The Big Idea: Jetse de Vries
Posted on April 2, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
Is there reason to believe the future will be a better place than the present? It’s certainly possible, but often science fiction writers skip over that part because, let’s face it, writing dystopias and world threatening problems is fun. But editor Jetse de Vries wasn’t satisfied with that, and brought a challenge to writers: Write some science fiction that sees light at the end of the tunnel. The result is Shine, an anthology of “optimistic science fiction.” But does “optimistic” here simply mean “unrealistic sweetness and light”? De Vries is here to shed light on the subject.
JETSE de VRIES:
Often it seems that the world is going to hell in a handbasket: credit crisis and climate change, poverty and pollution, greed and genocide, and more. Problems becoming so huge and complex they seem intractable.
Also, the winds of change seemed to have turned into the hurricane of future shock: technological and social developments seemingly accelerating into one big blur. Your phone becoming your camera becoming your music machine becoming your TV becoming your internet portal and vice-versa. Internet fora overtaken by blogs and LJs which are overtaken by MySpace, FaceBook and Twitter until it all becomes one big, well, Buzz.
Both these developments give us the impression that the future is a mad moloch on the run: unstoppable, unfathomable and uncontrollable. Worse, most people seem to think we’re heading for an apocalypse (or even a series of them). I call bullshit on that.
The future is in our hands: we still have the inventivity, chutzpah and chops to change it for the better. Shine is the mental road map towards it.
Science Fiction has many forms and guises, and can fullfil many functions. While it cannot accurately predict the future (no-one can), it can try to influence its direction. SF as a series of roadsigns. Increasingly, there’s a twofold problem: for one, the utmost majority of the roadsigns only say ‘DO NOT ENTER’ while almost none point towards a promising direction; for another the rare few that do show hopeful signs tend to be set in the far future.
In other words, almost all near-future SF is downbeat, often relentlessly so. My ‘Big Idea’ is that optimistic, near-future SF is not a contradiction in terms, nor—as Jason Stoddard (only half-jokingly) said: ‘taking on two kinds of impossible’, but a necessity.
Thus, a pitch to publishers. After Solaris Books took up the anthology, a call to action for writers. Now, an SF anthology that leads by example. The stories in Shine all face today’s huge problems head-on, and try to do something about them, with varying degrees of success.
Apart from displaying stories where SF actively thinks about solving problems (something it’s been extremely reluctant about in the past decades, or, worded differently: ‘if we can’t help point the ways to the answers, then what use are we, really?’), we also need to envision the future as a hopeful, workable ascent in a brighter place, not an inevitable descent into darkness.
For example, the ‘Big Idea’ that we need new approaches is seeping into Marvel Comics, as well, with the ‘Future Foundation’ (rings a bell, right…) for the Fantastic Four coming up. To quote Jonathan Hickman:
“The Future Foundation is an outreach of the Fantastic Four. It’s kind of a side project of his that has to do with his kids, and his responsibility to them, ensuring that there’s a better world for them to grow up in…
[…]We don’t need people who are afraid of tomorrow running things. It’s dangerous, and it’s not good.
It’s got kind of a sense of better days. And that’s not to say we’re nostalgic, but there’s this feeling of better days ahead instead of just better days gone by.
But we’re going to be part of the “Heroic Age” banner because it’s very timely, and it’s good for the Fantastic Four because it’s the type of environment where a family superhero book can be prominent and can seem a lot more relevant.”
Nothing wrong with great dystopian fiction (and nothing wrong with highly entertaining escapism, either), but right now the balance is gone and there is precious little SF trying to face today’s problems with a constructive attitude. With Shine I’m trying to redress that balance somewhat. And I find it highly ironic that the first ‘dangerous visions’ of the 21st Century—that is, fiction going against the current grain—are upbeat stories.
Hence, in a bid to make SF more relevant to the current young generation, an anthology that takes a cross-section of problems and possible solutions from around the globe and a bit beyond: from soil regeneration in China to rebuilding the ultimate surveillance tool in Afghanistan; from tentative first steps in West Africa to big steps—all the way to Mars—in East Africa; from premature wikindustries in Brazil to overdue AI recognition in Europe; from the rarity of ice in Summer to the abundance of plastic in the Pacific; from the Moon colony of last resort to the asteroid belt trip in tweets; all laced with western inventivity, eastern ingenuity, southern joie de vivre and northern persistence.
