The Future Is Here
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Tina Brown, Secret Godmother of Science Fiction

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The Tina Brown era was the heyday of science fiction at the New Yorker, which also published a decent amount of SF in the 80s. But the magazine has only published one SF story over the past decade, when the genre has supposedly been amassing tons of literary prestige. What's up with that? Here's our survey of the past 30 years' worth of science fiction at the New Yorker.

We surveyed the stories tagged "science fiction" in the New Yorker's archive, and the results are below. It's interesting to see the rise and fall of certain authors. Also, some themes seem to hold sway over the years: a high proportion of these science fiction stories are satires or parodies, including two cyberpunk parodies in a row. And there are two stories about insomnia and outsourcing sleep.


The New Yorker only published three science fiction stories prior to 1978, when it started flirting with the genre actively. Its main love object in the beginning? Polish satirist Stanislaw Lem.

Here's our complete history:


The New Yorker goes on its first Stanislaw Lem kick, publishing three of his fictional book reviews within a four-month period. He reviews the non-existent books Gruppenfuhrer Louis XVII an SS novel by Alfred Zellerman; Non Serviam, a weird science book by James Dobb; and two books about how physics proves nothing can ever happen, by Cezar Kouska: De Impossibilitate Vivae and De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi. (All three reviews appear in the book A Perfect Vacuum.



"Nana Hami Ba Reba" by Garrison Keillor. A satire. In the year 1984, everything in America has gone Metric, including Metric Time and a weird Metric language. The main character, responsible for this transformation, gets expelled from this perfect future and zapped back in time to the 1950s.


Another Stanislaw Lem kick. The New Yorker publishes four of his satirical Ijon Tichy stories within a three-month period: "The Washing Machine Tragedy," "Phools," "Let Us Save The Universe" and "Project Genesis." These stories, collected in Memoirs of a Space Traveler, are more Earth-bound than earlier Tichy stories. They take out-of-control technology to its furthest extreme, including crazy washing machines and mind-controlling computers.


"Snorkeling" by Nicholson Baker. An executive "beats fatigue by employing drones to sleep on his behalf," says the Guardian.


"Spoons In The Basement" by Ursula K. LeGuin. A woman comes across a set of valuable apostle spoons while cleaning her house. She accepts them as a gift from the house. Much later, she discovers a hidden "second basement" in the house, where three unmarried women live, along with an obnoxious middle-aged married couple. She lets the three women stay, but kicks out the married couple. After that, she can't find the spoons, and it seems the house has taken them back.



"Offering" by Stainslaw Lem. The last gasp of the New Yorker's romance with Lem: a fake ad for the Extelopedia, a volume that contains information about the future.



"Plan 10 From Zone R-3" by Polly Frost. A parody of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, despite the title referencing Plan Nine From Outer Space. A weird plague turns everybody in a town into a real-estate agent clutching a Filofax.



"Worlds Of Love" by Jeffrey Shaffer. Satire, sort of. A series of funny personal ads with silly scifi themes, like "Star Warrior" and "Pardon my Polarity."


"Numeromancer" by Michael Caruso. A parody of William Gibson's Neuromancer, in which cyborgs play baseball.


"Cyberprez" by Richard Liebmann-Smith. Another parody of Gibson's Neuromancer, this one touching on the fact that then-President Bush admitted taking tranquilizers.


"Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz" by George Saunders. A man who creates porno-horror holographic "modules" for people to experience grieves for his wife. He steals memories from a woman in a nursing home, then ends up selling his own memories. This story appeared in Tina Brown's first issue as editor, but a previous editor had bought it.


"Several Birds" by David Foster Wallace. A homeless transgender junkie lives in 21st. century Massachusetts. The junkie steals a woman's artificial heart by mistake, gets involved in a Quebec-separatist assassination, kicks drugs, goes through withdrawal and hallucinates. A much different version of this piece appears as part of Infinite Jest, Wallace's mega-novel.



"Paper Lantern" by Stuart Dybek. A researcher is building a time machine, but accidentally burns the lab down by leaving a bunsen burner going. A fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant warns him too late, and he realizes his ex-lover's nude photos are being burned up in that lab fire. (He'd falsely told the ex-lover he destroyed those nude photos already.)



"Warm Dogs" by Paul Theroux. A widespread virus causes infertility in a future dystopia. A couple tries in vain to adopt a child, then winds up buying a mixed-race kid. But then they get nabbed by the police, along with their kid. The couple winds up in a warehouse, blindfolded and surrounded by children who poke them with spears. One child touches the woman and says, "This one is mine." She cries out.



"Tough Girls Don't Dream" by Jeanette Winterson. Later retitled "Disappearance I." Takes place in a futuristic dystopia where sleep has become as much a taboo as kinky sex. But some people are paid to sleep so everyone else can spy on their dreams. (This is the second of the two New Yorker stories about lack of sleep, and outsourcing sleep, the first being Nicholson Baker's from 1981.)


"Sea Oak" by George Saunders. More weird satire. The main character's aunt dies, and comes back from the dead. Then she starts pimping out the main character, encouraging him to show his penis to random women for money.

"The Janitor On Mars" by Martin Amis. In 2049, a robot known as The Janitor On Mars suddenly contacts Earth, because humanity has just passed the point of no return: no matter what we do, we're doomed to extinction, thanks to changes in the environment. The robot relates the rise and fall of Martian civilization, while on Earth, a mentally disabled boy reveals the principal of his school raped him. (I read this story back when it appeared, and it remains my favorite thing ever to appear in the New Yorker.)


And then there's a gap of nearly five years before SF graces the New Yorker again. And it's only one story:


"Jon" by George Saunders. In a weird future, a group of teenagers are trapped in a facility for assessing products, where they view ads and represent the teen demographic. The girls have velcro chastity-guards and everyone's encouraged to masturbate instead of having sex, but one girl, Carolyn, still manages to get pregnant.