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In January 2021 I self-published a couple of collections of blank and stupid short stories. Later that year I self-published a flawed novella about pirates operating off the coast of Somalia, and pirates hundreds of years ago on the Spanish Main, and about depression. I marketed it hard. It sold surprisingly well; young people in America liked it, which meant that young people in England started liking it.
The buzz about the novella helped me get a deal with one of the big publishers, and the advance from that kept my rent paid for six months. I worked in a bookshop. As well as the standard screens showing book-trailers and interviews, the shop had these nifty display platforms which were partially mechanised. Books would fan out or snap shut. This reminded the customer that books were exciting. I stacked shelves and failed to help people find things. I was waiting for the publication of my first novel. At the time I thought that it was going to be called An Ocean of Blood.
The city I lived in was home to an annual arts and culture festival called Futurecon. Three months before Futurecon 2022, its organisers contacted me. They commissioned me to write a short story. They wanted it to be called, What will the future look like. A twee, stumbling title. A dead dog, I thought. I was to write it over the duration of the festival – one week – and then read it on the last day, as part of the final keynote presentation. They were going to pay me.
Futurecon arrived. I was really at the bottom of a deep trench – I felt buried. Ocean was about to come out. By then I hated it, and I was halfway into something else that I hated as well. The day before Futurecon began there was a pre-party at the conference hub, which was a repurposed art gallery. The walls were bare concrete. They’d crammed in about two hundred people. There were some suits but mostly everyone wore the standard grungy, hipsterish clothes. I couldn’t connect names to faces after I’d been introduced.
I wanted to go home and read but I’d decided that for the duration of Futurecon I was going to act like I lived in a post-reading age.
My liason was called Primo. His hair was bleach-blonde. I spotted a single gold hooped earring. He was doe-eyed and looked like an art-student. He gave me a lanyard with a thin pass on it. The pass had a crappy animated hologram embedded in it, a face I recognised – she was either an actress born in the suburbs, I thought, or perhaps an industrial revolution era novelist who had written heavy books about the city’s poor. With this pass I could get into any talk or event or exhibition I wanted to. He gave me a lot of tokens for drinks. The tokens were just slips of paper, and that seemed surprisingly low-tech, but then I thought it was probably the cheapest way. A lot of alcohol would flow through our already notoriously thirsty city during the next seven days. The pre-party was very loud – the concrete walls just bounced the sound around.
I said to Primo, “So, are you an intern?”
He shook his head. “No, I get paid.”
I wanted to ask him how old he was. We talked about books. He’d read more than I had. He was enthusiastic about a lot of writers from other countries and from the UK as well.
“I do a little writing of my own,” he said. “I write for a website.”
“Oh, OK,” I said.
“It’s like a cultural review thing. Games, films, music.”
“The big three,” I said.
Although the rest of his skin was pale, his eyelids were almost purple. He was very thin. I began to think that he was interested in me.
Futurecon proper began. I went to gigs. There was this thing that people were doing, which was marrying slow rapping with glacial drones and clouds of industrial noise. It seemed to be happening in every too-small, too warm venue I found myself in. It wasn’t new but it was popular.
I didn’t go to anything about computer games or technology or politics. I didn’t go to anything about literature.
I burned through my drink tokens but it was easy to get more. People left them lying around. I hoarded them. I felt like I should dig a hole and bury some.
A few times I just waved my pass and the bar staff gave me whatever was at hand. Through bad luck it was usually Bubble Tea, which was sickly sweet and difficult to get properly drunk on.
On the third night of Futurecon I went to the premier of a crowd-funded erotic thriller and after it there was a good debate about sex now. Not sex in the future – sex now. It was funny. Primo was there. After the panel finished – after the spivvy director and fat producer and distracted lead actor had finally stopped talking over the writer – Primo came over to talk to me.
“How’s the story?” He asked.
I finished my bottle of Bubble Tea.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m only halfway through.”
This was a lie; really I was waiting for it to fall into my lap.
“Yeah?” he said. His eyebrows were up like I was telling him a trade secret.
I said. “I’m a last-minute person.”
He said, “What did you think of the film?”
I said, “I really liked it. It was exploitative.”
The night before I was meant to read it, I still hadn’t written it. At some point I’d got hold of Primo’s business card. I rang him and asked him to meet me in a Tiki bar.
Tiki bars were everywhere. The bar staff wore Hawaiian shirts and the walls were covered in photographs of old surfboards and dead sharks and guitars. Primo seemed tired. I bought him a drink. Everywhere accepted Futurecon tokens and they proliferated in my pockets. At Tiki bars you drink rum cocktails. I got Primo one with a lot of mint in it – it looked like a tumbler full of cut grass.
I put it down on the table in front of him.
He said, “So, What will the future look like?”
I said, “I don’t know. Exactly like the past.”
He said, “I’ll tell you -”
He took a sip of his green drink. He didn’t realise that he was about to save me from considerable embarrassment.
“I think that in the future, everyone will work in recycling. Obviously, there’ll be other professions. Like actors and policemen. But the majority of people will work in recycling.”
He must’ve been tired, to speak this openly to me. Perhaps he was lulled because it was so dark in the Tiki bar – low electric light flickered in a madly tacky approximation of a beach bonfire.
“There’ll be these huge recycling plants everywhere. Now here’s the thing. Of course for the most part they’ll be computer-controlled. But the mechanisation will all be in the sorting of incoming rubbish. Both fresh rubbish and stuff exhumed from historic landfills.
