Fiction Reviews

Shine: An Anthology of Near Future Optimistic SF

(2010) Jetse de Vries, Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 453 pp, ISBN 978-1-906-73566-1

This is a very noble, indeed a very brave, attempt to bring together upbeat stories in which the future is a better place than today and not, in the editor's words, 'where over 90% of humanity's is killed and the survivors eventually make do'. Having said that, as someone into human ecology, it would be rather good for 10% of humanity, if not other species, if 90% of humanity were killed off, but lets not go there: I jest (sort of). No, Shine, aims to present tales that are near future and optimistic.

If this were not enough of a challenge, Jetse de Vries, aims to bring us new stories. Here he has ably succeeded as nearly all the stories in this anthology have a 2010 copyright date. Having said that he has had to work to get appropriate stories. This has been an uphill struggle for de Vries is not at the heart of SF publishing even though he has had experience of being an editorial assistant to a notable, small press, SF short story magazine: indeed the leading British magazine of its kind, Interzone. Someone who had been more centrally placed would have been more easily able to cast their net over a number of established (hence proven) authors, and this would have in all probability resulted in an anthology of greater quality. This then is a downside: but there is an upside. Jetse de Vries' trawl, with one notable exception, has caught a number of comparatively new writers: that is writers who have previously had at least had a few stories professionally published in small press magazines or on respected internet story sites. From the quality exhibited, it is clear that some of these writers will undoubtedly go on to greater things, and so Shine now introduces them to a larger readership who can in future say that they read them there first. Another decided plus point, one that I personally greatly welcomed, was the number of Shine's contributions coming from outside of Britain and N. America. This is absolutely brilliant, hugely welcome and a decidedly healthy move: the Anglo-American SF market does tend to dominate SF on our planet, yet there is more out there. Those of us whose first (if indeed only reading) language is English have missed out on many past non-English SF classics. Anything that can be done to encourage the new generation of non-Anglo-American writers to break into the Anglo-American SF market is, in my book (and evidently de Vries), very worthy. Finally, the story trawl was made with innovative use of the internet and included: a Shine blog, a Facebook site, and an 'outshine' Twitter. Without employing such tools, and in the absence of the editor being more centrally embedded SF editing, it would arguably have been difficult to assemble these stories.

Shine itself is neatly presented and not just with a great cover illustration. There is a good foreword and also each story has its own individual introduction. These serve to package the anthology and ensure that its theme 'shines' through.

As for the stories themselves, they are not gung-ho adventures but tales that in the main make you think, or bring you a wry smile. As such they are for more discerning readers than casual browsers. And then again, as with most anthologies, there are both hits and misses. Misses are a bane of nearly all anthologies but Shine – considering the hurdles it set itself to realise its goals – seems to have come off surprisingly well. However new writers need editorial guidance in honing their stories far more than established ones and here de Vries should have been firmer. Furthermore, Shine's theme (optimism) sometimes was not as evident as it might otherwise have been. However, as far as I am aware this is de Vries first outing as an anthology editor and so forgiveness comes easily especially, as I have indicated earlier, this collection has other strengths.

As for the stories, I do not propose going through them all with you, but here are some brief comments on those offerings that I personally found either to be worthy or better: a couple are absolutely brilliant. You may disagree with me, and are perfectly free to do so, but if so you will have to get this book to make your own mind up. So consider the following a teasing taster:-

The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up by Jacques Barcia. This story is very relevant given the present-day, myopic 'group-think' support of carbon trading that has resulted in inevitable profligate funding as well as what is in effect fraud. In this story a cyber-jock checks out a new trading group for a team of young Turks…

Overhead by Jason Stoddard. It is meant to be post-scarcity but a group decide to set up a community on the Moon. Though they are striving for self-sufficiency, one day the supply ships stop coming…

Sustainable Development by Paula Stiles is a charming short tale of 'appropriate' technology in a less-developed nation.

The Church of Accelerated Development by Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard. In the near future we will need maintenance folk to look after low-level Artificial Intelligences (AIs) but not everyone with happy with the ethics of AIs, especially advanced AIs. One such maintenance technician's encounter with a strange character ends up being a gateway to a new future… Though a little ponderous, what tickled me about this story was the notion of such technological development happening almost by happenstance.

