Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn is the first Anthology of "near-future" speculative fiction from Terraform, Vice's science-fiction vertical. Edited by Claire L. Evans and Brian Merchant, the collection features works from both established and emerging writers, including Bruce Sterling, Ellen Ullman, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, Elvia Wilk, and Omar El Akkad. The following is a conversation with Evans and Merchant about their relationship to sci-fi, the mission of Terraform, and the unique perspective journalists and scientists bring when writing fiction.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with your relationships to the genre. What are your personal histories with Science Fiction?
Brian Merchant: Science fiction was the medium that got me into reading. My grandfather is an actual rocket scientist–he worked at NASA and did his doctorate under Carl Sagan. So whenever I'd go to his house, it's just books everywhere–science fiction, everywhere. Robert Heinlein was his favorite (it’s a problematic fave, as we’d say now). But he just had all this cool-looking stuff on his shelves and tables, and that's the stuff that I started picking up. I think Dune was the first book that blew my mind, in a way that made me actually want to proactively sit down and read. So it's always been there. It's always been an undercurrent of my interests in writing and reading.
And I know Claire has maybe even a richer history with science fiction.
Claire L. Evans: I don’t think it’s any richer than yours. It's pretty similar. I think, for me, it was a genre that blew my mind as a child. I remember buying a beat-up copy of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles at a yard sale when I was seven or eight. I was always a big reader, but that was one of the first books I felt like completely transported me as a reader into a different realm.
Throughout my life, there have been moments where I encounter a writer or an era of science fiction that just speaks to me completely in that moment in my life. It has grown up a lot as a genre over the last 60, 70 years. And there have been a lot of really interesting transitions and moments. I got into 70s and 80s feminist science fiction when I came into my identity as a young feminist. I got really into cyberpunk when I started thinking about tech. I got into New Wave science fiction while going through my psychedelic phase. It's there for you at every point in your life.
And like Brian said, I think it has an inimitable capacity to be in dialogue with the world and with people at different points in their lives. And so bringing it into the fold of a journalistic context and connecting it to the stuff that was happening in the every day and the stuff that our colleagues were reporting about at Motherboard and at Vice, making it something that was critically engaged, was just a really exciting thing for us to do.
So, how did Terraform come about? What was the goal?
Brian: Our publisher [at Vice's Motherboard] was trying an experiment that tangentially involved corralling some science fiction and just making contact with that alongside the stream of tech journalism and analysis. And Motherboard also had a lot of freedom to be pretty weird.
We had a chance to do it, and we took it. Everybody we would reach out to was so enthusiastic about wanting to do it, even if they had never written science fiction before–if they were just tech journalists—on the other side of the fiction/nonfiction divide. So we decided to launch Terraform to bring together those two traditions, tech journalism [and] analysis on the nonfiction side, and science fiction, which has always had this knack for interrogating trends in not just technology but in how technology is affecting society and a whole swath of things, and trying to meet them in the middle.
So we always had stories by scientists and by tech writers, by opinionators. We had bots. We had all sorts of experimental stuff—that was always the intent. It was always aimed at looking, not a hundred years down the line, but proverbially 20 minutes down the line–these stories lived in that near-future world. Even if they temporally took place far in the future, we always wanted them to have a resonance with things that were going on now.
Claire: And we often assigned stuff explicitly based on headlines: if there was a big story about Uber, we would try to find someone who'd be willing to write a story riffing on the implications of what was happening in real life. That often meant short turnarounds, which is why a lot of the fiction we published was short. They are dispatches from the near future that help us develop a critical position on the news.
But fiction always helps us understand the world; science fiction, especially because of its relationship to the material realities of the future, is incredibly useful for understanding. And like I said earlier, creating an emotional connection to what's actually happening, making things feel less abstract.
There's such a blend of some recognizable names along with people from outside the sci-fi sphere. You find it important to have those perspectives from other domains.
Brian: I think somebody who's reported carefully and thoroughly on either science or technology is going to have a different perspective than somebody whose primary objective is to create a world or to do fiction. Somebody like Sam Biddle comes to mind, who is both a tech critic and a tech journalist—who ruffled a lot of feathers with his Gawker-era tech reporting at Valleywag—and to transmute that into the fictional realm. He got interested, and he did a number of stories with us. They were always funny, they were always critical, and they were always sharp.
Claire: There's a specificity that specialists and journalists can bring to fiction that isn't better than, but is just different from what fiction writers are usually working with. Also, journalists are storytellers too! It's not like they don't have those chops. They know how to structure a story so that it's compelling, and they know how to find the great details that bring it to life. It's not as ironclad of a divide as you would think.
Do either of you have a favorite story? Or just one that sticks in your mind a little more.
