Earlier this year, Microsoft invited a group of science fiction writers into its research department, giving them unfettered access to its people and resources with the purpose of inspiring a collection of short stories. That collection — titled Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft — is now out, featuring stories from nine award-winning authors on topics from translation to teleportation.
Among the authors invited was Ann Leckie, who won a suite of awards for her debut novel Ancillary Justice in 2013, David Brin, a longtime sci-fi writer who has also served on the advisory board of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group, and Robert J. Sawyer, whose novel FlashForward was the basis for the show of the same name. Microsoft says each of the writers was free to choose which area of research they wanted to base their stories in, but that they ended up sharing a number of overlapping themes. "At the time, we were super interested in certain things, like machine learning, deep neural networks, Skype Translator," said Allison Linn, the co-editor of the collection.
Themes include neural networks, machine learning, and on-the-fly translation
Leckie's story focuses particularly on translation, following a dispute between two spacefaring factions that speak two different languages that requires careful interpretation. The subject is an aspiration for Skype, which has started to incorporate on-the-fly translation features for a future in which people using different languages may be able to speak directly to each other through software. Leckie said her conversations with Microsoft's researchers colored her work, noting that while "it's easy to mechanically say this word should always be translated ‘truck,'" the meaning can change in context, or with body language or tone shifts. "If you know the speaker is agitated," Leckie said, "that provides part of how you're translating the sentence."
The Future Visions collection is available for free download now. While the co-operation of Microsoft means the stories won't imagine a future destroyed by monolithic tech corporations, Jennifer Henshaw — who co-edited the book with Linn — said the company wanted it to stand "not as a piece that was published by Microsoft, but as a piece of science fiction literature that stands on its own." Certainly, the authors included in the anthology have the serious sci-fi pedigree to make that claim.