The Next World and the Next

Award-winning sci-fi writer Alice Sola Kim imagines a beautiful and dark future world.

Lena Dunham on Alice Sola Kim's Story and Women Innovators

Sugar-Sweet Lennys,

My father is a sci-fi nerd of the highest order. Before the Internet, that meant a closet full of dusty 25-cent paperbacks, their covers crawling with cyborgs and barren lunar landscapes and microwaves that could commence time travel. Every Saturday we would walk across then-barren Soho to the now-defunct Science Fiction Bookstore, where, desperate to be every inch his daughter, I would search for my own reading material. But even at age seven I already knew what I liked: stories about girls. And it soon became apparent I wasn't going to find any of those here. The young-adult series, like Johnny Swift*, had scrappy male protagonists traveling through space on glorified skateboards. As for the adult books, the only women I found were nude blue aliens with jaunty antennae, ready to sexually satisfy lonely space captains. I didn't yet know about Ursula K. Le Guin or the other grand dames of sci-fi, but then again, it didn't occur to anyone to tell me.

Science fiction is notable as a genre not just because of its escapism, but because of the way it grapples with our current reality: what are science, technology, and innovation doing to the human mind and spirit, and when they reach their inevitable full-on collision, where will that leave us humans? These are the big questions that were being contemplated in my father's 25-cent paperbacks. But never by women. Not as writers nor as heroes.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (fun and easy acronym: STEM!) are not worlds we associate with women, yet they are full of female pioneers whose stories demand to be told. GE and Lenny have partnered on a program that doesn't just tell you that women should be at the forefront of science and technology, but shows that they already are.

So it seems only natural that GE would also share our goal of supporting an emerging female sci-fi author as she herself wrestles with questions of science and human consciousness and whether the twain shall meet. Alice Sola Kim is a writer of uncommon philosophical depth and also great imagination. Her story envisions a world in which sick people don't die — they enter a state of cryogenic stasis instead — but the question remains: what's in their heads when they've been placed on pause? In a series of vignettes, our (gal!) protagonist slowly realizes she may not be among the living anymore, but, because of the advancements in medicine and technology, she is also not dead.

We've been excited about our partnership with GE from the jump — we have the chance to profile industry leaders like Beth Comstock and an all-female robotics team, and to show our Lennys just how hard women in science and tech are showing up to play. But I'm especially thrilled that my child self now has some sci-fi she can get behind. No horny three-boobed alien princesses here, just an often hilarious and sometimes painful look at a future where technology enriches our lives and yet we still can't quite escape being human.

Love & Calculus,

Lena

The Next World and the Next

By Alice Sola Kim

Franny went to college, graduated with honors. After that, she got her masters and a Ph.D, and then another Ph.D, for which she completed a thesis on the hermeneutics of online bodybuilding forums. She got tired of the humanities and went back to undergrad so she could do med school. It took a lot of time, but she had the time. She made the time.

After med school, Franny decided to get an MFA. She wrote a story about catching squid with her dad, applied, got in — it all seemed to happen so fast! Franny sat in a small conference room, waiting for the other students to arrive. She hoped at least one or five of them would be cute. A cute girl walked in and sat down across the table from Franny. Franny smiled at her, the girl smiled back, and time passed in a weird way. Franny looked at the clock, which she couldn't see very well. Her eyes were probably blurry from all the studying. "Where's everyone else?" she said.

The girl smiled. All she had done, this whole time, was smile. It was getting a little old. "I ate them," she said, and opened her mouth teasingly. A drop of blood trickled out, then a spurt, then more and more and faster until the blood was gushing from her mouth. The girl was still composed, now laughing, as blood covered the floor. Franny thought, I should have never gotten an MFA, then all thought left her as she paddled frantically, the blood rising to her chest, her chin, her nose, filling her eyes—

Maria had come here through a portal in her hallway closet, and now she was on the road. She was journeying toward a mountain filled with lava in order to destroy a dangerous magical ring. There were many who would attempt to stop her, but she was stalwart, and she was with friends. There was a hot short guy, another hot short guy, a hot tall guy, a hot sociopathic detective and his hot doctor friend, and these two brothers who killed demons together (also hot), who had traveled here from the future.

One day, she awoke to find them all slain. "Run," someone screamed into her ear, and before she could think, there was a tugging at her belt and she was run-run-running, she was running and being run so fast her feet left the ground and she fluttered like a pennant in the wind—

Jim was a good boy! He couldn't see red or green, but what he could smell was better than any color. Pebbles, soccer balls, cats, Italian hoagies, car seats, pennies, perms. Jim had no future and was happy all the time. He lived with some friends who were tall and had very long wiggly legs with flat faces balanced on top.

One day, a friend was walking Jim through his neighborhood when, suddenly, the leash went slack. Jim looked up. His friend had disappeared. In his friend's place was a large, dark, buzzing cloud collecting itself directly above him, thickening by the second. Jim whined.

Everyone is dreaming very busily

When Aya visited her sister, she didn't try to talk to her.

