Charlie’s utopia: optimistic sf redux?

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

Over half a year after the publication of the Shine anthology, Charlie Stross wonders whether we need more optimistic utopian thinking in science fiction, and indeed in general:

The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

[…]

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Compare and contrast with this post from Jetse de Vries written during the Shine submissions period, as writers supplied reason after reason for why they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – write an optimistic piece:

In the real world, people face those huge challenges (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) and try to overcome them. In the real world, the majority of people are optimistic. So why isn’t SF trying to address these huge problems in a near future SF story (not use them for implementing the next dystopia, but try to fix them, try to do something about them)? Why is SF extremely reluctant to feature an upbeat outlook?

[…]

Imagining things going bad, technologies grossly misused, the world going down the drain is so goddamn easy that everybody’s doing it. So if almost everybody’s already doing it, then why do we need to keep stating the bleedingly obvious? Maybe some of that creative energy, that imaginative potential might be used for envisioning a solution?

Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.

There’s an obvious difference in character here (Charlie is being rather more cautious and diplomatic than Jetse, perhaps), but it looks to me like they’re both driving toward the same destination by slightly different philosophical roots… and Jetse himself calls out Charlie’s piece as a vindication of the Shine project (albeit a somewhat belated one).

So let’s raise a recent ghost after a long year of tough times all round, and ask again: should science fiction be trying harder to think positively about the future?

And if not, why not?


BOOK REVIEW: Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction by Jetse de Vries (ed.)

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2010

Shine: an Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction by Jetse de Vries (ed.)Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science-Fiction by Jetse de Vries (ed.)

Solaris Books, April 2010; 416pp; £7.99 RRP – ISBN13: 978-1906735661

I’ve been talking about Jetse de Vries’ Shine project for a long time now, for a number of reasons: not only is Jetse a good friend and former colleague, but I’m a sucker for manifestos and movements that attempt to turn against the grain within their chosen field. I supported the call for optimistic science fiction for the same reason I supported the Mundane SF movement, in other words, and in the same manner – not in hope of seeing one hegemony replace another, but in hope of seeing the landscape change a little.

Only time will tell whether Shine will cause more than a momentary blip on the stylistic timeline of science fiction, of course. But a number of the stories contained within it seem to prove Jetse’s thesis, namely that you don’t have to write a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future to create an engaging science fiction story. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction by Jetse de Vries (ed.)”


Table of contents for the Shine anthology announced

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2010

Shine anthology jacket artworkEditor Jetse de Vries has posted up the full table of contents for his forthcoming Shine anthology of optimistic science fiction… and I’m proud to see there are quite a few Futurismic alumni among the names mentioned! Here’s the full run-down:

  • “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

Shine is due for publication by Rebellion/Solaris Books in April this year, and is already available for pre-order on Amazon (UK and US). As far as I can see, there’s a dollars-to-pounds parity on price, meaning that Stateside readers can net themselves a real bargain.

And keep your eyes open for another optimistic science fiction story by one of the authors above, to be published right here on Futurismic later today… 🙂


New year, old genre: is it time for science fiction to die?

Paul Raven @ 28-12-2009

gravestoneWhile the rest of us were stuffing ourselves with food and alcohol, editor Jetse de Vries was bashing out an essay* re-examining a refrain that’s been heard a few times in the last year or so: is written science fiction dying, is that a good thing, and if not, what should (or could) be done to save it? [image by timparkinson]

Regular readers (or those who know Jetse already) will be quite right to suspect that it’s another variation on his suggestion that science fiction needs to reacquire relevance by not only highlighting the big issues of the day but examining potential solutions to them, rather than revelling on post-apocalyptic gloom. But that’s a massive oversimplification of a fairly wide-ranging essay, so take twenty minutes to read the whole thing – while you may not agree with all of his points, there’s a lot of sound thinking and food for thought in there. Here’s some snips from the conclusion:

SF doesn’t want to (try to) tackle today problems. It just wants to highlight them, exaggerate them into apocalyptic disasters and let the world go down the drain in five hundred different ways. SF is very good at imaging how civilisation (or the world in general) ends: if it only used part of that imagination thinking about solving an actual problem it might have had some more respect from the world at large.

So let’s call it what it is: a failure of the imagination. Yes, quote me on it: ‘most written SF today suffers from a failure of the imagination’. It’s lazy, it avoids doing the hard work.

[…]

In short, SF should get off its arse, be totally open to outside influences and other cultures, and get involved with proactive thinking, proudly using science, about the near future.

Previous discussions (including some right here) around these points have highlighted the sharp division of opinion they create. I still find myself somewhat on the fence with respect to “optimistic” science fiction (in that I’d very much like to see more of it, but have no wish to see the demise of the darker flavours), but Jetse’s points about science fiction’s WASPish makeup, plus its perplexing resistance to taking creative risks and breaking with established tradition, hold a great deal of water for me.

That said, I still find myself thinking that the problem is one of imprecise nomenclature; given that it’s still almost impossible to get any three people to agree on a useful working definition of science fiction, maybe we should give up defending the ragged and patchwork flag of a territory whose citizens long since underwent a diaspora into the continent of the cultural mainstream.

[ * To be fair, and knowing Jetse, I fully suspect he did some eating and drinking over the holidays as well… indeed, probably a lot of drinking. 😉 ]


SHINE – Jetse de Vries and Solaris Books to produce a positive science fiction anthology

Paul Raven @ 29-10-2008

Well, it looks like all those who’ve been so negative about the positive science fiction manifesto will get a chance to see whether or not it can work in the real world. Jetse de Vries, former Interzone fiction co-editor (and a writer in his own right) has pitched and sold an anthology of positive sf to Solaris Books. Here’s the press blurb:

Shine is a collection of near-future, optimistic SF stories where some of the genre’s brightest stars and some of its most exciting new talents portray the possible roads to a better tomorrow. Definitely not a plethora of Pollyannas (but neither a barrage of dystopias), Shine will show that positive change is far from being a foregone conclusion, but needs to be hardfought, innovative, robust and imaginative. Most importantly, it aims to demonstrate that while times are tough and outcomes are uncertain, we can still bend the future in benevolent ways if we embrace change and steer its momentum in the right direction.

There’s a separate Shine anthology blog/website which Jetse intends to become “an open platform for optimistic sf”, and there are guidelines for those interested in submitting stories for consideration – the reading period isn’t until late spring next year, so there’s plenty of time to polish up your piece before sending it off.

I’m happy to say that, while we’re not involved in any material way, Futurismic is proud to stand behind Jetse and Solaris on this project, and we’ll be giving it whatever support we can; I hope some other science fiction venues will see the merit in supporting people who are trying something new, even if it doesn’t necessarily line up with their own personal tastes.

That said, it seems even the strident ladies of io9 are divided on the merits of dystopian science fiction… maybe Shine will win over the hardcore? We’ll just have to wait and see… 🙂


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