Exchange Students

Alex has been traveling through China for the last several weeks with a melange of poets and game designers. He doesn’t speak any Chinese, so he hardly ever talks to anyone. Mostly he tries to look harmless and interested whenever he’s caught on the fringes of a conversation.

It’s an odd group. The poets are all futurists, way into automation and biological tech: breathing houses, photoreactive bicycles, 3d medicine. The game designers tack the other way, talk about the future in silent movie terms, social experiences built around Buster Keaton climbing a building, carriages toppling down Russian stairs, cities run with the unyielding, insistent patterns of clockwork. The Chinese school they’re staying with is in to all of it, but asserts (he thinks; the translations the autodidact in his ear provides are not always reliable) that none of it is real, and that the future is a constructed dilemma, and infinitely malleable.

It’s a bit over his head. He drifts quietly between groups, chewing on five spice powder and drawing delicate little schematics for farming robots, Roombas the size of combine harvesters. His real work won’t begin until they have begun building in earnest, until pen hits paper and the first rough code is written.

Then things get interesting.