How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work.
A future affected by global climate change will likely see a rise in mosquito populations. But what if these deadly, disease carrying pests could become our allies? In this story, Onyebuchi imagines the world of 2071 where mosquitoes have been bioengineered to collect data and even carry vaccines.
Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.
Even after all this time, after preparations had been made and plans sketched out and steps detailed, then revised, then revised again, even after all the iterations and all the drafted contingencies, Omar still thought this was the stupidest idea in the world. The crew was strapping protective gear onto him and fitting his hoverbike with extra water-storage units, getting ready to send him off into the desert, and the whole time, he’d been shaking his head.
“You want me to chase a mosquito.”
“Not a mosquito,” Femi insisted without elaborating. She tugged the straps of his suit tighter and patted them roughly.
Ugo and Chima sipped their Malta Goya through straws while straddling their own bikes. Omar looked to them for guidance, but they both shrugged in unison.
Fine, Omar felt himself on the verge of saying out loud. Be idiots together.
But it took just one last look at Femi’s determined frown, as she checked his vitals, to know that this was a thing he was going to do. She needed it, and they’d all been friends since the cradle. There was no world where, if Femi asked him to ride alone into the desert to find and bring back a single bug, he would say no.
“It’s called an Eco-Tracker.” Chima dusted her fingerless-gloved hands, but they were still covered in oil grease. The corrugated roof of the abandoned warehouse trapped heat like no man’s business, so Omar’s water-collar was working on overdrive, tiny fans whirring with the effort of spinning droplets of recirculated water, filtered from the surrounding air, onto his face. “Here,” Chima said, and gestured for the others to crowd around the tabletop, which lit up like a board game with a holographic map of the world. A series of indecipherable digits and acronyms and random letters in other languages cascaded down the right-hand side of the display, and it all looked super important, but Chima paid it no mind.
“What are we looking at?” Femi asked, a hint of wonder in her voice. These days, she sounded more and more joyless, more and more single-minded. Ever since her trip to New York City, it was like she’d turned into a soldier who had eyes for nothing outside of her mission.
“Right now, it is focused on climate indices,” Chima said. “Carbon emissions. Red is for high and blue is for low. But that’s pretty obvious.” Ugo leaned over her shoulder to touch some of the screen, and Chima slapped his hand away. “Ah-ah, what is the matter with you? Getting your greasy fingers all over my baby!”
Ugo had a cheek full of chin chin he’d been snacking on. “It’s not my fingers that are the greasy ones,” he said around the fried dough sticks.
“Anyway, it can be calibrated to track human migration patterns.” Chima’s fingers blazed over the touchboard and the display changed, morphed, to zoom in on some areas or zoom out, the red dots changing color, joining each other, getting larger, splitting apart. It looked like watching cell growth on a screen. “And with the right tinkering, you can use it to track water sources.”
“But how?” There was that wonder again in Femi’s voice. “How does it know all of this?”
Chima stood straight and put her fists on her hips, grinning broadly. “Satellites. The only way to access open-source data. Everything else is owned by Western companies with IP patents, but if you make your own modeling algorithms,”—she tapped a soot-darkened finger to her temple—“then you can make the data do whatever you want.”
“So this is why you’ve been skipping school?” Ugo sniped. In return, Chima shot him a scowl.
Omar said nothing this whole time, only watched Femi. He’d been tracking this change in her demeanor of late, trying to figure out how he could bring her back. Trying to figure out what had drained all the happiness out of her well.
“Why did you make this?” Femi asked.
Chima’s face softened. She leaned over the display, touched a few keys that seemed to be randomly placed, and the splotches signaling water sources grew arrows that blinked in and out. “Using available data, we can track the movement of various animals and …”
“And trace the course of diseases,” Femi finished.
Everyone looked to Femi and saw the way her body tensed. It wasn’t like the steeliness went away, but it became suddenly leavened with something else. Something Omar would realize later was hope.
It had started with the itchiness, what the physician had called “scattered pruritic papules.” The papules soon grew, then came the hyperpigmentation, after which the “leopard skin” started to develop. Grandfather’s outsides began to look more and more like tissue paper. By the time the glaucoma had arrived, he’d begun stubbing his toe and bumping into things and asking for the light to be turned on where it already was, claiming there were shadows where there weren’t.
