Rogue Farm by Charles Stross

Stories by Charles Stross often have a gonzo-tech view of the future. The illustration above shows a farmer with a semi-automatic shotgun and his wife in a battle-suit defending the farm they are squatting on against a roving “farm” that is a collective of post-humans hoping to leave Earth for Jupiter. “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross is the second story in Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of short science fiction published from 2002-2017.

Yesterday I began my contemplation of writing science fiction by reviewing the first story, “The Potter of Bones.” My conclusion was great science fiction requires a richness of world-building. In “Rogue Farm” Charles Stross looks into the near future, after the technological singularity, to see our lives transformed. The fictional world Stross builds is our current society in savage decline as it metamorphizes into a new society infected by intelligent machines. There’s a civil war between humans and post-humans, and readers aren’t sure which side to take.

Stross accepts the inevitability of technological singularity, feeling sorry for the vanquished, but not condemning the usurpers. The rogue farm of the story is a 21st-century Frankenstein we feel sympathy for while rooting for the farmer who wants to destroy it. “Rogue Farm” is a much more successful story than “The Potter of Bones” being reprinted at least 7 times, performed for Escape Pod and made into a short film.

By all the yardsticks but one, I believe “Rogue Farm” should be measured as excellent short science fiction. It’s well written, it’s cutting edge science fiction, it’s entertaining, it has a high density of science fictional ideas, it’s very damn creative, and it’s delightfully weird, a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. My only criticism is I disagree with Stross on how the technological singularity will unfold in the future. I don’t doubt we’ll have sentient machines, but I do doubt we’ll ever have a brain-machine interface that will allow us to integrate with machines like Stross imagines.

My personal speculation is humans will be left behind. We will not be uplifted by becoming cyborgs or transformed by nanobots, or re-engineered by gene manipulation into post-human greatly different from what we are now, or have our minds downloaded into clones, robots or virtual realities. Maybe this is Luddite thinking on my part, but I don’t think there is any science to support digitizing our soul.

Some readers will believe that Stross is extrapolating a possible future, but I don’t. That means I have to accept “Rogue Farm” as a clever fantasy, and not science fiction. I know I have a rather extreme and strict definition of science fiction that doesn’t jive with commonly accepted definitions. And if I’m wrong and science can create a mind-machine interface between cell and circuit, this story will fit my definition.

Since “Rogue Farm” is in an anthology of science fiction short stories labeled the very best of the best, I have to assume its state-of-the-art science fiction. And I believe that’s perfectly true by the common definition of science fiction. But by my definition, I assume writers and readers of science fiction are playing a very precise game. The goal of this game is to speculate about the future using extrapolation based on all the science we currently know.

Science fiction makes assumptions that are often disproven. H. G. Wells theorized that we could time travel by suggesting time was just the fourth dimension. We have learned a lot more about the nature of time since then, and time travel is probably impossible. Science fiction writers have been imagining faster-than-light travel for about a century, even though Einstein disproved it before they started.

I think the future intelligence of computers is almost unlimited. And I believe Homo sapiens can be intentionally improved and redesigned. I just don’t think our minds can be transferred to machines, or even interfaced with them. I believe our bodies can be supplemented with machines, but I just can’t see how my thoughts can be augmented by digital minds. Like I said, I could be wrong, so science fiction is the perfect place to speculate about the possibilities. We can make muscle-machine interfaces, and we can make the pattern recognition abilities of our current physical senses interface with electronic devices, and we’re even working on brain scanning technology that can carefully discern the activity of our brains, but I just can’t see how we’re going to bridge that last mile between chemical thoughts and digital thoughts.

Of course, isn’t this the exact territory of the science fiction event horizon? The science fiction stories I fantasize writing deal with this exact issue. And maybe that’s why I’m skeptical of the world-building of Charles Stross – I would just build it somewhat differently.

James Wallace Harris, March 1, 2019

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