Title: The Million
Author: Karl Schroeder
In the future of Karl Schroeder's latest short novel, which shares a universe with his book
Lockstep (2014), the problem of non-FTL travel to other star systems has been "solved" in the
following manner. Ten billion humans, whose primary base is Earth, but who also travel to other
solar systems as their fancy strikes, have chosen to adapt their lives to a 360/1 lockstep: that is to
say, they spend the majority of time in cryo-suspension, emerging for one month of wakefulness
every thirty years (or three-hundred and sixty months) of inactivity. Thus, a seventeen-year-old
teen born into lockstep, for instance, will have experienced seventeen years of life but will be over
six thousand years old compared to the standard passage of time on Earth. That's a lot of nap
time, even for the rich and infamous, and they need someone to tend the civilizational fires while
they're dreaming the millennia away: hence, the eponymous Million. One view of this group is
that they are essentially the glorified groundskeepers--"janitors," as an Auditing student
complains about two-thirds in--of the ten Billion, the Earth's real owners. Another view,
decidedly more romantic, holds that "all of civilization rested on their shoulders." The truth, as
our protagonist, the illegally-conceived orphan Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee, discovers, is considerably
more entangled and nettlesome.
Part of the complications arise structurally. The Million's basic system is a compound of neatly
stacked asymmetries: three-hundred and sixty years to one year, ten billion people to one million.
From these follow all sorts of cultural, socio-economic and philosophical implications, including
an apparently utopian array of material resources for the Million, who are simultaneously ensnared
in a constrictive dynamic regarding population growth and information control. Suspended
animation, as a Draconian solution to baser Malthusian instincts, was famously and irreverently
proposed by Philip José Farmer in his story "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World"
(1971) and its latter Dayworld trilogy expansion. Schroeder's rationale neatly decouples this
application of temporal suspension from its original gloomy over-population forecasts, and instead
positively reconceives it for space travel. Interestingly, Petter Watts did something similar in his
excellent recent novel, The Freeze-Frame Revolution, which I covered in these pages.
Enhancing these inequities of design, Schroeder gives us two main characters, the aforementioned
Gavin, and the teen Elana, who in their separate ways must overcome challenging psychological
and relational barriers.
Gavin, in particular, must don a new identity in an effort not only to protect himself but also to try
and help clear his adoptive brother Bernie of patricide charges. As part of this identity, he has to
train to be an Auditor, thus preparing to join forces with the very contingent that killed his
adoptive father. This plot strand is filigreed with some nicely baroque touches, as when Gavin,
pretending to be Neal Makhav-of-Winter-Park, in turn borrows Elana's costume at an elaborate
party, so as to lose his own shadow bot. The ages of the protagonists, their various assignments
and reversals of fortune, the elite school setting, and the uncovering of deep conspiracies, all lend
The Million a somewhat-YA sensibility. The prose is mostly effective at explaining the narrative
world and giving us the character insights we need to follow the story, with occasionally inspired
stage-setting such as: "Every few hundred kilometers, a bot would announce which Great
Family's province they were passing over. The names were ancient: Cumbria, Leeds, Norwich.
Brussels, Luxembourg, Bavaria. There were no settlements. Elephants, boars, lions, and the
ancient bull of legend, the aurochs, wandered at will. Now and then the zeppelin would pass one
of the museum cities--and then, despite his misery, Gavin would walk to one of the open galleries
to watch it pass underneath as the headwind tore at his hair." Dialogue, on the other hand, fares
less well, often of flat or stilted affect, or anti-climactic (after a major revelation near the story's
end, for example, Gavin's response is: "Oh.") The plot itself also feels oddly lopsided, almost
truncated: the engines are revving up just as we reach the final pages, with a clear tease of
exciting developments ahead, but no real sense of resolution in this particular tale.
Part of Schroeder's dedication of The Million reads, "Not everything's a dystopia," and it's worth
evaluating this work in those terms. The first third of the novel introduces us to an apparently
utopian world, where people live in vast tracts ("Six thousand square kilometers of land, and just
the two of them to take care of it?") and possess enormous resources ("Everybody had armies and
air forces, or if you lived on the coast, a navy or two. Why not? They were fun toys."). At one
point, a group decides to experience "an ancient historical epic"--Star Wars--and they proceed
in the only fashion that makes sense to them, by instantly assembling storm-troopers, full-scale X-wings and TIE fighters, by erecting sets, lighting gear, and even an orchestra of bots for the score.
But as the story progresses, this veneer of utopianism is gradually stripped off. In the way the
novel's youthful, plucky characters manage to lop through swaths of conspiracies, and if not
necessarily disrupt the status quo at least gain new insights into its terms and conditions, The
Million is essentially hopeful in a manner akin to many dystopian narratives.
Taken as a standalone story, I'm not sure The Million does justice to its scope, which remains
mostly implied. As the first entry (or second, if we take into account Lockstep) in an ongoing
project, it's an intriguing work with the potential to thoughtfully complicate the utopia/dystopia
dialectic via genuinely stirring sf-nal conceits. "Of course the Million weren't alone in the solar
system," we're told. "There were other civilizations out there, some of them vast, not all of them
human." Next stop, the stars.
