“Tomorrow is closer than we think.” — Blake Crouch
Released in October of 2019, Forward: Stories of Tomorrow is a collection of Audible Original short stories curated by author Blake Crouch (Wayward Pines Trilogy, Dark Matter) that explore a variety of futuristic science fiction topics. As is becoming somewhat typical with Audible Originals productions, Forward occupies an increasingly diverse middle ground between traditional book publishing and podcast-inspired audio creations that spans everything from live, spoken-word performances to panel discussions to a wide variety of audio-dramas.
While fitting the more traditional definition of a “short story anthology,” Forward is marketed and available from Audible as both a single audio production and as individual story titles. Additionally, written versions of the individual stories are available in Kindle format from Amazon, but it is clear that the primary intent for this collection is audio consumption. These variations on offer represent an increasingly frequent shift from the expected lines drawn between the publication of books in their printed, audio, and digital releases. As exemplified by the “forward-looking” theme of the collection itself, this blurring of publication methodology appears more and more to represent the future of reaching an increasingly tech-diverse audience.
The Forward collection is made up of six original stories from some of the biggest names in literary and speculative fiction today. The list of authors includes: Veronica Roth, whose dystopian YA trilogy, Divergent, spawned a series of movies grossing nearly $800 million worldwide; N.K. Jemisin, the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning author of the Broken Earth trilogy; Amor Towles, author of the New York Times bestselling titles Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow; Paul Tremblay, the recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for his novel, The Cabin at the End of the World; Andy Weir, author of the best-selling debut novel, The Martian; as well as the series editor, Blake Crouch who has brought us TV series like Wayward Pines and Good Behavior, along with a long list of successful fiction titles like Dark Matter and Recursion.
Audible has brought some equally recognizable names to the list of narrative performers in this collection. Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld, Thirteen) reads Veronica Roth’s "Ark," the story of a young scientist diligently cataloging flora and fauna as she prepares for Earth’s imminent destruction. Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel, Maze Runner) reads Blake Crouch’s "Summer Frost," the story of the relationship between a video game creator and a minor non-player character who achieves sentience. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, Star Trek: Discovery) reads N.K. Jemisin’s "Emergency Skin," a tale of humanity’s return to a climate-destroyed Earth. David Harbour (Stranger Things, Hellboy) reads Amor Towles’ "You Have Arrived at Your Destination," an exploration of the boundless possibilities offered by fertility technology. Steven Strait (The Expanse, The Covenant) reads Paul Tremblay’s "The Last Conversation," a suspenseful tale of waking up with no memory. And, finally, Janina Gavankar (True Blood, Arrow) reads Andy Weir’s "Randomize," a story about the intersection of quantum computing and gambling.
Each of these stories hone in very successfully on the futuristic theme of the series while exploring a entertainingly varied collection of science fiction topics (artificial intelligence, genetics, quantum physics, mathematics, climate science, and so on); however, the most successful installments in the collection are the ones that merge complex human emotion with an overpowering sense of tension from the first paragraph to the last. At the pinnacle of this standard are the stories "Summer Frost" and "The Last Conversation."
In "Summer Frost," Crouch gives us an intimate look at the main character’s internal emotional and moral struggles as the plot hurtles towards a potentially devastating conclusion. Crouch understands his audience’s familiarity with hyper-intelligent artificial beings (We recognize the influences of Ex Machina, Westworld, and Person of Interest.) and wields that familiarity like a weapon. At the same time, we entirely identify with the human character’s motivations and are equally devastated at what transpires in the story’s climactic ending. This is the one story in the collection that moved me to tears in that moment.
In "The Last Conversation," Tremblay crafts a hypnotic narrative of internal discovery, doubt, and claustrophobia. Entirely told from the main character’s extremely limited point-of-view, it takes the entire length of the story to even be sure (Are we sure?) of what we’re actually dealing with. We suspect but don’t ultimately know what the outcome is going to be. More importantly, though, Tremblay doesn’t sacrifice any of the personal, emotional moments between his cast of two mysterious characters. And it is these emotional moments that are ultimately responsible for most of the tension before everything is over.
To a lesser degree, "Ark," "Emergency Skin," and "You Have Arrived at Your Destination" deliver engaging characters and intriguing topics. I think, though, in each of these, the authors have somewhat sacrificed one of these aspects out of service to the other. "Ark" is a beautifully told story, filled with memory and self reflection, but lacking in suspense or satisfying resolution. "Emergency Skin" cleverly delivers a satirically barbed statement about where humanity is headed, but doesn’t as strongly deliver characters we can connect with. The ideas explored in "Destination" are intriguing, but the ending left me uncertain about where the story or the main character had taken me.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Andy Weir’s "Randomize" which doesn’t seem so much a short story as an overly lengthy elevator pitch. Both the characters and the plot are underdeveloped and ultimately abandoned. When the audiobook credits started at the the close of this final story in Forward’s table of contents, I did a double-take, suspecting that something had gone very wrong with the production of the track. I suspect that Weir’s unique brand of technically detailed plot development is not well suited to the short story format, but I don’t have sufficient breadth of knowledge with Weir’s bibliography to make a final judgment here.
At their best, the narrative performances in this collection offer skilled, nuanced interpretations of both story and character. Steven Strait delivers "The Last Conversation" to us in a deliberately measured and hypnotic tone that perfectly conveys the isolation and disconnectedness of the characters. Jason Isaacs imbues the first-person narrator of "Emergency Skin" with a delicious (and revealing) self-serving haughtiness. And the final moments of "Summer Frost" are performed with devastating vulnerability and sorrow by Rosa Salazar.
It’s these performances that lift the audience out of the sometimes complex details of the various plots (as fascinating as those details are) and center us squarely in the emotional humanity at their center. They deftly navigate technical details and unfamiliar worlds to focus the audience on the internal struggles, motivations, and emotions of the characters. They command our attention as these stories relentlessly move forward and let us know we were never alone along the way.