New Fiction: The Turnaround

As present and future meld into one, an augmented-reality time traveler learns that the only way to imagine a better future is to build one.

astronauts and spaceships explore the unknown in this chesley bonestell image
ILLUSTRATION REPRODUCED COURTESY OF BONESTELL LLC

Whit got lost in 1971 and couldn’t find her way back. She hit the fail-safe button but nothing happened, and meanwhile she kept getting thrown off by all the foreign landmarks, which turned the city into a maze. The Embarcadero Freeway, this wall of reinforced concrete, cut across the waterfront, with a view of the half-finished Transamerica Pyramid and the scorched ruins on Alcatraz. On Ocean Beach, scores of people squatted among cardboard and plastic across from a hastily built artificial reef, cleaning oil-soaked birds by hand. New stenches hit at every turn: piss, petroleum, smoke, untempered car exhaust, patchouli, wet rot. Everywhere Whit looked, San Francisco stood in ruins or, even worse, in some limbo of urban development gone awry. Nobody else on the streets had a face, because she was the only real person here, and she took off running down Bay Street, shoving past street musicians and flower sellers, until at last she unlocked the slider, and she could see the whole span of the city’s life story, starting randomly in 1883 and running all the way up to the present. She groped with fingers slackened by anxiety, thinking: I have to get out of here please let me out of here.

And that’s when Whit overshot, and landed in the future instead of back in the present.

People had warned endlessly that you could get addicted to virtual reality. All of that three-dimensional wishful thinking would be sweeter and brighter and, yes, realer than all of the boringness of actual existence. But when it came to augmented realities like Skin Francisco, which overlaid a virtual “skin” on the real world, the opposite tended to happen. Spend too much time in a “re-skinned” version of your city, and people started to lose their shit—as if your sense of reality was having an anaphylactic reaction to all that wrongness.

With Skin Francisco, you could wander around the actual, real-life city while seeing (and tasting and feeling) something totally different: either a painstaking reconstruction of the past or some elaborate collective hallucination where everything looked like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. But the past was weird, and you could only take so much of that double-awareness of reality and fantasy, sharing the physical space, before you had to peace out.

And yet, when Whit jammed her slider to escape from 1971 and landed in some future version of San Francisco, she found herself, for the first time ever, in danger of becoming hooked.

Whit stood at the corner of Church and Market, and instead of the usual mix of upscale condos and homeless people, she was gazing at a city that had space for everybody. The skyline was crammed with tall buildings, but they clustered together with tapered shapes that didn’t seem to loom over her, and there were more green spaces than before. More trees, more flowers. As she walked up and down Market, she noticed tiny kiosks, with people handing out doughnuts and samosas, and little stalls where you could get almost anything repaired. Or trade your old stuff for someone else’s old stuff, like a vintage smartphone that had been souped-up with new mods and apps. Sleek buses and trams rushed past, full of people, and there were almost no cars to be seen.

And instead of Market Street, there was a river. A lazy current, foamy but blue. Somehow, it felt right, like a spirit that had been caged for too long was at last set free.

Whit found herself staring at a plaque that thanked one of the city supervisors, whose district ran near this neighborhood, for starting the We All Live Here initiative, which had ensured that every single person had a home in San Francisco and nobody had to be homeless anymore. Pure wish fulfillment, since that particular supervisor thought tax credits were the answer to everything.

There was art everywhere Whit looked. And live theater, right on the street. And music—people were singing on the street corners and dancing as they crossed the street. Whit stopped at one of the little kiosks and saw a sign that read, “SOLUTIONS AND RESOLUTIONS,” and a line of people waiting to speak to an older woman with gray dreadlocks, who was helping them sort out their problems. The next-door kiosk had a nice young person who was helping people connect with free social services, like childcare, continuing education, and mental health services.

Most of the people around Whit were faceless, the same way the citizens of 1971 had been, but something about them (body language, maybe?) let Whit know…they were happy. Everyone walked as if they’d just heard some really good news. And here and there, there were visitors like Whit, even if Whit couldn’t see the Skin Francisco rigs on their heads while they were inside here.

“Isn’t this amazing?” asked a young tousle-headed person (who was helpfully wearing a pin with their preferred pronoun). “I could spend every minute here. I’m Yaz, btw.”

