Fiction Pick of the Week: "Dark Air"

A trip to the country turns into nightmare beset by mysterious creatures and body transformations.

"When we went over to look at the creature, it was mostly flattened. It looked like a crow, except the feathers had fallen off its back. Underneath, the flesh was scaly and pink. The exposed skin was split in half by a row of translucent spikes. The spikes were moving slightly, pointing first in this direction, then in that. The smell made me wrinkle my nose. It was an oddly sweet smell to find outdoors, like an open vat of lollipop flavoring."

The Eyes Have It

A public domain story of paranoia by the sci-fi master.

"Binary fission, obviously. Splitting in half and forming two entities. Probably each lower half went to the cafe, it being farther, and the upper halves to the movies. I read on, hands shaking. I had really stumbled onto something here. My mind reeled as I made out this passage."

The Overview Effect

Drug trips in space; from Motherboard's new science fiction series.

"During the Earth trials, someone told her that being in orbit was just falling around the planet forever. Back in the safe house somewhere in the Midwest, with 2,000 milligrams of MDMA ricocheting across her brain stem, it wasn't practical information. But she had retained it. Ground Control didn’t know the first thing about throwing a party. The drugs were free, but those nights on Earth always ended with psychonauts sobbing in the corners of the room, touching each others’ faces in the darkness. Of course, the Earth was falling too—around the sun."

The Peripheral

Gamers, celebrities, military veterans, and publicists populate a capitalist future in these four chapters from Gibson's forthcoming novel.

"She bent her phone the way she liked it for gaming, thumbed HaptRec into the log‑in window, entered the long-ass password. Flicked go. Nothing happened. Then the whole display popped, like the flash of a camera in an old movie, silvered like the marks of the haptics. She blinked."

Guardians

A space cowboy, an alien girl, a a quest; A Housleyian spin on Guardians of the Galaxy.

"They nodded at one another and closed ranks, each of them wobbly but still standing. Their foe was reduced to a pile of smoking robes. The thing they were fighting for – the thing they now knew could either save or destroy the universe – was steaming off-center among the scorched remains of their foe. They held their breath, all of them, while the Space Cowboy picked up the thing they had been fighting for, tossed it in the air, caught it in his other hand, and passed it to the Queen."

A Planet for Rent

Trials and dangers abound for an interplanetary social worker.

"The Planetary Tourism Agency always compensated the family members of the unlucky victims of dematerialization, giving the evergreen excuse that on Earth they didn’t have enough experience managing such advanced equipment, because extraterrestrial technicians were reluctant to train human crews to run teleport booths. Maybe there was a bit of truth in that. Surely newly trained human teletransport specialists would get off the planet as fast as they could: artists, scientists, athletes—they all ran from their birth world as soon as extraterrestrial credits made them understand where true happiness could be found."

Spew

A Profile Auditor goes sniffing after anomalies in the consumption habits and personal data of an unsuspecting hotel clerk.

"Through the Demosphere we fly, we men of the Database Maintenance Division, and although the Demosphere belongs to General Communications Inc., it is the schmos of the world who make it - every time a schmo surfs to a different channel, the Demosphere notes that he is bored with program A and more interested, at the moment, in program B. When a schmo's paycheck is delivered over the I-way, the number on the bottom line is plotted in his Profile, and if that schmo got it by telecommuting we know about that too - the length of his coffee breaks and the size of his bladder are an open book to us. When a schmo buys something on the I-way it goes into his Profile, and if it happens to be something that he recently saw advertised there, we call that interesting, and when he uses the I-way to phone his friends and family, we Profile Auditors can navigate his social web out to a gazillion fractal iterations, the friends of his friends of his friends of his friends, what they buy and what they watch and if there's a correlation."

Every Thought, Every Motion

An Antarctic data hack.

"Still inside the joy, he moved quickly and quietly through the cold, barren corridor, past a row of humming, refrigerated steel doors labeled 'BSL-4 Biohazard,' into the sterile, white labs. Four five-thousand-liter liquid nitrogen tanks were lined up against the wall, the tubes that fed them thick with insulation against the extreme chill of the coolant. The third vat was open and breathing ice crystals into the air. He was glad he had loaded out with a virus filter in the mask. The power was still on, so the tank might freeze again. He pushed the lid shut, holding his breath just in case."

The Men Who Flew Away

Three ambassadors find themselves on a familiar yet alien planet.

"He sees a red and white building that looks just like the pharmacy where he once filled prescriptions. He recognizes a squat building with a black awning and patio that looks similar to a restaurant where he and his wife once dined on Sunday afternoons. He spots a building that looks exactly the same as a bar all three men visited after their final training session at the space station across the city, sharing the last pitchers of beer they drank together before rocketing from earth."

Authority [Chapter One]

The director of a covert organization arrives for his first day at work.

"Control took his time staring at the women, although their appearance told him little. They had all been given the same generic uniforms, vaguely army- issue but also vaguely janitorial. Their heads had all been shaved, as if they had suffered from some infestation, like lice, rather than something more inexplicable. Their faces all retained the same expression, or could be said not to retain any expression. Don't think of them by their names, he'd told himself on the plane. Let them carry only the weight of their functions at first. Then fill in the rest. But Control had never been good at remaining aloof. He liked to burrow in, try to find a level where the details illuminated without overwhelming him."

Annihilation [Chapter One]

Four scientists begin exploring a sinister wilderness.

"We were on a dirt trail strewn with pebbles, dead leaves, and pine needles damp to the touch. Velvet ants and tiny emerald beetles crawled over them. The tall pines, with their scaly ridges of bark, rose on both sides, and the shadows of flying birds conjured lines between them. The air was so fresh it buffeted the lungs and we strained to breathe for a few seconds, mostly from surprise. Then, after marking our location with a piece of red cloth tied to a tree, we began to walk forward, into the unknown. If the psychologist somehow became incapacitated and could not lead us across at the end of our mission, we had been told to return to await 'extraction.' No one ever explained what form 'extraction' might take, but the implication was that our superiors could observe the extraction point from afar, even though it was inside the border."

The Urashima Effect

In deep space, a physicist tries to cope with his isolation.

"He read several classic novels and philosophical texts to pass the next few days and exercised on the stringy, wiry contraption collapsed into one wall. The long hibernation had melted the muscle from him and congealed the quick currents of his mind, but he had to be alert, intelligent, and at his peak physical condition when he arrived. He was supposed to be disciplined. He was not supposed to replay his wife’s voice over and over, with longing and anxiousness. So he selected his parents’ recordings."

The Skin Thing

Space colonists live in fear of a horrifying creature.

"The Skin Thing dragged itself along on two great stalks that looked like elbows. Imagine a person, out prone on the ground, that drags himself by fits and starts. The elbows strove to gouge the earth, as sharp and tall as circus poles, and they levered the body along by great drags. Its head stuck out eyeless, oblong as a horse’s. Behind the elbow-things it used to drag itself across the ground there stretched, like a laundry sheet strung out for drying, a tensile wall of thick pink skin."

Grunt

A world in which an internal software turns anger and intense emotions into involuntary exercise.

"Then there are the monthly upgrades, downloaded automatically from GRUNT. A few months back the upgrade reprogrammed our sensors to monitor facial expressions and the tone of one’s voice, so you can’t fool it anymore by smiling or speaking softly. A quiet argument is still an argument to the executives at GRUNT. It certainly changed around Brad, my supervisor, who liked to hint at our utter worthlessness in this very quiet voice, a smile stretching across his face. There was something disturbing about watching him grin, and place his arm gently over your shoulder and lower his voice as his called your work garbage, your very existence a nuisance, all with this soft, earnest voice. Now he wears track shoes to work and does sprints in between insults, weaving in and out of the cubicles, stutter stepping like a hall of fame running back."

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

Technologies of literacy, technologies of memory.

"Millions of people, some my age but most younger, have been keeping lifelogs for years, wearing personal cams that capture continuous video of their entire lives. People consult their lifelogs for a variety of reasons—everything from reliving favorite moments to tracking down the cause of allergic reactions—but only intermittently; no one wants to spend all their time formulating queries and sifting through the results. Lifelogs are the most complete photo album imaginable, but like most photo albums, they lie dormant except on special occasions. Now Whetstone aims to change all of that; they claim Remem’s algorithms can search the entire haystack by the time you’ve finished saying 'needle.'"

