Book Review: “The Parties of Tomorrow: Life in the Anthropocene”

This new collection of sci-fi shorts exploring the near future with “rational optimism” is a thoughtful anthology, despite 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 science fiction short stories published in partnership with MIT Technology Review that explores the application and impact of emerging technologies in our future. This episode has a noble purpose: to use fiction to examine visions of life in a world reshaped by climate change and other forces, while avoiding hopepunk or “doomscrolling material”. Instead, he takes the welcome approach of “rational optimism.”

Editor-in-chief Jonathan Strahan has assembled high-calibre contributors. The writers (who span many continents) include Hugo Award winners, as well as 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 recent years have shaped attitudes to what he imagined in his works (that the first decades of this century would be called “The Dithering”, for example) – is a highlight. Sean Bodley’s illustrations are charming and full of character.

In the scenarios imagined in the news, life is increasingly lived under extreme weather conditions, digitally and at the whim of tech giants. The growing dominance of Amazon-like mega-corporations over every aspect of their employees’ lives is a common thread that runs through many stories.

Three short stories stand out. Tade Thompson’s “Down and Out in Exile Park” centers on a society of exiles sprung up from some sort of slum on a floating ocean plastic island near Lagos, and evokes a bright, believable sense of place. Sarah Gailey’s ‘When the Tide Rises’ is a chilling look at an aquaculture company that keeps its employees in semi-engaged servitude by offering them loans for essential surgery to keep doing their jobs. The third particularly memorable story is “Do you hear the mushrooms sing?” by Chen Qiufan, beautifully translated by Emily Jin. This quirky, somewhat magical story takes place in a remote Chinese village where a predigital fungal network forms the basis of the community. It examines – with lightness – folk traditions and the birth of new myths that supplant them.

Many “Tomorrow’s Parties” stories seek to examine fundamental aspects of humanity, such as our relationship with death or the obligation we feel towards our parents. However, many stories lack compelling humans at their hearts; characters tend to be ciphers reacting to their surroundings (whether compliant or rebellious). This might be seen as typical of so-called hard science fiction, 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 core desires, fears, and biases are shaped by their speculative environment.

While few of its stories are particularly moving or memorable, the collection is nonetheless packed with solid stories, including a handful of gems, and succeeds in its aim of exploring our future with rational optimism.

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Angela C. Hale