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Literature / Tomorrow Town

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"Tomorrow Town" is a short story written in 2000 by Kim Newman, and one of the many to feature his 1970s glam rock psychic detective Richard Jeperson, agent of the Diogenes Club.

Tomorrow Town is a futurist's paradise. A sparkling 1970s idea of what the the 21st century will be. There are Food Pills, robots, a building-scale Master Computer, and definitely no crime.

And then the founder gets murdered. Crap.

Since the British government has a lot of futuristic ambition — not to mention money — invested in the town, they send their top investigator, Richard Jeperson, and his assistant Vanessa along to investigate exactly what went wrong. And as they dig deeper, it begins to become apparent that the future isn't quite as great as everyone anticipated...

Can be read here.

This short story contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Abilene Paradox: In the end, the only reason Zhoule remained in power was that almost everybody else was too afraid to step up and collectively eager to try to make things work.
  • Affectionate Parody: The story is essentially an affectionate Take That! to 1970s futurism and science fiction.
  • Alliterative Title: Due to the Alliterative Name of The Place the story is set.
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: One of the tropes invoked in Tomorrow Town, with the Big Thinks computer matching compatible people. There is suspicion that the process isn't as objective as it's supposed to be, particularly after Varno Zhoule was matched with a woman who wasn't interested in him and was in fact already married to another man — who is now the chief suspect in Zhoule's murder.
  • Clue, Evidence, and a Smoking Gun: Richard's retort when Vanessa accuses Big Thinks of bludgeoning Zhoule to death.
    Richard: Big Thinks can beat you at chess, solve logic problems, cut a pop record, and make the monorail run on time, but it hasn’t got sentience, a personality, a motive, or, most importantly, arms.
  • Cool, but Inefficient: Pretty much everything in Tomorrow Town.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Tomorrow Town wants to be this so, so bad.
  • Cult Colony: Turns out that Tomorrow Town is functionally one of these, with pulp science fiction as its gospel and Zhoule as its messiah, which the British government was unwise enough to divert public funding to. On the inside, it's filled with all the same bad ideas and toxic social dynamics as any other of its ilk.
  • Cut the Juice: The anti-climax version; the villain's mad attempt to destroy the community by having Big Thinks overclock the climate control is thwarted when Big Thinks helpfully informs the heroes that they might want to pull Circuit Breaker 15 about now.
    • This also works to underscore the theme about how inaccurate the community's whole idea about the future is; upon confronting the villain after this, Jeperson notes that even in the far-flung world of the twenty-first century, it's unlikely that local communities or public offices will have self-destruct mechanisms just in case the incumbent doesn't feel like giving up office after their term is completed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The longer they spend in Tomorrow Town, the more sarcastic about everything Richard and Vanessa get.
  • Deconstruction: The short story deconstructs pretty much the whole concept of futurism/futurology as a whole by concentrating on the most prominent predictions about the twenty-first century that tended to crop up in 1930s-1950s era science fiction. Almost all of them are applied by the futurists in creating their society... and almost all of them are either cripplingly impractical or completely unworkable.
  • Domed Hometown: Tomorrow Town is, naturally, and like everything else it turns out to be impractical. Trapping the population under a dome just means that airborne infections spread rapidly, while relying on artificial light sources means that the light falls unevenly on the grass and the temperature is too humid, especially given the plastic Space Clothes everyone has to wear. Then the villain tries to melt the dome on top of everyone until someone pulls the circuit breaker.
  • Droit du Seigneur: Turns out that Tomorrow Town has basically given a futuristic spin on this old idea, as Zhoule was basically able to have his pick of the ladies and eventually managed to steal Buster's wife away from her using Big Thinks. She doesn't appear to be convincingly happy with the situation.
  • Evolutionary Levels: The inhabitants of Tomorrow Town like to think they've evolved beyond their 1970s contemporaries. They haven't.
  • False Utopia: The community of the future has long since been surpassed socially and technologically by the outside world, yet no-one dares talk about it.
  • Fanservice / Fan Disservice: In-universe; the inhabitants of Tomorrow Town all wear the same unisex clothing. It looks very flattering on the women. Less so on the men. It further underscores the idea that the founder of Tomorrow Town is basically an old lech with some fairly outdated ideas about gender. That is, outdated for the 1970s.
