[GUEST REVIEW] Athena Andreadis Reviews Shine: An Anthology of Near-Future Optimistic Science Fiction, edited by Jetse de Vries
[Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, is the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.]
RATING: absolute, in context
PROS: A welcome change from cyberpunk/urban noir adolescent gloom. Diverse in style and content, human/e in tone and scale.
CONS: Uneven, like all tightly themed collections; few truly memorable, trailblazing stories.
An editor who undertakes to compile an anthology of optimistic SF must toil up a steep and stony hill. It has become an article of increasing faith and fashion in contemporary SF that happy endings lack sophistication and hence are fit to appear only in such déclassé subgenre ghettoes as – horrors! -romance or squarish venues like Analog. Girls can squee, but manly geeks need their angst. Not surprisingly, this mindset mirrors the declining political and financial fortunes of the Anglosaxon First World. The attitude is so pervasive that it has trickled even into Hollywood, that lowest of common denominators: with the partial exception of Star Trek, there are no functioning post-scarcity quasi-utopian societies in movies and TV.
Into this breach stepped author and editor Jetse de Vries, who broadcast his intent to publish an SF anthology that was not only optimistic but also near-future. How do you say Cruisin’ for a bruisin’ in 22nd century Spandarin? But he persevered and Shine duly appeared, with a cover of a glowing lovely young Eurasian woman who reaches toward the reader with a beguiling half-smile… but lacks nipples and is surrounded by grim gunmetal-gray skyscrapers and smokestacks. Which is an accurate visual summary of the collection’s stories and their strengths and weaknesses.
Anyone who has read my articles knows that, with the exception of specific authors (Pat Murphy, Melissa Scott, Richard Morgan), cyberpunk is not the lime in my gin-and-tonic. For one, the subgenre is as socially reactionary as Leaden, er, Golden Era SF. For another, I dislike its adolescent equation of ponderous gloom with hip edginess and its dogged persistence that space exploration is a waste of time but lolling in VR is not. So I was eager to read Shine – especially because de Vries is so unafraid of girl cooties that half of the contributors belong to the dreaded Woman species.
The stories in Shine can be considered “positive” cyberpunk, though most resort to magical leaps to achieve the required upbeat ending. People are heavily and universally wired – so how do they contain the enormous expense, production pollution and heat emissions of the servers required for such availability and bandwidth? In contrast to omnipresent weak AI, genetic engineering is minimal and very ambivalently regarded (so much for across-the-board optimism). Governments are mostly the good ol’ libertarian kind, which makes you wonder about the ability to coordinate and monitor global restrained resource use. And humanity is earth-bound, begging the question of how they manage sustainable living that is still urban, comfortable and humane, unlike the Bacigalupian nightmares.
Not surprisingly for a tightly-themed anthology, Shine is uneven. Only two of its stories are outright duds by my lights, Paula Stiles’ “Sustainable Development” and Eva Maria Chapman’s “Russian Roulette 2020″. Both start promisingly but degenerate into the hoariest clichés. At the same time, most of the stories are not particularly memorable either: I had to read the anthology twice to recall each story past a hazy impression. Some stories seem like outlines for larger works in intriguing but not well thought-out universes (most obviously Jacques Barcia’s “The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up”). Others, despite their excellent intentions, are preachy and lack nuancing (Ken Edgett’s “Paul Kishosha’s Children” in addition to Chapman’s “Russian Roulette 2020″).
Also, though half the stories take place in unusual locations, few present worldviews that diverge significantly from the default Anglosaxon mindset. Interestingly, the two that go farthest are those in which the first-person narrators don’t match the gender of the authors (Eric Gregory’s “The Earth of Yunhe”, a happy-outcome alternate of Tiananmen Square; Jason Andrew’s “Scheherazade Cast in Starlight”, an upbeat version of the Iranian election Tweeter phenomenon).
Despite this, the stories in the anthology show considerable variety. Some are Trickster parables: Lavie Tidhar’s “The Solnet Ascendancy” neatly reverses the cargo cult scenario, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Seeds” describes the perfect blowback, while Alastair Reynolds’ “At Budokan” updates the impresario concept with panache. Several give relatively fresh twists to standard cyberpunk issues: Gareth Powell and Aliette de Bodard’s “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” is a stripped-down version of Tanith Lee’s Silver Metal Lover, while Gord Sellar’s “Sarging Rasmussen” channels the Marx Brothers in Second Life.
Two warily pet the woolly mammoth in the room: space exploration. Of these, Marie Ness’ “Twittering the Stars” (despite its gimmicky structure and grating title) is absorbing and complex, whereas Jason Stoddard’s too-earnest “Overhead” lets its most exciting premise – Europan life – lie totally fallow. In compensation, the latter contains the sole character in the anthology who’s instantly memorable: a heroic-despite-himself version of Henry the Navigator.
Finally, again by my lights, we come to the three best stories in the anthology. Holly Phillips’ elegiac, fine-grained “Summer Ice” is reminiscent of Le Guin’s non-speculative fiction and would hold its own in a literary fiction venue. Kay Kenyon’s “Castoff World” is the haunting future that Waterworld could have been if its director had bothered with a plot and characters. Last but decidedly not least, Madeline Ashby’s “Ishin” gives new and potent meaning to the term paladin.
The anthology’s peripherals are less compelling. De Vries’ opening is to the point, but his lengthy introductions to each story are distracting at best and the twee tweets scattered throughout the book are neither good enough by themselves nor add anything to the collection.
The stories in Shine are written to human scale to such an extent that they skirt mundane fiction (not at all a bad thing, when some SF/F authors are resorting to lengthy, graphic torture scenes to make a dent in readers’ cortices). The Shine stories employ pastel palettes, their passions play in muted, minor keys, their characters neither create empires nor destroy galaxies. They’re Stan Robinson’s future earth vistas writ smaller – the people in them endure, preserve, make small changes. The overall sense of the anthology is cautious, measured optimism that perhaps we can think and act in such ways as to keep the world on an even keel and its inhabitants reasonably healthy and happy.
SF has never provided concrete answers to global problems and its extrapolations are as accurate as those of Wall Street. However, as I discussed in SF Goes McDonald’s, SF affects the future of humanity by another path: its attitudes encourage (or discourage) people from liking science and becoming scientists themselves. There are SF writers who continue to explore non-Singularity earth societies that work without reverting to feudalism: Ursula Le Guin, Jack McDevitt, Alex Jablokow, to name just a few (plus more I can’t name, because I’ve seen manuscript drafts – but they’re in the pipeline!). Shine is a worthy squire to these paladins. Granted, it’s a qualified success; yet the fact that it exists at all and that several of its stories are high quality is reason to hope that SF won’t become a whiny couch potato on Prozac.
In Wall-E, the descendants of humanity finally shake off their torpor and VR goggles, turn off their Twitter feeds and plant trees and smootches in RL. I for one wish that Shine gives rise to prolific, exuberant progeny.
Filed under: Book Review
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