Volume 24, Number 04, Summer, 2006

Future Washington

Edited By Ernest Lilley

WSFA Press, 2005, $16.95
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
July 2006

It’s perhaps no surprise that when the writers in Future Washington talk about Washington and politics, they tend to ridicule and belittle those most hallowed institutions. That tends to be the popular feeling outside the punditry (after all, who can forget how audiences cheered when aliens blew up the White House in Independence Day?) In Future Washington, a recent anthology published by the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA), sixteen original tales take a look at the how the nation’s capitol fares over time. Some stories deal with the immediate future, others gaze far beyond the present time.

When a set of stories deals with the center of American politics, there’s bound to be some debate and controversial ideas in more than a few tales. The gamut covers three strong tales of dissent in Joe Haldeman’s “Civil Disobedience” and Edward M. Lerner’s “The Day of the RFIDs,” and Jack McDevitt’s “Ignition.” Lerner’s story sketches an almost icily near-future scenario where records of grocery purchases feed into a database ripe for government data miners eager to make terroristic assumptions. I hard a hard time sleeping after reading this story.

We find climatological statements like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Primate in Forest” and Thomas Harlan’s “Hothouse.” The former comprises the first chapter of Robinson’s novel, Fifty Degrees Below, a sequel to his Forty Signs of Rain. The main character in “Primate in the Forest” embraces his decision to begin living in his van, and explores the wilderness of Rock Creek Park, where escaped animals from the National Zoo now live. Harlan’s story is set many years in the future, as inhabitants have abandoned the now waterlogged DC area, as two rent-a-cops arrive at the scene of a break-in. I found this story weak and full of self-importance, but perhaps too short to convey the many items thrown out by the author.

There are a couple of near-future thrillers in B. A Chepaitis’s “A Well-Dressed Fear” and Travis Taylor’s “Agenda.” Chepaitis veers away from science and into the realm of telepathy, and wonders if a Hitler-type candidate came along who also would do great things, how would you weigh the benefits against the terrible costs?

Along with serious pieces like L. Neil Smith’s “The Lone and Level Sands” and Cory Doctorow’s “Human Readable,” I found it curious that humorous works dominated the book. Smith’s story contains several characters from his completed but unpublished novel, Ceres, as they walk through that oft-imagined libertarian dream—Washington, DC’s memorials and government buildings now stand simply as museums in a vast park. The plot is almost secondary to Smith’s trenchant comments on several of the more famous (and not so famous) presidents. Doctorow’s novella is the longest story in Future Washington, and perhaps the boldest sf story. Considering the advance of smart networks which move decisions about everyday life out of the hands of humans because perfect decisions are too complex, Doctorow gives us a grim future. I’m not sure I buy the need to move networks this way for efficiency, as it ignores the structure of the free market’s invisible hand and posits a strong enough computer will almost work the same way. But “Human Readable” certainly rates as the best written story.

Of the sixteen original stories, humor or satire found expression in seven tales. On the light-hearted side we find Steven Sawicki’s “Mr. Zmith Goes to Washington,” Brenda Clough’s “Indiana Wants Me,” Nancy Jane Moore’s “Hallowe’en Party,” and Sean McMullen’s “Empire of the Willing.” It’s easy to make fun of politics, and some stories succeed better than others. More sarcastic visions abound in James Alan Gardner’s “Shopping at the Mall” and Allen M. Steele’s “Hail to the Chief.” Jane Lindskold’s “Tigers in the Capitol” is far more subtle, and might even be considered even-keeled rather than humorous, although the protagonist’s commentary seemed at times tongue-in-cheek.

I was surprised to learn that only 1200 copies were printed (200 of these were hardcovers). Sure, this is no mass-market best-seller, but I expected a greater audience potential, given the names listed on the cover. Given the nature of this anthology, the focus on politics is inevitable. Well worth the price, this anthology shows that ideas remain an integral part of science fiction, not just in the realm of science. If more stories like these continue to appear, the Prometheus Award committee may need to consider expanding the award range to shorter works.

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