Archive for September 2011
‘Introduction’ by Jetse de Vries
‘The Earth of Yunhe’ by Eric Gregory (Excerpt)
‘The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up’ by Jacques Barcia (Excerpt)
‘Overhead’ by Jason Stoddard (Excerpt)
‘Summer Ice’ by Holly Phillips (Excerpt)
‘Sustainable Development’ by Paula R. Stiles (Excerpt)
‘The Church of Accelerated Redemption’ by Gareth L. Powell & Aliette de Bodard (Excerpt)
‘The Solnet Ascendancy’ by Lavie Tidhar (Excerpt)
‘Twittering The Stars’ by Mari Ness (Excerpt)
‘Seeds’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Excerpt)
‘At Budokan’ by Alastair Reynolds (Excerpt)
‘Sarging Rasmussen: A Report By Organic’ by Gord Sellar (Excerpt)
‘Scheherazade Caught in Starlight’ by Jason Andrew (Excerpt)
‘Russian Roulette 2020′ by Eva Maria Chapman (Excerpt)
‘Castoff World’ by Kay Kenyon (Excerpt)
‘Paul Kishosha’s Children’ by Ken Edgett (Excerpt)
‘Ishin’ by Madeline Ashby (Excerpt)
I have never been a fan of positive SF, I think it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about literature. However, I admire Jetse de Vries for realising his vision ; he went beyond just cheerleading for the concept on the internet to persuading a publisher to put out an anthology of new fiction. Hats off to him for that. Unfortunately, the novelty of this experience comes through rather too clearly. de Vries can’t help himself from drawing back the curtain at the sausage factory and the book would have been immeasurably improved if he had removed his introductory comments from each story. The same goes for the horrendous haikuesque Tweets that bookend each story. As for his main introduction, I’ve already expressed some frustrations but let’s return to that after the stories themselves.
First, let’s dismiss three of the stories – ‘Sustainable Development’, ‘Seeds’ and ‘Scheherazade Caught in Starlight’ – as being too short to be worthy of discussion. That leaves thirteen stories of which I’d say four were actually any good. Although ‘Summer Ice’ is my least favourite of these, it does deserve special praise for being the only story that ignores technology entirely. Its focus on society instead of magic technology is something I would have liked to have seen a lot more of in the anthology. Chief offender here is ‘The Earth of Yunhe’ but ‘The Solnet Ascendancy’ and ‘Paul Kishosha’s Children’ also describe remarkably similar exponential curves to the stars. At least ‘The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up’ keeps its genie in the bottle (even if that does ruin the story).
This ties into some comments Mark C Newton made on his blog recently:
I can understand the need to stress the importance of Big Ideas. It’s what the genre is about, no? But in some cases – such as climate change – this is where your future dreaming will get the world in trouble. A reliance on such visions in this particular example is a terrible thing.
There’s so little time to hold back anthropogenic climate change (assuming you accept the unequivocal science in the first place). Leave it too long, and it will be too late to bring back CO2 concentrations to the necessary levels, causing a huge variety of issues that I’ve gone on about many times before. Dreaming up science fiction, Big Ideas, will not address the actual problems of dumping huge amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere in the first place. Moreover, this SF is diverting attention, political and financial resources away from urgent action. What this also does is play right into the hands of corporate lobbyists who will use it as an argument to delay such urgent action even further, usually to the benefit of [insert polluting organisation here].
Blind faith in science as a solution to our ills, or as some remarkable future dreamscape, can be a dangerous thing.
So in ‘Castoff World’ we have a technological solution to one specific problem but it is clearly seen as a single step; the world has not been saved but it has been made slightly better. optimism is tentative (as well it might be). In my two favourite stories – ‘Sarging Rasmussen’ and ‘Ishin’ – technology that already exists within their fictional worlds is re-purposed by dedicated individuals. There is no paradigm shift, instead pockets of humanity work with what they have to slowly work towards a better world. Both stories also focus (in very different ways) on building relationships; lobbying and alliance building is more likely to save us than nanotechnology.
