Future Tense

All of the Sci-Fi Stories We Published This Year

Music on Mars, trolls justifying their behavior, turning the tables on algorithms of oppression—our fiction covered it all in 2019.

A collage of illustrations from this year's Future Tense Fiction series.
Illustrations by Lisa Larson Walker, Franco Zacharzewski, Natalie Matthews-Ramo, and Sarula Bao.

Future Tense started experimenting with publishing science fiction in 2016 and 2017, but we really invested in it in 2018, publishing one story each month. That year was capped off by Annalee Newitz’s quirky and urgent “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” which won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short science fiction of the year. Our hope was that these glimpses into possible futures could provide a thought-provoking parallel to our coverage of emerging technology, policy, and society today, inviting us to imagine how the decisions we’re making today might shape the way we live tomorrow, illuminating key decision points and issues that we might not be giving enough attention.

In 2019, buoyed by the enthusiastic reactions of our readers, we published 12 stories by a diverse array of talented authors. Every story is paired with a response essay by an expert who provides additional context and delves into themes and challenges raised by the fiction—and each story comes with arresting original illustrations in a plethora of styles, from bracing realism to mind-bending abstraction and surrealism. Each quarter is organized around a broad theme, giving us the chance to create a dialogue among the pieces and underlining our conviction that the future is a spectrum of possibilities, shaped by our collective decisions—not a fait accompli or a foregone conclusion.

This October, we celebrated another milestone, publishing our first anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow, with Unnamed Press. The book, which collects our short stories from 2016 through 2018, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. We launched the anthology with scintillating public conversations with fiction authors, experts, and others in Washington, San Francisco, New York, and Phoenix.

We’re more convinced than ever of the power of science fiction to expand our sense of empathy for people whose identities and day-to-day experiences are vastly different from our own—even beyond the bounds of what we currently consider human. This year, many of our authors grappled with issues of difference, exclusion, and inequality; with bullying and abusive behavior, from the schoolyard to the space station; with the dangers of alienation in digital spaces, and the opacity of technologies designed solely for profit; and with radical possibility and hope, from giant nutritious plants grown in space to entirely new forms of music and self-expression enabled by technological change. In a moment where the future seems impossibly turbulent, leaving us feeling powerless, science fiction can help us get our heads around the complexity, reminding us of the human minds, relationships, and problems buried under branding, hype, and jargon.

Future Tense Fiction will continue in 2020, with a new story, essay, and illustration each month. The first theme of the year (we couldn’t resist): politics.

You can find all of our stories on the Future Tense Fiction landing page, and sign up for the Future Tense newsletter to get notified whenever we publish something new. (It’s been on hiatus for a little while, but it will be back in 2020.) And don’t forget to follow Future Tense on Twitter.

Identity

Thoughts and Prayers,” by Ken Liu: A family grieving in the wake of a mass shooting finds themselves in a maelstrom of abusive, inescapable trolling powered by cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

Response essay: “What’s in It for the Trolls?” by digital culture researcher Adrienne Massanari

Mpendulo: The Answer,” by Nosipho Dumisa: Two genetically modified young people navigate bullying and prejudice, and discover the secrets locked inside their DNA, in a world wracked by anxiety after a pandemic.

Response essay: “Why Are We So Afraid of Each New Advance in Reproductive Technology?” by journalist Sarah Elizabeth Richards, who often reports on reproductive technology and genomics

The Arisen,” by Louisa Hall: A fairy tale from a future where “truth-checkers,” an elite caste implanted with chips that suppress emotion, are charged with sorting official fact from distortion and fiction.

Response essay: “What Are Facts Without Fiction?” by librarian Jim O’Donnell

Space Settlement

The Song Between Worlds,” by Indrapramit Das: An overprivileged teen dragged to Mars on a family vacation stumbles beyond the cushy confines of their resort and encounters an entirely new form of musical performance.

Response essay: “What Would Sound Be Like on Mars?” by astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz

No Moon and Flat Calm,” by Elizabeth Bear: A team of “safety engineering” students in a spacefaring future are plunged into a real disaster.

Response essay: “How Will People Behave in Deep Space Disasters?” by disaster journalist Amanda Ripley

Space Leek,” by Chen Qiufan: An astrobotanist for the China National Space Administration, assigned to a distant space station, contends with stifling family expectations while researching how to successfully grow food off-world—and deals with a sudden, deadly crisis.

Response essay: “What Will Humans Really Need in Space?” by architecture professor Fred Scharmen

Health

Zero in Babel,” by E. Lily Yu: In a world where on-demand and even DIY genetic modification is commonplace, a young woman struggles to keep up with the punishing cycle of high school trends.

Response essay: “The Future Will Grind On,” by law professor Diana M. Bowman

What the Dead Man Said,” by Chinelo Onwualu: A woman returns to her hometown in Nigeria after her father’s death, opening old wounds, in a future entirely reshaped by migration and climate chaos.

Response essay: “The Scars of Being Uprooted,” by journalist Valeria Fernández, who frequently covers immigration

Double Spiral,” by Marcy Kelly: An at-home DNA testing company turns to targeted advertising after a privacy scandal and a spate of new regulations, and a researcher at the firm uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

Response essay: “Crossing the Germline,” by bioethicist Josephine Johnston

Artificial Intelligence

Affordances” by Cory Doctorow: People from all walks of life—from migrants and hapless teens to tech CEOs—find themselves in the clutches of terrible algorithms and search for ways to evade, confound, and even reclaim these technologies of oppression.

Response essay: “Not Just a Number,” by artist and educator Nettrice Gaskins

A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Robot Walk Into a Bar,” by Andrew Dana Hudson: A rabbinical school dropout and a seminary dropout start a company that trains algorithms to be sensitive to issues of faith and belief—and find themselves in an escalating series of ethical conundrums.

Response essay: “A.I. Could Bring a Sea Change in How People Experience Religious Faith,” by Slate’s Ruth Graham, who often writes about religion

Actually Naneen,” by Malka Older: In a future where artificially intelligent nannies are the norm for the wealthy, a mother copes with complicated emotions when her family’s nanny becomes buggy and perhaps obsolete.

Response Essay: “What Role Should Technology Play in Childhood?” by digital humanities professor Ed Finn