As Nature's science-fiction column reaches a milestone, we recall some of the highlights.
This week sees the 400th science-fiction story published in Nature journals under the 'Futures' banner. The number 400 is, of course, only significant to those of us with ten digits. It's more impressive in binary (110010000), although nothing special in Hex (190th), and the Octalonians of the Octillian system (our keenest readers) will mark it as their 620th.
The number, however presented, includes all the stories we have published in Nature — on, off, simultaneously or instead of — since Arthur C. Clarke's inaugural salvo on 4 November 1999, as well as those featured in the completely separate time-stream of Nature Physics, a few parsecs away.
Looking back at the Futures, as they say, we find that the column, while barely noticed by many, sitting as it does at the back of each printed issue (although free to all online), is a guilty pleasure for the discerning few. The anthology, Futures from Nature, was given a starred review by Publishers Weekly, and, in 2005, the column won Nature the accolade of 'Best Science Fiction Publisher' from the European Science Fiction Society. (We ignore those wags who say that everything that Nature publishes is science fiction.)
Among the canon of stories published in Futures are missives from superluminaries of the genre: Michael Moorcock, Frederik Pohl and Ursula Le Guin. (Had Isaac Asimov been alive, he'd probably have written the lot.) But there have also been tales from other established writers, perhaps less well known to Nature readers, and many more from scientists — and others — trying out fiction for the very first time. We've had lesbian robots from a senior citizen in Alaska, the shade of Michael Jackson from a virologist in Singapore, the problems of copyrighting dreams from a software consultant in India, and intergalactic country music by a student from Malaysia. Futures was also the venue for the first story ever sold by high-school student Shelly Li of Omaha, Nebraska — who is now just about to publish her first novel.
You, too, can join the throng by following the exploits of Futures on Facebook (go.nature.com/mtoodm) or by sending your story (850–950 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. But beware, Futures has become a victim of its own success — like trying to nail jelly to the ceiling, it is now almost as hard to get a story into Futures as to have a research paper published in Nature.
Futures, like radio signals from distant suns, will surely come and go. But as the man said (the 'man', depending on which web page you read, being Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, Woody Allen or, who knows, Donald Rumsfeld), prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. As such, we intend to keep Futures until we (or you) get bored of it, or until Earth is struck by an asteroid, whichever comes first. The first seems unlikely. As for the second, we shall no doubt have other, more pressing concerns. Here's to the next 110010000.
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Source Code for Biology and Medicine (2013)