The news, via Wired, that NASA is partnering with Tor-Forge on a series of novels is intriguing. The arrangement will pair NASA employees with expertise in engineering, math, science and technology with writers in the Tor stable with the goal of creating stories that will engage young readers on those topics. Projects like this always run the risk of producing spinach rather than dessert with nutrition value, but another project Wired points out, the stories Intel commissioned from a group of writers to explore how science and technology might shape the future, actually provide a pretty good template for how to make the Tor-NASA collaborations engaging rather than dull.
The Intel stories are collected in a volume called The Morrow project, and while a couple of the stories feel like failures, at least one is an unqualified success. “The Mercy Dash,” about a couple racing to provide a blood transfusion for the young woman’s mother while quibbling over the fact that the man’s made his artificial intelligence sound a little too much like his girlfriend, gets lost in gee-whiz descriptions of the technology that lets you do things like convince cops not to give you a speeding ticket because you can show them how much damage has been done to your mother’s spine. “The Last Day of Work” takes a cooler overall concept — a world where increasingly sophisticated robotics have eliminated scarcity and the need for work, as seen from the perspective of the last man with a job on his last day at the office — and again spends too much time explaining how it happened instead of playing with what it means. It’s the kind of thing I’d love to see fleshed out in longer form.
But “The Drop,” by Scarlett Thomas, who I hadn’t known about before but I will look out for now, is just fantastic. Set in a world where everyone lifecasts and makes money off it, where less successful lifecasters have to produce supplemental electricity, and where gameplay’s become a key mode of commerce, the story follows a couple of days in the life of a 33-year-old as she trains for a race and, spurred on by a message from a mysterious man, learns to use a new communications technology she’s been resisting. The story isn’t heavy on scientific explanation — it shows us the implications of new technologies, not their design schema, and we learn about tools along with the character, rather than having the characters stop the action to give us lectures. And it’s set at a moment when the world is different from the one we live in, but not unrecognizable from it. You can see the bridge from now to then. And if you want to get readers engaged in the fields that are involved in a story, that seems critical — they should be inspired to build their way to that world, or to build alternatives to it.