November 19, 2015

Microsoft commissions a sci-fi anthology of stories inspired by…Microsoft


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Image via Microsoft.

Ah, the long, sort-of-rich history of product placement in literature!

MobyLives readers know all about books designed to sell Weber grills, Sweet ‘N Low, the nation of Malta, and Land Rovers—but what about books designed to sell the future? Specifically, a future filled with Microsoft products?

The answer to that question has arrived in the form of Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired By MicrosoftIt’s a free ebook anthology of short stories by various well-known sci-fi authors, including Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire, Blue Delliquanti and Robert J. Sawyer. The book’s website describes the stories as “visionary,” and claims they:

…explore prediction science, quantum computing, real-time translation, machine learning, and much more. The contributing authors were inspired by inside access to leading-edge work, including in-person visits to Microsoft’s research labs, to craft new works that predict the near-future of technology and examine its complex relationship to our core humanity.

Athima Chansanchai at Microsoft News discussed the access and resources that Microsoft provided the authors:

[The authors] were given access to people and resources at Microsoft Research, which has more than 55 areas of research within it. They chose the areas of research they wanted to explore. Among the many topics they absorbed were quantum computing, prediction analytics, virtual teleportation and computing that relates to emotion. The writers talked to researchers in person, asked questions and had candid conversations during packed, curated visits in the spring, aligned to their interests.

Chansanchai’s report/press release quotes the Microsoft team behind the project, all of whom say very reassuring things. The anthology includes a majority of female authors, and Jennifer Henshaw, who works in the communications department of Microsoft Research and co-edited the collection, claims that they “want it to be meaningful to the sci-fi community—not as a piece that was published by Microsoft, but as a piece of science fiction literature that stands on its own. ”

Harry Shum, EVP of technology and research at Microsoft, contributed a foreword to the book that sounds positively Spielberg-esque in its combination of treacle and scope:

“Spurred on by both the science and the science fiction of our time, my generation of researchers and engineers grew up to ask what if and what’s next?” Shum continues. “Today – years and years later – we are realizing much of what we dreamed of as kids.”

And inspired by science, science-fiction writers keep dreaming. And oh, what dreams they have.

Product placement (or commissioned artwork) isn’t a new concept, and this latest iteration seems fairly innocent, assuming anything Microsoft does can be described as such. And it’s savvy marketing, too; reach a ready-made audience by giving their favorite writers specific (and sexy, at least to tech heads) reference points from which they can then build whatever world and characters they want—ostensibly creating a partnership rather than a sponsorship. Arguably, the authors involved in this project aren’t shilling for Microsoft by using their R&D as a launchpad for fiction, or no more than Stieg Larsson shilled for Apple when he devoted story space to maddeningly specific descriptions of every single gadget.

However, the intention espoused by the book’s editors to provide the authors with a “chance to do something a little bit different, more edgy” rings a little hollow. The spectrum of published science fiction already includes so-called “hard sci-fi”—stories so heavily researched and scientifically accurate that they’re inaccessible to the lay reader. Additionally, if you’re a professional sci-fi writer, visiting a tech giant’s R&D department is cool, but it’s not edgy, or really even that necessary; you already invent this stuff in your head!

This project fits neatly into Microsoft’s corporate agenda, which is to ensure that the future is written in their own image. They’ve been working hard to make sure the present is, too. How many times have you seen a TV character whip out a Microsoft Surface tablet or Windows Phone to look up a narratively-crucial piece of information? (A lot.) How many times have you seen anyone do this in real life? (Thought so.)

Curtis White argues that tech corporations and their techno-utopian allies retain control of popular narratives (progress, equality, economic growth) by relentlessly positioning their products and visions as inevitable, as the gifts of our new popular deity: “innovation.” Microsoft’s sci-fi anthology does exactly this and, though this shouldn’t serve as criticism of the authors’ or editors’ intentions, it’s still unsettling for sci-fi readers who prefer that books interrogate the state of science and its relation to humanity, rather than take it as a given—especially a branded given.



Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.