The coolest near-future story I've read recently is now available online, as a free download. Maureen McHugh's story "Interview: On Any Given Day" wraps genetic engineering and future youth subcultures into a story that's alternately funny and super-disturbing. The story's faux-interview format and weird little hyperlinks add to the feeling that you're consuming a piece of medium-high culture from a future world where genetic tampering has led to some horrendous side effects, including a new sexually transmitted disease. Spoilers ahead.
In "Any Given Day," reporter from National Public Internet (which has replaced NPR) interviews a teenager in 2018, and the transcript has the feeling of a real interview from All Things Considered, including little musical segues. In McHugh's future world, the Baby Boomers are all getting into their 70s and are desperately availing themselves of genetic treatments to restore their lost youth and gain a second chance at being kids. (But you can always tell a rejuvenated Boomer, because they're not young on the inside.)
Our teen hero has had sex with a Boomer named Terry, and then contracts a weird new STD. It seems "contaminated batches of genetic material associated with the telemerase" used in Terry's rejuvenation therapy has converted itself into a proto-virus called pv414. And now the teenager, Emma, has had to take grueling treatments to guard against possible cancers and "hairy cell leukemia." Even after she's pronounced cured, she's constantly worried about getting sick and feels all slowed down and cautious. It's as if Terry, in his selfish quest to stay young another 50 years, has stolen Emma's youth inadvertently. Emma, meanwhile, belongs to a new youth subculture called "Culture Freaks," which tries to borrow from specific non-white cultures, like India or Egypt, as much as possible.
This being NPI, whenever we get to a particularly intense skein of Emma's memories, we suddenly cut to a piece of Baby-Boomer easy listening music, as in this section, where Emma narrates losing her virginity to an older teenager:
Emma: I was fourteen when I lost my virginity. I was drunk, and there was this guy named Luis, he was giving me these drinks that taste like melon, this green stuff that everybody was drinking when they could get it. He said he really liked all my Egyptian stuff and he kept playing with my slave bracelet. The bracelet has chains that go to rings you wear on your thumb, your middle finger, and your ring finger. "Can you be my slave?" he kept asking and at first I thought that was funny because he was the one bringing me drinks, you know? But we kept kissing and then we went into the bedroom and he felt my breasts and then he wanted to have sex. I felt as if I'd led him on, you know? So I didn't say no.
I saw him again a couple of times after that, but he didn't pay much attention to me. He was older and he didn't go to my school. I regret it. I wish it had been a little more special and I was really too young.
Sometimes I thought that if I were a boy I'd be one of those boys who goes into school one day and starts shooting people.
(Music—"Poor Little Rich Girl" by Tony Bennett.)
It would be easy to make a story like "Any Given Day" into a polemic or a flat-out satire, but McHugh gives the story more emotional resonance. The real focus of the story isn't even Emma's disease, but the relationship between Emma, Terry, and the rest of Emma's friends — which leads up to an explosive conclusion. "Interview: On Any Given Day" is part of McHugh's story collection Mothers And Other Monsters, which is now a free Creative Commons download from Small Beer Press. [Small Beer Press]