Also story sale! “Cat Ladies,” to the Magazine of F&SF, aka @FandSF

More of my springtime writing has found a place to roost. This time it’s a novelette called “Cat Ladies,” and as it says above, it’s going to appear in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2021.

Like my Clarkesworld novelette “The Immolation of Kev Magee,” and “The Hazmat Sisters,” which I’ve recently sold to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s Science Fiction, “Cat Ladies” takes place during the Clawback. This puts it after my Setback novella “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” (which also originally appeared in F&SF). Also those other novelettes, it falls well before the events of my Bounceback novels Gamechanger and Dealbreaker.

The Clawback is a tough period, riven by human-made disasters, but this is in many ways one of its more peaceful stories, set among a community of lesbians tasked with dismantling Calgary’s suburbs. It has beekeepers and policing robots and sexy sculptresses and–because it’s nominally a Western–a hard drinkin’ garrulous sheriff. But also, because what even is a Western, it has the displaced sister of a pop music sensation.

I’m so happy the story has found a home at F&SF, and pleased and grateful to have sold one last story to Charlie Finlay before he hands over the reins to Sheree Renée Thomas, who is going to be an amazing editor!

Story sale! “The Hazmat Sisters,” to @SheilaWilliam10 @Asimovs_SF

November is always the most difficult month for me, creatively, and 2020 has been double November with a side of sad salad. I am researching a few new story ideas and keeping up with my various cheery Twitter projects, like the weather reports, but that aside it has been a month of much teaching and little story.

But one of the great things about writing is its life cycle. Even as you’re wrangling new ideas or struggling with rewrites, work you did months earlier comes back from the past to joybomb you. And so I’m delighted to announce that Sheila Williams at Asimov’s Science Fiction has bought my novelette “The Hazmat Sisters.”

Like my Clarkesworld novelette “The Immolation of Kev Magee,” Hazmat takes place during the Clawback, the period after my Setback novella that kicked off this universe for me. It falls well before the events of my Bounceback novels Gamechanger and Dealbreaker.

The Clawback is a tough period and this is a tough story, about family and safety and pandemics and war and being a good neighbor, and fighting with your sisters for a shot at the shower. But it’s also about cute girls with pluck, determination and pet robots, because that’s fun!

I’m so happy the story has found a home at Asimovs. It’s my first sale to Sheila and I am chuffed!

ICYMI: “The Immolation of Kev Magee,” @Clarkesworld

This summer I was enormously pleased to have a novelette published (and recorded in audio format!) up at Clarkesworld. “The Immolation of Kev Magee” is set in the Clawback, the devastating period of social and environmental disruption before the events of Gamechanger. It features one Gamechanger character if you look very closely, but is otherwise a standalone story about three refugee kids from Detroit trying to chase a dream or two, all while fighting to stay afloat in a very uncertain and dangerous world.

Here’s the whole issue!

I am writing about the Clawback in short pieces primarily because it is, in my Nice Things universe, the worst period. I don’t want to take you all there–or me either!–for the length of a novel. There are more Clawback stories to come. But if that’s not your thing and you’d rather see more Bounceback era fiction, Dealbreaker continues the adventures of many of the characters from Gamechanger, Frankie Barnes in particular, and is already available for preorder everywhere books can be found. Here’s the beautiful beautiful cover.

Nice Things Universe = Nice News!

I’ve been quiet in this space lately, which is probably a surprise to nobody at all. The pandemic and lockdown have affected my writing practice as they’ve affected… well, everyone and everything… 

I hope as you read this you’re safe and healthy and finding ways to fill the hours and take care of yourself and others. Be gentle with yourselves, and on those around you.

I have been incredibly fortunate. I had a lot of works in progress to revise, pieces that were mostly done, when things went to shit. This week, for example, I turned in the final edits on my novel Dealbreaker. The book is the a sequel to my September 2019 novel Gamechanger, and it takes place about 20 years later, following the adventures of a now-grown Frankie Barnes and her various adopted siblings and spouses as the population of Earth pushes out into the solar system.

Another of the things I finished was a novelette called “The Immolation of Kev MaGee” and I’m so amazingly pleased to announce that I have now sold this piece to Clarkesworld Magazine! This also takes place in what I sometimes refer to as the Nice Things Universe, but it’s set during a thoroughly terrible period known as the Clawback.

Readers familiar with Gamechanger may remember that in this particular near future, our present day, pandemic and all, is part of a period called the Setback. This era is a downward spiral, where many of the world’s human-build systems collapse. Capitalism fails, deadly pathogens emerge, and our network of nation-states begins to crumble under the crush of climate change. Then an even more terrible transition, the Clawback, occurs as the bulk of the world’s population decides it has enough and begins the hard work of reorganizing, basically, Everything. 