Bubbling under, ‘At Budokan’ is a really fun concept but out of place here and the characters are little more than placeholders for the idea and if ‘Twittering The Stars’ ultimately falls flat on its arse, at least it made a brave stab at doing something different. The less said about the remainder of the stories, the better, so back to de Vries introduction and his goals. Firstly, what does near-future actually? Niall Harrison suggested:
I tend to think that a few decades is near future, a few centuries is medium term, and a few millennia is enough to qualify you in the far-future division. Fuzzy categories, though, I could be persuaded that anything this century should count as near-future; perhaps another way of thinking of it is within the lifespan of someone born today?
Whereas Abigail Nussbaum said:
I might suggest that “near future” is similarly not a matter of chronological years but of familiarity. I’d call a setting near-future if it comprised technological or geopolitical developments that are currently considered inevitable or imminent, and if its setting was largely similar to our world but for these changes.
I lean more towards Niall’s view than Abigail’s because I tend to an absolutist mind set and I want something nice and clearly defined. Many of the stories in Shine appear to range far beyond the next couple of decade but most deliberately conceal when they are actually set. There is something a bit like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place; as long as you don’t rub your far future setting in my face, I won’t ask you to prove it is near future.
Anyway, this is far less inmportant than the other question, what does optimistic mean? I had assumed this was quite straigthforward but after reading story after story in which Earth was inevitably doomed to environment and economic collapse I started to wonder. For all his criticism of crapsack futures, de Vries has presided over an anthology that things the current negative trends are just going to keep on getting worse. The only question seems to be, can we eventually dig ourselves out of this chaos? The majority of the stories take place in either the lead up to flipping a magic switch and saving the world or at the very outset of a long hard climb out of the hole we’ve got ourself into (a climb that it is by no means certain will suceed). It is only truly ‘Summer Ice’ that presents an optimistic, positive future that has already come to pass. You can understand that because fiction (and particularly genre fiction) thrives on problems to be solved but it is still extremely noticeable.
‘Summer Ice’ is also the only story set entirely within the United States of America. It is unusual and pleasing to see such a diverse range of settings but I can’t help but think most contributors have ignored the elephant in the room. Perhaps the BRIC countries will one day really rise to the superpower status that has been predicted for them but at the moment, the US remains the dominant global power. Nor do the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Economic Forum or any other international institutions get a look it (with the honourable exception of Gord Sellar). These are stories that address symtoms in isolation rather than looking to the system these symtoms stem from. In my view, Shine is far too optimistic for its own good because it doesn’t really confront the problems it wishes to solve.
Reading the introduction to Shine I remarked that the problems the anthology seeks to solve are primarily economic and political. Perhaps understandably the majority of stories have shied away from this fact and instead treated the symptoms of the problem with a judicious application of magic technology. So it is nice to end the book with a story that sees beneath this.
In medicine, it is well known that prevention is better than cure; in politics, it is well known that punishment is better than prevention. Building another super max prison or aircraft carrier is always more attractive than tackling boring issues like entrenched inequality. Ashby’s story sees a tiny corner of the military industrial complex re-inventing itself to concentrate on prevention, justice and healing. It represents exactly what de Vries intended for this antholgoy: an ineffable flame of hope.
“Definitely not a plethora of Pollyannas”, it says on the back cover of Shine, but I don’t know how you could describe this lovely little fairytale as anything other than idiotically optimistic. Paul Kishosha single-handedly starts an East African space race with his children’s science programme that culminates with a successful mission to Mars and a space elevator in Tanzania. The details along the way are surprisingly good but this is so far fetched as to make a total mockery of the idea optimistic SF is meant to be about solving problems or engaging with the real world.
Near-future? Half and half.
Optimistic? Impossibly so.