“Now imagine how varied rubbish is, and then how varied our material needs are. We have to have loads of things, elements, metals, chemicals. The computers sift through all the rubbish that comes in, using recognition software. After it’s been sorted, the humans set to work. There’s a carbon team and a steel team and a fibreglass team. Of course the computers have come up with ways of reclaiming the precious things we need without causing more pollution.”
I said, “Ok.”
He said, “So, you see, everyone will have a job, and we’ll all be working for the greater good. The computers could do it all, and do it faster – but this way creates labour and a purpose for the populace. And the jobs would be nice, once we got over our distaste for rubbish. And everyone’s employment would be a hundred percent secure. We’re never going to run out of rubbish, are we?”
The next day I got up late and made my way through the city to the venue. It was under the railway arches and it was called Tobacco. It was surprisingly large inside. There was a bar area with long tables and benches like a Bavarian beer hall. Double doors lead through to the performance space. The stage was dressed for the panel I was to be part of; there were chairs for us and a transparent perspex podium. Before the stage were rows and rows of empty seats. After wandering around for a few minutes I returned to the bar and ordered a grapefruit-flavour diet coke from the barmaid. She was wearing an XXL orange-and-black American football jersey as a dress. She’d belted it at the waist. I paid for my drink with money, which felt unnatural.
I waited for an hour. I rolled and unrolled my printed-out story like I was deciding whether or not to swat a dog on the nose. I could’ve read from a tablet, but I suppose that I felt that this would somehow break the deal I’d made with Futurecon. The venue filled up and they started playing austere modern-classical music. Then a pleasant young woman with a pierced septum came and told me that I needed to take my place on the stage. I said, “Are you an intern?”
Up I went. I sat unprotected under the hot lights. There were others on the stage with me. I didn’t know them. The audience sat in rows before us, terrifying, maybe two hundred or two hundred and fifty engaged cultural consumers.
A plump middle-aged man spoke first. He was something to do with the council. It seemed like the festival had been a success. He made good-natured jokes. Then a woman spoke. She was from New Zealand, very smiley and demonic, and I’d definitely seen her on television. I wanted to listen to what she said but found that instead I edited, hopelessly, belatedly, in my head.
Then it was my turn to die. I stood and moved to the podium. The applause ended.
I said, “What will the future look like.”
My story was very much based on Primo’s idea of a world in which everyone works to reclaim trash.
I described the reclamation plant very well. I made it seem clean and dark. I’d wizarded up a couple of characters. They didn’t bear close scrutiny.
The plant was in Birmingham. Birmingham was real enough to puncture the sci-fi elements, distant enough to allow a sense of the foreign, and has always held a kind of residual comic charge.
The audience laughed at the jokes and were respectfully silent for the rest of it. Everything in my reclamation plant was going well. I read calmly.
But one day the plant screamed to a halt. The computers were mystified. The computers were represented by big blue screens the shade that water is on adverts.
“Override!” The computers said. “Override! Extraordinary Recognition Protocol Engaged.”
The thing that the computers had seen, and which had brought the whole plant to a halt, was the severed head of a teenaged girl. It had been hidden among domestic rubbish. Of course people still murdered each other in the future.
Her hair was long and blonde. It seemed to me than that a teenaged girl with long blonde hair was the archetypal murder victim.
All the workers in the plant gathered around the screens, silent, stupefied, like people queuing at the checkouts in the supermarket or waiting in Casualty for their name to be called. The screens flashed the image of this girl’s head again and again – I mean, how could a computer know that this was not the proper thing to do.
The concluding line of What will the future look like was this: she seemed bored, as if she’d expected all of this long ago, and an alarm went off and it sounded as bored as she looked.
After the event was over I found myself with a group of people who were heading to another Tiki bar. I had ended up, it seemed, with some V.I.Ps. I felt like a mascot and also an interloper. To get to this Tiki Bar we went down a steep staircase into the ground. The lights were very bright. Primo was there, waiting for us. He had no idea of what I’d done to, or with, his vision of the future.
We lost all sense of our position in time and acted as if it was past midnight although it was only the late afternoon. We talked slowly, lazily.
We ordered this thing called a Dead Man’s Chest. It was a huge box with a skull and crossbones on its lid and it was full of crushed ice. Nestled in the ice were a one-litre bottle of rum and various bottles of mixers. It came with sparklers sticking out of the ice which burned bright blue. The woman from New Zealand was paying for it on some kind of corporate credit card. Somehow she was networking with us. I remember thinking, surely no-one has ever bought one of these before. I was disastrously pissed. Quietly, I asked Primo if he wanted to come back to my flat, or to go anywhere with me. He said “I’m flattered, honestly I am, but I’m not gay.”
I thought, you can’t tell anymore, generally, you can’t tell anything.
Across the bar I saw a member of staff deliver another one of these huge silly chests to a group of students. But because we were from Futurecon and as if to make amends, the manager of the Tiki bar simultaneously brought us a round of free drinks, to go along with our Dead Man’s Chest. The free drinks were bright orange cocktails called Zombies. The manager was a bearded little man who laughed as if he knew he was damaging us. He nestled half a lime in the crushed ice of each Zombie, topped the lime with sugar, poured overproof rum on the fruit and set it on fire.
I said, “Limes are antiscorbutic. That means they prevent scurvy.”
Everyone around our table fell silent. We stared down at the Zombies, their burning limes, and waited for the flames to die.