Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Future's Bright? A Review of Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science-Fiction.

The Future’s Bright? A Review of Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science-Fiction.
by Deborah Walker

Recent science fiction paints a depressing picture of the future. In the introduction to his new anthology, Jeste de Vries estimates that 90% of stories show a negative view of the future1. Gardner Dozois comments in the July 2009 Locus:

...although I like a well-crafted dystopian story as well as anyone else, the balance has swung too far in that direction, and nihilism, gloom, and black despair about the future have become so standard in the genre that it's almost become stylized, and almost default setting, with few writers bothering to try to imagine viable human futures that somebody might actually want to live in.

Science fiction’s obsession with a bleak future is at odds with the prevailing mood of the world. A Gallup World Poll, which sampled ninety-five percent of the world’s population, reported that the overwhelming majority of people are optimistic about the future(2).

This bleak portrayal of the future is significant if one believes that science fiction moves beyond its role as entertaining literature and makes an impact on real life. Certainly many writers over the years have suggested that science fiction can influence society, arguing that science fiction is able to inspire future generation of scientists, or predict future development in science and culture. Brian Aldiss famously characterised science fiction as mirror to the present: “Set up that mirror 50 years into the future and today's confusions become clearer.”(3)

It seems that the mirror is reflecting a dark future. This downbeat nature of current science fiction has initiated a lively debate, with writers such as The Guardian’s Damien Walters(4), Lou Anders(5), Gareth Lyn Powell(6), Ian Sales(7) and Jason Stoddard(8) entering the fray.

Stoddard is a strong advocate of positive portrayals of the future: “Moving science fiction in a more positive direction isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. If we can’t help point the ways to the answers, then what use are we, really?”

Sales argues that writing optimistic science fiction is irresponsible, that science fiction can only be relevant if it is honest and tackles the problems of today. For Sales, honest optimistic science fiction can only find small everyday victories, while ignoring the big questions.

De Vries has called for more optimistic science fiction to balance the dystopian visions. His new anthology, Shine, is a collection such stories. De Vries stresses that these near-future positive stories think actively about problems that we face today; they are, he says, no mere “plethora of Pollyanans.”

De Vries reports that he encountered resistance the science fiction community:

The general impression I’m getting from the SF ghetto is that ‘you’ll have to pry the pessimism from my cold, dead hands’ (exceptions acknowledged, of course). And indeed, if SF stops trying out new avenues, if it stops renewing itself, if it will not take risks, if it does not try to be relevant, then it will die.
The Shine blog was a platform for inspiration and discussion of optimistic fiction. De Vries posted example of international science fiction, provided inspirational posts and links for positive change(9). In his blog, de Vries asked:

I guess the big question here is whether a nation’s artistic output passively reflects its political and economic aspirations, or whether instead it can be used to influence and change those attitudes.

In the Shine anthology, seventeen authors have tackled the challenge set down by de Vries. The result is a collection that provides a welcome change from the usual bleak visions of the future.

Such is the dearth of optimism in science fiction that de Vries needed to work very hard to pull this anthology together, not only publishing his inspirational Shine blog, but also publishing Outshine, a twitter-zine of optimistic near-future tweets. One of my own tweets published on Outshine has found its way into the Shine anthology.

Mari Ness’ story “Twittering the Stars” is written as a series of tweets. The story charts the progress of a deep space mining mission and their monumental discovery. Ness presents the story as it would appear on Twitter; the story unfolds in reverse chronological order, which gives a poignancy to the tale.

Eric Gregory’s “The Earth of Yunhe” is set in a China devastated by environmental disaster. Technology could provide a solution, but the characters must overcome the resistance of the current regime and use social networks to mobilize the support of the population.

The potential of electronic networks to disseminate information and effect change is a theme that runs through a number of Shine’s stories. Lavie Tidhar's “Solnet Ascency” is set on a remote Pacific archipelago. It examines ideas surrounding foreign-funded aid and developing countries. Once the islanders get their hands on wired technology, their progress is astounding.

De Vries described Jacques Barcia’s “The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up” as the ideal Shine story, where the positive outcome is very hard fought. Barcia’s story is tightly packed with ideas; I particularly enjoyed the concept of personal carbon consumption tallies. It ends on a moving note, reminding us that costs and balances must be reconciled within the framework of human emotion.

