Book Review: Future Visions – Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft

Future Visions had me at Ann Leckie (also at “free” because who passes up free stories?), but it turns out that Microsoft’s first foray into sci-fi publishing is actually a solidly good collection of work. I honestly wasn’t at all certain that it would be, and, worse, I was more than a little concerned that it would end up being little more than an extended, fictionalized advertisement for Microsoft products. Instead, it’s a well-produced anthology of hard sci-fi that ranges from very recognizable speculation about the near-future to space opera.

First, though, there’s a forward and an introduction, both written by Microsoft Research executives and both of which sound a little too much like marketing copy, even though the only thing they’re “selling” is ideas. Still, Harry Shum and Rick Rashid do a decent job of kicking things off and giving the reader a little bit of insight into what the rest of the book contains. If nothing else, this pair of essays will be an interesting bit of context for future scholars who might examine Future Visions as an artifact of our times. This will be even better if this project turns out to be a recurring one. As someone with a scholarly interest in these things myself, I would love to look back someday at ten or twenty or fifty years’ worth of Future Visions and see how things have gone.

The opening piece of fiction is a delightful piece by Seanan McGuire, whose work I really ought to check out more of because I always enjoy her short fiction when I come across it. Her offering here, “Hello, Hello,” is an optimistic tale about the impact voice and body language translation technology could have on the lives of people with disabilities. It also suggests an interesting way in which this type of technology could expand our understanding of our world. The story is told with sensitivity and humor, and it’s sweet without being cloyingly so.

Greg Bear’s “The Machine Starts” is a rather darker story that examines some of the potential hazards of quantum computing. Something about how it could break the whole damn multiverse. It’s bad enough knowing that we’ve all got a couple of doppelgangers, just statistically, but now we’ve got to also worry that they could be actual alternate universe versions of us. Thanks, Microsoft.

“Skin in the Game” by Elizabeth Bear is the first story that I didn’t care much for, but it’s still not awful. I was surprised, though, as I’ve loved all the books I’ve read by this author. The Nancy Kress entry, “Machine Learning,” is another story that I found dull and a little uninspired, though your mileage may vary.

“Riding with the Duke” by Jack McDevitt is reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, so of course I loved it. It’s my favorite combination of optimism and cynicism—smart, funny, and deeply fucked up.

“A Cop’s Eye” is basically a comic book, and the story is just okay. I like the idea of police officers using technology to help people, but I feel like a lot more needs to change than some tech advances in order to make this story a real possibility. The art is simplistic and rather boring, and just getting to read it was a hassle as however it’s embedded into the file I was reading on my Nook HD would only crash the device’s reader when I tried to turn the page to it. I ended up reading it in the Nook app on my Surface, which worked fine, so maybe it’s just my device starting to show its age, but still. Very irritating.

Robert J. Sawyer’s “Looking for Gordo” is an excellent first contact story. It’s also another optimistic piece, although it does examine some of the arguments for and against trying to contact other life in the galaxy. If you like this story, I highly recommend checking out Liu Cixin’s Three-body series, which deals with some of the same ideas.

I tried so hard to stick it out and finish David Brin’s “The Tell,” but I just couldn’t. I won’t say it’s unreadably bad, but it definitely was, for me, impossible to do anything but skim it, skip to the end, and hope it made more sense. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The story deals with prediction-making, I guess, but really it felt much more like a long, dry, self-indulgent think piece. Again, I don’t know that I’d say it’s bad, but I certainly found that it wasn’t for me.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ann Leckie’s story, having only read her novels so far. I can’t tell if “Another Word for World” is set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch series, but it’s definitely in that neighborhood—definitely space opera, but also similar to the more sociological sci-fi of Ursula K. LeGuin or Karen Lord. It’s a story about colonialism, treaties, and the problems inherent in relying too much on translation devices. It’s also my favorite piece of Future Visions, and this book is definitely worth downloading (for FREE) just to read this story, though I do recommend giving the rest a try as well.

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