The Big Idea: Jetse de Vries
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.