Claire: There are lots of great ones. My favorite story in the anthology is the Russell Nichols story "U Won't Remember Dying." It's the last story in the anthology, and I think it ends things on a beautiful note. One of the reasons I really like this story is that it's formally experimental. It's told through text messages written by a young man in the hospital. And it's so visceral, so real. It feels like spying on someone's correspondence. It's really funny, and it's poignant, and I just love it.
Brian: We chose to end the Anthology with that for a reason. It does something that I think we hope a lot of the stories can do, which is to have real emotional resonance. It feels no less real now, even though it takes place in the future. [The narrator is] waiting to get uploaded into a new body because racist police violence has claimed his current one.
So, transporting that emotional resonance into a future setting successfully is a reminder that the trends that we're watching unfold now are going to extend a lot of the traumas and challenges we're experiencing right now in new and unpredictable ways. But it also gives the future a tactile quality–where we can imagine feeling that way about a soon-to-arrive future, whether it's grim or not. In our stories, it's usually grim.
Claire: Even if the world looks different, the emotional impact is the same. The emotional impact is recognizable, even though it's in a different container or takes a different form. That's something that comes through in a lot of the stories. We can't relate to the specifics of what's happening, but we can understand the pain, the trauma, the anger—the joy, too.
Brian: That’s what good speculative fiction does, right? It puts this idea out of a trend or a development that will reconfigure parts of the world in how we interact with it. But it allows us to shape our ability to anticipate it emotionally.
A lot of those stories do that. Since we talked about the last story, I'll bring up the first story, which is "Busy" by Omar El Akkad. In my non-science fiction work, I've been doing a lot of research and writing about the Luddites, who staged a rebellion against the day's entrepreneurs who were using machinery. And they smashed that machinery because it was degrading their livelihoods–and a funny side note, [this was] completely unbeknownst to Cory Doctorow, who contributed the introduction.
I had not told him that I was working on this project. Independently of that, he writes this introduction, "You Are a Luddite," and it's all about how science fiction is Luddite literature because it's giving us these critical tools to think about technology and the futures that it's bringing about. And then we transition from the introduction right into this story, Busy, which is about a future in which there are no more jobs, so megacorps and the government have made these entropy mills, where they're basically just trying to produce new data for the few remaining tech companies to use.
And so they have all different ways. People line up outside to sort of do these meaningless tasks. So they're listening to music or doing whatever—it's basically a work relief program, like the old-school-style New Deal stuff. But there are not enough jobs for everyone. Still, they wait in line to get a chance to do this. And it is just taking that data and using it to do god knows what, and it turns out to be a striking interrogation of a lot of our assumptions about work and technology and what it means to allow technology to have so much sway over our working lives, or to allow the governments and bosses to deploy it against that.
Let's talk about the book's structure. You've divided it into three sections: "Watch," "Worlds," and "Burn." First, can you maybe explain "Watch" and what that's rooted in: these ideas of surveillance and extraction in the current era?
Claire: I think the process of making an anthology is interesting because it allows you a moment of reflection on your past output. When you're putting out stories every week, you're not necessarily thinking about the themes of your entire project, but it becomes visible when you look at it in the rearview. The lion's share of the stories that we publish really fall quite easily into one of these three buckets: "Watch," "Worlds," and "Burn," because those are the things that people are the most anxious about right now, the things that people are most engaged with, things that feel the most relevant to our particular moment.
So the first section, "Watch," is about surveillance capitalism and forms of watching and being watched: your data being tracked and swallowed by a larger machine. It's a wide bucket. But I think that was one of the easiest sections to fill because a lot of the Terraform stories are in this space. Maybe because of Terraform's relationship to a tech publication or the fact that one of the most pressing issues in contemporary tech is this idea of surveillance capitalism and the ways in which corporations eat our data and use it against us, and sell us to each other, transacting upon all these moments of our lives in really unknowable and invisible and often insidious ways. I think that it's important to talk about and think about the concrete long-term implications.
Brian: We also have a lot of stories that are about what it means to watch, as we're more and more thrust into this position where we're consumers of entertainment and digital happenings in new environments and with augmented and virtual realities. There's a funny story by Laurie Penny about working on a content farm that just mass-produces viral videos. And it's also a noir, it's a really fun piece, but we have a lot of pieces [in "Watch"] that come at things from that angle, too.
Can we talk about the second section, "Worlds?"
Claire: Well, it’s a little bit—for lack of a better description–the cosmic or psychedelic section. It's where we put stories about altered and virtual realities, as well as stories that took place in outer space or in other dimensions—stories that had a little bit of a broader scope in terms of what they were talking about or the worlds that they were in.