Whit introduced herself, then asked: “Who made this? It feels so real.”

“Nobody knows,” said Yaz. “One theory is, it was a bunch of underpaid tech contractors who needed to escape from their shitty situations. But some people think that Skin Francisco came to life. The algorithm got so sophisticated, it started having its own ideas, and it wanted to create a better space for us. A version of our city that lived up to its own ideals, at last.”

Whit couldn’t believe she’d been so desperate to get back to the real, present-day world. The only things waiting for her were past-due bills, customers with drastic, last-minute changes to their orders, an ongoing squabble with the evil roommate cabal, and an ambiguous breakup (the worst kind) with Bobbie, her partner of two years.

She found herself staring at a bronze statue of Emperor Norton at the corner of Church and 16th. He leered down at her. It felt like a blessing.

It was time to return to her cruddy life. Whit tried hard to psych herself up but kept putting it off. Until she realized someone was trying to talk to her, someone in the “real” world. There was a whole etiquette about whether, or how, to approach a person wearing a Skin Francisco rig on the sidewalk, but this individual was just trying to have a conversation. They were showing up as a gray outline, making faint blub-blub-blub sounds. Whit carefully slid the slider back to Now and shut her rig down, bracing herself for this to be Bobbie or one of the roommates. And then she found herself looking at Kirsti, one of her clients, who was trying to apologize, fumblingly, for changing her order.

“It’s fine, it’s fine, I can make that change, don’t worry.” Whit sounded like a tweaker to herself, trying to end this conversation so she could get her bearings.

After Kirsti apologized once more, Whit was alone again. She wandered back toward Market, and something caught her eye: that mural, which had been there forever, by an artist named Mona Caron. Right at Church and 15th, it showed the past, present, and future of San Francisco, with a focus on people marching for justice alongside the changing cars and buildings. And the “future” portion looked a lot like the amazing vision where Whit had just gotten lost.

No use in obsessing about a world you can never have. Whit took her Skin Francisco rig off when she got home and put it away in a box. And then, for good measure, she went on the PimpMyGoodz app and listed her rig, nearly new, for sale. Maybe she could get a third of what she’d paid for it, if she was lucky. (And if she could keep the roommate cabal from borrowing it and causing damage.)

For a week or so, Whit used nothing but her own eyes, ears, and nose when she walked around the city. She tried not to expect Market Street to be a river, or the hipster wine bar to be replaced by a center where you could share advice, food, or gently used goods. She made a serious effort to see things as they were and not look for any signs of another world.

Until.

ILLUSTRATION REPRODUCED COURTESY OF BONESTELL LLC

She was walking up 16th Street, trying to eat a burrito that turned out to be messier than expected and obsessing about her upcoming coffee date with Bobbie. When she reached Church, she dropped the remains of her burrito on the sidewalk, where it was attacked by hungry pigeons and crows. Whit was staring at the statue of Emperor Norton. Same benevolent leer, same weird hat, same gleaming brass.

Whit didn’t think she was hallucinating, or at least everything else still looked the same as always. But somehow, that future “skin” had predicted the actual future. There was a plaque and everything.

A couple of days later, Whit was in the Mission, and she saw a tree of cherry blossoms she was sure hadn’t been there before. But she’d seen that exact same tree, in that same spot, in the future skin.

Then there was a storefront, where that cozy old bookstore used to be, with the marmalade cat. One day, Whit walked past and the space was occupied, by the same “free advice and even freer stuff” business she’d seen in the future skin.

OK. So a few small things from that fantasy vision of a future San Francisco were coming to pass. No big deal. It was kind of a miracle that some landlord had decided to let their space be used for the public good, but weird stuff still happened in this city sometimes. Right?

Then Whit started to notice more and more stuff from that utopian, Mona Caron–inspired future, all around her. And…what if it was true that this was some kind of superintelligent machine mind at work? What if the code behind Skin Francisco had gotten so sophisticated, after years of rendering the intricate landscapes of the city, that it had started to have its own ideas and opinions? And what if the computer not only invented a better future but somehow predicted things that were going to come to pass?

Whit took her Skin Francisco rig out of the back of her closet and removed the listing from PimpMyGoodz. She started exploring the future skin more and more—and each time, she noticed more details, which were mirrored in the here and now.

