Future Tense

“Equipoise”

Read a near-future story about a very different way of seeing trees.

Illustration of underwater building.
Brian Miller/Smithsonian | Download PDF

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.

Understanding of tropical and marine ecosystems and their relevance to human welfare will become increasingly important in a future altered by warming oceans and rising seas. In this story, inspired by the Smithsonian’s real-life research station in Panama, author Tochi Oneybuchi imagines the world of 2071, in which the cultivation and management of mangrove forests are part of a coastal infrastructure strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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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.

The hundreds of museumgoers resembled a school of herring in their synchronized underwater descent. Wearing their striped bodysuits, however, they more closely resembled bluestripe snappers. The Smithsonian had armed each person with a unisex suit designed to accommodate any prosthetics people may have, calibrating itself to the nanobots that beamed biometric information from their partially cyberized bodies into its system. And while the suit had fit Cam like a second skin, the ocean deep wrapped him in newness.

The experience of his body undulating through the water reminded Cam of his first time walking through a forest as an adult. An entire life lived amid the glass and steel of cities, their exacting geometry, had him convinced that such hard-and-fast order, such obvious patterning, was all there was to the world. But Shayna had taken him outside the Dome. With facemasks on to breathe air that hadn’t yet been completely cleared of particulate, they took her car 125 miles north to the new growth that had been reported.

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“Arboreal stunners,” Shayna had said. “You ever just look at a tree and get super emotional?”

Cam had chuckled when she’d first said that, a few weeks prior. Of course he’d seen a tree before. There were holos and displays in city preservation centers, and the tree-lined avenues that ran through and around the business center, all with their own precise geometric patterning. They were synthetic, naturally, but they looked and felt real enough.

The forest had been closed off by an electronic barrier following the announcement of a new construction project. Fertile land with only lightly polluted air, ripe for habitation. Only a matter of time before it was claimed.

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He was happy he’d had the chance to see it before it was gone, to have occupied that space between history and the present where you watch a thing start out as the latter and turn into the former.

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The ocean depths he and a few hundred others now swam through held the illusion of being untouched by humans, and every bit of habitat he looked at seemed to suggest the same. The swim trails were modeled after the flight paths for maglev cars aboveground. Just like air traffic control sensors were built into the actual vehicles overhead, sensors in the bodysuits ensured that no one drew too close and that no one fell too far behind the school and lost their way.

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They continued to swim into inky blackness. Their anglerfish-style antennae lit up, and Cam’s gasp echoed in his helmet. He’d expected a geodesic dome enclosure with pathways lit up to allow for the orderly passage of tourists, artifacts trapped in glass or amber, things propped up on stands or hanging by cords from the ceiling like those recreations of dinosaur skeletons in old museums. But beneath him, beneath all of them, was what looked like an entire city.

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Beneath the swimmers, reaching up through and around the sunken city, was a tangle of vegetal tentacles—a hand with innumerable gnarled, barnacled fingers fused into the thing it held.

Towers rose askew from the floor, and hallways that must have bridged them ended suddenly, forming makeshift entrances and exits. There were no windows; or, rather, there was no plexiglass in the windows. Those too were points of ingress and egress. Everything was access.

The closer the school of tourists came to what Cam realized was the museum exhibit, the more it started to break apart. One cluster—a family—broke off to head toward what looked like the main gate. A group of grade-schoolers, led by their teacher, swam toward a smaller tower to the left of where that first family went. And bit by bit, the whole collection of people disassembled itself.

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Cam decided to circle the perimeter, to see more of the outside. Everyone’s headlights created colorful patterns in different shades of gold and blue over the facade. Occasionally, a circle of light would pass through an opening—a window or a hole in a partially collapsed wall—and vanish, but other lights would emerge elsewhere, and like this, the museumgoers seemed to announce themselves. Cam scouted the perimeter and saw that the underwater city spilled over a cliff’s edge, and that coral reef had colonized its outer boundaries. And beneath those layers of reef, those same arborescent, arthritic tentacles he’d seen earlier.

“Construction began on LunaData’s underwater campus in the year 2035.” The voice was like a gong ringing in Cam’s head. It took everything in him not to scream out at the intrusion, and he touched the space on his helmet by his temple, lowering the volume. It was only belatedly that he realized he’d drifted in front of a human-sized disk that seemed to have fallen from its perch on an inner wall. It looked like some sort of castle seal, the sigil of some royal family. An L and a D, the horizontal bar of the L bisecting the D. A hologram appeared on Cam’s retinal display, revealing that the logo had existed in blue lettering on a white background, all inside a ringed navy-blue border.

