I’ve been using Kindle for years. My apartment is full of shelves full of genuine books, of course, and I still buy books regularly, whether they’re tattered thrift stores or immaculate releases. Still, I find myself seduced by the convenience of e-books. I can get them with a click; they do not eject me from my living space; they are not lost, damaged or covered in dust; and I can carry dozens of them – hundreds, thousands! – every time I travel. I can read in bed at night thanks to a built-in backlight that doesn’t disturb my sleeping spouse like a reading lamp would, and the ease of holding a tablet without turning pages means I can slouch in bed in the only really comfortable reading position.
For all these enticements to e-read, however, there is something hugely unsatisfying about the experience. I don’t remember very well which e-books I read. I don’t remember lines, characters or scenes. I also can’t remember my reading situation – where I was sitting, what music was playing, my state of mind, the time of day. Authors, texts and voices merge – an endless stream of police-controlled electronic ink flashing through a glowing Etch-a-sketch. The books lose their smell and their touch, the singular set of associations that merge my contingent encounter with the enduring object.
I also lose the trophy-jewel aspect: the ability to look around my shelves and instantly revisit the fun, challenge, and accomplishment that titles represent. I love being surrounded – accompanied – by the physical books that have occupied my hours. I use Goodreads.com sporadically because I thought it might replicate some of that last fun. But no. Instead, I’m irritated by the five-star rating system.
It was with these e-reading shortcomings in mind that I found myself utterly thrilled as I returned to paper wonder through the gripping pages of Futures: a science fiction series. Produced by Radix Mediaa Brooklyn-based, independently owned and operated printer and publisher. Futures contracts was originally a series of seven short stories available by individual title or by subscription. The entire series is now collected in this magnificent box set, listed in order of original publication.
Each of the seven stories is by a different author, and each is housed in a separate 5×8 chapter book that has a striking pastel-colored typographic cover. Varying from approximately 20 to 40 pages, the seven individual book objects are spellbinding: richly designed and carefully executed by a number of people inside and outside the Radix team, such as chief designer Sarah Lopez Explain. The covers vary in style and illustration, signaling the wide range of stories they contain. But there’s also a subtle unity to the collection that, captured in the spirit of the stories themselves, is exemplified by the “Futures” header that nestles above each title.
In the press release, Radix explains that entries in Futures contracts are dedicated to exploring “critical contemporary issues in an imaginary future”. The fact that these speculative explorations are housed in a retro-aesthetic set of chapbooks produced by a patently antiquated printing technique is utterly delightful. The forces of the future may indeed evolve alongside the advances in technology that have brought the electronic reading devices that tempt me but still disappoint me, but like each of the stories of Futures contracts demonstrates, such a future is bound to include humans to some degree. This means that we would do well to look ahead while clinging to what is arguably one of the most human experiences of all – that of immersing ourselves in an encounter with the printed word.
While I have so far focused on format rather than content, this does not reflect the quality of the stories or the writers involved. Radix has simply made it pleasantly impossible to separate stories from the experience of reading them. Consider the last story, “Milo 01001101 01101001 01101100 01101111”, by Alexander Pyles. One cannot contemplate the story’s possibility of replacing failing human flesh with a robot body without also stopping to marvel at the precise lines of artwork throughout that are so clearly guided by human hands, although sometimes they can be.
Likewise, I can’t discern if my favorite offering of the group, “Guava Summer”, is my favorite because of the author Vera Kurianits lucid prose, wry intelligence, and powerful yet understated energy, or whether it’s my favorite because I had the chance to read it in glorious sitting on my sunny porch while listening to the perfect backing music. (5 of SAULT5.) Each of the other five stories is equally imbued with the details of my encounter, awash with enduring intimacies that attach me to the author, the narrative, and the object.
Still, more of the substance of the stories would have to be said, if only to convince you to pursue your own encounter with the set of chapbooks. The collection ranges from scholarly literature and science fiction to dystopian allegory, detective fiction and more personal meditations on identity, embodiment and kinship. Although the authors follow their own path along these roads, a few patterns emerge. There is a buzzing concern with surveillance, for example. The catastrophe of climate change is dealt with explicitly in John Dermot Woodsis “Always blue” and Ashley Shelby‘s “Muri,” but the fear of environmental collapse arguably hovers on the fringes of several other stories as well. Illness, both mental and physical, returns.
Perhaps most curious of all the models is that three stories deal extensively with robots, but in all three the robot is an artificial person modeled after an absent but real and pre-existing person, be it a a dead sister, a murdered or terminally ill girlfriend. – diseased character. There is something poignant in this coincidence that the only authors deal with artificial intelligence by viewing the robot as a stand-in not for humanity per se, but for specifically realized personalities and relationships. The result in each case is a compelling examination of how technology intertwines with mundane questions of connection and love.
“What You Call”, by Germ Lynn, for example, resonates emotionally while drawing us into a family storyline that can only exist through the imagination of science fiction. Meanwhile, in the same vein but avoiding robots, “Hard Mother, Spider Mother, Soft Mother” by Hal Y.Zhang is perhaps the most personal and also the least overtly speculative of the stories. It is a “future” not so different from our own, one where the mysteries of motherhood evoke the most immediate horizon of estrangement.
While some stories dwell more on the ambiguities of personality and affiliation, others focus more on a single issue or larger issue. Aeryn Rudel“A Point of Honor” by is a direct and forceful examination of internet culture and public cowardice, which oscillates wonderfully between satire and thriller. Woods’ “Always Blue” is a genius at exploring macro issues of societal stability through the petty prism of interpersonal feuds and creature comforts.
Shelby’s ‘Muri’, meanwhile, is perhaps the most complex story (and also the longest) even when climate change is clearly the central concern. Much of the complexity here stems from the complex reworking of the story of Melville’s masterpiece. Benito Cereno. What was for Melville a South American tale of revolution and slavery at the root of America’s new world becomes, in Shelby’s able hands, an arctic tale of extinction and species in the melting ruins of the Anthropocene. There’s a lot to ponder about Shelby’s strategic changes, big and small, that make “Muri” a haunting addition to the mix. Yet the story also speaks with a cutting honesty that suits all stories. As a wise character, Shelby’s avatar for Babo, Melville’s mischievous slave, puts it: “What is considered madness by men is often nothing more than understanding.”
Fittingly, four of the stories of Futures contracts were nominated for the Pushcart Price 2019. But it would be a mistake to read only these four stories in isolation from the other three. Read and dwell on each chapbook. Let each story make their world an enduring part of yours. Meet the future with this artistic realization of the present.