By the time Gamechanger begins, capitalism has been seriously upheaved, international cooperation has been set into place to allow massive climate remediation, everyone has a universal standard of living, and the police have been all but written out of existence—though at a massive cost to privacy. Things seem to be improving, and the characters in that book have a lot of reason to be optimistic. Humanity goes from Clawback to Bounceback.

The novelette for Clarkesworld, on the other hand, is one of a trio set during the trashiest of trashfire days of the Clawback, a period where the U.S. is plunged into multiple localized civil wars and corporate oligarchs are attempting ever-more-bizarre ways to preserve their fortunes and privileges. “The Immolation of Kev MaGee” is the first of these novelettes to find a home and I’m incredibly happy about it. Clarkesworld has been on my bucket list for some time!

(I would never choose to live through a real world Setback or Clawback, if I had a choice! But I am trying with these stories to imagine optimistic but credible possibilities for the human race to shoot the rapids of looming disaster in this century, so we can all sail through to a better future. I believe we have to imagine good outcomes to achieve them.

Manwhile, this pandemic is teaching us all many many lessons we weren’t looking for, both about our potential to work together as a global population to stop a threat—and the horrors on offer when we fail. Cooperation is something we need to level at, desperately. It’s riveting and saddening and scary and inspiring to see us attempt it. 

As a science-fiction writer my stock in trade is imagining world-changing events exactly like the ones unfolding around us now. It is a very strange kind of privilege to be hunkered down in my home, watching Setbacky events unfolding in realtime, observing it and trying to write about parallel events and better outcomes.

Reading the entrails

I have been writing Clawback stories for about eight weeks, which is just a little longer than the period I’ve been in super-privileged lockdown here in Toronto.

For those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the Clawback is the period after the events of my novella “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling” and before the events of my 2019 book Gamechanger. It’s the stretch of time between when climate change and the societal trends we’re seeing now dip to their lowest, most violent and depressing point…and it’s where humanity claws its way back from the brink and builds a sustainable, though never Utopian, society.

They’re grim stories, these things I’m writing, and I’m looking forward to moving on to something more fun.

Little surprise then that one of the most dour scenes in Gamechanger is its Clawback opening, set well before things start to get better. Decades before the action of the novel takes place, it shows a trio of orphans whose principal problem is plague. Well, plague and tornadoes. Plague, tornadoes, and a fanatical devotion to capitalism? (Okay, I’ll stop.)

That opening is very much a worst case scenario scene. It shows people choosing to sacrifice the sick to the healthy, shows millions of refugees crammed cheek by jowl in camps guarded by autonomous gun platforms, all hoping desperately to get vaxxed (as they say) and relocated before the next bug hits.

The idea that disease outbreaks would be part of the twenty-first century disaster bundle was so obvious to me that it didn’t feel that much like SF extrapolation. It was informed by books I’ve been reading for just about ever—books by scientists, like Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague and books by historians like Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the end of the Roman Empire By William Rosen and even novels by SF authors, like Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. I read a lot about pandemics. I came of age during the early bloody emergence of AIDS. Of course it seemed like real-world stuff rather than far-future blueskying.

Of course it’s infinitely more pleasant to be reading about old, long-over outbreaks—or even to be writing about upcoming imaginary ones—than to watch one unfold in real time just down the block from your actual house.

The season of plagues in the Clawback does end. Not neatly, not miraculously, not even just by running its course. It ends after the world pulls together to establish a global minimum standard of public health. When the various factions and governments running our international commit to an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination.

Am I saying that because I got the outbreak of deadly disease right in my near-future SF book, I’m also right about the better world around the corner? I would love for the Bounceback to come, for it to be miraculous, inevitable, and easy. But some of the good things in that future? Aren’t impossible. Look at us playing with variations on Universal Basic Income as the economy goes into paroxysms.

Some countries are cooperating. Some good things are happening. And if you live in a place where your votes matter and/or your spending habits influence the corporations that decide so much policy these days, keep an eye open for chances to jump in: to donate to causes, to amplify voices. To write to elected representatives, to shame corporate profiteers.

A better future isn’t never a gimme, not for anyone. But working toward it, asking for it, trying to build bridges instead of burning them—you can have a part in that. You know it, and you probably already know how.

We don’t have to give in to tornados, germs and multi-national serfdom. Right now, you’re on lockdown, and you’re not dead yet. Perhaps one of the most powerful things you may have left is your voice. If you’ve got the energy and the time, reach out and speak up. Shout the future, and thereby summon it into being.