Jason Stoddard’s story, the post-scarcity (a world where everyone’s material needs are met) “Overhead,” has been well received by other reviewers, and deservedly so. The story charts the progress of a lunar colony, who overcome a series of trials and secure a hard-fought triumph. There are some wonderful revelations about the politics of space colonization in this story. The story ends on a high note, but, curiously enough, my thoughts wandered back to the people of Earth who seemed trapped in an unappealing, static, post-scarcity Earth. I’d love to read a sequel.

Alastair Reynolds' offers a wonderful gonzo story “At Budokan” in which a cloned T Rex is genetically engineered to give him hands and the mental capacity to play heavy metal.

Holly Phillip’s “Summer Ice” is about a woman finding her place in a world changed by global warming. It is a dreamy, quiet story of the near future. This is Shine’s only reprint story. I was surprised to find that it had originally been published in Fantasy Magazine, but not surprised at all to find that it had found its way into a ‘Best of’ anthology. Fantasy or science fiction, it’s an outstanding story.

Paula R Stile’s “Sustainable Development,” set in Africa, is a tale with warmth and humanity. Another story that made me smile was Silveno Moreno-Garcia’s “Seeds”, an amusing culture-clash story, with its sly characterisation of the slick corporate trouble-shooter and the response of the Mexicans farmers forced to cultivate the genetically improved mono-crop. “Sarging Rasmussen: A report (by Organic)” by Gord Sellar is a tale of social manipulation, where one lonely man learns the techniques to pick up women. I enjoyed the science behind “pick-up artistry” and the flip from getting women into bed to saving the Earth.

In “Castoff World,” Kay Kenyon’s offers us the moving story of a girl growing up on a oceanic garbage island. This island is equipped with nanobots able to transforms pollutants into ‘good stuff’ and, like the girl, the island is able to grows and develops.

Shine is a fascinating collection. It demonstrates that stories can be speculative optimistic and entertaining. The international scope of Shine was refreshing. The stories come from around the world Africa to South America to Asia to Europe to North America. The stories that I enjoyed the most were the ones that used optimism as a backdrop and slipped me their message of hope, almost without me noticing.

I’d like to read more of these types of stories. There’s already the good news from Alistair Reynolds, who is developing a series of novel rejecting the traditional dark background of science fiction(10). Perhaps there’s hope for the future after all.

Shine’s Table of Contents

  • “The Earth of Yunhe” – Eric Gregory
  • “The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up” – Jacques Barcia
  • “Overhead” – Jason Stoddard
  • “Summer Ice” – Holly Phillips
  • “Sustainable Development” – Paula R. Stiles
  • “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” – Gareth L. Powell & Aliette de Bodard
  • “The Solnet Ascendancy” – Lavie Tidhar
  • “Twittering the Stars” – Mari Ness
  • “Seeds” – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • “At Budokan” – Alastair Reynolds
  • “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report by Organic” – Gord Sellar
  • “Scheherazade Caught in Starlight” – Jason Andrew
  • “Russian Roulette 2020″ – Eva Maria Chapman
  • “Castoff World” – Kay Kenyon
  • “Paul Kishosha’s Children” – Kenn Edgett
  • “Ishin” – Madeline Ashby


     1 de Vries, Jetse, ed. Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science-Fiction. Oxford: Solaris Books, 2010.
     2 University of Kansas and Gallup World Poll 2009
     3 Adiss, B. "It is science fiction that holds a mirror to this age: from a talk by Brian W Aldiss, at the Royal Society of Literature in London."
     4 Walters, D. Science fiction doesn't have to be gloomy, does it?
     5 Anders, L. "I'm Tired of Flying Cars." 2008
     6 Powell, G L. "Optimism in Science Fiction." 2008
     7 Sales, I. "Optimism – A Bad Fit for SG?" 2008
     8 Stoddard, J. "Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform." 2008
     9 de Vries, J. Shine Blog 2009
     10 Reynolds, A. "On plotting and optimism" 2010

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After a twenty year period of procrastination, Deborah Walker has started to write short stories and poetry. She lives in London with her partner Chris and her two lovely, yet distracting, young children. Find her science fiction in Natures Futures and Cosmos.

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