The Big Idea: Ann VanderMeer
And now for something a little different: A Big Idea about a Web site, not a book: Avatars, Inc. But it is an anthology, and it’s something I think qualifies here, because as editor Ann VanderMeer explains, it’s got quite a big idea behind it.
The XPRIZE Foundation has been around for over twenty years, doing great work by incentivizing breakthroughs in science and technology. In 2018, XPRIZE produced Seat 14C, its first fiction anthology, followed by Current Futures in 2019, and now Avatars Inc. The goal: To use storytelling to intrigue and inspire the public about our possible futures, brought about by the work XPRIZE is doing today.
There has been a big push in the last several years in current STEM programs around the world to add in the “A” for Arts and have STEAM. And why not? Including the arts into any science and technology program will only expand your reach and include more people. It’s much easier to get the point across in a story than in a bland, jargon-filled article. Which is why you are seeing more and more fiction writers invited to speak at science conferences.
We face many challenges in the modern world, what with climate change, health issues, global conflicts, access to education, and poverty. At XPRIZE, people are working together to find solutions for the future. And the stories being expressed with the XPRIZE anthologies give rise to the imagination. Indeed, storytelling is often used for applied creativity in problem solving.
The relationship between science fiction stories and actual science has always been there. Many scientists who became involved in the Space Program at NASA were early readers of science fiction and were inspired to make a career of science. It’s not just that certain technologies and ideas that originated from science fiction stories become real in our modern day, but also that some SF readers go on to pursue careers in the sciences and make an impact in the world.
I was first approached last year to edit the Current Futures anthology to promote World Oceans Day. I had the opportunity to bring in new voices and work with other writers that I knew and admired. It was a dream project and I was thrilled to see writers like Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Deborah Biancotti and Karen Lord get excited about stories and work with them again. I was also thrilled to work with other writers for the first time, including Malka Older, Madeline Ashby and Gu Shi.
When I was later asked to edit Avatars Inc, I immediately said yes, and what a wonderful venture it has been. I love working with writers from all over the world and seeing what they can come up with. In this case, they were asked to imagine the uses of avatars in the near and far future. This idea expands on the real-life ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition underway with teams all over the world competing to develop avatar technologies. As innovators work together to develop uses for real avatars, the writers work to imagine what could be. And one of the things that science fiction writers do best is explore the possibilities of “What If?”
Pat Cadigan’s story “The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie” imagines the avatars entertaining those consigned to off-planet hospice care. People struggling with health care issues need more than medical attention and this story shows how technology can step in and enhance the lives of those that may have been forgotten.
Avatars are often used in places where it is tricky for humans to navigate. In “Uma,” by Ken Liu, avatars move high up in the power lines to fix and maintain the electrical power structures that we all rely on so heavily. But in this story, their use is pushed beyond the original mandate when life is threatened. Their original purpose is questioned and new uses are discovered.
In both of these stories we can see the typical uses for avatars expanded beyond the original ideas and that’s what gets me so excited about these narratives. Yes, medical and mechanical uses are abundant, but these writers take this a step beyond and imagine what would happen if the avatars (and the humans operating them) are pushed further. Indeed, some of the best inventions have come about when an original idea paves the way into something else. For example, something as simple as the Post-It note, or more complicated like the pacemaker, were both discovered as a result of other pursuits.
After spending the last couple of years fully invested in fantasy while I worked on two mega-anthologies (The Big Book of Classic Fantasy and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy – a combined total of over 2000 pages!), it was refreshing to dive back deep into science fiction. And it reminded me that there are so many highly intelligent creators out there, both in the arts and in the sciences, who continue to create and innovate fearlessly and without slowing down. It brings me much hope for the future that even as we seem to be facing dark days ahead, there are others who show us what opportunities can be achieved and how far we are willing to go to ensure a better future.
Find the AVATARS INC anthology here: www.avatars.inc
Visit the ANA Avatar XPRIZE website
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