Climate Mitigation in the Land of Shopportunity

A few months before Gamechanger came out, a headline crossed my feeds about the prospect of wild card would-be terraformers launching backyard rockets bearing high-altitude balloons. Their purpose: to spew a payload of particulate intended to work much as a volcanic ash plume might, changing the mix of earth’s upper atmosphere.

Why would anyone do this? Well, plumes can be cool, and I mean literally. In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pintabo created aerosols that lowered average global temperatures by one degree Fahrenheit… for several years.

Which sounds great, right? Just what the Doctor ordered?

The allure of being able to DIY a little global cooling, to play deity in your own backyard, is obvious. We all have moments when the idea of launching a rocket into the teeth of climate change takes on an intrinsic rightness, a sense of being so much better than scrolling through endless retweets about record summer heatwaves. What if you could do something more than just grinding your teeth and reckoning your distance from the seacoast as the oceans rise?

And while it may sound like it, the possibility of lacing the upper atmosphere with sun-reflecting silvery particles, or otherwise simulating the outcome of a massive volcanic explosion isn’t pure flummery. Climate change scientists and experts at NASA have already gathered a lot of data about potentially geoengineering the atmosphere in exactly this way. In the coordinated, upscale, governments-signed-off-on-it sciencey version, high-altitude jets would do the spewing, targeting upwards of 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide gas in service of achieving a Pintabo-scale cooling effect.

(They’d do it in a concerted way, of course, not piecemeal.)

The thing is, geoengineering doesn’t come without trade-offs. Does anything? In fact, it’s pretty dangerous dynamite to be playing with. In this case, that sought after, oh-so-sexy cooling effect on the surface of the planet comes bundled with damage to the ozone layer. That alone is enough to ensure that the idea of solar radiation management (SRM for short) is seen by many scientists as a desperation gambit, a card to be played only when slash if things get really dire. So it isn’t hard to imagine why ecologist blood runs cold at the idea of you and me and everyone’s cousin with questionable judgment being able to order up a backyard balloon kit full of ozone-destroying gas.

Imagine! Click here to upgrade to free-one day delivery! Your neighbor doesn’t believe in climate change… so why not compensate and order two? We’ll even give you a BOGO deal! Amazon would do that in a heartbeat, amiright?

Part of what I love about this news item, despite the fact that it is objectively terrifying, is it’s such a fundamentally science fictional idea. The terrain of our present and our future is strange and hard to survey, but I could write a hundred stories from this single jumping off point. So could, I suspect, every other writer I know.

People ask sometimes where writers get our ideas, so here’s one now: as more and more people become convinced of the severity of the climate crisis—as their anxieties sharpen into outright terror—science fictional-sounding climate quackery, DIY quick fixes for global warming could easily permeate a certain portion of the consumer market.

Imagine—snake oil save the planet panaceas, becoming big business! You too could buy the ecosphere equivalent of the everlasting pill. (Remember the everlasting pill? It was a lump of antimony people used to take in Victorian times, a little bauble of poison that would trigger a purgative round of vomiting and diarrhea. If the patient didn’t die from the cure, they would either barf up or pass the pill, which could be washed and saved for the next family member who needed it. Sorry—make that “needed.”)

Imagine the earth-scale equivalent of an everlasting pill, easily purchased, deployed using easy-to-follow instructions, or even an app. Now imagine twenty competing eco-placebos. Their chief effect? Creating a sense in the buyer of having damnwell done something about the planetary carbon budget. The emotional uplift would come whether they worked or not, and despite the science. People believe what they want to believe—look how long it has taken some of us to buy into the need for social distancing.

In this story I’m spinning, we might posit that buy-in to ecological placebos would be all the stronger in wealthy nations, where we’ve laid the groundwork by creating a culture of remedial consumerism. A certain amount of the environmental message over the past couple of decades has suggested that privileged shoppers—those with the biggest carbon footprint—can A/S/S/U/A/G/E/ O/U/R G/U/I/L/T/ make a real difference to the planet’s feverish future … all by shopping green. Never mind giving up our cars—if our diapers are unbleached bamboo cotton, if our organic foods have been sprayed with naturally derived pesticides, and our lightbulbs are LED rather than incandescent, our carbon footprint will naturally shrink.

Right? We’ve been primed to love a socially conscious shopportunity.

Now, this may seem a little ranty, I know, so don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone can or should abandon their motor vehicle, or that intelligent low-footprint consumption is a bad thing. But the ecological value of green shopping has been consistently oversold in recent years. It’s not the answer. Green consumerism exploits all our complicated buyer feels about the environment, extracting the conscience dollars wherever it can.

