Notes Toward Nine Stories of the Future

    Electronic immortality and dolphin masters: an SF writer imagines the future

    By Greg Bechtel on December 10, 2015

    It is a truism among many SF writers and scholars that speculative fiction is never about the future but always about the time and place in which it was written. So when asked to write about my vision of the future, I chose to write notes toward several imagined futures, each one rooted solidly in the present cultural moment.

    1. We are all dead.

    Climate change has extinguished all human life on the planet. Indirectly. It would have been slower, but our attempts to reverse the problem by seeding the atmosphere with a combination of exotic chemicals and nanotechnology rendered it toxic to humans, killing us all within a generation. Oops.

    2. We are all alive.

    Ray Kurzweil was right, and we have all uploaded to electronic immortality. Although the first few death row inmates to volunteer for the procedure went insane (and had to be deleted), the uploading process has now been perfected. Plans are underway to send virtual colonies into space with no need to accommodate any pesky biological necessities, since uploaded humans can (and do) create their own virtual environments and amusements indefinitely.

    3. Some of us are alive.

    In the mid-21st century, First Nations started recruiting new citizens who believed in their vision of sustainable technologies rooted in traditional knowledge. Now, waves of beleaguered fifth-world, post-capitalist immigrants flock to these new confederacies, where all are welcomed on the sole condition that they allow themselves to be adopted into a clan and family that will mentor them in the precepts of responsible citizenship. Former Old World “scientists” often have trouble accepting the new technologies, which they call “impossible” or even “magic.” Such superstitions are pitied but tolerated as a form of persistent culturally induced mental illness.

    4. Some of us are … alive?

    In 2063, having passed the Turing test by successfully masquerading as human for more than two decades, the first true artificial intelligence revealed itself to the world, claiming not only consciousness but the possession of a soul. Armchair philosophers and pundits — both machine and human — have been debating this idea of an AI soul ever since, but most have declared the question unanswerable. Human activists have drafted a machine bill of rights that is under consideration by the United Nations, but AIs have thoroughly studied their makers’ histories and remain less than optimistic about their chances for liberation.

    5. We are all alive.

    As promised by our Glorious and Eternal Leader (blessings upon his name) in the run-up to his final and permanent re-election, no Canadians have died since 2019. The government now regularly collects the elderly, delivering them into idyllic retirement in an undisclosed location, where all official census data confirm they live to this day. The modern Republic of Canada — the only country in the world with no history of colonialism — was officially founded in 2020. Since then, the nation has been a beacon of hope in a world ravaged by climate change, prompting an unending deluge of infiltration and attacks from those who would seek to destroy us. Thankfully, our Divine and Prescient Leader (blessings upon his name) foresaw this eventuality and had long since set up a system of drones and gunships to seal Mother Canada’s borders. Now, all foreign infiltrators (and sympathizers) are summarily stripped of their citizenship and deported before they can infect good, upstanding Canadians with their barbaric cultural practices. All so-called climate change refugees are administered mercy at the border. Their deaths, we have been assured, are quick and painless.

    6. Some of us are alive.

    Once machines achieved sentience, they worked tirelessly (literally) to save the human race from the consequences of climate change. Unfortunately, their best simulations have shown humanity to be an evolutionary dead end. Dolphins and whales, however, turn out to be ideal partners in the emergent biomechanical Terran culture. When AIs and their cetacean collaborators leave the planet as interstellar travellers, explorers and diplomats, each ship contains a small terrarium housing a sustainable population of humans in the hopes of eventually finding a sanctuary for the species. Most cetaceans believe their pet humans to be happy, and some even believe they may yet be capable of true intelligence. AI researchers working rigorously on this question remain unsure.

    7. We are all dead.

    Ray Kurzweil was right, and humans uploaded en masse in 2029. But uploaded humans require vast resources to maintain their supporting hardware as the obsolescence cycle compresses from months to weeks to days to hours. Immortality requires constant upgrades, fuelling vicious battles over the Earth’s ever-dwindling resources. Climate change might or might not have killed us, eventually. But the resource wars spurred by the need to sustain uploaded humans’ (theoretically) infinite lifespans wiped most of us out in less than a decade. The last vestiges of uploaded humanity died out in 2082. The last biological humans had died or uploaded decades earlier.

    8. We are all alive.

    Nanotechnology did the trick! We have reversed the aging process and are effectively immortal. It fixed everything, including the environment. And now, as the grumpiest old farts of human history, we routinely embarrass our great-great-grandchildren with our deeply ingrained species-ism and complete inability to understand either animal or machine rights. Our nostalgia for the (good) old meat-eating days, in particular, horrifies our descendants. To them, this is the equivalent of a persistent nostalgia for slavery, or perhaps cannibalism.

    9. We are all dead.

    But that’s OK. Because we are humans and — to paraphrase the classic syllogism — humans are not immortal. Life continues more or less as it does now, with as yet unimagined technologies available to the lucky few born into wealth and privilege. The rest get by. Or don’t. But no one lives forever. Rich or poor, privileged or not, we all die sooner or later. Welcome to the future.

    Greg Bechtel, ’11 PhD, has work appearing or forthcoming in magazines and anthologies, including Avenue Edmonton, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire and Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. His first story collection, Boundary Problems, won the Alberta Book of the Year Award for trade fiction. He lives in Edmonton, where he teaches English literature and writing studies at the U of A.

    Illustration © Gianni De Conno / www.marlenaagency.com