Warning: the following review is going to be more subjective than usual. Read at your own risk.
In the past ten years, I have read a staggering amount of fiction (probably more than is healthy), and there are times I feel I’ve encountered it all—short, long, experimental, retro, modern, post-modern, meta-modern, epistolary, framed, second-person, and on and on and on. But for whatever reason, I’ve only read one or two pieces of flash fiction. Something that is relatively new in the taxonomy of story types, with Stephen Oram’s 2019 science fiction collection Biohacked & Begging I was struck head on by it.
Biohacked & Begging is short as a whole (+/- 150 pages) but seems it should be much longer given it contains 25 stories. One story is thirty pages and another literally a paragraph, but the rest need only about five-seven minutes to read, each. I normally stick to content in my reviews (and I will get to it shortly), but story-length is such an important aspect of the collection that it should be mentioned at the outset as it has a strong impact on the reading experience, particularly if the reader is looking for fully unpacked story ideas, well-developed characters, and other aspects of lengthier fiction. Like a box of chocolates, the reader is best off tasting a few of Oram’s tales and coming back the next day lest they devour half the box and become nauseated.
As stated in Christine Aicardi’s foreword, the stories in Biohacked & Begging are intended to be launch pads for conversation. The majority spinning humanity one, two, or three major directions from 2019’s Sunday, Oram disrupts our view of the present by adding various futuristic elements—technology, medicine, economic transformation, political change, etc.—to see what happens. The stories in fact more vignettes, the futures are painted in brief, simple, workaday language which leaves a character or characters at some impasse, pushing the reader to continue the stories’ line of thought in their own head. In “Mr. Enhancement”, a street busker dissembles his mostly artificial body piece by piece. In “Reconned”, a man buys a health drone to monitor and protect his children but has disastrous results. In “Modified Manhood”, people are considered legally adults in society only if they are fertile. In “Happy Forever Day”, euthanasia is available in a pill, and becomes all the more enticing when people’s lives are significantly extended.
Largely doom and gloom, there are few points of light in Biohacked & Begging. Like many writers before him, Oram mostly extrapolates negative futures from current trends. At some level, this would seem a counter-point to the collection’s intention. Balanced perspectives providing the greatest opportunities for open-minded discussions, Oram’s stories most often bias discussion before it even begins due to their underlying negativity about humanity’s future. In “Pumped Up Presidents”, for example, it’s tough to argue the positive side of our socio-political future when the descendants of Trump and Putin are in the spotlight. In “The Envoy of the Ultimate Observer” a classic science fiction trope is deployed: an alien visits Earth and is asked to report back to the mother ship on the state of life there. Oram using the opportunity to find the many holes in humanity’s dyke, it’s the reader themselves who must come up with the value of our lives in most scenarios. One would hope the author would offer more of a spectrum if an objective discussion is to result.
All that being said, there is an argument for making problems known in order to confront them, take action (i.e. the classic AA roadmap) and push conversation in a certain direction. And from that perspective, Oram indeed highlights many potential issues. As mentioned, nearly all the stories gloss over some potential symptom or negative characteristic of humanity’s “drinking problem” that warrants further discussion. But again, this is where I fear the collection is not comprehensive in its intentions; Oram has perhaps looked too far ahead, extrapolated too much to be fully relevant to 2019. Instead of a drinking problem, it’s most often a problem with a drug that hasn’t and may never be invented. Most stories containing two, three, or more leaps in technological, sociological, political, etc. evolution, there is a clear divorce between then and now; it feels mostly like futuristic science fiction rather than near-future sf (not to mention, such leaps are a lot for five or six pages of story to bear). Curmudgeonly I know, but I have the same issue with human hive minds scattered across space and other such sf ideas. Present day humanity is technologically so far away from such a situation that any resulting discussion is only one step removed from: would Darth Vader beat Yoda in a lightsaber duel?
To use an example from Biohacked & Begging, the title story features a technology called Unified Sentience that has made the world a more empathetic place. This in itself is an interesting idea if introduced properly, but the manner in which the story thrusts itself upon the reader in a page, not to mention adds background bits of technology that likewise change and influence the social formula at work in the fiction, makes the whole feel too far removed from where we stand today, or too simplistic in detail, for the reader to be able to offer a relevant response. There are so many ifs that any relationship to the contemporary state of affairs is stretched to the point the reader is largely unable to offer any valid ideas that could counter-act or positively evolve the issues presented. A rabbit hole quickly opens, something like “Well, if Unified Sentience technology exists, and if society has been regulated as such, then we could tweak the technology to be able to…But wait, how does the tech work? We’d need to know the details, and if we knew that then we could… Or maybe we could remove it altogether? But what would the effect be if we don’t know how the other systems are integrated?” Near irrelevant speculation…
Does all of this mean there is not an audience for Biohacked & Begging? Absolutely not. For readers looking for quick, bite-sized pieces of science fiction that sparkle for a moment, the collection is likely for you. (And if there is a type of fiction ideal for flash fiction it is sf.) Zero beating around the bush, each story is as concise as can be, focuses on socio-technological change in the human context, and leaves the reader thinking about the implications. It’s only when moving beyond this to look at the details, e.g. lack of story depth, unsparkling prose, rehashed sci-fi ideas, and lack of relevancy that I personally fall flat with the collection. At my most cynical I feel the collection is: fiction for a millennial’s attention span, idea-slinging to see what sticks, or homework assignments rushed out the door at the last minute. (I did warn you this review was subjective.) At my least cynical, the collection is a thought-provoker for the vein of readers who like to gas on and speculate about the future, or the potential negative effects of technology. Just because this is not up my alley does not mean it isn’t up yours.
The following are the twenty-five stories collected in Biohacked & Begging:
Biohacked & Begging
I Am Blue
The Envoy of the Ultimate Observer
Syrup and Cigarettes
The Queen’s Heart
Zygosity Saves the Day
From Dust to Digital and Back
The Cathedral of Cows
The Never-Ending Nanobot Nectar
Happy Forever Day
The Blockchain Blues
Come Closer, Come Under My Skin