Those emotions will ever easier for advertisers to play, like an orchestra of violins attached to ApplePay devices, as they get stronger. After all, if the people with the most disposable income perceive that nothing significant is being achieved by our corporate stakeholders and their kept government departments—if the semi-anonymous “they” who rule us aren’t seen to be doing anything substantial to keep the planet and our grandchildren from frying—why shouldn’t we buy a hundredth of a volcanic plume online?

The part of this that really bites my toenails is that I love the idea of widespread buy-in to climate remediation technology. I heart a clever gadget. I have a weakness for eco-tech Kickstarters. And in Gamechanger, there’s a lot of this: one small change, repeated a billion times over, by people actively working to roll back the carbon clock. Emissions are down, but a certain amount of geoengineering is in play.

Pretty much everyone comes out of my future equivalent of high school, for example, knowing how to grow and bank a ton of carbon, how to recycle a suburban ranch house for land reclamation efforts, and how to build a low-end freshwater harvester out of an old wine bottle and repurposed nanotech.

I like this vision of the world, which is why I created it. I want to think it’s not impossible that one day everyone with a yard or even patio space may willingly give some of it over to devices that turn air pollution directly to propane. (Yes, that tech is under development!) Maybe water recapture-unsexy as it sounds-is something that could be installed, one conscientious household at a time, to create bulwarks against desertification.

But how to get there in a world where you’re just as likely to buy a volcano balloon as a water recycler? If inventions come along that actually could work a change when deployed in a widespread, one-in-every-home distribution pattern, it’ll matter whether we can distinguish between them. How can we know which items that might be worthwhile and which will be ineffective, ill-advised or even downright harmful?

See? The problem is never having story ideas. It’s choosing.

And that’s before we even move from individual buyers to super-consumers. Think about the great white mostly-males. The Bruce Waynes. What happens when a mega-philanthropist buys into a backyard balloon volcano paradigm? What happens when their billionaire rival goes for the climactic everlasting pill?


Here’s one real world geoengineering idea, a big high-concept pitch, that’s shopping for a moneybags sponsor. Like the volcanic plume stuff, there’s real research behind this one. We could conceivably make it happen.

In 2018, The Atlantic ran an article by Ross Andersen, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park.” The story tells about a conservation park created by a father and son team, Sergey and Nikita Zimov, whose plan, for decades now, has been to increase the density of wildlife in Siberia’s tundra to 8000 BCE population levels. This is a serious project. The park has been crowdfunding an effort to rewild bison, sourcing the animals from North America and moving them to Siberia. Other ecological niches have been filled with muskox, wild horses, and reindeer. The endgame for this intriguing experiment is to simulate ecological conditions in the muskeg 10,000 years ago. If the Simovs and crew pull it off, the tundra will revert to a type of grassland that is colder and more resistant to melt. And why is this desirable or important? Because, as you probably know, melting tundra releases methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
Again, potentially sexy science on the literal hoof this time!

There’s one big problem here, too. The keystone animal in that ecosystem is the woolly mammoth. And it turns out we are fresh out of those.

So what’s the plan at Pleistocene Park? It takes us back to SF rather handily. Are they dreaming, a la Michael Crichton, to find wooly mammoth DNA in amber or old fossilized tusks? Oh, no. This is a go CRISPR or go home scheme—they’ll bioform existing Asian elephant genomes to make their offspring hardy enough to survive the Siberian winter. What we get, if we do this, isn’t Wooly Mammoth 1.0. It’s a reverse-engineer, a reasonable facsimile. A gene lab in Harvard, under the direction of geneticist George Church, is already working on making it a reality.

Boggle at it! Editing the genes of an elephant that might otherwise become extinct (because of humans) to make it more like a distant relative that did become extinct (because of overhunting, in other words because of humans) so that it can occupy a landscape in a way that increases collective human longevity. This is both way out there science fiction stuff and it’s real. What’s more, the biggest roadblock to giving it a try may be money.

So imagine that Bruce Wayne type, getting the hard-sell from Harvard rewilding guys, and throwing a few of his hard inherited billions at a project to build a better elephant. Should he do it? Pleistocene Park has some pretty good researchers in the mix, and they’ve been working on this and thinking about it for a fair while. Maybe the question is: Can it hurt? Maybe the follow up is: Sure, but how much? Perhaps they can throw an extra billion at finding a way to ask the elephants what they think of the whole deal… but let’s be honest, we don’t really want a pachyderm veto to nix the whole thing.

