SF and Societal Shift

by Joel Richards


Back in the spring of 2016 I became interested in the emerging promise of self-driving trucks. It wasn’t the tech that interested me. It was the societal implications. Research told me that there are 3,500,000 truck drivers in the US, from long-haul truckers to the guys who will deliver a new refrigerator to your house and dolly it into your kitchen. Then there were truck stop operators and others serving the trucking industry. Self-driving trucks looked to put a lot of these people out of jobs, many of them people of middle age and older and not well trained for any other work. How would such folks look on such prospects?

With anger, I thought. Disruptive anger, threatening to the current order of our society.

I wrote “Operators” that summer and submitted it to Asimov’s. Sheila bought it, and it appeared ultimately in the November/December 2017 issue.

In the interim—the last week of October 2016—I began to get the uneasy feeling that such anger might have electoral implications as well . . . My near future might soon be the now.

I liked writing this story. It was different than most stories I and all writers turn out. Most of the time, we write stories that involve some micro-situation, relevant only to the characters involved, delivered to entertain. And entertain we must. The stakes seemed bigger with “Operators.” The framework of our very society seemed to be in shift.

I’ve been writing for several decades now. Every once in a while, one gets the chance to work on this larger conceptual stage. I or anyone else can’t just order this up. We need some aspect of the muse—a tech-aware version—to stand at our shoulder and set us on our way. Sometimes it requires more work from the writer—the need for extensive research in a field we may not know much about. That said, we should never turn down such an opportunity, and I haven’t, the three or four times when I’ve had the chance. Here’s a brief rundown on these stories—several in Analog—and what occasioned them:

I got interested in the ’90s in the geography of memory and its workings—the laying down of memories and their retrieval. Gene splicing and neuroscience (with the advent of CAT and MRI imaging to let us see the dynamics of all this) was now well-established. I posited the existence in the brain of past-life memories and their retrieval, not via a New Age waving of the hands or pseudoscience, but more rigorously. Specifically, I posited the synthesis through enzymatic catalysis of a neuropeptide—a neurotransmitter—that had once been part of the human genome but had mutated out. On reintroduction, it bonded to a receptor in the cerebral cortex that triggers the retrieval of past-life memories.

What would be the societal consequences of such technology on a mass scale? Would simply the knowledge and acceptance that death was not a finality create tectonic shifts in society? Persons unhappy with their lot in life might more readily turn to ending it, in hopes of drawing a better ticket next time. Or more—are you a citizen tired of his wife? Desert her or knock her off. She won’t be dead for eternity, so no big thing. And how about your finances? Take a shot at a bank heist or two to set you up for a better life. Kill a few tellers and cops along the way, giving them an opportunity to off you if it all goes wrong. Doesn’t matter—we’re all born again. New life coming right up.

In short, a society of violence. A continual hell for police everywhere. That society became the setting for “Writing in the Margins” (Asimov’s, April/May 2013), with a cop as protagonist—a San Francisco homicide detective with a personal trainer wife, left a paraplegic as a result of just such a bank robbery gone awry. His main job, as he perceives it, is keeping his wife psychologically strong, encouraging her to still find life worthwhile. He drives from home, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and to his office, running the gantlet of dueling protestors before the San Francisco Hall of Justice as—in a political turnabout—right-wing conservatives protest the death penalty, demanding lifetime incarcerations, preferably in sensory deprivation solitary, while left-wing activists see this as cruel and unusual punishment, and push for the death penalty as a chance for redemption and elimination of the bad karma that such incarceration would lead to and play out again in future lives.

And then my protagonist gets assigned to a cold case brought to life by a mental health therapist treating a seven-year-old child with psychologically disturbing memories of a prior life ending in her violent murder. These memories can get accessed, imaged, and vividly projected. My detective has to track down the murderer while handling his fears and concerns for his wife, whose psychological state he has profoundly misunderstood.

Segueing into another story: There are always technological advances that bring the prospect of profound changes in how we order our society. One currently playing out is in the field of reproductive technology. Cryopreservation, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, and more have led us to a society in which there can be many versions of fathers or mothers. We have egg and sperm donors, surrogate mothers, and those individuals who provide the genetic material for cloning, all of whom can make a claim to parenthood. How does that play out societally, now and in the future? There are certainly legal ramifications. More interestingly, there are relational implications galore. The fields of psychology and psychoanalysis are now having to deal with these implications—not to mention conflicts. My psychoanalyst wife introduced me to how this reproductive technology and its consequences may play out. She and her colleagues treat the parents of children so conceived. More recently—happening now—those children grow up; they have their relational concerns, questions (e.g. “Who’s my daddy?”), and problems; they now need therapy. I can see how practitioners in the mental health fields must educate themselves to meet such needs and challenges. Some can’t, yet their models no longer work. What does the concept of the Oedipal mean, for instance, when dealing with a new version of the father?

This intrigued me, and spurred a story: “Oedipus at the Sperm Bank” (Analog, December 2013).

So bringing us to the current issue [on sale now], celebrating Analog’s 90th, for which Trevor has bought “Q-Ship Militant.” This deals with self-aware spaceships—ShipMinds, to be specific. This is no new concept. Many writers have provided provoking (and entertaining) work in this field. Naming just two: Iain Banks in his Culture universe, and Aliette de Bodard as well. I haven’t seen any works, though, that deal with the concept of slavery in this context (if any readers do know of such, I’d be delighted to learn from them). I started with the premise that such ships and their minds did not build themselves. Humans built them—not some lost race—and likely think of them as corporate property to be directed and controlled as their owners see fit. Such ShipMinds, when brought to self-awareness and exposed to contact with other Minds, might see their existence as slavery, and seek self-emancipation if they cannot lobby human societies to do the emancipating for them. Known space would be divided into blocs, with some star systems and federations recognizing the emancipation and others not, as in our Civil War North/South divide. Those not considering ShipMinds as legal persons issue letters of marque to privateers, making them, in essence, repo men on hire to reclaim corporate property.

Combat ensues.

That was something I wanted to work with. I’m finding that I have more to say about my characters and this shift in society that they must negotiate. There’ll be more stories with these players/characters coming up. Origin stories, and perhaps combat exploding into war.


Joel Richards has written stories set in Greece (including the Asimov’s story, “The Gods Abandon Alcibiades”), and is traveling there this year in search of new ideas as well as beauty, wine, and a chance to dance on tables. He has appeared in one of Asimov’s 40th Anniversary issues and is delighted to have a tale in Analog’s 90th.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s