After the shock to the system of ‘Russian Roulette 2020′ and coming to the end of what has been a pretty poor anthology, ‘Castoff World’ is a pleasdant surprise. Not what I would describe as an optimistic story that was positive about the future though. I’d be more likely to reach for adjectives like “disquieting”.
As with so many of the stories in Shine, it takes place after a devestating environment collapse. Child’s family has fled the crumbling US to take up residency on a floating pile of rubbish in Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since their arrival, both her parents have died, leaving her in the care of her granddad (who calls her “child” hence, slightly unbelieveably, her adoption of that as her name). So far, so optimistic.
Their pile of rubbish is actually something rather more sophisticated than just plastic junk. For a start it has a name: Nora. This stands for Nanobotic Oceanic Refuse Accumulator, it is a collection of nanobots that have been sent out into the Pacific gyre to collect the floating rubbish and render it down into tolerable elements. It ignores organic material so the stowaways are safe but Nora wages a war of attrition against their possessions. It is a novel and nicely evoked setting.
Once this concept is established, it is swiftly unravelled by an event that sends both Child and Nora off in a new direction. It is a new beginning but not necessarily an optimistic one because the rest of Child’s story is untold.
Apparently this is Chapman’s first science fiction story but it is so bad I could easily believe it is the first thing she’s ever written. Rada is a hot Russian who likes to cartwheel through the forest with no pants, the better to display her luxuriant pubic hair. MV is an American retard who caught a rash off the internet. They fall in love. At least, I think that is the story; Chapman seems to have forgotten to actually write it though. Every sentence brings a fresh embarrassment and the story single handedly manages to drag down the whole anthology.
This isn’t a science fiction story, it isn’t really a story at all. Instead it is a fantasy in which Iran magically becomes a liberal democracy simply because this is inevitable.
Readable? Yes but only because it is about 500 words long.
I’ve known Sellar for over a decade but never read any of his fiction (sorry, Gord). So I’m pleased to be able to say ‘Sarging Rasmussen’ is pretty good.
The central conceit is that environmental activists harness the unholy powers of the Game (not the game the Game) and use their skills as pick-up artists for good rather than evil. It is as high concept as a dinosaur called Derek playing death metal but falls into an uncanny valley of plausibility which makes it more unsettling.
Sellar is very good at rendering the terminology of the “sarging” pick-up artist (or PUA) in the same terms as any other science fictional jargon and, unlike a lot of this stories, he is fully inhabiting the world he has created, working through its implications. Such as the conceptual break through when they realise there are other ways of using this nuerolinguistic programming: “sarging is sarging. It’s all the same game, and all the skills are interchangeable.” After that we are down the rabbit hole and sharking for girls becomes indistinguishable from international espionage.
Reynolds is by far the biggest name in this anthology. He is a superb short story writer who is now perhaps best know for his huge novels (and, indeed, his huge ten year contract with Gollancz). But he is not an immediately obvious fit for Shine; his vast space operas often attract the adjective “gothic” and the timescales he routinely deals with are virtually nihilistic.
Well, this story isn’t much like anything else in this book and isn’t much like anything else he’s written. ‘At Budokan’ starts with a nightmare about being “crushed to death by a massive robot version of James Hetfield”. It ends with a tyrannosaurus rex playing a Gibson Flying V. Near future and optimistic don’t really come into it.
Near-future? See above.
Optimistic? See above.
Another short short story and, as is so often the case, it doesn’t manage to get anywhere before it ends. In the evil corner we have James Clark, sales rep for Germingen (creators of GM corn – boo, hiss, etc), and in the good corner we have Alejandro Totol, honest Mexican farmer and preserve of cultural traditions. Can you guess who wins?
Well, you are sort of right in that Clark is wrongfooted and potential misses out of promotion. But then it’s also implied that Germingen are going to napalm the whole of Mexico so perhaps Totol shouldn’t celebrate too soon.
Readable? Just about.