Beta Life is a collection of science fiction short stories, tied together by the thread of artificial life (A-life). From body-altering nanotechnology to the future of immersive games, Beta Life explores the imaginations of over a dozen writers and scientists, each with their own unique take on the future.
The opening story, Martyn Bedford’s “The Sayer of the Sooth”, is written with such self-consciousness that it is on the verge of becoming metafiction. It is primarily concerned with the future of reading as an activity, thus making it a worthy opener to the collection, and the combined layers of narrative in such a brief span of pages are impressive. The narrator or “reader” is reading a story written by his great grandfather’s, and as he reads it, we read him. The narrator removes what he perceives as extraneous punctuation in his written account; this means very few commas, no apostrophes and some words rolled together like “greatgrandad”. All in all it creates a sense of a futuristic voice that is far enough removed to create the desired distance from the reader, but still recognisable to a contemporary audience.
From there we rattle through “Swarm”, a dark glimpse into the nanotechnological future; “Growing Towers”, a title so apt the story barely needs explaining; “The Loki Variations” concerned with gaming reaching the pinnacle of immersion – full virtual reality; “Everyone Says” where people can “link” to others and live their lives with them; “The War of All Against All”, a warning against the consequences of unrestrained surveillance and intelligence gathering. The collection finishes with “Bruno Wins!”, a reflection on consumer expectations about new technologies, and the competition that lies therein.
As far as quality of writing is concerned, Beta Life ticks all the boxes. The weakest of the stories are at least good and there are a handful of gems that rise far above that description. Most importantly, perhaps, none of them are overly ambitious and it doesn’t take too much head-bending to grasp what the author is driving at.
With that being said, I am dubious about the need for an afterword for every single story explaining the author’s intent. This could just be personal taste, but in a collection of very inventive short stories the afterwords seem out of place, and steal away any individual responses the reader might have. They awkwardly jar the fantastical with the real and although this is probably by design it is still irritating.
Sadly, despite the prose of each writer being difficult to fault, it is hard to shake the sense of having walked this ground before, other books, stories and films already tackling the issues alluded to in Beta Life. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than a sci-fi aficionado picking up the collection in the first place. The title and even the front cover, make obvious the heavily futuristic nature of the collection. While having a clear statement of intent is by no means a bad thing, it does make it unlikely that those not already invested in the genre will pick it up. Beta Life is certainly not a gentle introduction to science fiction.
From that you can take a fairly straightforward recommendation. If you like science fiction, you’ll like Beta Life. The stories are fun, intriguing, well written and stamped by each author’s own unique style. If you don’t, well I’d still say give it a shot, but it probably won’t cause an epiphany.