  • Fantastic Caste System: Zenvols and Zenpasses ("Citizen Volunteers" and "Citizen Passengers"). Zenpasses don't have a vote; Zenvols have a number of votes based on "applied intelligence", as arbitrated by Big Thinks.
  • Fantastic Racism: Outsiders are referred to — rather dismissively — as 'yesterday men'. As Richard notes, for a supposedly perfect and evolved egalitarian society that's quite an antiquated and elitist attitude.
  • Food Pills: Like everything else about Tomorrow Town, they don't work as well as they're supposed to. So much so that, by the end of the story, everyone in town is eagerly awaiting the arrival of an old-fashioned fish-and-chip van so they can have some proper food for once.
  • Free-Love Future: Subverted; past relationships are ruled irrelevant unless they serve a purpose, but this is just so the community leader can jump anyone he wants.
  • Future Slang: Deconstructed. Turns out that it's just the result of Zhoule being atrocious at spelling and forcing it on everybody else.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Of Science Fiction in general, but specially of its main endeavor of imagining paradisiacal societies if people would just do the 'rational' thing X, Y and Z.
  • History Repeats: Something of a theme; the futurists are quite contemptuous of the past and everything it represents (they secretly refer to outsiders as 'yesterday men' and the suspect in the murder is already subject to prejudice because before joining the colony, he was a history teacher), but are shown to be completely clueless when actually trying to predict the future. Just as history repeats if you don't take notice of it and learn from your mistakes, the future isn't something you can force — it happens how it happens whether you want it to or not.
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: The protagonists are alerted to an attempted assassination when the constantly humming gadgets in their room are turned off. The attacker then has to crank the door open manually, giving them plenty of time to prepare for his attack.
  • I Want My Jetpack: No you don't, because if this story's correct, then like everything else that classic science fiction loved to speculate about it'd be completely impractical and wouldn't work.
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: Subverted; turns out that if you build a massively complex computing machine with the finest technology and minds available to the 1970s and upgrade it with every futuristic advancement those minds can predict you get... a really good calculator.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: When it's revealed that Big Thinks falls way short of expectations, Richard makes a few snide cracks about its uselessness. The head programmer, who has up to this point been at least rather passively complicit and willing to turn a blind eye to the clearly unjust nature of events in the story, rather woundedly points out that Big Thinks genuinely was a very advanced machine in terms of doing what it's supposed to do; the actual issue was people credulously trying to force it to solve problems that it was in no way equipped to solve.
  • Killer Outfit: Mal-K drowns when a too-powerful bathroom waterpick is jabbed into his too-watertight spacesuit and his helmet fills with water.
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: Inverted; one of the suspects is explicitly ruled out because she's left handed.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: This backfires in a major way when Mal-K wears a helmet for an attempted murder and ends up drowning in it.
  • Master Computer: Big Thinks is supposed to be one of these. Turns out, it's actually just a contemporary 1970s mainframe computer with lots of bits added on — essentially, good at doing sums, but pretty crappy at almost everything else. This doesn't stop the credulous futurists from treating it as if it's some kind of hyper-advanced AI, however; they end up getting it to do things it has no place doing, such as arbitrating love affairs. Ironically, however, these very limitations mean that when the villain tries to use it to destroy the community, Big Thinks runs an error program and alerts the heroes to exactly what they need to do to shut it down.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: When Richard and his assistant Vanessa arrive, they learn that the townspeople have already imprisoned a suspect, who they insist must be the killer, citing that he never really fitted in to the community and that the murder weapon was found in his house. Later that night, one of most enthusiastic promoters of this theory tries to kill the detectives, but accidentally manages to kill himself instead. Richard then notes rather dryly that if one of the most enthusiastic proponents of "the first guy did it!" theory later tries to kill the investigating detectives, it's a fairly safe bet that there's an injustice going on.
  • Mundanger: The only threat that Richard Jeperson, a veteran fighter of the supernatural, has to deal with in this story is a bunch of rather normal, although highly deluded and in a couple of occasions murderously fanatical, people.
  • Never My Fault: The town's founder has tons of amazing ideas that are impractical or outright impossible to implement. He blames everyone else for these failures.
  • Not So Above It All: Downplayed; he's snarky about pretty much everything, but towards the end Richard does sadly reflect on being a bit disappointed that Tomorrow Town turned out to be impractical, misguided and doomed to failure.
    It would have been nice if the future worked.