Femi had thought, like everyone else, that he was simply growing old. But the primary care physician had suggested a biopsy, so Femi’s family took Grandfather to see the surgeon, who came back after the operation and told them a bunch of words Femi didn’t understand. Like “Onchocerca volvulus” and “ivermectin” and “onchodermatitis.” But one word that stood out in the torrent of terms was “blindness.” It was the old term for what it turned out was afflicting Grandfather. River blindness. A disease that was supposed to have been eradicated more than a quarter of a century ago.
Afterward, Femi had asked Grandfather about his routine, about anything he could have done, anything he could have eaten or drunk that would have infected him or that would have exposed him to the black fly that allegedly carried the parasite that caused the disease.
Grandfather had no answers, but did complain that having to stay at home meant he could no longer fellowship with his age-mates by the pond.
Ugo, who lived nearby, rode with Femi out to the pond in question.
“Get back!” Ugo had shouted, sticking his arm out to block Femi once they’d gotten close to the body of water.
Even from this distance, they could see the malfunctioning insecticide-spraying drones collapsed and rusting in a patch of grass. The drones had been deployed throughout rural Nigeria as part of the government’s disease-prevention program, but of course no good thing could last in this government’s hands. And here lay the limits of human ingenuity, poorly hidden by the shrubbery, while the insects, the flies and mosquitoes and parasites they were tasked with killing, romped and played and proliferated over that small body of water.
It had been a perk of Femi’s scholarship that, like some of her age-mates, she was to spend several months conducting independent study in another country. Many of her friends had gone to the People’s Republic of China. They’d already been taking Mandarin since secondary school, and some of the boys even had long-distance girlfriends they practiced their Cantonese with. Another of Femi’s friends went to South Korea, and another to Argentina.
But something was calling her to the United States.
She didn’t know what it was, until she found herself one afternoon in the middle of the Smithsonian’s exhibit on geoengineering. The exhibit had started with a depressing litany of statistics detailing the impact of humans on the planet, but then a series of innovations and key decisions had begun to reverse the tide. Cloud-seeding technology developed in the Sahel and exported elsewhere. The progressive refinement of weather-modeling techniques to address localized water shortages.
The use of mosquitoes as agents of vaccine delivery.
The centerpiece of the exhibit—a reconstruction of a mosquito bioengineered to carry a malaria vaccine in its bloodstream—stopped Femi cold. The electronic display next to the amber-encased insect spoke of the shift in thinking that led to this innovation. Human survival could not depend on eradicating the carriers of disease. There had been enough catastrophic bio-intervention predicated on removing entire species from the ecological equilibrium. But why not have these formerly hostile things help us? Mosquitoes were ubiquitous in many places, and they were always going to be there, buzzing and stinging. They provided a necessary food source for other species, but also performed a number of other ancillary functions in maintaining the stability of their environment. It had been a Nigerian biomedical engineering student who’d come up with the idea of gene-editing mosquitoes to carry vaccines, and the team he’d supervised had created the first vaccine-carrying Culicidae.
Omar had hated growing up where he did. Though the mosquitoes were as much a fact of life as gravity and the too-hot sun, he never grew used to them. So when the family moved and he met Femi and Ugo and Chima, he felt as though he’d been born anew. Still, he had nothing but scorn for the backwater that had birthed him. It wasn’t until Ugo and Chima, after having discovered what was happening to Femi’s grandfather, came up with their plan that he realized why it was important that he’d come from where he’d come from.
“You’re the only one that can go to the colony,” Chima had told him as the three of them—Chima, Ugo, and Omar—lounged on Omar’s rooftop, stargazing. “You have all the antibodies. It would kill us to go and retrieve those mosquitoes for the experiment.”
Ugo, normally quiet, waited until the silence had become uncomfortable before saying, “Do it for Femi. She needs us.”
Omar revved his bike. The engine barked, then settled into a hum beneath him.
He didn’t want to start talking; if he did, he’d never leave. So he spared one last glance at his friends before heading off. It might’ve been a trick of the sunlight on his visor, but he thought, as he turned to face forward, that those were tears glistening in Femi’s eyes, and a crescent-moon smile glowing on her face.
This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life research and work being conducted today by Suzan Murray, Mac Farnham, James Hassell, and Dawn Zimmerman at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Yvonne Linton at the National Museum of Natural History.