Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future. Edited by Gideon Lichfield. The MIT Press, 2021.
Reviewed by Ksenia Shcherbino
In my head, collections of short stories are proof of the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics – once an experiment with different possible outcomes is performed, all outcomes are obtained, each in a different newly created world. To a certain extent, this is the starting point for the Twelve Tomorrows project – an annual anthology of science fiction short stories, published by MIT Technology Review – but unlike in physical experiments, it allows us to observe all of the alternative worlds. Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future is the 2021 addition to this project, and it appeared in the most difficult times. The world, having gone through all types of lockdowns, quarantines, social restrictions, furlough policies, has irrevocably changed, and eleven contributors to the book led by the editor Gideon Lichfield are trying to chart out those changes into newly opened futures.
It’s a great challenge to prepare such a collection of short stories still in the midst of the pandemic (May 2021). It takes the honed instinct of a veteran of MIT Technology Review and, currently, WIRED editor to make sure that these stories still ring pitch-perfectly a year later. When Lichfield wrote in the preface how coronavirus “has ripped open a gaping hole in [capitalist liberal democracy] that may never be closed up,” he could not have possibly known that a year later Europe would be plunged into a war, and that the future would seem even darker, even more dystopian than through the lens of the pandemic alone. Now the world is once again lost in dis-es and mis-es of discord, displacement, dysfunction, misunderstanding, mistreatment and misery, and we struggle to see our place in it.
Nonetheless, the authors gathered under this cover are not new to imagining futures that embody resistance, resilience and hope. They are, in Lichfield’s words, “known for their ability to imagine a plausible future in realistic detail,” and they carve out new possibilities from the minutest details of our everyday life. Professional futurists, skilled world-builders and word-weavers, the volume’s writers are also journalists, sociologists, biotech consultants, activists, lawyers – they both shape the world, and care for the future with an intensity that burns through their words. More than once I finished reading a story in this collection with my eyes wet and my heart beating fast – a testament that the writing is wholehearted, earnest, relevant. It strikes a fighting chord with me despite the fact that there are no wars in these narratives, no large acts of heroism or self-sacrifice. Through the stories of ordinary people, in undramatic settings, they give you hope that, quoting Lichfield again, “the new normal, though forged in pain and suffering, could be a healthier, more robust, and in some ways more creative society.” They give you hope that your life matters.
“No one is more important than you are,” says Chela in Malka Older’s “Interviews of Importance.” Chela works as operator for a new digital technology that records the memories of the elderly. Her job is to talk to them about their past. But what Chela wants most is to talk to her own mother, and to learn the story she never shared. Chela’s clients love talking to her, she is good at her job, yet somehow she can’t find the right words for the one person who is so important to her. She is afraid that she will never know her mother’s life story, and “there is a difference between knowing the outlines and understanding why things had happened and what it felt like.” COVID had an enormous impact on all emotional bonds that hold us together. Due to travel restrictions, I haven’t seen my mother for over two years now. I know how it feels – the slow erosion of intimacy, the blinding worry that you will be too late to say the right words.
Family relationships are in the centre of Indrapramit Das’s “A Necessary Being,” a beautiful and sad story about bonding and parting. Our ruined world is being slowly tended back to life by giant omnipotent robots, doing all the menial tasks to make the planet livable again. They are operated by people who inhabit their mechanical bodies and give up on all human connection. But one day one of the operators rescues a little girl. She has nowhere to go, so he adopts her and lets her live with him inside the machine and pilot it. Together they become “heart” and “soul” of the robot. But is this life too much or not enough for a human child? The fragile ecosystem of father-daughter relationship unfurls against the background of the recovering world, and raises questions about gratitude, loyalty and our future survival.
Stories like this are read through empathy and contemplation instead of adrenaline, as befits a collection of stories about futures after pandemics. Little happens in terms of the plot, or even character development. Yet they can still connect emotionally, and they are a treasure trove of inspirational ideas for the tech-savvy reader. The quadratic voting system in Karl Schroeder’s Sherlockian “The Price of Attention” is presumably unhackable and ensures fair votes by making people invest in the issues that matter the most to them; the system evolved out of the same mechanisms as COVID track-and-trace system. The Nene Huddle network in Ken Liu’s palimpsestic “Jaunt” allows people to establish a secure, yet anonymous and hard-to-trace connection with a telepresence robot and enables virtual travel in a world where conventional travel is extinct, and governments try to lock down and control population in the name of the common good. Such innovations are explained in exhaustive and plausible detail, which gives the stories a certain solidity, while serving as a reminder for us to pay attention to science and technology developments, spurred on by pandemic.
Some of the stories ring hilariously – and dangerously – true to our early pandemic experiences. Confusion, anger, and victimization were part of our initial reaction to COVID, and they are not easy to dispense with. Madeline Ashby’s “Patriotic Canadians Will Not Hoard Food!” recall empty shelves in London supermarkets during the first lockdown and anti-mask riots, as in her post-pandemic Canada, a farmer participates in a government ration exchange program and is persecuted by her neighbours for putting disposable masks on her scarecrows. Lockdowns gave us a chance to rediscover our creative side – and D.A. Xiaolin Spires picks up on this surge of DYI and innovation. In her “Mixology For Humanity’s Sake” the main protagonist is a sake brewer who helps with vaccination delivery – a story that acquires new layers of meaning once you remember the volunteers who were part of the NHS vaccination campaign. Ken Liu’s story with its xenophobic surveillance-obsessed president Bombeo and his anti-immigration policies holds a distorted mirror to both Priti Patel’s and Donald Trump’s agendas, while Adrian Hon’s “Little Kowloon” addresses the challenges faced by Hong Kongers settling in the UK after the 2021 Chinese crackdown on civil rights. Yet through those dark glimpses of our reality shines an unshakeable belief in humanity – in our ability to overcome our troubles without losing our feelings of compassion. It does not matter that our future may not literally resemble the worlds portrayed in Make Shift, since there’s one thing that the collection aptly and truthfully demonstrates: human beings are not neat pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We never fully fit into any imaginary world, but are constantly adjusting and looking for solutions: political, technological, and above all emotional.
In one sense, the opening conversation between Wade Roush (a technology journalist and editor of the 2018 edition of Twelve Tomorrows) and Ytasha L. Womack (author, filmmaker and Afrofuturist scholar) stands apart yet defines the tone of the book. Not only does it put this quantum multi-world experiment into the context of racial and social injustice, it also brings out hope for rebuilding from within, or, using Womack’s apt description, for “collective acknowledgement of life.” And this is probably the book’s most important message.