‘Introduction’ by Jetse de Vries
It seems slightly redundant to review Shine, Jetse de Vries’s “anthology of near-future optimistic science-fiction”, because it is a movement that has so clearly had its moment. Still, Solaris accidently submitted it to the Arthur C Clarke Award so I’ve got a copy, there are some interesting contributors and it has been a while since I’ve read any short fiction. But before the stories, we need to talk about the concept.
The two clauses of the subtitle set out of the conditions of the what but why? It is obviously the second of the two that most interests de Vries:
Optimism and an upbeat attitude have been given short thrift (sic) in written SF over the last few decades, and especially the last one. Yes, there are novels and short stories with a positive outlook, but these a far and few between.
So that is de Vries’s perceived problem and Shine is intended as a corrective. He goes on to explain that it hasn’t been an easy task and that Patrick Nielsen Hayden has been unsuccessfully trying to get a similar book off the ground since 2002. It is an unfortunate juxtaposition because if Nielsen Hayden can’t assemble enough decent positive SF stories for anthology, how much hope can we hold out for de Vries? Indeed, he acknowledges that he had to extent the deadline for Shine due to a lack of submissions of sufficient quality. This is the last thing any reader wants to be told.
There then follows a restatement of the perceived problem and the difficulty of providing a corrective. As evidence that SF is out of step with the optimism of the real world, de Vries presents a Kansas University press release about the Gallup World Poll and an anecdote about his work environment that both suggest most people are optimistic. I don’t regard either of those sources as bulletproof but, rather than attempting to rebut them, I would instead question how relevant this is to SF. After all, we would expect SF writers (who think about the future as a profession) to have a rather different perspective than the average person on the street. He suggests that SF writers are out of step with the “real world” but aren’t they part of this world? If everyone in the world is generally optimistic except for SF writers then how does de Vries account for the difference?
(The reason I don’t attempt to rebut de Vries’s sources is because it is inherently impossible for the anecdote and practically impossible for the hidden survey. I am also suspicious of de Vries’s attempts to quantify how negative SF actually is; he says that SF is “at least 90%” downbeat but there is nothing underlying his estimate. But I think it is possible to let his predicates stand and still find issue with his conclusions.)
Now we get to the most problematic part of de Vries’s argument:
Written SF almost exclusively shows the consequences of bad behaviour, and almost never the consequences of good behaviour. Dire warnings and doomsayings, being told over and over again ad nauseam, lose their effectiveness. With Shine I hope to show the other side of the coin: SF that actively thinks about the solutions to the problems plaguing humanity today. To show readers that written SF does something more than either provide escapism (which can be nice, once in a while) or wield the whip: that written SF can actively think in a constructive manner.
Let’s start with a couple of the more tangential points. Firstly, is it really true that repetition is ineffective? Is it better for the Government to simply issue a single press release warning of the dangers of climate change or heart disease or whatever and then keep silent? I’d suggest most research (not to mention advertising budgets) show the opposite. Secondly, I would agree with de Vries that there is rather too much escapism in SF but doesn’t this come into conflict with his idea that it is overwhelmingly negative? Can escapism and pessimism really make such cosy bedfellows? As for “wield the whip”, I wonder if de Vries himself knew what he meant here.
But there is a much bigger problem here, the idea that fiction should be “effective” and should attempt to solve problems. I disagree with this at a conceptual level; fiction is art, not engineering. I do think fiction should discuss, debate and criticise problems but, of course, this is exactly what it does do, regardless of whether it is pessimistic or optimistic. It is not the job of criticism to be constructive, unless that is what is being paid for (last time I checked, the SF community wasn’t a think tank).
Stepping down from the conceptual level, however, “the solutions to the problems plaguing humanity today” are actually blindingly obvious. There is no great mystery as to the source of the world’s suffering: it is neoliberalism. The solution therefore is nothing less than the overturning of the dominant global political and economic philosophy. An easy task, I’m sure you’ll agree. No, the only way for a writer to effect change is to criticise the hegemony responsible; the solution is to educate people about the problem because it is only with a critical mass of people that the system can be changed. This is where de Vries has got it completely backwards. If an SF writer presents a future of food shortages, energy wars, social segregation or any number of other gloomy scenarios then far from burying their head in the sand, they are implicitly criticising the current system and as such they are part of the solution.
After all this big picture stuff, the de Vries returns to another nuts and bolts section about the difficulties of producing the anthology before we close with two pages of synopses for the stories that are to follow. It reads much less like an introduction to an anthology than a blog post celebrating someone’s first book. There is a time and a place for this sort of thing but it probably isn’t here.
Having read de Vries introduction, I will now try and forget it. This is because the only problem I have with optimistic fiction is the claims made for it. Instead, I will try and ignore the claims and simply treat the book as any other themed anthology. (In a change from previous short story project I am also going to dispense with the two five star ratings and go for four simple yes/no questions. Consider it an experiment.)