Title: Tomorrow Factory: Collected Fiction
Author: Rich Larson
Rich Larson's debut collection is one of the strongest--first or not--I've encountered in years.
His prose is consistently taut and supple, muscular but playful. Read this collection and marvel at
the range of styles, tones, ideas; at the outrageous yet plausibly conceived scenarios and the
invitingly torn characters peopling them. And then find your mind further boggled by the fact that
these twenty-three pieces represent but a mere sampling of Larson's vast and ever-expanding
body of short fiction (over a hundred and fifty stories so far), and that he's still in his twenties.
Many other fine pieces, available online--a personal favorite is "The Air We Breathe Is Stormy,
Stormy"--would be worthy of their own collections, and I guarantee that you'll crave these
virtual delights once you've consumed the tales between these covers.
Things click right into place with "All That Robot Shit." If you think Robinson Crusoe could have
benefitted from some robot companions, think again, or at least heed the possibility that they
might evolve their own creation myths and consequently not be compelled to help you. The idea
of an artificial sentience developing an origin story that denies humans' role in the creation of such
an intelligence harkens back at least to Isaac Asimov's classic story "Reason," but Larson
innovates and expands the theme in intriguing ways, not least of which is the vernacular.
Despite--or perhaps because of--the fundamental role of reception among this story's players,
the ending, with the deliberate uncertainty of its final line, is memorably poignant.
I confess that the more introspection-laden, quietly emotional stories tend to be my favorites by
Larson, and following suit from the collection opener we encounter "Atrophy"'s artful splintering
of reality: "She'd been walking Addy to the school, crossing the bridge. Then something split the
top of her head open. She'd stumbled against the railing but the vines turned to metal under her
hands, and when she looked down the bright clear canal had no water, only brackish sludge, and
something pale and red-spotted was lying in the mud." Technology is here applied to literally
redress one's perceptions of a haunted wasteland. The details and descriptions are pitch-perfect,
and I enjoy how this story continues a conversation to which have contributed Chris Beckett's
similarly sense-bending "The Perimeter" and "Piccadilly Circus," as well as Elizabeth Bear's bleak
"The Hand is Quicker".
Basketball, a sense of family legacy, and youthful ambition powerfully gel in "Meshed," which
sees a star-athlete-in-the-making refuse a popular procedure that would allow others to
experience his virtuosity from the inside. It's hard to conceive of two better opening lines: "In the
dusked-down gym, Oxford Diallo is making holo after holo his ever-loving bitch, shredding
through them with spins, shimmies, quicksilver crossovers. He's a sinewy scarecrow, nearly seven
foot already, but handles the ball so damn shifty you'd swear he has gecko implants done up in
those supersized hands."
The notion of consciousness-piggybacking crops up again in the touching "Your Own Way
Back," in which a grandfather shares the skull of his grandson while waiting for a new cloned
body, until he doesn't. The bridging of generations by means of an assistive technology made me
recall Xia Jia's "Tongtong's Summer." More manic in pacing and brazen in its execution, "Let's
Take This Viral" inexorably follows the logic of experiential innovation for non-human minds, and
arrives at an arresting--no pun intended--conclusion regarding their ultimate pleasure.
The time travel moral quandary of "Every So Often" may be less ingenious than some of Larson's
other ideations, but its assured grimness more than makes up for that. In addition to these
highlights, The Tomorrow Factory contains three flash stories and one poem, not without their
own soulful sizzle. "The Sky Didn't Load Today" manages both chilling precision and surrealism;
"Chronology of Heartbreak" wields a perfectly-sharpened, irony-propelled blade to the chest.
"Datafall," by comparison, well, falls short of the mark for me. But "I Went to the Asteroid to
Bury You"--with its clever connection to "The Ghost Ship Anastasia"--is as good an excursion
into space-travel poetics as you're likely to find.
Larson is also very good in the thriller, cyberpunk-quasi-body-horror and action modes. Enter the
exhibit with the cunning hijinks of "You Make Pattaya," the Predator-esque "Extraction
Request," the space operatic "The Ghost Ship Anastasia," the Venom-ous "Brute," and the prison
yarn "Capricorn." The mechanized violence of "Ghost Girl" is grounded in a sensitive backstory,
as is the systematized alienation of "Edited" (which contains a nice bit of continuity with
"Meshed"). Linguistic mischievousness, and a colorful adolescent patois or three, inform, among
others, the aforementioned "Brute," as well as the social-media-inspired "Razzibot," which posits
that rawness will always be more seductive than performance. Several other stories I'll leave
entirely for you to discover, though I can't resist the phrase "sentient train." Finally, "Innumerable
Glimmering Lights," with its rigorous investigation into the clash between science and culture in a
thoroughly alien aquatic setting, is quite literally a show-stopper.
Because Larson is a master of many trades, and the range of his effects is so considerable, the
thoughtful collocation of these stories should itself be praised, and forms its own narrative. I
therefore recommend proceeding in sequential order. And enjoy the candid, self-deprecating,
contextually revelatory "Author's Notes," too. They may make you revisit a story or two, and
with work of this caliber, that's not a bad thing.
Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro