Who to turn to but the French?

Dreaming 2074

cover

The shared world anthology Dreaming 2074: A Utopia Created by French Luxury puts its central conceit right there in the subtitle. Commissioned by the Comité Colbert—“78 firms from the French luxury sector and 14 cultural institutions, which have joined together through common values”—the anthology (comprising short stories and other works) uses a shared universe to paint a picture of a 2074 that has weathered calamity to become a world materially and culturally superior to our own.

Thirty-nine years after the Pandemic struck, sparing no continent, the Earth is richer and more at peace than ever before. A wealthy, educated population demands goods and services of great quality … and if one wants the very best in luxury, who to turn to but the French?

A minor stylistic note: this has a foreword and it has an introduction but neither of them is called by their function. I have addressed this.

Foreword: A Collective Utopia Created by French Luxury

I think this quotation from the foreword serves as the anthology’s mission statement:

Confident in the power of the imagination to model reality, the Comité Colbert has chosen to dream 2074. Thus, throughout 2013, it conducted The Utopia Factory through which each firm first expressed its dream in the form of a short text, an image and five words. This material, both rich and inventive, was then shaped through ten workshops giving rise to a collective utopia incarnating the overall vision of French luxury. Optimistic, borne by powerful, shared values, the noventique luxury utopia, the industry of rêver-vrai, places the human being at the heart of its dream. It derives nourishment from paradoxes to assert both the values of sharing and the vital importance of aesthetic emotion for each individual. It creates bonds between beings and, through transmission, with future generations.

The introduction says that two hundred people worked on this (although just six authors, a musician, and a linguist are credited for the individual works). I am glad that books are not priced by the number of person-hours their creators put into them. I will admit I was filled with the same trepidation when I saw that figure as I am when I see a movie has had a dozen writers. How successful can a project be when it has so many influences that must be homogenized into something acceptable to all?

It is almost immediately clear from passages such as:

In 2074, despite the doomsayers, Europe is still beautiful and creative, and France is more than ever a source of joy for the entire planet.

and

In 2074, the major powers of our small planetary world–China, the United States, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Japan, Russia and a Europe that is finally united—have been joined by numerous states in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, in a universal demand for well-being and happiness. Human needs and desires have cast down borders. The planet has entered a “post-history” period as different from past history as that period was unlike pre-history. It required a peaceful, a “quiet” revolution, to use an old expression coined by Francophones in Québec.

that the French fundamentally don’t get science fiction. Where are the men with the right stuff making the hard choices, the ever-pervasive UN birth cops, the vast hordes of fanatics plotting the doom of the West, wars cold and hot, erotically cyborgified razor-girls, ecological disasters, and the inexorable erosion of civil liberties?

I am intrigued to see that Canada apparently made it to its bicentennial in one piece. Who knows, maybe we finally picked up Turks and Caicos? That said, while the world outside France is acknowledged, the focus is on France itself.

We see the (mostly) happy, diverse, and inclusive world of 2074 but not too many details re the path between 2014 and 2074. The stories that follow don’t add much, beyond mentioning that the new state of affairs followed a terrible epidemic and that a few people were very influential in shaping the new world by shaping the desires and expectations of the survivors. Aside from the implications of the fact this new world order still has a place in it for companies like the ones in the Comité Colbert, many elements of the setting are left to the readers’ imaginations.

(Including infrastructure. Something is fueling all this economic activity but I could not say what. Oh, and either they replaced fossil fuels with something carbon neutral or the people to whom Comité turned do not think that climate change is a real thing.)

Because the process of utopification of society is largely left to the imagination, the reader can only speculate about why one of the first steps to utopia was the Pandemic. Was Pandemic chosen as a way to give the world a shared, inhuman enemy against whom to unite? Or was it to clear the board of legions of undeserving poor who are now surplus to the needs of the plot? Unlike conventional SF works such as Stableford’s emortality books, nobody ever pauses to explain how the masses absolutely had to go [1], so the reader is free to believe it was the first option.

“Porphyrian Tree,” by Xavier Mauméjean

This story begins rather ominously with a kidnapping, but it soon becomes clear that this is not really a kidnapping, but rather a particularly dramatic intervention arranged by flamboyant therapist Paul Gilson, one aimed at a businessman who has allowed his avarice to distract him from the things that really matter, like his family. In other works, leveling someone’s luxury mansion with explosives might be an act of terrorism; Gilson does it to get his subject’s full attention.

The preceding is merely to establish Gilson’s credentials before he and his organization are hired by the World Health Organization to deal with the matter of Gorgeia Akos, the musician and scholar widely credited with keeping hope alive after the Pandemic. Now the victim of an incurable progressive melancholy, Akos seems beyond salvation. The world owes her too much to let Akos simply slide into oblivion. But is Gilson up to the task?

The French may have an appreciation for the finer things but Paul is quite comfortable with using high explosives to get a client’s attention. This reminded me oddly of Heinlein’s short story “—We Also Walk Dogs”.

The fact that kidnappings are still possible, even routine, is the first evidence we get that this isn’t one of those utopias where everyone cheerfully spends their time explaining to visitors how the laundry services of the 21st century work. On the whole people are better off than we are now, but the Gini Coefficient is by no means zero and there are still violent crimes.

“Amber Queen,” by Olivier Paquet

The grand mistress of the vineyards of the Reine d’Ambre estate, Noriko Higuchi, is reluctant to admit that her progressive sensory deficits have robbed her of her ability to do her job. Forced to come to terms with the fact that for the good of vintages to come she must step down, it falls to her to select her replacement, a task she handles with the same creative flair she once applied to her wines.

Some readers—Noel Maurer—will find the applications to which artificial intelligence is put to rather disquieting. I mean, it’s not like there are killer robots roaming around pulling out people’s spines, but the AIs are definitely acquiring abilities that could potentially allow them to replace once uniquely skilled humans. The original intention is to allow those skilled people to do their jobs better, but the risk of replacement is pretty clear. This might, however, be the sole wine-theme robopocalypse story I have encountered.

The authors of this work are aware that France has for a very long time been a nation of immigrants and they clearly don’t expect this to change any time soon.

“Facets,” by Samantha Bailley

Having invented the miraculous emofabric, which is in no way a mood ring that covers the body, a visionary is left pondering what to do next. The company that markets emofabric clothing is similarly interested in what to do next, because emofabric is merely the best of several emotion-mirroring fabrics and the imitators are catching up.

This detail caught my eye:

The brain is a territory that still contains many secrets. Yet incredible progress was made with respect to mapping it following the Pandemic.”

Was this side effect of medical advances or was there something about the Pandemic that required a better understanding of the brain? There are a few passages that suggest that that could be the case.

“Future Mirages: A Musical Short Story,” by Roque Rivas

“Audio not supported”. Bother. This seems to be a musical piece and it might be on their site. From the point of view of someone reading the ebook, this falls somewhat short of perfect presentation, what with not being able to listen to it.

“Diamond Anniversary,” by Jean-Claude Dunyach

Aware that his own time is limited, Janus tries to influence his son Mark’s choice of career by telling the young man a little family history. That history is connected to the Tunguska event and involves a discovery that could have profound implications for the whole human species. Rather than trying to get Mark to eschew dreams of deep space, Janus is enthusiastic. He foresees that Mark’s desire to explore the Solar System, informed by the family legacy, could play a decisive role in human history—but only so long as Janus points the investigations in the right direction.

For the most part the anthology sticks pretty closely to Earth and to France in particular but this story assures us that yes, crewed spaceflight is still around in 2074 (given the AI they have, their robot probes must be amazing). Getting back to the question about what powers the machines of 2074, the hints we get about the spacecraft strongly suggest high-end fission (with which the French have been traditionally comfortable). Or perhaps something even more powerful is available. Despite the advances hinted at in the text, the Solar System still remains a very large place.

Sidenote: This story contains some million-carat, Analog-quality technobabble. Enthusiasts looking for Mundane SF should look elsewhere, although I imagine the general lack of hair shirts and lamentations would turn off the Mundane SF crowd anyway.

It’s interesting that having discovered a material with some very curious properties, properties that could result in personal wealth and power if kept secret, Janus’ goal is to open-source his discovery after he makes it possible for everyone to share.

One consistent property of the various inventions postulated in these stories is an increase or improvement in the ways that people can connect. The people of this time seem to be working towards one of the telepathic gestalt futures that old-time SF authors liked to predict. However, the gestalt here is to be achieved through purely technological means rather than through Campbell’s beloved psionics.

“A Corner of Her Mind,” by Anne Fakhouri

Two estranged brothers wrestle with a particularly intractable production issue involving perfume, leather, and their dying mother-figure, Alx.

This is another story where the eventual goal is “a great sharing”. Again, it is clear that our descendents can pull off some pretty impressive tricks with the human nervous system. One of the protagonists has a highly sophisticated prosthetic memory integrated with his brain.

“The Chimera’s Gift,” by Joëlle Wintrebert

Surya gave the world cruelty-free leather and furs by creating chimeras that periodically shed their skin. Now retired, she is being targeted by an escalating campaign of harassment from her former company, Proteus. The company is now run by the inspirationally amoral Karen Elysium. Having failed to steal what she wants from Surya, Elysium tries to take advantage of an old connection between Surya and a researcher named Idunn. She forces Idunn to act as her cat’s-paw.

Surya is canny enough to spot the gambit for what it is. What does astonish her is the revelation of the issue that gives Elysium such a hold over Idunn. Idunn has a traumatized daughter, one whose specific issues might be curable—but not without a lot more money than Idunn is ever likely to see.

See, I told you the Gini Coefficient wasn’t zero. The average and mean per-capita incomes are higher than in our period, but there are still rich and poor and there are expensive services of which the poor can only dream.

I am not sure that readers who are not neurotypical are going to be 100 percent happy with this story’s depiction of future views of non-neurotypicals. 2074 has the means to ensure that people’s neurodevelopment falls within specific borders. While the medical establishment doesn’t seem go to Procrustean extremes, it is comfortable with slapping an implant on someone if an appropriate one exists, or institutionalizing someone if no applicable implant is available. I expect people e.g. on the autism spectrum will be nagged by those around them to use artificial means to conform.

“The New Words of Luxury,” by Alain Rey

New technologies demand new words and French is more than up to the task of inventing (or appropriating) the necessary new vocabulary, as shown by this lexicon.

Do I hear a gasp of horror from the Académie Française? But French has probably wandered down as many alleys in search of lexicological prey as English [surely a link is unnecessary here, given that the whole world knows the relevant quotation—even if it has been attributed to everyone from Booker T. Washington to Captain Kirk. Merch available here].

Afterword: The Utopia Factory

This provides more details on how this anthology was produced, ending on this rather hopeful note:

Utopia, which is “manufactured” today, will simply become true.
Dear reader, it is now up to you to draw your own outline!

I am as shocked and horrified as you must be at this outrageous claim that progress is in any way possible. The malevolent forces behind this book probably think a long series of incremental changes carried out over long periods can utterly transform societies in positive ways.

You might ask “but what of the grim meathook future we all know must be our fate?” They reject it:

(…) 2074, in 60 years, what world do we dream of having created, despite the naysayers who always make their daily share of sinister announcements? And what better than luxury, the industry of rêver-vrai that has characterized France since the Middle Ages, to provide the optimism needed to build the best world of tomorrow?

Frankly, I am baffled by their Gallic insolence, their unseemly refusal to languish in despair. What’s the point of writing SF if one is just going to image happier futures?

Additional credits are provided at the end. They form a list as impressive as any blockbuster movie credits. As I mentioned earlier, I was alarmed by the number of people involved in shaping this anthology. Shared worlds have to steer between the Charybdis of homogenization and the Scylla of profound inconsistency; a huge team gives more scope for either disaster. If someone had described this methodology to me as follows:

The Utopia Factory started in April 2013 in the firms, with each developing its own dream for 2074 and expressing it in five words, one image and a short text intended to nourish the collective reflection.
This corpus of close to 250 distinct words, about 100 images and texts, shared by all, was then analysed, discussed and enriched, from September to December 2013, through ten workshops conducted within each of the Comité’s think tanks.
During this time, six science fiction authors and a composer immersed themselves behind the scenes of luxury to grasp a better understanding of the reality, the tensions, the creativity and roots in French culture. This immersion gave them an opportunity to understand the paradoxes that drive the essence of dreaming within the Factory.

(and it goes on for a while after that)—I would have predicted disaster. The writers in this anthology somehow managed to avoid all the obvious pitfalls; the result was quite readable.

The prose is less varied than I would expect. but that could because it was all filtered though the same translator or set of translators.

Utopia is generally seen as too inherently dull for interesting stories. While most of the conflicts in this anthology are way the hell up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they matter to the people involved, which seems be sufficient to drive interesting stories. The result is a pleasant change of pace from more conventional SFnal fare. Dreaming 2074 may be acquired here.

1: From Stableford’s Inherit the Earth:

If the population had continued to increase, so that nanotech emortality spread through a world that was still vomiting out babies from billions of wombs, nothing could have restrained the negative Malthusian checks. The so-called plague wars had already proved themselves inadequate to cut population dramatically in a world of advanced medical care, but there were plenty more and even nastier weapons to hand. The world was set to go bad in a big way; all that remained for sane men to do was to exercise the least bad option and that’s what Conrad Hellier set out to do.

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.