The present is always scary, the future always uncertain. What’s alternately exciting and frightening about climate change is how much effect humanity can potentially have on the landscape. We have a strange simultaneous sense of being powerless, whilst still coming up with ways to radically change the survival game, whether for better or for worse.
One of the best things about being a futurist in the now is getting to see all these possibilities, flawed and freaky though they seem, as people scramble for inventive answers. Geoengineering is just the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. If you’re anything like me, you’re just waiting—and hoping—for the next headline to erupt across your screens, raising some hopes, dashing others, and either way melting your worldview to slag once again.

Diamonds are a world’s next friend

With HBO‘s Chernobyl having conveniently put the dangers of nuclear power and the horrors of radiation poisoning so brilliantly on the radar of TV viewers around the world, now seems like a great time to talk about how hope can spring from even the most unexpected and terrifying of sources. 

A few years ago, I went to a focus group. You know the kind of thing I mean: someone literally hands you a small envelope full of cash in exchange for two hours of your consumer feedback on a particular product or, in this case, hot button political topic. I went to this thing with few expectations beyond getting money and maybe a bad sandwich. Very quickly it turned out that our topic was the storage of nuclear waste from a reactor within my immediate voting vicinity.

What was cool about this, of course, was that I learned some new things about fission and radiation. What was vastly less cool was observing the various ways in which the people running the focus group were nudging us all toward a positive opinion about a public policy decision that had, almost certainly, already been made. I concluded rather swiftly that the group doing the focusing didn’t necessarily want to find out our opinions so they could change their plan. No, they wanted to know whether or not they were effectively selling what they’d already decided. Barring a public outcry, the fait was already accomplis.

Here in the present day, remembering this experience makes me wish I could see footage of someone running those same nuclear waste questions past people who’d just seen the HBO miniseries.

It doesn’t take a focus group to tell someone with even a basic grasp of grade school science that nuclear reactors make electricity, and the byproduct of that electricity is dangerous AF for basically ever. Creating nuclear waste has been one of the many devil’s bargains humans have made in exchange for our incredible society. Electricity at this point is demonstrably more important to us than breathable air or food security. In pursuit of it, we burn uranium and create an apparently insoluble problem whose dimensions extend from now to the end of human memory. 

One way or another, it has been reasonably safe to assume, for all of my lifetime at least, that all the nuclear waste in the world was going to end up cached in remote holes in economically marginal regions, and left there until such time as somebody forgot about them entirely. At that point, they’d become a toxic gag gift for whatever unlucky beings—sapient raccoons, anyone?—bored down through the concrete vaults, failed to decipher the safety warnings, and uncovered a huge load of future death.

Paradoxically, this problem is now one of the reasons I believe we can have not only hope but real optimism about terraforming the planet so that it remains habitable by humans.

How come? Because physicists have recently worked out that if you take a small amount of radioactive material, make a radioactive diamond out of it, encase it in a second diamond layer to contain the energy and include a couple of wires in the mix, you can make a diamond battery. This is an item that will emit a small amount of power for as long as the battery is radioactive, or at least three millennia. 

Using radioactive decay to create electricity isn’t a new idea. It’s a cornerstone of the space program; batteries using radioisotope power systems power Voyager One, and the Mars Rover Curiosity. The latter has been tooling around gathering data for over 2500 days now.

But the diamond batteries could be deployed here on earth. They could could sit in your unprotected hand. They could be embedded in your life-saving pacemaker. And as they did so, they’d be giving off about as much radiation as your average banana.

So take that in for a second. I know, I thought it was a lie, too. 

Imagine a future where factories spent however long it took to turn all of that forever poison from all of our reactors into a new source of effectively inexhaustible power.

In my novel Gamechanger, the bugs have been worked out of this system. Product development has had a bit of time to mature, and now this tech is getting deployed in quantity. The goal is to reclaim all the waste. The batteries are being constructed and gathered in stacks. Each one isn’t emitting much power, but collectively, they’re a significant and growing public resource. And since the powersphere is valuable and an obvious target for crime, most of the stones are embedded in permanent structures. In other words, the first deployment of diamond battery tech is in a place called Blingtown, a carbon remediation project that makes beautiful structures on a monumental scale while also ensuring the security and longevity of the power stacks.

This is what science fiction writers do with research. It’s what SF prototyping means. Basically, I decided: if the diamonds are going to last thousands of years, and pyramids last thousands of years, and you can probably in this day and age find a corporate sponsor to make the outsides of monument-scale structures beautiful to boot, why not kill the pollution bird with a massive amount of aesthetically kilned and tourist-friendly stone?

