An Aura of Familiarity

I hadn’t heard of the Institute for the Future until I found out about the short anthology they put out recently, called An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter The point of it is to explore, in science fiction, the possibilities of a human future that is even more hyper-connected than it is today. I’m delighted by the idea of such an institute existing at all, and the fact that they are calling on creative types to offer their perspectives.

This is a lovely-looking book, even in digital format; the pictures throughout, contributed by Daniel Martin Diaz, are fascinating – I’d  love prints of them.

Rudy Rucker starts the anthology with “Apricot Lane.” In this version of the networked future, every single item you buy has the ability to speak to your brain – and not just to advertise themselves, but telling you anything they feel like. Not only does this vision of connecting suggest hyperconnection with your belongings (and others’), but the lack of privacy suggested is also staggering. It’s a clever concept, and a horrendous one; I didn’t love the narrative itself though.

“Lich House,” by Warren Ellis, is horrifying in a different way: here, someone has managed to get into a house that ought to be impregnable, and attack the occupant. The ‘getting in’ has involved essentially killing the house, and most of the narrative is actually taken up with the dying of the house, in rather gruesome detail. So, it’s a clever idea – and again a clever vision of connection – but don’t read it for the narrative; it’s a vignette not a story.

Ramez Naam’s “Water” focuses particularly on the commodification of water, although other consumables are also networked and able to advertise directly to your brain (you can turn the ads off, but that costs a lot more). The opening of the story is, again, horrifying – showing how someone might massage the ads you receive to their benefit (this is of course not so far removed from your internet experience today). But the majority of the story is actually about how this networking might be manipulated for economic gain. This is the most interesting story of the first half of the anthology.

Madeline Ashby, the only woman in the anthology, contributes “Social Services” – and, again, showing a theme, this is an intensely creepy story. The networked matter is important to the story but not vital. The point, instead, is in how people manipulate one another and the consequences of that.

“From Beyond the Coming Age of Networked Matter,” by Bruce Sterling – one of the early lights of cyberpunk – takes the idea of networking matter to an extreme and vaguely Lovecraftian end. Disappointingly, it’s the least interesting story.

The final story is from Cory Doctorow. “By His Things will You Know Him” just pips “Water” as my favourite. It’s a close, deliberately claustrophobic story: a man whose estranged father, a hoarder, has recently died – and he has to deal with his effects. The funeral director introduces him to a new programme that will catalogue everything using clever new intelligent devices. Doctorow cleverly entwines the story of grief and the story of obsession; the idea of ‘networked matter’ is fundamental to the narrative but does not dominate, as in some of the others here. It’s a wonderful story that could easily appear in a different setting and still make sense.

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