  • Nu Speling: Parodied; all writing must conform to a new phonetic spelling system that the founder predicts will be ubiquitous by the end of the century. Really (according to his co-founder), he's just always had dreadful spelling, and rather than learn to spell properly he chose to foist his spelling on everybody else as the "rational" choice. (In fact, he had additional plans for language reform that involved going through the dictionary crossing out superfluous words and making it a crime to continue teaching them; apparently he had issues with his old public school.)
  • Only Sane Man: Buster is the only citizen of Tomorrow Town to speak out against the absurdities of what is going on and as a result is made a second-class citizen and his wife is reassigned to another man. It is later revealed that most of the inhabitants thought the same thing but were too intimidated by the founders to speak up.
  • Orwellian Retcon: On its first appearance, the story contained a line in which Vanessa described one of Tomorrow Town's gadgets as less functional than her nephew's toy robot. In later reprintings, after another story established that Vanessa was an orphan with no known relatives, it's Fred Regent's nephew instead.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Most of the Richard Jeperson stories are urban fantasy/horror. This one is science fiction — and at that, it's arguably more a story about science fiction than a story that is science fiction.
  • Pulling the Thread: This, coupled with prejudice, turns out to be the main reason that Buster was reclassified and persecuted. Having become increasingly skeptical about Big Thinks and its ability to solve all problems, it turns out he snuck in one night and fed it a version of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, a notoriously complex and finicky border dispute between Germany and Denmark in the nineteenth century, to see if Big Thinks could solve it. Turns out Big Thinks blew a fuse instead, and the people in charge tried to cover it up.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Tomorrow Town's founders, Zhoule and Gewell, are both Hugo winners. The story even specifies which categories and which years: Zhoule, Best Short Story 1957 and Best Novelette 1958; Gewell, Best Fan Editor 1958. (In real life, the Hugo Award categories were not standardised until the 1960s, and those categories were not in use in those years.)
  • Red Alert: Which only makes the residents panic.
  • Rigged Contest: The computer decisions are weighed in Zhoule's favour because he's more valuable to the community than the others. In truth he's actually the most useless member of the community, as his ideas are Awesome, but Impractical and he doesn't put any thought into how they are going to be applied in practice. It's also at least implied that Big Thinks doesn't even work half the time, and Zhoule merely browbeats the computer-techs into claiming that it decided in his favor.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: Also less than effective.
  • Silent Snarker: One of the Tomorrow Town inhabitants is apparently mute, and so communicates through hand-gestures and mimes. Some of these mimes clearly indicate that she's eagerly seizing an opportunity to just take the piss out of everything and everyone around her and get away with it. This is later pretty much confirmed when it turns out that she can talk after all.
  • Space Clothes: Unisex, stripperiffic one-size-fits-all plastic jumpsuits that are difficult to adjust (or remove for toilet purposes) and prone to overheating in a climate-controlled environment. It's also noted that they tend to look better on the incredibly statuesque women populating Tomorrow Town than the rather dowdy men.
  • Stepford Smiler: The inhabitants of Tomorrow Town are initially quite smiley, calm and cheery. Over the course of the novel, as Richard and Vanessa poke deeper, the smiles get more insincere, the calm facade begins to crack and the cheeriness begins to slip, until eventually by the end the entire town is in the town square angrily releasing months of bottled-up tension and complaints in one big 'whine-in'.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: When the subject of Buster being demoted to zenpass and not getting a vote first comes up, Jess-F immediately says "It's not a punishment category." Richard replies "Kind of you to clarify that. I might have made a misconclusion otherwise."
  • Take Over the World: Mal-K wanted to use Big Thinks to take over the computers of major corporations and thus control Britain. Like everything else outside its parameters, this simply couldn't happen.
  • Take That!: There are a few gentle but nevertheless rather pointed jabs at "hard" science fiction going on. Throughout the story, it is repeated asserted — with varying degrees of self-seriousness — that Tomorrow Town and its founders don't hold with silly "soft" science fiction concepts like teleportation or hackneyed premises like computers gaining sentience and going mad and trying to take over the world, and that everything about the project is based on rigorous extrapolation from current technological trends and in-depth consideration of probability and viability of the concepts they develop. Of course, all of this rigorous extrapolating doesn't mean that they can't be wrong, or that if and when they are wrong they won't end up looking just as if not more silly once a few decades have passed. The tendency of classic "hard" sci-fi to treat the feelings and preferences of actual people as either mechanistically predictable or irrelevant to the course of future history is also parodied, as Tomorrow Town's lack of ergonomic design and obliviousness to its "zenpass" underclass's discontent is painfully obvious. Newman, it should perhaps be noted, tends to write in horror and "soft" science-fantasy, two genres that typically tend to attract a bit of aloof condescension at best and outright snide dismissiveness at worst from advocates of hard science fiction.