Pie in the sky? For sure. But until recently, remember, we thought that saying yes to a question like “can we do something positive with nuclear waste?” was chirpy fucking nonsense.

When optimists and hopepunkers talk about innovating our way out of the climate crisis we have created, critics point out that the technologies we hope to use to save ourselves are still under development. That some of them are hypothetical. That others might come with insurmountable knock-on effects of their own. (Hank Green, for example,  posted a video this summer about the possible need to continue or expand fracking, even as we recognize the need to deal with the horrendous environmental consequences.)

Even when we come up with inventions that do have the potential to make a huge difference, doomcryers say, we may not be able to deploy them before we run out of the very resources we need to scale them up. 

All these arguments are totally true. There is validity and an important warning in the too little too late position.

It’s important to remember that—like those anonymous policymakers who were trying to figure out how to spin their plan for containing irradiated Canadian graphite—we have already decided our collective survival will hinge on a cluster of whizbang technological breakthroughs.

No, we have! You and I may not feel personal ownership over the the crappy policies that have cooked our atmosphere, but we’re part of the system… and we’re past blame now. If we were going to globally rein in our oil-burning ways on a scale that would make a difference, we’d have done it decades ago. Letting something happen is a choice and humanity has let this happen. The plan now is to science the living shit out of the human-made atmospheric carbon surplus. 

Admittedly, this wasn’t the best idea. Terraforming the earth into a crisis and then trying to terraform it back… this isn’t a scheme that comes with guarantees. The odds on it, though, still seem better than those of plan Move the Rich to Mars! or plan Hope we all Get Lucky in Spite of Ourselves

The inventiveness, the near-miraculous potential of a technology like diamond batteries, and the paradigm shift it represents, not only provides us with a new option for producing electricity but seriously changes the game on the forever problem that was nuclear waste. This should straight up blow your mind. We didn’t think a single thing could be done. Bury it and look away. That was the answer. And people, we were wrong.

So while we’re at it, here are some other innovations people are exploring. How does artificial photosynthesis grab you? Or gadgets that can convert atmospheric carbon directly to propane? Drones that can survey areas in need of reforestation, and then plant hundreds of thousands of trees in those areas in hours? Pretty exciting, right? Even now there’s a nonprofit based out of Rotterdam working to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using autonomous robots. And in case you’re curious, the innovator who founded that company, Boyan Slat, was eighteen when he decided he could deal with the problem… within a couple of decades, at that.

Humans are, at core, bogglingly inventive creatures.  Diamond batteries and artificial leaves and topsoil generation are not enough to get us back into balance with our ecosystem. They’re starting points, fragile seeds of potential success.

We need solutions to forever problems, and it’s just gonna squash us problems, and there’s no way we can ever manage it problems. And we can find them. The key is celebrating and supporting the scientists and dreamers, the eighteen year old start-up folks and all the people in labs, working together, the unsung heroes who have already embarked on the quest. 

Minimum Standard of Living: Gamechanger How Do

This weekend, in celebration of my book launch, I asked my Twitter followship which of the futuristic advances in Gamechanger they’d most like to see explained next, after I’d already done a thread on gamified career tracks.

The winner this time was minimum standard of living, Bounceback style. Here’s the initial tweet. I welcome questions at the thread!

Gamified Job Levelling: How Gamechanger Do

This Monday, I asked my Twitter followship which of the futuristic advances in Gamechanger they’d most like to see explained in greater detail. The winner, by a medium margin, was the gamified gig economy. So here we go. If you have questions, arguments or heckles, I recommend posting them there!

The Big Ask: Zero Privacy Culture & Violence

The question I get asked most about Gamechanger, hands down, is always a variation on: “Do you really think this future human society you’ve created could really do away with sexual assault?”

The short answer is yes. The medium answer is yes, if we really want it to. The long answer is … well, it’s this super tl;dr essay.

Until recently, I hedged my bets when answering this. Fiction is fiction for a reason. Even if you’re trying to believably extrapolate current trends, everything’s easier in story. So I’d talk about the imperfections of human-built systems, but also mention my heartfelt belief that men can choose not to be violent.

Getting deeper into my novel and its solution, I’d go into two ideas that are key to my optimistic future society. One of those ideas goes by the phrase “total accountability culture.” The other is “mutually assured disclosure.” Because it’s changes in how humans see things—even more so than the technology involved—that brings societal change.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I needed to hedge. If my answer couldn’t just be yeah, we could do this.