The Solnet Asendancy by Lavie Tidhar. Giving aid to a less-developed nation is of course good. But educate a bright person – or a quick-footed society – and one day… For me while this story was not quite as clear it might have been (the introduction helped but the editor should have worked harder), but the idea was a neat one and very relevant to today.

Twittering the Stars by Mari Ness. Interplanetary radio communication is dogged by excessive time-lag. Of course, it is minutes and hours gap as opposed to the years and decades delay you get with interstellar communication. For busy (time-poor) crews of interplanetary missions (in this case to the asteroids) what better way to communicate than in short bursts and leaving it for a while before turning to the message at your convenience. This is where Twitter comes into its own… Now I have to say that while there is quite a bit I like about the internet (the increasing free access to scientific papers and raw science experiment and measurement data being among them), there is a lot I also hate (such as the samey, template look of many over-designed websites and blogs or the read-me-now pestering of alerts and rss feeds) and this includes Twitter. Leave Twitter to twits is my feeling, though I know some of you will disagree. Yet Mari Ness has come up with an absolute stunner of a story (which you need to read back-to-front as was helpfully pointed out in the editor's introduction) written in brief Twitter mode. It is a marvellous space-opera tale that is very skilfully written with characterisation, drama, and sense-of-wonder emerging out of (what I am told are) short tweets. Simply brilliant. Whether this could be sustained for a whole novel I do not know but if it was, and it worked, I am sure that it would be a Hugo contender (not least if Twitter tweeted). It is a real SFnal gem of a story.

Seeds by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a discerning, to-the-point, hard SF tale. A travelling representative to a multinational agro-tech company meets his match when he comes across a farmer who, having used their genetically modified cultivar, found it succumbed to a fungal rust, but this is SF and there is a twist… Now it has to be said that at the heart of this story is something that concerns bioscientists greatly (though strangely does not seem to be the foremost of Green campaigners' concerns) about GM crops. Silvia has packaged this neatly into a short story and is to be congratulated in getting her point across so well with brevity. (I loved the farmer's attitude.)

At Bukodan by Alastair Reynolds. Heavy metal gigs of the future will need something extra to add to the show to attract really big crowds… (I am not going to say any more.) Well this is Alastair Reynolds, the one SF star contributing to this anthology, and so we would expect this to be a good story, and it is. However, I am not sure it really fits in with book's theme despite the editor's (somewhat gushing) introduction. Still, any excuse to include a Reynolds' story is what I say, and so great to see this one.

Sarging Rasmussen: A report (by Organic) by Gord Sellar. Political lobbying necessitates using all the tricks of the trade. Of course as society advances so do the techniques, including those of psychology, body language and so forth. It is a bit of an arms race of which one problem is… Gord Sellar has given us a neat tale, though I am sure it could have been told in fewer pages and been far much the better for it.

Scheherazade Cast in Starlight by Jason Andrew. The internet undermines a totalitarian Middle Eastern state… This is a useful, very brief, story in which SF comments on a recent national event. As such the story is a worthy exercise that – because its source idea is not that original – the author wisely kept down to just three pages. The result: a delightful comment.

Russian Roulette 2020 by Eva Maria Chapman. Many complain that youngsters these days are too hooked on interactive computer games and social networking sites. In the future such problems could be even worse. So there may come a day when there are youth camps where access to such technology is greatly restricted. This could open up kids to more natural social experiences. Still, social internet technology has its advantages… What is good about this tale (apart from the accomplished writing) was the balance of message.

Castoff World by Kay Kenyon. Presumably following some sort of Mad Max decline in global society, a grandfather and granddaughter find refuge on an island that is really an automated waste recycler… Kay Keynon paints an interesting world lucidly and gives us a neat story.

So there you have it. More than enough tales to keep you satisfied. As I indicated, this is not a perfect collection (few are) but it did set itself very ambitious goals. Yet there are enough sufficiently good tales, if not outright hits, to say that this anthology does in its way markedly stand out from the crowd, and so serious SF readers will want to keep an eye out for it. Ian Whates, himself someone beginning to rise on Britain's SF scene, says on the book's cover that, 'the energy and enterprise of Jetse de Vries deserves your attention.' As far as dedicated SF readers are concerned, he is right.

Jonathan Cowie

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