Neither is it all work and no play: Shine features a few humourous pieces—involving the roaring future of metal, the rollicking progress on a lone Pacific Island and the shenanigans of environmentalists turned Casanovas—showing that idealists can have both a sense of perspective and irony, as well.
Shine: Amazon| Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s;
Visit the Shine website. Read story excerpts; Listen to a podcast of “The Earth of Yunhe” (the opening story); More upbeat stories at DayBreak Magazine.
Sounds like a good choice, on Good Friday. I think optimistic, yet engaging sf if what J.S. writes. That’s one reason I like it. I tend to think that our expectations of the future help make that kind of future happen. Besides, I usually find that depressives seem to gravitate toward dreary futures. Give me the Bitchun Society (or even the crowded Scalzi-verse) any day over some post-nuke, post-plague, post-gray goo….future.
Ooo I’m going to have to get this for my friend. She’s always looking for SF that’s not depressing world is over and society is in ruins future.
I picked up a copy of this last week; I’ve read the first third of the anthology, and it’s (so far) all killer and no filler.
Heck, I’m hoping it becomes a series!
It’s an idea made of win, in more ways than one.
“The future is in our hands”
Leaving one with only the obvious answer.
Put down the blackberry/ipod before you drop it?
It’s about time that science fiction starts getting reclaimed by people who actually get that science is about solving problems. Everyone struggling out here to build a livable future needs good stories too. We don’t have them.
Maybe, just maybe, if science fiction sees a future for itself that it can live in, it’ll stop thrashing around trying to die, as it has been for the last 20 years.
Hmm. I find myself in disagreement with the statement “In other words, almost all near-future SF is downbeat, often relentlessly so,” and I’m curious to hear what downbeat near-future SF I’ve been missing.
Looking at the near-future SF I’ve read recently, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother isn’t utopian by any stretch of the imagination, but depicts a near-future where individuals, and technology, have the potential to make life better. A lot of Doctorow’s other stuff I’ve read is similar in theme and tone. Charlie Stross’s Halting State also read as really quite upbeat to me. Peter Watt’s Blindsight — well, okay, that one was just a downer, though a downer with a very specific purpose to it, and not a downer because apocalypses are all the rage these days. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which I’m reading now, is also hardly utopian, but nevertheless depicts a world where, despite epidemics and global warming and corporate malfeasance, humans continue to survive and thrive. Many of the ills that plague us today — slavery, corruption, genocide — are present there too, but people continue to live on, reacting and adapting to their changing circumstances in inventive and often positive ways.
I guess I think a story needs to get into seriously post-apocalyptic territory before it becomes “relentlessly downbeat” — do other people set their threshold higher, or is there a whole world of really depressing near-future SF I’ve just been missing?
Despite this quibble with its premise, the stories in this anthology sound interesting, and the teaser about the family living on the floating garbage island piqued my interest. I’ve asked my library to pick up a copy, and I look forward to reading it!
Warning! (Sorta Kinda Vague) Spoiler Warning!
Er, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the ending is … ah … let’s say that it’s not-entirely-as-unhappy as it might have been, and leave it at that. Even not counting the ending, I wouldn’t call what humans are doing “thriving”.
Optimistic science fiction is excellent when done well. Not only that but it sells. It’s one the main reason why so many people connect with Star Trek.
Whoa, you got Alastair Reynolds to write something optimistic and upbeat?! This I will have to see!
Er, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the ending is … ah … let’s say that it’s not-entirely-as-unhappy as it might have been, and leave it at that.
Fair enough. :-)
Even not counting the ending, I wouldn’t call what humans are doing “thriving”.
I dunno, by my lights converting from petroleum-based industry to kink-spring-and-megadont-based industry is pretty damn thriving. Also it’s set in a country which is today considered at least in parts Third World — knowing very little about Thailand, it’s unclear to me if the Thailand depicted in the book is significantly different from the Thailand of today, and how, say, the US of the book compares to the present-day US.
