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“Machine Learning” by Nancy Kress is one of the tales in “Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft.” (Credit: Joey Camacho / Raw & Rendered for Microsoft Research)

When you’re developing technologies that sound like science fiction, why not use science fiction stories to show what you’re up to? That’s the motivation behind “Future Visions,” a free e-book from Microsoft Research that highlights the gee-whiz ideas its researchers are working on.

“We have a group of people who are trying to turn science fiction into reality, and it seems fitting that we’d want to tell that story with science fiction stories written by science fiction authors,” Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller, told GeekWire. (And by the way, Steve, how did you get that job title?)

The authors are top-drawer: Eight short stories come from science-fiction luminaries Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer. There’s also a graphic mini-novel by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal.

All of the contributors were given a chance to look behind the scenes at Microsoft Research’s labs in Redmond, New York and Cambridge, Mass. – after signing the requisite non-disclosure agreements, of course.

“I’m a science groupie, so if there’s any chance to interact with cutting-edge research – I jump on that,” Kress told GeekWire.

When Kress wrote “Machine Learning,” her story about a scientist at MultiFuture Research who is grieving over the death of his son from a mysterious disease, she touched on augmented and virtual reality, A.I.-directed instruction, and a project aimed at modeling the effects of different drug molecules on the body.

David Brin, meanwhile, seized on prediction markets.

David Brin
David Brin, via @davidbrin on Twitter

“Fascination with the whole notion of prediction comes naturally to a ‘hard science fiction’ author,” he said. “Microsoft has some intriguing new approaches – set in perspective against all the other predictions that humanity has employed.”

The protagonist in his story, titled “The Tell,” is a magician who comes up with a new twist in the prediction game. “My small contribution to the discussion is saying, ‘Hey, don’t leave out the subconscious.'”

Greg Bear focused on quantum computing, a field that’s been in Microsoft Research’s sights for more than a decade. In “The Machine Starts,” Bear takes the concept to a new level of spookiness.

“If you have a quantum computer, it does seem likely that you’d be using the alternate states of computers in other universes,” he told GeekWire. It didn’t sound as if he was joking.

Greg Bear
Greg Bear, via

Other way-out research areas that pop up in the stories include A.I. assistants, immersive media, real-time translation and even the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. (As far as we know, that last topic is not being tackled by Microsoft Research … yet.)

The three writers we interviewed said Microsoft’s editors didn’t dictate what they should write about, nor did they veto any of the plot twists. “They did correct a couple of technical terminologies,” Kress said, but she added that the fixes had no impact on the story itself.

As the publishing industry goes through a wrenching series of ups and downs, is “Future Visions” a vision of the future? Microsoft’s Clayton wouldn’t go that far. “We consider this one as a little bit of an experiment. … Who knows? Maybe the next thing we put out will be a vinyl record,” he said.

But Brin took the question so seriously that he dictated a mini-essay on the subject:

“The current unit-royalty system for paying creative people is under stress at the moment. It started with music. People copied CDs, downloaded audio files. Musicians had to adapt, by ramping up public perfomances, for example. The same thing is happening in fiction.

“For professionals, the tsunami of amateur and semi-pro material – while a good thing overall for creativity – affects the bottom line. We, too, are looking for ways to be creative and get our words out there while paying for kids in college. Will we return to the Renaissance model of patronage, where our greatest works are subsidized by the rich, or corporations?

“It could happen. But I, for one, do not have plans to sell out. Microsoft’s patronage, in this case, left our creative process untouched. I will say that my work was affected in one way: Given the topic, my story spends a little more time filling in the range of technologies than I might have done otherwise. The ratio of concepts to explosions is higher than usual.”

“Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft” is being made available starting today as a limited-edition hardcover and as a free digital edition available on e-book platforms including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo.

Here’s a preview of the book on Kindle.

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