Nostalgic, Prescient (and very, very memorable) Science Fiction

23 Nov

Somehow, without me noticing, the science fiction writers I remember from magazines of the early-2000s appeared on my bookshelf again.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a mission to find copies of the first SF stories I can remember reading—two of them I knew for sure came from an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine; two of them might be in one of a number of old anthologies of my grandfather’s; and one of them might just be from a dream I had years ago and inflated into a dystopian epic (it happens).

In any case, after diligent Google searching and telephone inquiries with a used bookstore in Oregon, I was able to get a listing of the titles and authors of short stories in Asimov’s from 2002 to 2005.  The problem was that it’s a monthly magazine, and I couldn’t remember if my subscription had begun when I was a freshman in high school, or when my older sister first brought back those QSP-issued order forms for the annual magazine drive.

So: after nearly 7 years, I couldn’t remember the authors, or the titles (shoot, I couldn’t even remember the year).  This may have something to do with the fact that back in those halcyon days of yore, I was a very sweet, very impressionable middle-school girl who found herself horrified by the lurid cover illustrations and pulp fiction content of the publication—a semi-nude, iridescent faerie was not, after all, what Dune and Contact had prepared me for.

I read no more than two or three issues, tossed the rest out, and did not renew my subscription.  I would stick to the classics, I decided.

But for 7 years I’ve managed to vividly remember two stories—or at least, bizarre details from two stories—from one of the few issues I’d read.

The first was about a woman with some sort of genetically-engineered pets franchise: they had a strange name (ploompies?  ploofties?) and were globular, translucent, pulsing masses of the buyer’s own DNA.  And somehow, these creatures were so appealing that the owner could hardly help but bite into them—and get a taste of something sharp and metallic (in my orthodontics-oriented middle-school mind, that jagged pain you get from biting down on a piece of tinfoil with a filled tooth).

The second story had something to do with a girl and her dog; they lived in the “real world,” or rather, the physical world, because when she grew up, she would have to abandon her body and lived in a completely virtual world, like the Internet.  Some accident happens to the girl, and her body is lost—she herself is just barely uploaded in time, but the dog can’t be saved.

This isn’t much to go on.  But paging through lists of titles online, I spotted one called “Junk DNA.”  Alarms went off in the brainpan.  I bought a used copy of the January 2003 issue of the magazine, and checked my PO Box daily until it arrived.

The first story, about the bizarre pets (Pumptis, as it turns out), was indeed “Junk DNA,” by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker.  And here’s the passage that had so stuck with me:

In a dizzying moment of raw devotion, Janna suddenly found herself sinking her teeth into the unresisting flesh of the Pumpti.  Crisp, tasty, spun-cotton candy, deep-fried puffball dough, a sugared beignet.  And under that a salty, slightly painful flavor—bringing back the memory of being a kid and sucking on the root of a lost tooth.

Why that particular imagery was so memorable, I don’t know.  More interesting is the fact that the genre of the story is one I’ve been raving about for the past few months:

“Junk DNA” is science fiction story about a business venture and all the backroom politicking that goes along with economics, invention, and the market.  Sound a bit like…?

(My post on) Cory Doctorow and Makers, his very recent epic of robotics, business, and the “New Work” (like the New Deal, but way more free market);

(My post on) David Louis Edelman and his Jump 225 series, for which “cyberpunk” hardly does justice as a classification—the corporate intrigue behind Bio/Logic and MultiReal (and how could there not be corporate intrigue with sociopathic entrepreneur Natch at the helm?) is just as intense as the science;

Charles Stross and Glasshouse, which won the 2007 Prometheus Award for “libertarian SF” (This, friends, is my life goal), or The Atrocity Archives, which is something of a spy thriller with a science fiction element closer to Lovecraftian horror than anything else (take a look at the January 2003 cover illustration and you’ll see where I’ve found a connection with Lovecraft).

Even one of the authors, Bruce Sterling, will be appearing on my bookshelf when The Caryatids arrives in the mail in a couple weeks.  And the last page of the January 2003 issue is a sort of preview of coming attractions feature, listing authors and stories for the next issue—one of them, by the way, is Charlie Stross).

To think, I thought these were new discoveries.

Mystery Story #2 also happened to be in the Jan. 2003 issue—“Pick My Bones With Whispers,” by Sally McBride.  This was a major lucky break, as I would never have remembered that the second story imprinted on my malleable brain had been the winner of the Pretentious Title Award for 2003.  (Is McBride trying to be ironic?  I sincerely hope so…)

And once again, the topics that fascinate me today, I discover, are absolutely nothing new.  The research I recently did on the millennial generation’s changing conception of the Internet (or, for them/us, Cyberspace)—from a tool to a place that has been increasingly explored since childhood—is all there in the saga of Lizbeth and her faithful virtual pup, Fritz:

Though I’m twelve, there’s still a lot I can’t do in the children’s Net areas, even if Fritz was letting me in deeper and deeper all the time.  There were dark places I couldn’t go, forbidden subjects I couldn’t get data on, tantalizing things I couldn’t see or join or do.  Sometimes it was humiliating to be a flesh-and-blood person.

This sounds so much like one of the responses I got from an interviewee for my paper that it’s almost shocking.  She doesn’t use the Internet to the same extent of her peers—and so (like Lizbeth, albeit less dramtically) resists absorption into Cyberspace.  She told me:

“Everyone talks about how big the Internet is, and I know, because I can go on for hours and hours and still feel like I’ve never gotten into the core of it.  If the Internet was real life, I would be non-existent.”

This interviewee in particular doesn’t care for science fiction—she enjoys borrowing my DVDs of Firefly, but that’s about it.  No 2003 Asimov’s Science Fiction for her.  And still, she easily could have spoken those lines from McBride’s story.

This—like the theme and subject matter of recent novels by authors like Stross, Edelman, and Doctorow—tells me that there’s something in the culture today stories like “Junk DNA” and “Pick My Bones With Whispers” (I’m sorry, I still really can’t type that without cracking up) picked up on in 2003: the increasing interconnectedness of technology and economics, and the transformation of the Internet into an environment rather than just a tool.

Getting that old magazine in the mail today was like a wave of nostalgia, but after reading through those stories again, the sentimentality was gone—the things I missed and remembered for 7 years are mainstream now.


3 Responses to “Nostalgic, Prescient (and very, very memorable) Science Fiction”

  1. Sally McBride August 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Sally McBride here. Yeah, I kind of suck at titles… but glad you found my story (Pick my Bones with Whispers, Asimov’s) to be memorable. And also yeah, the cover on that issue was particularly awful. I felt embarrassed running around trying to shove copies of the mag into people’s hands.

    • Isabela Morales August 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

      I am (to use my own embarrassing science fiction pun) star struck that an actual author I actually wrote about read this post.

      Perhaps my habitual blog sarcasm masks this fact, but I’ve been running around for years trying to get someone to hand me that magazine. When my copy arrived in the mail, I couldn’t think of any cover illustration more breathtaking. And don’t tell anyone (I can’t let anyone know how snarky I’m really not), but I still feel terrible for Fritz.


  1. Retro Sci-Fi Reviews: Gotta Catch ‘Em All « the Scattering - January 18, 2011

    […] Over a year ago, I embarked on a quest to find two of the short stories I knew I had read in some issue of those magazine.  And after weeks of online research (and actually calling old used bookstores up for information–I’m that committed), I found the issue I remembered.  Jackpot. Am I right, or am I right? This book cover is terrifying. […]

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