Saturday, April 10, 2010

Shine - Jetse de Vries

Shine is a collection of near-future, optimistic SF stories, of which there are too few according to the editor. And indeed, as de Vries suggests in his introduction, I would be hard pressed to come up with a list of positive near-future works. I guess one of the few science fiction authors who seems to have a consistently positive view on the future is Kim Stanley Robinson. Personally, I am not all that optimistic and that basically has to do with my education. I studied environmental science for eight years and while it is a fascinating field, it also has the side effect of showing you in just how many ways we are sending this world to hell in a handbasket. It teaches you to see the signs in your own local environment, it teaches you how easy it is to not really solve an environmental problem but shift is somewhere else and it teaches you how our current economic system suffers from the delusion that a habitable environment is for free. One only needs to look at the rather pathetic attempt to reach an agreement on saving what is left of the Blue Fin Tuna stock in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic last month to see what rapid strides we are making to a more sustainable world.

No, I am by no means optimistic about the (near) future but that doesn't mean people aren't trying or that there is no way we are going to avoid one of those apocalypses the genre is so fond of. De Vries has taken on quite a challenge to find stories that meet his criteria on content and quality. He describes his efforts as editor as evil in several places in the collection and if he indeed shares the directness the Dutch seem to prefer it would be a miracle if not at least some of the authors in this collection agreed with that. It has resulted in a good and pretty diverse collection of stories though, I guess de Vries should be evil some more.

Shine contains sixteen pieces of short fiction, I am going to mention a couple that made the biggest impact. The opening story, The Earth of Yunhe by Eric Gregory is a strong one. It's one of the stories with an environmental theme. Not all of them do, the introduction is about my particular bias, not that of the authors or editors. Gregory weaves a very interesting tale of a displaced people, conflict within a family and nanotechnology. What I particularly liked about this story is the way the author manges to capture such a complex theme as the conflicts arising within a community of displaced people in one family. Do you resign yourself to finding your place in your new environment or try to reclaim what was lost? And what if technology allows you to reclaim but politics won't?

A second story I want to mention is Twittering the Stars by Mari Ness. De Vries is apparently a big fan Twitter. He mentions the medium a number of times in the introductions to the various stories. I'm not a great fan my self, I will sacrifice knowing things now to knowing them in a bit more detail at a time of my own choosing but you can't deny it's popularity. Ness wrote a story that is completely conveyed in the form of Tweets and starts with the newest message at the top. The story is that of a space ship returning to earth after visiting the asteroid belt. Clearly something has going wrong en route and we gradually work our way back to the point where we find out what. This story can be read in the reverse order as well and that makes it pretty unusual. It's a very interesting and quite succesfull experiment in using such a new medium for literary purposes.

We get more information technology in Scheherazade Cast in Starlight by Jason Andrew. A brief account of how blogging leads to a political change in Iran. It's clearly based on events that took place in that country right after the last elections, where the Internet was instrumental in getting the news about the protests out to the world. This story is more peaceful but only because the main character manages to keep the spotlight on herself. Locking people up or killing them is still a fairly effective way of silencing a dissident. It made me wonder if authoritarian regimes are rethinking their methods of suppressing opposition. Is the Internet really going to help spread democracy?

In Russian Roulette 2020 by Eva Maria Chapman we get to see the downside of all that instant access. People are consumed by the present, constantly in touch and responding to what is happening elsewhere. A group of American technology addicts encounters a Russian school where they live and teach according to a different philosophy. The group does not shun technology but clearly thinks a connection with the land and your community is equally important. It's one of the more spiritual stories in the collection. What I particularly liked about it, is that the contrast the author is trying to create between the two groups does not result in one of them completely ignoring the possibilities of technology. It's about balance. Technology has it's uses as both groups will find out in the story.

The last story I want to mention is Kay Kenyon's Castoff World. The story is about Child and her Grappa floating around on a barge originally intended to clean up the Ocean of pollutants like plastics. The barge has long since lost contact with the people who designed and ran it and it is now floating freely on a dangerous ocean, collecting ever more rubbish. We see the story from Child's perspective. It's a very touching story, I particularly liked the subtle presence of artificial intelligence. Beautifully written. This one is probably my favourite in the entire collection.

I wonder if de Vries knew what he was getting into with this project. It's not as if others hadn't tried before and it is certainly a lot easier to let a negative view of the future get the best of you. The stories in this anthology don't always depict shiny, bright futures but to do all posses a sense of profound positive change, ranging from a very personal level to things that will shift the balance in a nation or even worldwide. The diversity of the stories and the consistently high quality of this collection is testament to his passion for this project. Where some themed anthologies struggle to collect enough stories that fit the scope of the anthology well enough, Shine manages to make one statement out this diversity. It does not propose solutions to the world's problems but it does offer hope that we'll be able to climb out on that handbasket after all. A shining example of what positive thinking can achieve.

Book Details
Title: Shine
Editor: Jetse de Vries
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 453
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-906735-66-1
First published: 2010

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