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I’ve been thinking a lot about how crows talk.
I’ve been intrigued by this idea ever since I heard Annalee Newitz explain the research they did for “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” a Future Tense Fiction story published in 2018. Crows are a central part of the story, and they help a disease-detecting robot (once property of the story’s now-defunct CDC) track an outbreak and transfer samples to a community vaccine developer. The crows in the story have a complex system of communication: They talk about the distance to food, the position of the sun, and, in Newitz’s words, “they also do a lot of shit-talking.”
In the first episode of the Future Tense Fiction podcast, which launches today, Newitz describes researching crow cognition. Crows, it turns out, like to play, have a knack for problem-solving, and are generally resourceful. And the crow dialogue in the story is based in part on how researchers translate whale calls.
These sorts of process questions—How do authors construct their characters and imagine the worlds they live in?—are a key part of the Future Tense Fiction podcast. Each episode features a distinct story read by a voice actor followed by a conversation between the author and host Maddie Stone. Stone, who edits the Science of Fiction newsletter, and the guests also explore the deeper tech- and science-motivated themes underlying each story’s plot. Episodes will roll out monthly, and we have a great lineup: “This, but Again,” by David Iserson; “Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland; “Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell; “Furgen,” by Andrew Silverman; and “The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane. Each of these stories comes to life in audio thanks to producer and sound designer Tiara Darnell, who incorporates sound in a way that makes you feel as if you’re standing beside each story’s characters, whether in a haunted house or a complex computer simulation.
You may be thinking: That sounds cool, but I’m not a big sci-fi person. Or Why would I want more content on the implications of emerging tech when I already have to stress about killer A.I. every time I log on to Twitter? I get this: When I told a relative recently about Future Tense Fiction, she was similarly skeptical. “That all feels a little … too real,” she said with a chuckle. It was about a week after Bing’s Sydney had declared its (her?) love for Kevin Roose of the New York Times, and I had mentioned that a lot of our stories tackle relationships between humans and robots. It was an understandable sentiment—the chatbot creepiness creep is real, making doomsday fictional portrayals of it feel too close to home.
This is precisely why I love Future Tense Fiction: It’s helped me to digest my real-world tech anxieties by understanding there’s never only one way to write a story. Future Tense Fiction stories are set in the near future but play with elements of the present, and many deal with scary scenarios—communities ravaged by wildfires, families searching for disappeared loved ones, and, yes, killer robots. They explore these scenarios with rigor and concern, and they certainly don’t all have happy endings.
But these stories can’t be cleanly labeled dystopian, either. Torie Bosch, who edited Future Tense for 12 years (and even authored one of our fiction stories), used to have a rule for our nonfiction pieces: The bar for calling something “utopian” or “dystopian” is very high. “Utopia” and “dystopia” are buzzwords, a sort of polarizing tape you can wrap something up in rather than grappling with its real, more nuanced implications (which often are a little utopian, a little dystopian, and a little … mundane).
Our fiction, I think, lives in that same complex gap. It proposes visions that are often alarming, often hopeful, and always leave room for maneuvering between “what ifs”: What if this bad thing happened? What if something better did?
We hope our Future Tense Fiction podcast creates space to explore different possible futures, and, as host Maddie Stone says in the trailer for the show, “create an emotional connection that will help guide us toward a better tomorrow.”
And if all else fails, at least it will help you learn to speak crow.
Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.
(More!) Future Tense Fiction
This month’s story is “The Preschool,” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It follows a teacher who is employed by a famed venture capitalist—the proprietor of both the preschool where she works and a company that manufactures brain-computer interface tech. Her bosses convince her to implant an experimental BCI to maximize her efficiency in the classroom, but the device quickly creeps into other parts of her life. In the response essay, Theo Zanto, a neuroscience researcher, walks through where BCI is in the real world and the possibilities for its use in the future.
Wish We’d Published This
“Glitchy CBP One App Turning Volunteers Into Geek Squad Support for Asylum-Seekers in Nogales,” by John Washington, Arizona Luminaria.
Future Tense Recommends
I could consume a literally endless stream of content about workplace culture, which is why I’ve been especially enjoying Anne Helen Petersen’s podcast Work Appropriate. The podcast comes out every Wednesday, and Petersen and a rotating cast of guest hosts sort through co-worker drama, workplace myths, and toxic industries while responding to listener questions. Those questions are what make the show worth listening to, for me—Petersen often says that she gets feedback from question writers that it’s therapeutic to just hear their questions read aloud and have the ridiculousness or unfairness of their situation affirmed, and I find it similarly therapeutic to eavesdrop on other people’s workplace dilemmas.
What Next: TBD
On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary spoke to Emily Baker-White, of Forbes, about TikTok’s trip to Capitol Hill—and what’s next for the embattled social media platform. Last week, Lizzie and Bloomberg’s Priya Anand discussed what the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank means for startups and the future of the tech industry. Lizzie also spoke with the Washington Post’s Pranshu Verma about how to avoid A.I. voice scams. On Sunday, Lizzie will talk to Faiz Siddiqui, also of the Washington Post, about Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” woes.
Join our team! We’re hiring an editor—someone who can help us understand, investigate, and explain the tech, trends, and innovations that will determine the future. It’s a pretty cool job! Learn more here.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.