  • Trophy Violence: Zhoule was apparently bludgeoned to death with one of his own Hugo Award trophies. He was actually killed with Gewell's 1958 Hugo trophy, which the murderer then swapped with Zhoule's 1958 trophy to muddy the trail.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Jeperson notes there are a lot of short, stout men and tall attractive women, implying that physical attractiveness is an entry requirement for one group but not the other. Later revelations about the project leader's sexual appetites suggest that attractive men were intentionally excluded by him to preempt all potential competition.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Buster has a particularly impressive moment of this. After a gigantic Trauma Conga Line in which he's reduced to a second-class citizen for being too clever and perceptive, gets his wife stolen by the local cult leader, is framed for said cult leader's murder, and gets boarded up inside his own home by the enraged townsfolk, he gets the opportunity to escape the ghastly Cult Colony he's stuck in. He does so... and then comes back with a fish-and-chip truck so his fellow 'zenvols' can have something tasty to eat for once in their miserable lives.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: It becomes clear that the victim, Zhoule, was not a nice man by any stretch of the imagination, just a Jerkass who liked to impose his will and ideas onto the community he was running. When the ideas proved to be unworkable he would blame anyone else except himself. The villain insists that Tomorrow Town could actually have been sustainable were it not for Zhoule and his constant stream of bad ideas.
  • You Are Number 6: The citizens of Tomorrow Town use futuristic names that are mostly derived from the first syllable and last initial of their old name: thus, Varno Zhoule is Var-Z, George Gewell is Jor-G, and so on. One woman, for no clearly explained reason, is instead Sue-2 (the most likely is that there was another woman called Sue with the same last initial, and this is a way of distinguishing).
  • Zeerust: Deconstructed; the community is an almost exact depiction of how contemporary science (fiction) used to love to depict the twenty-first century — and, of course, the actual twenty-first century reader will note that they got everything wrong. And absolutely nothing works:
    • The futuristic 'bubble cars' and monorail can be outrun by someone on a BMX bike.
    • The Robot Helpers are less efficient than a contemporary vacuum cleaner specifically designed for the task, and actually fall apart while working.
    • The Master Computer is essentially just a contemporary 1970s machine with all sorts of useless bits on.
    • The Nu Speling doesn't make sense, and only exists because the founder can't be bothered to fix his dreadful spelling.
    • The 'perfect' social system has put the founder in a position of unquestioned power, basically treats women like second class citizens and means that he can steal other people's girlfriends / wives if he fancies them.
    • The 'unisex' clothes are ill-fitting, very uncomfortable, and look stupid. In keeping with the above point about the founder's attitudes to women, it also looks a lot more flattering to a woman's figure than a man's.
    • Oh, and there's been a murder. In a community where people are supposed to be 'beyond' petty crimes like murder.
      • The murder further underscores the uselessness of the community and how the inhabitants are merely deluding themselves about how evolved they are; Jeperson notes at one point that far from being any kind of futuristic type of death (a ray-gun blast, for example), the murder was committed by bludgeoning — possibly the oldest method of murder known to man. And the motives ultimately stem from simple jealousy and spite towards the victim, not any kind of grandiose futuristic Take Over the World plot.
    • Many, many allegedly "advanced" personal or household devices are either useless, uncomfortable, or downright painful or dangerous. One character's eyes are constantly irritated by experimental contact lenses, one of the culprits is drowned when a too-powerful bathroom waterpick is jabbed into his too-watertight spacesuit, and Vanessa finds greater comfort sitting on a broken-down cleaning robot than on either the slippery, unstable inflatable chairs or the too-warm, tacky-to-the-touch heated floor of Zhoule's domicile.
    • Turns out that a Domed Hometown is great... at spreading airborne illnesses like wildfire, and creating a hot, humid greenhouse-like climate.
    • An artificial sun right outside said dome (let alone three) would create very uneven lighting, and said lighting wouldn't be particularly pleasant to the eyes, with plenty of inhabitants opting for visors.
    • Food Pills aren't filling, and they do not fulfill all dietary needs, being based on outdated ideas on nutrition. Needless to say, everyone is chronically famished.