Everything Is Nice

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Posts Tagged ‘Jetse de Vries

Shine by Jetse de Vries

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‘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

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‘Introduction’ by Jetse de Vries

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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.)

Written by Martin

28 August 2011 at 15:38

Posted in criticism, sf

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