This summer I listened to the latest season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. Among other things, he had a three-week conversation with Mo Katibeh from AT&T, about the coming 5G revolution. This was ad content, sprinkled into other stories, very upbeat… it wasn’t hard-hitting journalism, if you get me. Even so, it was fascinating.

Katibeh explained that latency in tomorrow’s digital networks, when we all move to 5G, is about to achieve a speed that’s just barely slower than the speed of human thought. Examples of what this will mean for us, he went on, included surgeons in one part of the world operating—safely and routinely—on people in another. The reaction time on remote surgical devices will be that fast.

Katibeh painted a world where everyone’s digital helpers—the apps—in the gadgets from their watches and bikes and cars to the traffic cams around them—would coordinated to intervene in crashes before they happened. In Gamechanger, the exact same interventions seek to prevent human collisions—events like rape.

The technology is already all but there. All we need is someone to write the code, someone else to train the AIs to recognize everything from grooming and boundary-testing and negging to straight-up attacks… and crucially, for everyone else to agree that it’s time to consider going there.

(Oh, and there’s a small matter of considering whether privacy is less of a right and more of a privilege… and a problematic, #metoo enabling privilege at that.)

Every day, more of what we say and do and think and post and buy goes into corporate and public archives, possibly forever. It happens, more or less, with our permission. We sell our information for convenience. And so iTunes knows how many times I’ve rewatched Parade’s End. Google Maps can give you an alibi for my every waking moment since at least 2013.

What might we sell everything for? And what does a culture look like where you have no secrets at all? Does it have to be a horror show?

In Gamechanger, I go for a mix of utopian and creepy. (Aren’t all utopias a little creepy?)

Here’s how it works: By 2101, when the book’s happening, all our communications tech is implanted. As a kid you have wearables; then you have an operation when you’re fourteen and you get a microphone set near your trachea, speakers in your ears, and cameras in your eyes. Your uplink lets you switch from an unadjusted view of the world around you to an augmented one, full of info and tags. Or you can go fully virtual, bang back some buy-in drugs, and experience other digital realities. Full-immersion VR, in other words.

In this world, unless you are silently screwing in a darkened room, you are on the record in realtime. In public, views of you are multiplied by as many people and street cameras and mobile lenses as can see you and cross-reference your locator chip. Leaving aside futuristic surgical implants, the above is really just an amplification of something that is already happening.

The second amplification, in the book, is how social media interacts with everyone’s data. If I see you chucking a disposable coffee cup into the ravine, I can send a big thumbs down to the network—a strike. So can everyone else who’s witnessed your anti-social behavior.

(Kidding! Of course there are no disposable coffee cups!)

Once I complain, the system figures out who you are and sends those strikes, if they’re valid, to the social capital arbiter, Cloudsight. If enough other witnesses agree with me, it might impact your economic well-being. Prosocial people—the good and the much-Liked, basically—get discounts on goods and services. Generally speaking, a person who wants a good quality of life and the fewest possible hassles is going to be picking up the coffee cups and boosting their Cloudsight score, rather than littering.

Some of you may know that this, too, is something that’s already being prototyped in the real world. Here’s the article, and this one will get you right in the Orwells.

Get it straight… I am not saying the idea shouldn’t raise your hair. But consider the implications if you’re in a fight. Start with the slightly comical side of things–your entire extended family tuning in from around the world to offer opinions when you’re fighting with your kid about the length of their hair or skirts.

Family scraps aside, imagine getting belligerent in a bar. All the people who want to drink in peace are giving you strikes. As things escalate, you get an alert saying there’s a drone-mounted taser, piloted by a remote conflict-analysis specialist, on its way. A couple live law enforcement giggers are also waiting to see if they’re gonna get greenlighted to haul you off to the drunk tank.

Meanwhile, the censure of the folks in the bar continues to raise the price of your next beer to a point where you’re going to be too broke to drink unless you make nice with the Internet for six months.

Okay, though. Bar brawls. Do we care? Maybe not. So, let’s level the thought experiment one more time, and fold in smart tech and sexual violence.

Picture being a young adult with freshly minted VR implants.

One of the things you just do, as part of future high school here in 2101, is load up and learn to use a consent assessment app. Greenlight or Enthusiastic is running in the background of your heads-up display, all but forgotten, with your virus protection and sports scores.

But one day you meet someone, or several someones, and as things start getting romantic, the app goes from passive into active mode, patiently monitoring your realtime feed for words like Yes and No! and Ow! and More! It’s listening for your safe word, your secret “Call 911” code, sifting the transcript for gaslighting and negging, rating the physiological clues that indicate crying—because of course your mic monitors your pulse and respiration.