Other visitors did talk to their stacies, leaning close to the cryocases, resting their hands on top until the cold became unbearable. As you passed, you could hear their murmurs over the unending exhalation of the machines. But there was no point in Aya talking to her sister when her sister couldn't even talk back. It would feel very bad. It would feel like every worst fight they'd ever had, her sister so nonchalantly sullen that it didn't even seem like she was angry — more like, Aya had just suddenly never been born, so of course her sister wouldn't think to speak to her or acknowledge her existence. Which was when Aya would freak out and apologize, saying absolutely anything her sister wanted to hear, because she couldn't stand glimpsing that dark, lonely universe where her sister would not hear and understand every thought Aya wanted to share with her.

Which were honestly a lot of them.

Aya's sister was wide and long and flat like Gumby, or an Olympic swimmer. Her shoulders filled the cryocase like she could rip it out of its mooring if she turned over even once during stasis. She had the most sweetly soft look on her face, as if she was about to wake up and ask a question.

But Aya knew better. She was a materials scientist, and so were her best friends. It wasn't like that TV show with the group of best friends where one was a chef and one was a fashion designer and one was the president and one was a ghost that lived on the Internet. Aya and her closest friends had met and banded together at school, at work, at work-related conferences. Her friend Min worked in cryostasis. She had helped to develop the plasma complex that replaced the stacies' blood. Min told Aya that what looked like a window on the cryocase was actually a screen. "Stacies aren't cute," she said. "Dead is dead." Min was not unaware of people's feelings and sensitivities; rather, she considered them and then decided it was best to be blunt anyway, which Aya usually appreciated.

It had bothered people that they couldn't look at the faces of their loved ones in stasis. It felt abstract and chilly and stupid to visit, like, a giant silver pill. Anything could be in there. Bad for morale, bad for funding, but it would all be even worse if the visitors saw how the stacies really looked, so instead the cryocenter had screens put into the cryocases, displaying cute, cleaned-up, highest-fidelity 3-D images of the stacies resting within.

Aya thought that it was hard to know so much.

Unlike the other stacies, Aya's sister had a private room at the cryocenter. Aya had paid for it, and for a higher quality of care. She had a lot of money, but she spent all her time hanging out with her dead-not-dead sister and working. She loved work, but she could definitely be having more fun. Going to Belize, watching the coral rebuild. Partying in a Manhattan watermanse. She had the invitations and everything; her work had helped make it all possible.

Her sister's room was not a nice room. There was a cot in case Aya wanted a nap alongside her sister, no window, and, despite her complaints, there were always persistent dust flurries caught around the bottom of her sister's cryocase, the same way dust and hair collected around every crevice of Aya's free weights. But she knew that everything was as expensive as it didn't look. It cost a lot of money to thwart death. It was hard work to keep a body ready to be alive when all it wanted was the other thing. You had to make the body so cold that entropy would ignore it, tricked into thinking that it was out of the game and thus beyond entropy's notice. But also, this frozen body had to be a place where life could possibly return in the future, where shoots might come up and blood would rush in.

The last time Aya spoke to her sister was right before she went into stasis. The more Aya thought about it, which was a lot, the more firmly she decided that maybe this was one of those opportunities that no one should have. Her sister had been inconsolable about the prospect of dreaming for so long. During stasis, you were meant to have a kind of brain activity that was sort of like dreaming, but more consistent. The first generation of stacies had been lost because no one had known that they needed a bunch of interesting, distracting stuff going on in their brains; like, stasis was supposed to be stasis, so who knew? But what happened to the first generation was creepy and undeniable, even though everything else had gone as it should.

"What if it's a bad dream," her sister sobbed. "I don't want a bad dream. I don't want to have anything."

"It's not," Aya had said. "It won't be. It's not." She said it over and over again as if quantity could compensate for quality, for actual factual information, because who even did know? There was no second generation yet.

She was so tired. She had come to visit her sister from work, where the current project was a new kind of membrane for a third round of desalination machines, through which seawater sieved and came out fresh. The old ones worked OK, but they weren't as energy-efficient as they could be, and California was still thirsty. People were moving back in droves — she really should visit. Aya knew she been born to a dirty world. A tired world. Her mother and father had waded through it, and Aya had been born miraculously, seemingly fine despite all that, but not her sister.

And it was seeing this little sister of hers in pain, in trouble after trouble after trouble, that made Aya vow to not worship a god that was a man or a deity but instead become her own god, to study and learn so that she could grow up to remake and unmake Earth how she thought best — and it was working, wasn't it? Aya and the women she knew were creating a better world, whether they were harvesting giant beds of genetically engineered kelp or staying the hand of death.

She loved work and she loved her sister and she could not tell which of these things was making her feel tired. It should have been neither, right? Aya lay on the cot, leaving a foot on the floor like she was drunk, and dozed off for a moment.

She heard people talking. Their voices loomed over her, pleasantly stretchy and smooth. She was still sleeping and couldn't move.

"I'm worried about her."

"What's to worry about?"

"This readout."

"It's within normal. These variations happen. It's a long time. Just chill. Haha, get it?"

"Ugh, please stop. I guess you're right."

