Future Tense

12 Short Sci-Fi Stories to Make You Think Hard About the Future

Illustrations in a set of nine.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Natalie Matthews-Ramo, Lisa Larson Walker, and Shasha Léonard.

When the present is scary, the future can be virtually unthinkable. But it’s at times of great change and uncertainty—and 2020 surely qualifies—that it is most important to try to look ahead, to think about how decisions made right now can reverberate.

This year, Future Tense Fiction—a partnership of Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination—published 12 stories that take very different looks at the years to come. In the case of Max Barry’s “It Came From Cruden Farm,” that future is very near—it’s set on Inauguration Day 2021, when a new president learns that the U.S. government has custody of an alien, and it’s complicated. Other futures are more distant; as part of our package of three stories on artificial intelligence and governance, “The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, follows a graduate student trying to learn about the very earliest days of his country being run by A.I. Tobias S. Buckell’s “Scar Tissue,” Holli Mintzer’s “Legal Salvage,” and Karl Schroeder’s “The Suicide of Our Troubles” all grapple, in very different ways, with legal rights for nonhumans. Several tales are clearly rooted in the upheaval of 2020, particularly “How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” in which Tochi Onyebuchi looks at what might happen if a white mayor decided to use algorithms to calculate reparations owed to a city’s Black population. Each story comes with a response essay in which an expert—like a technologist, a scientist, a journalist, or a researcher—responds to the real-world themes, bringing even the most fantastical imagined tomorrow down to earth.

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These stories are funny, heartbreaking, enraging, inspiring, sobering, alarming—and most importantly, a great opportunity to think about how we want to shape the years, decades, and centuries to come. Below, you’ll find links to each story, accompanied by its response essay.

The Truth Is All There Is,” by Emily Parker
Trust No One. Not Even a Blockchain.,” by Jill Carlson

It Came From Cruden Farm,” by Max Barry
Why Would the Government Lie About Aliens?” by Sarah Scoles

Paciente Cero,” by Juan Villoro
How China Turns Trash Into Wealth,” by Adam Minter

Daffodil’s Baby,” by Alyssa Virker
What’s Missing From Conversations About Designer Babies,” by David Plotz

Scar Tissue,” by Tobias S. Buckell
When the Robot You Consider Family Tries to Sell You Something,” by John Frank Weaver

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The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” by Joey Siara
How Not to Optimize Parenthood,” by Brigid Schulte

Legal Salvage,” by Holli Mintzer
How Can an A.I. Develop Taste?” by Kate Compton

How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
Racism Cannot Be Reduced to Mere Computation,” by Charlton McIlwain

The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Under the Gaze of Big Mother,” by S.B. Divya

The Suicide of Our Troubles,” by Karl Schroeder
When Nature Speaks for Itself,” by Anna V. Smith

Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
Can We Convince the Sleeping Brain to Process Our Problems?” by Kristin E.G. Sanders

The Vastation” by Paul Theroux
Who Do Health Care Workers Owe Their Ultimate Loyalty to in a Pandemic?” by Allison Bond

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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