We’re on the verge of being able to nip bike accidents in the bud, remember? Right now, here in consensus reality, we’re using machine learning to teach AI to recognize faces and predict disaster scenarios. These consent apps could be trained using real trial transcripts and attack footage, as well as forced kisses in movies and everything else rape culture has thoughtfully provided over the years. They’ll be capable of parsing a lot of nuance. They’ll have settings to accommodate our preferences and kinks.

In this imaginary romantic encounter, imagine the mood shifting—something starts to go wrong. The app prepares to pop a text into your augmented display, reminding you it’s okay to slow things down or even leave. It’s ready to summon your loved ones, turn on all the lights, and if necessary call for more robust support.

And it’s just as ready to send you a brisk, impartial warning if you’re the one pushing the boundaries of your partners’ comfort zones.

This probably sounds weird and intrusive. The idea of having a future version of Alexa beep during a romantic moment to say “You didn’t check whether they wanted that, and facial analysis indicates they’re having feels…” Sure, that might be a real blast of cold water. I mean, that’s the beef people raise with asking for consent, right? We’re taking the fun out of it? Leaching out the sexy?

Pshaw. What if we took a minute to adjust to the idea that consent was nonnegotiable—and why the fuck have we gone on so long thinking otherwise?—and that tech could intervene on certain branches of the foreplay decision tree? What if–whether there was intent to commit harm or just a failure to read the room–an app-mediated safety alert wasn’t seen as party pooping or cock blocking? What if it was about ensuring sex without fear, for all parties? What would it be like to grow up in that world?

So… that’s the imaginary How in this particular Gamechanger worldbuilding element: no privacy, logistical challenges to being violent, a world where everybody has support from software while they’re learning to do sex with new partners, and most of all widespread societal agreement on consent always, always, goddamn always.

Amazing, right? Except. There is the creepy part. What about the part where people shouldn’t necessarily have every moment of their lives and especially every mistake or moral slip up on video forever, just waiting for someone clever enough to access and exploit it?

Friends, remember that we’re already more than halfway there. Your secrets are already endangered. Unless you take the trouble to police the mics and cameras in all your phones and other gadgets, unless you make your friends lock up their phones in a quiet box when you get together, unless you never selfie, don’t use your GPS, don’t play Pokemon, and you pay cash for everything, I am left to conclude that like me, you’re not terrified of losing your privacy. At most, you’re resigned. Mildly disquieted.

The problem doesn’t have to be the data. The problem is that you and I, the mildly disquieted, are end users. We’re Winston Smith. Consumers with virtually no financial or political power on any kind of grand scale. Caught in capitalism, and unable to participate fully unless we ante up our info.

But what if the answer isn’t locking the barn door? What if it’s cracking the vaults on the people we don’t know anything about—the Big Brothers, the people who do still have the privilege of privacy?

In Gamechanger, the other social adjustment is this: when those future humans talk about total accountability culture, they aren’t just talking about you and me and random average Joes. CEOs and politicians have to come clean too. Backroom deals and private boardroom meetings cease to exist. Everything’s on the public record. Everyone can log on to the room where it happens.

And, indeed, in a world where everyone is wearing surgical implants and they are on all the time, how do you have a secret meeting anyway? (I actually do answer this in the book.)

In Gamechanger our feeds all go into the Haystack, and they mostly sit there in the archive until someone ends up in a “Who said what?” type argument with a loved one and the sifting for the moral high ground begins. Though anyone can find out another person’s entire history, they aren’t necessarily going to want to. Under the mutually assured disclosure provisions, if someone is following your feeds that closely, you get a notification… and a copy of their cradle-to-current transcript.

You wanna know every single thing about that human you’re about to go on a date with? No problem: here are the files. By the way, they’ve received a date-stamped copy of your request and have an option to review your personal history too. They’re starting with whether you audited your last three romantic connections.

The result? At its best, we’d build a technologically mediated large-scale village effect, the same reality experienced by people living in itty bitty towns where everyone knows each other’s business.

Is this still something that makes you uneasy? It totally should. Getting the world to go for it would be really really hard. And is it better to imagine everyone having to drop their drawers to that extent? Sure, maybe.

But is that a harder sell, given what we’ve handed over already, than blithely imagining that the current world’s governments are somehow going to place significant limitations on the ways Facebook and Apple and Amazon and all the other players out there mine and sell the data we’ve already offered up or had stolen? How much interpersonal violence would have to disappear from the earth to make it worth each and every one of us becoming the star of our very own low-rated Truman Show?

It would take a huge change in our thinking. There would have to be no exceptions. You tell me what it would take for it to be worth it.