Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Shine by Jetse de Vries

with 3 comments

‘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.

Written by Martin

16 September 2011 at 14:46

Posted in books, sf

Tagged with , ,

3 Responses

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  1. I understand where Mark is coming from and I actually agree for the most part with his position, but I doubt the influence (written) sf has on the climate change “debate”. Far more dangerous are the professional pundits and technology cheerleaders who want to go for the quick fixes like iron seeding the oceans to grow plankton to trap carbon and all that. And most dangerous are the professional deniers who still want us to believe there’s no such thing as climate change because to do otherwise might hurt the profit margins of Exxon or BP. Science fictional dreams have little impact on this.

    Martin Wisse

    16 September 2011 at 23:20

  2. It is certainly true that professional deniers are far more dangerous and I’d agree that science fictional dreams have little impact either way. I do see an unfortunate connection between the blind technological optimism on display in some of the stories here and the general complacency around less glamourous social solutions.

    Relatedly, the moral argument for hard SF by one of my favourite contributors to the book, Madeline Ashby:

    All too often in fiction, we choose to batter our science and technology in a thick coating of McGuffin and then deep-fry it in a vat of boiling handwavium. But just as we should avoid an ignorant depiction of human beings whenever possible, we should also avoid ignorant depictions of science and technology — because how we discuss science and technology is inherently political… Real science is hard. It’s also slow. It’s done by large, disparate teams of people who have resigned themselves to lives of constant petition, who proceed on the simple faith that even if this experiment (years in the framing and doing and writing) fails, the failure itself is a contribution to the global pool of knowledge. Depicting it as anything less shortchanges not only the ugly but meaningful grind of scientific progress, but also the people who push it forward day-in, day-out.


    20 September 2011 at 17:30

  3. […] Martin Lewis has finished his reading of Jetse de Vries’ optimistic sf anthology Shine […]

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