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“The technology company’s then-CEO, Tom Jonas, launched a public poll two years prior, asking, on social media, which was the preferred location for a satellite campus: the ocean floor or the moon. A tax-incentive program had passed into federal law a year earlier, incentivizing the use of mangrove trees in the construction of all coastal business properties. By the time of the project’s completion, more than $63.257 billion had been spent on construction, a total roughly equal to the then nominal GDP of the Republic of Croatia.”

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Cam swam away so that the curator built into the bodysuit would stop talking. Or, at least, stop talking about that. Hearing about how much money had been spent on a thing like this, when less than a dozen nautical miles away the city where the company had been based had long since gone bankrupt, turned his stomach. It reminded him of the barrier that had been erected around the forest Shayna had shown him: how people with that much power inevitably poisoned every beautiful thing they could find. They could never simply let a thing be.

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Absently, Cam let currents take him into what seemed to be the inside of a gymnasium. While the roof was gone, fixtures taken over by oxidation sprouted like stunted metal trees from the floor and the grooves around them articulated, when Cam drifted backwards to get a longer view, workspaces.

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He imagined cattle pens, young workers recently released from university, debt-ridden, hunched over keyboards, surrounded by too many monitors in a time before augments could keep your eyes from getting fried by so much screenlight. Meat sacks surrounded by all that metal. Cam angled himself downward and put a hand to the floor. He expected unyielding metal, but instead touched porous substrate. It was the same wherever along the floor he touched, and when he looked up, he saw a young boy working through the same realization at a wall overhead, pressing his fingers in and pulling them back out over and over. Each time the kid withdrew his digits, the wall returned to how it had been.

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Sensors buzzed against Cam’s skin to announce the presence of another museumgoer. At his right appeared a young woman about his age, who smiled politely at him before her gaze settled on the kid at the wall.

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“Amazing, yes?” the woman said.

Cam nodded, because manners dictated, and she giggled at the way his headlight bobbed.

“It reminds me a little of Cachagua. They’re not using mangroves here the way they used them there, but I think is the same principle.”

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And that was when Cam clocked her background. “You’re from Chile?”

She smiled at him and tilted her head to the side in a way that made his face flush. “I know in museums, you’re not supposed to talk talk talk, but what is an experience if you cannot share it with anyone?”

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Cam thought of Shayna in the hospital and felt the pang of guilt he’d tried, for the duration of this trip, to block. She’d gotten too sick to attend, but she’d told him that she never would have forgiven herself if she’d been the reason he didn’t attend the opening. “You better record everything,” she’d told him, and somehow hearing her say it that way meant to him that she was going to live long enough for him to return to her and tell her about everything he saw and heard and felt down here. She couldn’t die before he got a chance to show her what it was like to swim down in formation to this underwater city from another time.

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“At night,” the Chilean woman said, “if you go to the mangroves, you see these tiny crustaceans”—she made a small circle with her fingers and emitted funny clicking sounds—“but you can only see them at night. Some of them are as small as potato seeds, and some of them are a little bigger, but they sparkle in the night. And you can just see this blue light everywhere.” She looked around. Cam followed her gaze and saw now that there were dozens of blue lights swimming around them. It was the tourists. “It reminds me of home.”

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“Do you think …” Cam wanted to hold the words back, but they came nonetheless. “Do you think this place is punishing us?” Shayna’s neurodegenerative disease had been traced back to microbes in the water source that fed into her housing complex, the piping rerouted too late. And here he floated, in the midst of this massive monument to the failure of people to simply be in a place like this. “Like … we shouldn’t even be here?”

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She stared into space for a long time before she said, “Some people treat the mangroves as monuments, but to me they will always be the world’s smelliest jungle gym. I like to think that it delights the mangroves to know that children are playing on them. And seeing the beautiful things that happen on them. If you like, I can show you a photo.”

Cam turned to the woman and suddenly saw Shayna standing next to him in that forest. In his helmet, he heard the buzz of insects and the slithering of things in the grass, and he smelled the mustiness of the place, its verdant wetness.

“Sure,” Cam replied, clearing his throat of the sob, equal parts sorrow and joy, that had been building. “I’d like that.”

This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life work and research being conducted today by Rachel Collin, Beth King, and Noelle Lucey at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Cinda Scott at the School for Field Studies.

Read the rest of the AIB-inspired stories on Future Tense here, and download the poster here.

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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