What would you do if you could predict the future?

First, you would read this book! You can’t predict the future, but you’ve got to read the book.

Maybe once every two or three years I read a novel that I can’t put down—except that in those cases I usually have to keep putting it down in order to think about what I have just read. The Future is Yours, by Dan Frey, is one such book. Even if you’re not into science fiction, read it!

Despite the title, it’s not really about the future at all. It’s about the present. Also the very recent past (February–December 2021 in particular). I can tell you the premise without committing a spoiler: two Stanford grad students, one a techie and one a business type, develop a quantum computer that can connect to a version of itself one year in the future and thereby can predict what’s going to happen. Their startup is naturally called The Future.

Of course the Law of Unintended Consequences steps in.

Not being especially knowledgeable about quantum computing, I feel unequipped to judge the plausibility of the physics here. Let’s just say that a massive Willing Suspension of Disbelief is called for. But any science fiction story is entitled to a single Wild Leap of Faith that goes beyond the current state of the art, so long as the rest of the story holds together, as it does here.

You should probably be warned that The Future is Yours is in the grand tradition of epistolary novels—updated to the 21st Century in that the “letters” include texts, tweets, emails, blog posts, and (crucially) transcripts of a Congressional hearing. So the setup can be a bit confusing, especially as there also are flashbacks. Nevertheless, the flashbacks are strategically located so as to advance the plot, giving it the feeling of being chronologically coherent—as much as that’s possible in a narrative that is periodically peering one year into the future. Fortunately the nature of the material is that almost everything has dates on it, so the reader is always kept apprised of the timeline.

Despite the risk that you might not suspend your disbelief when being told that quantum computing would let you send signals a year into the future—and of course then a year into the past so you can retrieve the information you’re requesting!—everything in the book feels completely realistic. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the fictional characters are all people that I’ve known—not literally, of course, but they are extraordinarily like people I’ve known. The techie protagonist (who I think is on the spectrum although Frey never quite says so) is very much like many of the computer programmers I have worked with; the business-oriented protagonist is like no one I know personally but a lot like plenty of the high-tech businessmen one hears about all the time. (I say “businessmen” advisedly.) And that takes us to the second reason that everything in the story feels realistic: the not-so-original technique of sprinkling real names amidst the fictional ones. I particularly like the characterization of Elon Musk: “Elon is a preening, self-important prick masquerading as an engineer.” Other real-life characters with cameos in the book include Ray Kurzweil, Michael Pollan, Kanye West, Kara Swisher (several times), Al Gore, and Ariana Grande. Quite a mix!

Politicians of both parties (Frey is being even-handed here) come across as being even more obnoxious than the two founders of the startup. The fictional Congressional hearing, which is scattered throughout the book, is somewhat of a satire but is saved from implausibility by being so much like the recent hearing at which various politicians revealed their ignorance when questioning Mark Zuckerberg. But the most startling bit of politics is not national but international, especially as I was reading page 252 just a couple of days ago. Remember, please, that this book was written at least a year and a half ago, probably more like two years ago. So, you wonder, what was on page 252? A list of headlines of articles retrieved from the future, namely the year 2022:

U.S. Launches Pre-emptive Strike Against Russian Forces in Ukraine

Intel from “The Future” Device Drove Pre-Emptive Ukraine Strike

Russian Standoff in Ukraine Could Escalate

U.S. Cites “Future Human Rights Abuses” as Justification for Pre-emptive Strike

China accuses U.S. of Escalating Conflict, Cites Intel from “The Future”

The Future is Yours is clearly in part a cautionary tale. I can’t tell you much more, because it would require spoilers, but you can get the idea here. The other thread running through the narrative is the device’s destructive effect on interpersonal relations among the protagonists and their colleagues, friends, and loved ones. The moral is…what? That we’re better off not knowing? Probably so.

Categories: Books