right — it's free.

Before writing their stories, the authors were all invited to go behind the scenes at Microsoft Research's labs in Redmond., New York, and Cambridge, Mass. Yes, that sounds schmoozy — as if the resulting stories would all be, "And then, thanks to PowerPoint, we successfully shut down Dr. Evil's killer robot!" But acclaimed science writer Alan Boyle (another former colleague of mine, and another former Microsoft joint-venture employee) spoke to three of the authors for GeekWire and was assured that Microsoft did not dictate what they wrote.

Contributor David Brin told Boyle that if Microsoft did influence his work in any way, it was that he spent a little more time sketching out the technologies than he ordinarily would have. Noted Brin, "The ratio of concepts to explosions is higher than usual."

If there's a flaw in Future Visions, it's that a couple of the authors did the same thing, hitting the technology explanations and jargon a little harder than they would have had there not been a Microsoft Research connection. But I only felt impatience with this once, a pretty good ratio for a nine-story collection.

The best of the Future Visions stories do for the reader what the acclaimed Joaquin Phoenix film Her did for moviegoers. They effortlessly transplant you into a world full of foreign technology, but make the characters and the plot so engaging that you buy right in to the unusual surroundings. Many of them do this so well that you'll wish they were part of a larger novel. And the very best will make you seek out other works by their authors, all of whom have stellar resumes and plump back catalogs you can catch up on.

In Elizabeth Bear's "Skin in the Game," a rock star tries a program that allows her fans to actually experience her emotions — but the story doesn't quite go where you might expect. In Nancy Kress' heartbreaking "Machine Learning," an artificial-intelligence researcher uses his work to try and bring back the daughter he lost. (Parents, don't read this devastator unless your own kids are within easy hugging distance). In Jack McDevitt's "Riding With the Duke," technology that allows users to play various TV and movie roles inspires a mousy physics teacher to seize the day in his classroom. One of my favorite offerings is "A Cop's Eye," by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, in which a Minneapolis cop hunts for a runaway with some help from a savvy virtual assistant, This is the story that's presented as a graphic novel, and the illustrated format works surprisingly well in e-book form, even on a tiny iPhone screen.

You'll leave the book feeling a little as if you've just binge-watched old Twilight Zone episodes. Some spin a more engrossing tale than others, but all give you a brief passport into a land that feels kind of like ours, but with added bells and whistles. If you've forgotten there's a corporate connection by the time you close the e-book, you're not alone.

Books in this review:
  • Future Visions
    by Multiple authors

    November 17, 2015
    224 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Free download

About the writer

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is the co-author of Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s and of The Totally Sweet '90s. She is the former books editor for NBC News Digital and Msnbc.com.

Follow Gael Fashingbauer Cooper on Twitter: @gaelfc

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