“A great science fiction detective story” - Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
That story was part of a series, Future Anatomies, in which authors were asked “imagine the effect developments in medicine and biotechnology might have on humans in the not-so-distant future.”
Watkins´ story considers the unintentional development of a species of Homo Artificialis, not through augmentation or implantation, but through mutation via exposure to nuclear waste. In that sense it has a classic 1970s scifi kind of feel, while nevertheless avoiding seeming dated.
Watkins has published in Granta and the legendary Paris Review, which is pretty lofty stuff. People often write about her work in the kind overly precious babble-prose that makes me want to immediately go drinking with some engineers. Like this endorsement of her short story collection Battleborn:
“The book feels like a portrait of the human heart, famished for beauty and love, but finally and almost always wrecked by its own hungers.”
Yikes! Pretension overload — Danger Will Robinson!
The thing is, though, that this story is the real deal.
Wasteland is great science fiction and it´s rooted in a real-life issue that confronts us today and, more particularly, on the long timescales that life extension through artificial embodiment may increasingly make possible.
The issue is communication with the future, not in some science-fictional, time travel way, but in a very real, practical sense. It´s called nuclear semiotics.
When we store nuclear waste, we have to label the site as hazardous, but given the longevity of the hazard the warning may have to outlive the country, the language, the culture.
It may need to be understood by descendants of ours who are far more technologically advanced than we are, or who are living in the equivalent of ancient Babylon after a devastating war or social collapse (much like the Grey Zones in my novel, by the way — click the banner at the top of this page).
This means that it has be be as universal as possible. It may have to bypass language entirely and use symbols (which is not always easy or practical).
If this seems like a fantasy, rest assured that the U.S. government has already been hard at work on it, assembling a team that included astrophysicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford, who wrote at length about the experience in his fascinating and entertaining book Deep Time.
You can read an extensive excerpt from Deep Time here.
You can find excerpts and illustrations from the report on the issue here.
Or you can read the whole damned report, Reducing the Likelihood of Future Human Activities That Could Affect Geologic High-level Waste Repositories by the Human Interference Task Force.
Watkins is familiar with the locale, being a Nevada native — the government´s original intention was to apply nuclear semiotics to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository site, although it was later defunded.
Just as importantly, she is clearly familiar with nuclear semiotics itself, as the description of the spiky concrete sculpture in her story makes clear. Using a sculpture that communicated the idea of stay the hell away, this place is bad news was one idea considered by the government team, although in the story the local kids use it as a place to skateboard.
So ignore all the blather that´s been written about Watkins, and forget that the last time you read a story with this theme Star Wars had just come out. Wasteland, Wasteland, Wasteland is a great story and you can listen to it here.