I make this distinction in my Editor's Note about the difference between long and short futures, but I don't think one is more valid than the other. I think there's a space in this world for space operas and for things that have a grand scope, but the lessons that those stories teach us are just different than the lessons more near-term fictions teach us.
Of course, something can take place in the distant future and be very relevant to our present moment. It doesn't necessarily have to be as simplistic as distant futures versus tomorrow, but it's a different kind of scope. And so there are some stories in that section that are a little bit more poetic, a little bit more expansive, a little bit closer to the realm of fantasy, perhaps a little bit farther afield, a little dreamier.
They’re all still Terraform stories. They're all quite biting and do the things that the Terraform stories do, but they take us out a bit. And then we come back in the final section to the very pressing apocalyptic realities of climate change and war and police violence and all these more fiery and visceral things.
We could talk about the last section, "Burn." Brian, you specifically talk in your introduction about the recent flood of dystopian fiction in the last decade, and a lot of those works ring a little hollow. You're trying to fill that gap a little bit with these stories?
Brian: I think that, especially 10 years ago, with the rise of The Walking Dead—we forget now how complete its cultural dominance was. It was doing like Monday Night Football-levels of viewership, which was unheard of for a cable show.
There was a lot of pessimism, and there was a lot of anger around the 2008 financial crash, and it feeling like the world was ending. But it is also very lazy just to fast forward to the point where the world ends and not interrogate why. It's almost an escape or a fantasy, right? It's a fantasy to imagine the world ending. You get to start over, you can do things right this time, or you can behave how you want: if you secretly want to be a hyper-masculine ass-kicker, then you can just smash people's heads at will, if you're in a zombie movie, if you're the protagonist of The Walking Dead.
So it felt cheap, especially as it went on and the formula was copied over and over. So I think we started to look at it as an opportunity to color in what some of that meant. We have one that does that very explicitly, "Zombie Capitalism," which draws this link very explicitly. It's a really funny story. Sam Miller's piece, "Death and Other Gentrifying Neighborhoods," really turns a lens on what's happening in the collapse at interesting stages.
So I think that by actually really looking at why we're burning, which is, again, why we did this—it's like we watch, and then we imagine these other worlds, and then we don't do anything. It all culminates in a burning world, and I hope these stories will help us make sense of why the world is on fire.
Claire: I think it's telling that we often can only imagine building a better world after the world we live in has been completely destroyed. It's so much harder to enact change in the present than it is to imagine wiping the slate clean and starting over. And I think the real challenge of some of this fiction is finding a way to actually work towards utopia without destroying the world in the process.
There's an obvious contrast between dystopian and utopian fantasy. I feel like there are things in this collection, as dark as it can be, that get at that contrast and hint at the latter.
Brian: I think what dystopia misses is how people actually behave when things start to collapse. So often, in The Walking Dead and so forth, everybody just becomes barbarians killing each other. But in reality, I think Rebecca Solnit has it more right, where we have these "paradises built in hell" where people tend to come together after a disaster and do interesting and even inspiring things, given the opportunity actually to make a change, or in light of ruptured, entrenched space. There is a lot of opportunity for radical change and reform.
Terraform may be a starting point for somebody who's a little bit less familiar with short science fiction. If somebody likes this book, where could they go next?
Claire: A lot of the writers in the anthology have long-form practices. There are a lot of novelists in the mix. So if you like a story, seek out that writer and see what else they have to offer because a great thing about a short story is that it can be like a little hors d'oeuvre that invites you into a larger feast that you take with a specific writer.
Brian: A hundred percent. And I want to underline that this is a partnership with MCD books at [Farrar, Straus, and Company] for a reason: a bunch of the writers that have shown up time and again in Terraform—like Tim Maughan, Jeff Manaugh, Fernando Flores, or Jeff VanderMeer—they have books with Sean McDonald at FSG. His imprint is MCD books, and it just made intuitive sense to sort of partner with them to do this. So, I think that's another good reference point.
There are also older anthologies. It’s kind of fun to think about as part being part of the tradition of—I know Claire and I mentioned Dangerous Visions.
Claire: There's a really rich tradition of anthology publishing in science fiction because its history as a medium is rooted in magazine publishing, short form, and serialization. So there are so many great anthologies and so many definitive anthologies of certain moments in the history of the genre that we have looked to for inspiration.
I can only hope that Terraform is for this moment what a book like Dangerous Visions was for its own moment, but there are a lot of really great anthologies out there. I also want to say that Terraform, the website, has nearly eight years of publishing history. There are tons of great stories on the site, and we're back to publishing new stories online every week. Some of it is from the book, but some is new-new, and we'll keep doing that for the foreseeable future. So watch that space.