We were paid to be cautious, to keep the slipstream of information flowing at all costs, even if it meant removing some of it from the world.
from “We Are the Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Yesterday, I had lunch with a woman who, due to an unspeakable accident years earlier, had lost her sense of smell and taste. With as much tact as I could muster, I tried to get her to describe what life was like but, either because she thought I was probing out of a sense of pity or because it really did unearth painful memories, she dismissed her condition and tried to change the subject as soon as she could. All I could get out of her was that life was “bland.” Sure, I felt pity for her, but I was also morbidly curious: what would it feel like to be robbed of these two senses? Bland, indeed. That’s why I found it an interesting coincidence that today’s featured story from the Watchlist anthology is about a team of workers who are trained to sniff videos. “We Are the Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun is set in an undefined near-future when technology has progressed to to the point where scents can be programmed into online clips and a person’s every movement is tracked through Quantibands worn on the wrist. Renton, the story’s narrator, works at the Olfanautics complex outside Nairobi: “My main job was to monitor the whyffs that users considered suspicious or objectionable.” Like if someone posts a video of a birthday cake that literally smells like shit or a bucolic shot of “a trickling stream might reek of decomposition.” The short story is a fascinating and frightening look at where we’re headed with technology and our neverending quest to please all the senses. But, like my lunch with the woman yesterday, it still makes me a little sad to think of a world in which some possibilities might be limited or perverted. I mean, when I’m eating birthday cake, I want to be carried away on a nirvana cloud of sugar to a place that triggers happy memories. I can’t imagine living in a world without a nose.
Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21. The “persons of interest” contributing short stories to the anthology include Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, David Abrams, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.