The audio version of Beta-Life: Short Stories from an A-Life Future edited by Prof. Martyn Amos and Ra Page is an excellent way to take in this array of science fiction short stories and scientific essays speculating about the future of artificial life. Toby Longworth and Joe Jameson, the narrators, are excellent readers, easy to listen to and capable of varying the voices for the multitude of characters present in the book.
Set in the year 2070, all the stories speculate on how we might shape artificial life and how it might shape us. Some of the stories, like “Bruno Wins!” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce deal with artificial intelligence, others look at different aspects of the artificial: living buildings grown like plants, the process of synchronizing people’s minds, using pheromone trails to keep track of people, or making synthetic gourmet meals to give a few examples from stories in Beta Life. Each short story is followed by an essay written by a scientist in the relevant field, talking about where we are now in developing this particular artificial life—what makes us thing we might be “Growing Skyscrapers” as Adam Marek would have it? Why are robjects more likely than humanoid robots? Many of the concepts presented sound just a short time away. There are no flying cars or floating cities here: Everything is extrapolated closely from existing technology.
Whatever form of artificial life described, the ultimate focus is on us. How will humans use these new forms of life? How will they adapt to them? “Bruno Wins!” looks at the way we tend to expect too much of new items, thus often crushing them just as the begin—and how they might recover anyway as expectations change. “Growing Skyscrapers” features a world where people can grow buildings as easily as trees but are still as determined to own and control “their” property, no matter what they might give. Others feature governments using the technology to tighten their control, a world on the edge thanks to over-use of resources, or a world being pulled back to the edge by people using the advances creatively. Truth to tell, there are more of the former than the latter in this collection; there are no outright utopias in Beta-Life, and some downright dystopias mixed in with tales of life staying about the same mixed-up muddle it is today. In the end, whatever the tale, it all comes down to people and their choices.
Beta-Life: Short Stories from an A-Life Future will provide the reader with hours of thoughtful listening or reading.