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Make Shift (SF) - Gideon Lichfield (Ed.) ***

MIT Press has published a series of collections of science fiction short stories, each with a particular message in mind, often around the impact of new technologies on some aspect of society. So, for example, a recent addition, Entanglements, looked at the impact on relationships and families of emerging technologies. The series is known as 'Twelve Tomorrows', though in the case of Make Shift there are only 10 stories. This is a rapidly assembled collection where the focus is being post-pandemic: the idea was to be positive and show how science and technology could create a fairer, more hopeful world in the aftermath of what many stories assume will be a whole series of pandemics, starting with Covid-19.

There is always a big danger with fiction-with-a-message that the earnestness of the message will get in the way of the storytelling, and that's certainly the case in a number of stories here. In general with these collections there a couple of standouts and a couple of flops, with the rest occupying a middle ground of stories. Perhaps because this collection was put together quickly, it feels rather less effective than previous entries in the series - not helped by a rather strange idea of positiveness, as I found many of the stories quite depressing.

For me the standout here was The Price of Attention by Canadian author Karl Schroeder, featuring a police consultant on the autism spectrum who uses special glasses to manage his focus. It was clever, entertaining and had a sense of drama. There was one oddity - it featured a US where a new voting system allowed people to vote multiple times if they paid for the privilege which seemed both poorly thought through (it was supposed to reflect the importance people put on the issue, but the pricing was absolute, not based on the voter's personal worth) and highly unlikely ever to be passed into law. However, this didn't get in the way of a story with drive and purpose. It perhaps wasn't a coincidence that the post-pandemic aspect was almost incidental - the story would have worked just as well without it.

In too many of the stories, nothing much really happened. They were just a vehicle for describing a new technology and how it would work post (or during) pandemics. A typical example was the opener, Little Kowloon, in which British writer Adrian Hon portrays an attempt to put on an Edinburgh Festival show using new technology to get round the issues of social distancing. There just wasn't enough of a story there to care much about it. 

As with previous collections in this series, there were a couple of stories I had to give up part way through as it was just too much hard work to carry on with no reward for the reader - the message simply pushed storytelling out of the way so much that it wasn't worth the effort.

Not the best addition to MIT's series, then, but as with all these collections there will almost certainly be some stories here that do appeal, so worth seeking a copy out from a library.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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