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Twelve Tomorrows 2018 (SF) - Ed. Wade Roush ****

For several years, the MIT Technology Review has published the Twelve Tomorrows series as a magazine, but this year it has been handed over to the MIT Press as a big, grown up book. The idea is to have stories that really make you think about the implications of a technology - something that exists to some degree now, but that is extrapolated into a future where it may be far advanced from its current form.

There is a danger with this kind of story that it can be more than a little po-faced and can work over-hard at educating the reader about the technology at the cost of losing an effective narrative. Thankfully, most of the authors avoid this trap and present genuinely intriguing stories. Ken Liu's Byzantine Empathy is the story that comes closest to falling into this mode in its attempts to explain blockchains (not very well, sadly) - but is entirely forgiven by presenting what is one of the most powerful storylines in the book, using the idea of a blockchain mechanism for getting an empathy response from followers as a way of deciding how to allocate aid funds. The story really digs into the whole head vs heart balance on charity and aid - and the outcome is not the idealistic, black and white one you might expect.

That was probably my second favourite story, being pipped to the post by the opener, The Woman Who Destroyed Us by S L Huang which explores the ethics of using direct brain stimulation to alter personality in order to deal with mental problems... or just to 'improve' an individual. To begin with, the narrative felt a little predictable to me, but by the end it had won me over. I was very impressed and had changed my own opinion on the topic.

Inevitably not every story hit the mark. I felt Chine Life by the best-known author in the book, Paul McAuley, seemed rather forced and I found the last story in the collection, Vespers by J. M. Ledgard unreadable. I also doubly resented the graphic novel-style story Resolution by Clifford V. Johnson. The comic book images did nothing for the story, which was almost entirely a conversation - it would have been far easier to read as a short short story that was straight text (it's a shame as this was, effectively, the only short short, which is one of my favourite SF story forms). The pictures just got in the way. The other half of the resentment is that having the comic book layout forced the overall book to be in an uncomfortably large format, making it physically feel more like reading a textbook than a collection of stories.

While not all in the garden was rosy, though, at least half the stories were excellent and this is a collection that is well worth looking out, especially if MIT don't spoil things by pricing in like an academic book. (Postscript: it is more expensive than I'd hoped. And why is there no Kindle version?)

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Review by Brian Clegg

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