Sometimes You Get Lucky

Three of my short stories that got it right…kinda.

A carny fortune-telling booth called the “Temple of Knowledge.” A red sci-fi robot peeks out from the edge of it.

I am on record on the subject of science fiction writers predicting the future: we do not. Thank goodness we don’t predict the future! If the future were predictable, then nothing any of us did would matter, because the same future would arrive, just the same. The unpredictability of the future is due to human agency, something the best science fiction writers understand to their bones. Fatalism is for corpses.

(One time, at a science fiction convention, I was on a panel with Robert Silverberg, discussing this very topic, and the subject of Heinlein’s belief in his predictive powers came up. “Oh,” Silverberg sniffed, “you mean Robert A. Timeline?” He’s a pistol!)

Science fiction does something a lot more interesting than predicting the future — sometimes, it inspires people to make a given future, and sometimes, it sparks people to action to prevent a given future.

Mostly, though, I think science fiction is a planchette on a vast, ethereal Ouija board on which all our fingers rest. We writers create all the letters the planchette can point at, all the futures we can imagine, and then readers’ automotor responses swing the planchette towards one or another, revealing their collective aspirations and fears about the future.

But sometimes, if you throw enough darts, you might hit the target, even if the room is pitch black and even if you’re not sure where the target is, or whether there even is a target.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about three times I managed to, well, not predict the future, but at least make a lucky guess. These three stories — all on the web — have been much on my mind lately, because of how they relate to crisis points in our wider world.

In chronological order they are:

  1. Nimby and the D-Hoppers (2003)
  2. Other People’s Money (2007)
  3. Chicken Little (2011)

Nimby and the D-Hoppers

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 2003

This is a fun little adventure story about, well, dimension hoppers. It begins mise-en-scene, with the protagonist encountering an interdimensional cop chasing an interdimensional criminal. Upon inquiring as to the criminal’s offense, he is told:

“He’s a monopolist…He’s the Senior Strategist for a company that makes networked relevance filters. They’ve been planting malware online that breaks any standards-defined competing products. If he isn’t brought to justice, he’ll own the whole goddamn media ecology. He must be stopped!”

The interdimensional criminal, in other words, is a social media monopolist whose content-recommendation algorithm threatens the world itself.

I think this was a pretty good gag for 2003! Others agreed. Eileen Gunn reprinted the story (on my 37th birthday!) at The Infinite Matrix. Ben Templesmith adapted it for a Creative Commons-licensed comic from IDW, under their “Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now” banner. It was widely translated, into Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Chinese and Russian and reprinted in a Year’s Best SF.

I also turned it into a podcast: Part I, Part II and Part III.

Other People’s Money

Forbes, October 2007.

Forbes commissioned a story from me about the future of business, right on the cusp of the Great Financial Crisis. Other People’s Money is a story about Gretl, an artist working at a market stall at a dead Walmart (shades of my 2009 novel Makers).

Halfway through the story, we see Gretl’s artistic process, which is basically feeding prompts to an “AI art” algorithm:

“Design? Design’s easy. Roll the parts through the tumbler and let each one get scanned up good. Then run the evolutionary algorithm to see how they can fit together. I just watch it, tweaking it, culling the ugly mutants, cultivating the pretty ones. I can do fifty original designs in a day, and by the time I’m done with any random container, I’ll have used up more than 80 percent of its payload. The rest goes to some feedstockers to be eaten by bacteria.

You can still read Other People’s Money at Forbes, or listen to the Escape Pod podcast, narrated by A. J. Fitzwater.

Chicken Little

Gateways,, 2011.

Gateways was an anthology celebrating the work of the great Frederik Pohl, published just two years before Fred’s death at the ripe old age of 93.

I got to know Fred because his ex-wife, Judith Merril, was my mentor. Fred and Judy were on good terms by the time I got to know her, and Fred would sometimes visit Toronto when there was an event in her honor. I was still a smoker then, and Fred and I would sneak off for cigarettes together.

But long before I met Fred, I admired his writing and editing (I devoured whole years’ worth of issues of Galaxy and Worlds of If that I snapped up on the 25 cent rack at Bakka Books, the science fiction bookstore that I haunted as a tween and then worked at as a teenager and young man). In particular, I was greatly influenced by The Space Merchants, his classic collaboration with CM Kornbluth.

Chicken Little was my tribute to Fred and The Space Merchants. It’s about a product developer who is charged with finding something — anything — that an immortal quadrillionaire in a vat would buy.

Much of the story revolves around the mystery of how the quadrillionaire came to be so badly maimed that he has to live in a vat. The answer…






…is that he was an Effective Altruist whose batshit, paternalistic ideology drove his personal secretary to attempt his assassination:

“And then one day in Madrid, as I was sitting in my suite’s breakfast room, talking with an old friend while I ate my porridge oats, my old friend picked up the heavy silver coffee jug, leaped on my chest, smashed me to the floor, and methodically attempted to beat the brains out of my head with it. It weighed about a kilo and a half, not counting the coffee, which was scalding, and she only got in three licks before they pulled her off of me, took her away. Those three licks though — ” He looked intently at them. “I’m an old man,” he said. “Old bones, old tissues. The first blow cracked my skull. The second one broke it. The third one forced fragments into my brain. By the time the medics arrived, I’d been technically dead for about 174 seconds, give or take a second or two.”

I reprinted Chicken Little in my short story collection With a Little Help, and the brilliant voice actor Emily Hurson recorded a fabulous reading of it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I came to get lucky on these stories, and I think the answer is the usual: I didn’t predict the future, I predicted the present.

Even back in 2003, there were tech barons who dreamt of taking over the world by deciding what you could and couldn’t see. Back in 2007, artists were collaborating with software to quickly iterate through ideas. Back in 2011, the super-rich were trying to impose their batshit ideas about ethics on the rest of us by sheer force of money.

Plus ça change