She started to wonder about Supervisor Randall, the one who thought tax credits were the solution to every problem. She knew she was being a pie-eyed maniac; there was no way that Randy Randall would ever do anything that didn’t make her big donors happy. Every time she glanced at Randall’s website, she felt like a doofus. Except…wait a damn minute. Maybe a week after Whit started wearing her Skin Francisco rig again, she looked at Randy Randall’s site and saw it: “Announcing a new initiative: #WeAllLiveHere.” And there was a lot of fancy language about an emergency needing extraordinary measures. New affordable housing, repurposed spaces, converting those long-vacant office towers into shelters. It was happening.

Whenever Whit strolled across Market Street, she had to remind herself that her feet weren’t about to get wet.

The future skin included a living sculpture, sort of, near the J Church turnaround by Ocean Avenue. It was a complicated mixture of a living rosebush and the wooden rods that held it up but also made a space for people to pin their wishes and testimonials, on scraps of construction paper. It was like a tiny wishing tree, and it occupied a space that was nothing but dirt and wood shavings in the present day.

Whit made sure to walk by that spot whenever she could, even if it meant a huge detour, but it remained just dirt and cedar chips.

Until one day, she was on her way to the Excelsior, and she heard something, some commotion, coming from the area around that turnaround. It was behind her, and she almost kept walking, but something made her turn back. She trod as quietly as she could manage, almost tiptoeing, and then she saw a group of people wrestling a rosebush into the ground. Some of them were carrying rods and scraps of construction paper and a sign that said, “WISHES AND EXHORTATIONS GO HERE.”

One of these half dozen people, cursing at scraped forearms and stubborn packed dirt, was Yaz, whom Whit had only ever seen inside that future virtual San Francisco. “Fucking thorns,” Yaz was grunting. “They didn’t have these inside the skin.”

Whit got up the courage to come over. “What’s going on here?”

“It’s a whole movement,” Yaz said. “We’re doing whatever we can to make it come true.”

“Oh. I thought maybe…” Whit felt like an asshat even saying these words out loud. “I thought maybe it was actually predicting the future. Like you said, maybe it had a mind of its own? So I thought, what if the Skin Francisco code got so smart, it actually knew what was going to happen in the real world?”

“I thought so too. But then I realized…it’s us. There wasn’t any supersmart computer after all. A whole lot of people built that future world, because we needed a way to imagine something better. And once we saw it, we knew we could make it real. Piece by piece.”

Whit had no words. She just stared at Yaz’s big serious gray-brown eyes and the dirt and scrapes on their hands and wrists. The rosebush shivered in a sudden gust of wind.

“Everybody who stumbles into the future skin wants to spend more time there,” Yaz said. “And then you end up wanting to add to it, create your own little touches. Like this wishing tree, it was my idea. I recruited a bunch of people to plant it in real life. We didn’t get a permit or anything, we just went ahead and did it.”

“But…Supervisor Randall?” Whit was gaping so hard she was worried she was about to start drooling. “And the landlord? Whoever owned that location where that bookstore used to be, where it’s a community space now? How on earth could they…”

“Someone sent them a code to get into the future skin.” Yaz smiled, and their whole face lit up. “Maybe they had the same heartbreak we’ve all had, coming back to the real world. Plus we might have organized a mob outside their offices, and sent a few million emails and petitions and voicemails, too.”

Yaz was still holding part of an unmoored rosebush, and the others were impatient for them to finish planting and installing.

Whit watched them wrestle with the bush over her shoulder as she slouched away. She was late for something, plus she really ought to be adulting—when had adult become a verb, and when had that become the only activity she ever partook in? She got halfway up the block, and then she pivoted and ran back.

“Can I help?” Whit asked.

Yaz grinned, bigger than ever, and handed Whit a pile of paper scraps and rods. “There’s always room for another pair of hands.”

Whit, Yaz, and the rest kept fussing with the bush until they were covered in blood and dirt. They had to make sure it was perfect, because they were nudging the city just a tiny bit closer to the future.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. She hosts the Writers with Drinks reading series in San Francisco and cohosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.

Explore the complete Science Fiction Special Section in Alta’s Summer 2020 issue.

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