INTRODUCTION: Exploring the Far Future
by Gardner Dozois
The concept of the “far future” is a relatively new one. Before you can conceive of a time millions of years from now, you first have to have a sense of a past that stretches millions of years behind us, an intuition into what has been called “deep time,” the kind of time, measured out in geological eras, in which mountains rise and fall, rock is laid down in patiently accumulating strata at the bottom of the sea before being thrust up into the air as naked new peaks, continents drift lazily around the globe, whole species of animals die, and new species evolve to replace them.
The idea of “deep time” didn’t really become part of the intellectual armory of the human species until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when thinkers such as Jean Louis Agassiz, James Hutton, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin began to challenge the church-sanctioned view that Creation had happened at 9:00 a.m. on October 26, 4004 B.C. (according to the calculations of Bishop Ussher in the seventeenth century), suggesting instead that the Earth was countless millions of years old, rather than a mere six thousand—a span of time so staggeringly huge, so dismayingly vast, that it is difficult for the human mind, used to measuring things on the Mayfly scale of our own eyeblink lives, to even grasp it.
Once you’ve had this vision of time stretching endlessly away behind us, it’s perhaps inevitable that it will occur to somebody that this means that time will continue on past the current day and keep on going for millions of years to come… a concept which, through extrapolation, leads to the realization that changes as sweeping and dramatic and vast as those that took place in remote geological ages past will continue to happen in the future—that the Earth of the far future will be as radically different from the Earth of today as today’s Earth is from the Earth of the Cretaceous or the Mesozoic.
And thus the concept of the “far future” was born.
Almost as soon as it was, science fiction writers were writing about it, sailing into the far future on the wings of their imaginations and exploring the strange and terrible wonders they found there. The first such exploration may have taken place in the pages of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine in 1895, written at a time when even the concept that there was such a thing as the far future was radical, Cutting Edge stuff, and the concurrent idea that the Earth was millions of years old rather than six thousand was still fiercely controversial, hotly debated, and denied in both social and scientific circles. Wells was soon joined in visits to the far future by visionaries such as William Hope Hodgson (with his The Night Land and The House on the Borderland), J.B.S. Haldane (with his “The Last Judgment”), Olaf Stapledon (with his Last and First Men), and others—a tradition that enters the hothouse of the genre SF market in the early ’30s via stories such as John W. Campbell’s classic “Twilight” (written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart) and the Zothique stories of Clark Ashton Smith. By 1946, we come to the first great “modern” far-future SF novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, and visions of the far-future continue to appear throughout the twentieth century in the work of writers such as Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, and others.
Here in the early days of the twenty-first century, I decided that it was time to get a twenty-first century take on what the far future was going to be like, and so I challenged a group of daring visionaries to imagine life in One Million A.D.: a time so far ahead that the human race and the Earth itself will have been altered almost out of recognition, and all of our history and culture, everything we are, everything we know and cherish, will have faded to dim and half-forgotten mythology—if it’s remembered at all.
Even within SF, where most stories are set at least some distance into the future, far-future stories have always been relatively rare—few writers have ever had the imagination, poetic skills, and visionary scope required to write convincingly about what humanity might be like, what radical changes we might have undergone in nature and lifestyles, not just a few decades or even a hundred years from now, but a million years from now (always assuming, of course, that there are humans still surviving by then, or anything we’d recognize as human, anyway—but that’s a different anthology!). To conjure up an evocative and poetically intense portrait of the far future calls for a degree—and a kind—of imagination rare even among science fiction writers.
I’m pleased to say that the writers gathered here, Robert Reed, Robert Silverberg, Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and Greg Egan, have done a splendid job of meeting that challenge, providing along the way, not at all incidentally, some of the most vivid, evocative, entertaining, and mind-stretchingly imaginative science fiction you’re ever likely to find. Enjoy!
by Robert Reed
Robert Reed sold his first story in 1986, and quickly established himself as a frequent contributor to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction, as well as selling many stories to Science Fiction Age, Universe, New Destinies, Tomorrow, Synergy, Starlight, and elsewhere. Reed may be one of the most prolific of today’s young writers, particularly at short-fiction lengths, seriously rivaled for that position only by authors such as Stephen Baxter and Brian Stableford. And—also like Baxter and Stableford—he manages to keep up a very high standard of quality while being prolific, something that is not at all easy to do. Reed stories such as “Sister Alice,” “Brother Perfect,” “Decency,” “Savior,” “The Remoras,” “Chrysalis,” “Whiptail,” “The Utility Man,” “Marrow” “Birth Day,” “Blind,” “The Toad of Heaven,” “Stride,” “The Shape of Everything,” “Guest of Honor,” “Waging Good,” and “Killing the Morrow,” among at least a half-dozen others equally as strong, count as among some of the best short work produced by anyone in the ’80s and ’90s; many of his best stories were assembled in his first collection, The Dragons of Springplace. Nor is Reed non-prolific as a novelist, having turned out eight novels since the end of the ’80s, including The Lee Shore, The Hormone Jungle, Black Milk, The Remarkables, Down the Bright Way, Beyond the Veil of Stars, An Exaltation of Larks, Beneath the Gated Sky, Marrow, and Sister Alice. His most recent book is a chapbook novella, Mere. Coming up is a new collection, The Cuckoo’s Boys, and a new novel, The Well of Stars. Reed lives with his family in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Reed has visited the far future in his Sister Alice stories and in stories such as “Whiptail” and “Marrow,” but here he takes us deeper into the future than he ever has before, to a world whose origin is lost in the labyrinth of time, a world where, as a group of randomly thrown-together travelers is about to learn, everything is about to change—and not for the better.
A Dot On Old Paper
“World’s Edge. Approaching now… World’s Edge!”
The worm’s caretaker was an elderly fellow named Brace. Standing in the middle of the long intestinal tract, he wore a dark gray uniform, patched but scrupulously clean, soft-soled boots and a breathing mask that rode on his hip. Strong hands held an angelwood bucket filled with a thick, sour-smelling white salve. His name was embossed above his shirt pocket, preceded by his rank, which was Master. Calling out with a deep voice, Master Brace explained to the several dozen passengers, “From this station, you may find your connecting trails to Hammer and Mister Low and Green Island. If World’s Edge happens to be your destination, good luck to you, and please, collect your belongings before following the signs to the security checkpoints. And if you intend to stay with this splendid worm, that means Left-of-Left will be our next stop. And Port of Krauss will be our last.”
The caretaker had a convincing smile and a calm, steady manner. In his presence, the innocent observer might believe that nothing was seriously wrong in the world.
“But if you do plan to stay with me,” Brace continued, “you will still disembark at World’s Edge, if only for the time being. My baby needs her rest and a good dinner, and she’s got a few little sores that want cleaning.” Then he win ...