"Look, it's not like she's the only one—"

Their voices kept going but now they were quieting, dwindling, as if they were getting sucked out into space. But suddenly there was a new voice.

"Do you think we should eat her?" it said, right by her ear.

Aya awoke, freezing cold. She had just had a dream, possibly the most boring dream ever, about a conversation she had had a few days ago with Min about her sister. Except in the dream, she wasn't herself, she was her sister, unable to see or move or do anything. She could hear, even though stacies couldn't hear anything. The dream had ended weirdly — Aya couldn't remember how, but she felt terrible. That was the thing about dreams: They could make you feel so mad or sexy or scared even when you couldn't remember a thing about the dream. All that remained was the animal part of your brain that was convinced something had happened.

She left her sister's room and walked down the hallway. Sometimes people worked late at the cryolab, but tonight everyone had gone home. In the bathroom, it was so dark for a moment that the darkness had heft and texture, a goopiness, but then the lights flickered on. Aya would have preferred for the lights to have been on already. Motion-sensor lights, but ones that could predict the future and would turn on right before they detected your motion so you'd never have to be scared of the dark! She yawned so hugely her mouth threatened to eat her face.

She peed, washed her hands, tried to be kind and generous about the droopy, unpromising image reflected back at her. As she left, Aya heard a sound and turned. In the stall closest to the door, she saw a pair of bare feet drop down daintily and pivot to face her. The lights flickered off. This time the dark was definitely a thing with intention (bad) and movement (swift, in her direction).

Aya dashed toward her sister's room and slammed the door behind her. She looked out of the little window inset in the door. There was nothing in the hallway. However, there was something in the room with her. Two women and a dog were huddled in the corner. One woman was covered in blood, one woman in dirt. The dog seemed normal, happy, even. They all looked familiar.

The dirty woman stood. "Halt," she said, "Do not go out there. You are in grave danger."

The three of them had been fighting for days, they said. The bloody woman, whose name was Franny, had been attacked first. She had kicked a window out and spilled into the dirty woman's world. The dirty woman, whose name was Maria, had fought off the creature with Franny's help, and they had been moving from world to world together, but were too late or weak to save the others from being devoured. They had just rescued the dog, whose nametag read "Jim."

Franny and Maria did not agree on what the thing was, if it was an alien or if it was bad people or if it was a manifestation of their own minds. They just called it a thought-creature. What was clear was that at some point, they would need to fight it. But not here, not yet, not when they were cornered.

Maria said, "What you must do is find the weak point into the next world."

"Hold on," said Aya. There was a knock at the door.

"It's the demon," said Maria.

"It's the serial killer!" said Franny.

Jim barked.

Franny said, "Open that thing."

"No!" said Aya.

Franny glared at her and kicked the cryocase. When Aya went to stop her, she saw that the cryocase had changed. Instead of her sister, it was Aya who was lying inside, sleeping, looking like she was about to wake up and ask the question. Oh. She wondered what the question might be.

The knocking grew louder, booming against the door.

Aya was nothing if not pragmatic. She was adaptable, not a dumb person or a pushover, but someone who was fully aware of all the beautiful and dark possibilities of the world. She knew she had a very short time to mourn everything. "Wait," Aya said. "What was it like, where you came from?"

"Adventures available to brave men and women alike. Friends banding together against evil. Many hotties," said Maria. "I want to go back."

"Time enough for everything," said Franny. "Me too."

"And yours?" they asked.

Aya told them about jets the size of mansions. Mansions floating on water in Manhattan, coral reefs corseted and bolstered back to life, skyscrapers in earthquake zones that jiggled instead of cracked. "Sure," they said. "OK."

She told them that the world had become harder to live in. But that it was their fault, they knew that, and they were fixing it. They were learning from their mistakes. She told them about Cassandra, her friend who loved flesh so much she could think of ways to create and shape it that had never been seen before. Cassandra had developed a comfortable polymer that protected and supported the skin. It didn't feel like you were wearing anything, and it even flattened your eye bags. She was the most beautiful woman Aya had ever known in person, and she had a different face tattoo every week. Vain Cassandra with her sumptuous kindness, who had been burned on over half her body as a child and would have no one know what it felt like to be in such suffering.

Franny and Maria looked at each other and shrugged.

"Truly, a world of miracles," said Maria.

"I wish I could stay," said Aya.

"For our sakes, I hope that some of this world is real," said Franny. "It sounds like a beautiful place. I'd take a piece of it. But we really do have to go right now."

"I love my world," said Aya. "I will fight for it."

"We'll all fight for it," Maria said.

The door began to crack. They opened the cryocase onto a narrow gray void and each jumped in, Aya last, giving one final lingering look at her world, a world made and fixed by her and her friends and people she would never meet now, her gorgeous world which she was either dreaming up or dreaming in.

Alice Sola Kim is a 2016 Whiting Award Winner whose stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, McSweeney's Literary Quarterly, Lightspeed, and other publications.

*Correction, October 24, 2016: An earlier version of this intro said that the series My Teacher Is an Alien is told from the male point of view. It is told from the female point of view.


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