Young People Read Old SFF

The Smiling Future

Miriam Allen de Ford

Miriam Allen de Ford was a prolific author of both mysteries and Fortean-flavoured science fiction stories. She was also an active feminist, disseminating information about family planning in a time when that was illegal in many regions. Although widely anthologized while alive , since her death she seems to have lapsed into obscurity, at least on the SF side of thing. A pity.

“The Smiling Future” is perhaps not de Ford’s best known science fiction work but it does have the advantage of being on the internet archive, not true of much of her work (because her work was mainly for T he Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, none of which is on the archive). Also, it has dolphins and who doesn’t like dolphins? Selecting it out of all the de Fords I could have selected is therefore something of a calculated risk. Will the risk pay off?

I found this story odd. The condescension of the Dolphins and the way it seems the author agrees with them rubbed me the wrong way. Call me a humanist. I get that the narrator turns out to be a Dolphin, but unlikable narrators don't make good stories.

The whole thing is a very pessimistic Malthusian fable. Overpopulation leading to dystopic conditions for the masses of people. Malthus continues to be proven wrong, though maybe not when this was written? In any case I haven't seen a disproven theory deter authors much in modern SF, so it's probably no great obstacle in old SF. The other science bits in this story are just hilariously silly. How does widening an ocean trench raise sea levels? When they first brought it up I thought they were talking about filling in the trenches with rock to raise the sea levels, which still probably wouldn't work but isn't as completely wrong as the idea they went with. The other bonkers theory was that radioactive fish would beneficially mutate cetaceans to give them huge brains and psychic powers, rather than huge tumours and congenital defects. It's a bit comic book.

One thing I did find interesting was that in the story it turns out space travel and colonisation is hard and expensive. Prohibitively so. Seems to be the way things are going in the real world too for now.

The casual acceptance of eugenics gave me pause, though I wasn't surprised. It still weirded me out.

All in all, a meh story that I didn't particularly enjoy.

—Jamie

While reading The Smiling Future, I was reminded of a few cartoons I watched as a child: the Flintstones, the Jetsons, and Scooby Doo. There is an internet theory that the Flintstones and Jetsons universes exist at the same time, and are a reflection of how different classes live in a post-apocalyptic future. Everyone with money escaped to the stratosphere, and everyone without had to stick around on the ground, using animals and manual labor to do all their work. In an episode of Scooby Doo, one of the “suspects” who was acting strange was a marine biologist, working on a top-secret invention to allow humans to communicate with dolphins. Oddly enough, none of the cartoons of my childhood included a plot point about genetically modified humans interbreeding with a superior race of dolphin women.

Considering that this story reminds me of products made by 1960s-era Hanna Barbera studios, I found it to be a bit ham-fisted. There were some points of interest to me though, notably:

  1. Instead of investing in advances in efficient housing, population control, and improved food production, the world leaders chose to waste their money on space exploration, which ultimately failed.
  2. The image of 240 world leaders being at the mercy of a genetically superior dolphin race is awesome. I love the idea that a group of (presumably mostly male) people who have always been privileged and never had to worry about external factors affecting their personal and professional success are now at the mercy of a group of dolphins. I suspect that if (spoiler alert) they hadn't all died immediately before the end of the story, many of them would have had a difficult time adjusting to their new place in the social order. In fact, I can think of a few world leaders who I would love to give a dolphin-ultimatum to. Who knows... being on the receiving end of a dolphin-ultimatum might even increase their compassion for the less fortunate – you know, people whose futures may be influenced by events outside of their own control. ...but maybe not.

Although I'm sure the race would not find me remotely worthy, I still say that I welcome our new Dolphin Overlords with open fins.



—Lisa

This story was very dated - if it was published today, people would read it as a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi satire. As it is, I have no idea how serious the author intended this story to be.

The setup is seemingly same ol’, same ol’. Planet full of radioactive waste. Food shortages. Political upheaval. Population control. (Side note: “proper eugenic standards” would definitely not fly today. “Underdeveloped regions” may have just as much stigma in the future.)

The chlorella-gatherers are relevant today. Algae blooms are in the media, and carbon fixing/sequestration is a buzzword-filled topic. Algae and other food alternatives are popping up. Mycoprotein, synthetic meat, insects, and other food replacements.

Little bits here and there mean I can’t take this story seriously. The dolphins have trained whales and crabs. The dolphins speak “not from mouths but from blow-holes”. (No, that’s not how that works. That would be like us speaking out of tracheas.)

And then there’s the ending. That’s when the story announces itself as a dark comedy. It was so very Hitchhiker’s Guide/Battlestar Galactica. You’re inferior, but let’s try breeding. Actually, never mind. So long, and thanks for all the fish...because we poisoned them for you but not for us.

—Mel

The premise of an out-of-control population boom feels dated. I’ve read other SF with the premise of a drastically overpopulated Earth, so I know it is an idea that was around, but today it seems odd that that would be people’s biggest concern. The message about polluting our own food supply has aged better, although I’m way too cynical to accept a situation where the world is too busy trying to produce to fight each other, if anything it seems like the conditions described should provoke more conflict, not less.

The casual endorsement of sterilization and eugenics and the implication that they are necessary for humanity’s survival is downright disturbing. I know that these concepts were once more readily accepted, but randomly coming across them in the story is extremely off putting.

Overall, I don’t really know how to react to this story. Some aspects of it are definitely dated and/or super problematic, and the story itself is just so weird. Super powered dolphins is just such an odd choice for the apocalypse, as is the dolphins’ suggestion for how to save humanity.

—Mikayla