The point being that I don’t (yet) see the book as “relentlessly depressing,” at least.
The word ‘inventivity’ shows a lot of inventivity.
Kevin Riggle @ 11:
I’d say that their society carries the seeds of being able to thrive. Given that, I agree that it’s not “relentlessly depressing”.
Yay, an anthology! And from Solaris as well! I love that place, those people, uh, you get the idea.
And also, optimistic science fiction sounds fun, and well, shiny. I’m optimistic about this!
99% of the time I buy books at bookstores, not online. I just like the browsing.
But not this time. I went straight from reading this to clicking the link and buying the book in about two minutes.
I agree with your description of the state of SF. Even the upbeat ones are usually ones where people shine but the over all world/universe sucks.
I just got the “amazon has shipped” email this morning and I am very much looking forward to it.
I dunno, by my lights converting from petroleum-based industry to kink-spring-and-megadont-based industry is pretty damn thriving.
Well, except the springs store more energy per kilogram than is physically possible – a kink spring rocket would only require a single stage to reach orbit.
Also, the people in the book are in continual threat of disease and famine thanks to the polices of Evil LLC (“Making Tasty Drinks from the Pineal Glands of the Disabled for 80 Years”).
Also, basically these people are dependent on muscle power, a reversion to the 18th century.
Also, Thailand in the book is on the verge of civil disorder or worse.
Also, Malaysia just genocided its Chinese population.
Also, the world has just experienced a massive loss in species thanks in large part to the policies of Evil LLC (“Your Tears are Delicious to Us”) making a bad situation worse.
Also it’s set in a country which is today considered at least in parts Third World — knowing very little about Thailand, it’s unclear to me if the Thailand depicted in the book is significantly different from the Thailand of today, and how, say, the US of the book compares to the present-day US.
If only there was some kind of globe-spanning system of connected computers allowing the easy distribution of information available on which to do research.
how, say, the US of the book compares to the present-day US.
As I recall, the US in The Windup Girl is as dead as the West Indies Federation and I don’t think it even left a currency union or a cricket league in its wake.
A problem is that your distopia may well be someone else’s utopia. I am old enough to remember folks complaining about how society was crumbling because “they” (usually dark-skinned folks but also someone with a different religion) were being given equal treatment under law. For those people today’s society would be a nightmare and the arguement over gay rights would be demonic topping on the cake. Most of them are dead now and the few that are not will sometimes own up that things are not as they like it but not as bad as they feared.
The common future with most of humanity slaving for the elete is actually a pretty good vision, for the elete. Likewise today’s downtrodden would doubtless find a society that stifles individuality and expression BUT provides for basic needs like food and shelter for all pretty attractive.
Today’s social problems may, in a century or two, been seen as the process that solved a problem or two. And created new ones on the way.
That cover kind of creeps me out.
Many, many years ago, I heard Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) say that writing a story about a positive future was much more difficult (and to him, more interesting) than one about a terrible dystopia.
He was right. Dark is relatively easy to imagine up; light–believable, dramatically credible light–is much harder.
I don’t generally buy books until I’ve read them, but this one I’ve caused to be bought – by my local library. :) This will hopefully mean several copies bought directly, and a bunch more bought by people who’ve borrowed it and loved it. :)
Love the premise.
Many thanks for all the comments, people (and John for having me).
A few quick remarks:
“Heck, I’m hoping it becomes a series!” (Robin, comment 3): well, I would most definitely like to do (at least one) follow-up. This depends greatly on sales, so do spread the word!
Kevin Riggle & Bearpaw & Janes Davis Nicoll: while I wouldn’t call The Windup Girl optimistic, it’s most definitely near-future SF, and throws an interesting light on our current problems. Yes, I read downbeat fiction, too, and I’m happy that Paolo’s debut novel got the Hugo nod.
Will Collier: “Dark is relatively easy to imagine up; light–believable, dramatically credible light–is much harder.” It most definitely is, and I had to entice writers and extend the submissions deadline just to get enough suitable stories (which then came in relative abundance).
Hence, another reason to do a follow-up: I can point authors to the first SHINE, and say “write something at least as good or better.”
Keeping my fingers crossed…;-) In the meantime, Enjoy!