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Art of Fiction No. 221

“The ‘hard’–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.”

The Last Night of the World

A couple peacefully contemplates their imminent destruction.

"I dreamt that it was all going to be over and a voice said it was; not any kind of voice I can remember, but a voice anyway, and it said things would stop here on Earth. I didn't think too much about it when I awoke the next morning, but then I went to work and the feeling as with me all day. I caught Stan Willis looking out the window in the middle of the afternoon and I said, 'Penny for your thoughts, Stan,' and he said, 'I had a dream last night,' and before he even told me the dream, I knew what it was. I could have told him, but he told me and I listened to him."

They All Looked Like Nails

A genetic engineer concocts a plan to transform a Galilean moon.

"Jonas is the conductor of a symphony, and must be familiar with each part, every section. He must keep them working in tandem, so he flits from group to group, giving encouragement. Visitors to the University wonder at the man skidding on the marble floors, running from A to E wing and back again. He reviews twenty sequences a day, though he is pleased to find few errors. His team works late. He works later. The key genes are reserved for his eyes alone, and when he sits back to watch the simulations play out he pictures the Watchmaker."

The Daughters Of the Moon

Women are swayed by the moon's pull in a world dominated by consumerism.

"It was a depressing sight. We went out in the crowds, our arms laden with parcels, coming and going from the big department stores that were open day and night, and while we were scanning the neon signs that climbed higher and higher up the skyscrapers and notified us constantly of new products that had been launched, we’d suddenly see it advancing, pale amid those dazzling lights, slow and sick, and we could not get it out of our heads that every new thing, each product that we had just bought, could similarly wear out, deteriorate, fade away, and we would lose our enthusiasm for running around buying things and working like crazy—a loss that was not without consequences for industry and commerce."

City of Human, City of Machine

An "architectural fiction" centered around a city built by machines, for machines.

"Social spaces for machines bear the fragments of their tasks, and nothing superfluous. Machines don't need places to eat or sleep, but they need places for their own sorts of socially evocative maintenance rituals. They need places where auto parts can be partially assembled and taken apart, time and time again, like a game. Machines hang out in cafes while working on mundane maintenance tasks, with their component addresses made public in unique ways, so that other machines can gather together and show off their range of operations. Machines that build other machines take their half-finished constructions out in the company of other machines, so that they can build them together and get input on possible alternatives. There are public machine exercise spaces, where machines go through their range of motions and data abilities, for the purpose of showing off their various tolerances."

A Matter of Shapespace

In a digital world, two godlike corporations secretly plan to overtake another entity.

"They transmitted to cloudspace where there were no bodies. The nanocrystalline substrate was like gossamer wisps, visible only as glittering mica dust beneath the nourishing fusion showers of the sun. Billions of bodiless minds gathered, connected frail tendrils like excited jellyfish, and formed an optical array so they could watch from on high how the war was going. I can’t see the wave, Jacob transmitted to Jocelyn. She was an invisible presence beside him, little more than a compression of neuron–data, like him, and like two–thirds of the human race now."

The Adventure Of the Space Traveler

After accidentally casting himself adrift in space, an astronaut's mind wanders over varied paths.

"According to his calculations, Barington had now been adrift in space for three months. This figure was based on his sleep schedule, which, although inexact, was his only possible point of reference. Whenever he determined that a day had passed, he reached up into his helmet and marked the inside of his visor with a tally, using a wax pencil he had found in his suit’s utility compartment. After the accumulation of seven tallies, he erased them with his thumb and drew a W for Week."

The Semplica-Girl Diaries

A middle-class father, seeking to impress his daughter, purchases an unusual status symbol.

"After dinner, strolled grounds with Emmett, who is surgeon, does something two days a week with brain inserts, small electronic devices? Or possibly biotronic? They are very small. Hundreds can fit on head of pin? Or dime? Did not totally follow. He asked about my work, I told. He said, Well, huh, amazing the strange, arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to even hold their heads up?"