Short stories are wonderful vehicles for ideas and for craft. They can hold up one specific aspect of Story and let it shine like a beautifully cut gem; a character, a plot, a tone, or a world held up in miniature for admiration. What they sometimes lack however, is complexity. For something more intricate you have to take all of those well-cut gems and put them into something larger, a necklace or tiara—getting past the metaphor, you write a novel. It's hard to put as much complexity in less than twenty thousand words as you can in over a hundred.
Which makes me think that a short story anthology may not be the ideal vehicle for Shine editor Jetse de Vries' ambitions. Dismayed by the amount of dystopian SF on the market, he aims to showcase SF that depicts futures better than what we have now. Not in a naïve, pollyanna-ish way, but in a real and believable way. I find myself sympathetic to his goal: since time immemorial, humans have complained that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that the Golden Age or Age of Heroes is behind us, that we've diminished in some fundamental way. I've heard it said that there's a three thousand year old Sumerian tablet in which an anonymous author laments that kids these days don't respect their elders, aren't paying attention to their studies, and are so darn lazy! (The tablet may be apocryphal, since I can't find a reference just now, but somehow I have no trouble believing that it's true—or perhaps that it is True in a higher sense.) And yet somehow the years go by, standards of living go up, life spans increase, and we beat out Malthus again and again.
Back in our own genre's Golden Age, authors routinely imagined futures of epic scale and scope, full of robots and interplanetary adventure. Many of these futures seemed suspiciously post-scarcity behind the curtains. De Vries has no intention of going backwards to those perhaps overly exuberant times. He and his authors recognize the problems that we face, but also believe that we'll find solutions.
This is where the problem with the short story form comes in. Finding practical solutions to real problems is generally a complex proposition. And even the best-intentioned short story, due to its limitations and compression, risks "waving a magic wand" to solve the problem. Let me illustrate this by discussing Shine's opening story, Eric Gregory's "The Earth of Yunhe," which exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of the anthology. In it, Yuen's brother Xiaohao has been jailed by their father, a local political leader in their home province, Yunhe. He ran away from home, joining a "virtual nation" called Ecclesia, made up of people from around the globe. Through their auspices, he believes that he has found some nanotech that will solve the pollution problems back home. Unfortunately, as soon as he got home his father threw him in jail for sedition. Ultimately Yuen figures out what is going on, springs her brother from jail, gets the populace on her side, and convinces her father of the rightness of their path, enabling them to introduce the solution to their pollution problems.
The strength of the story is that it lays out a problem and its solution, neatly twinning the strands of inter-personal conflict with the overall political and environmental issues. Setting the story in China broadens our perspective on where problems are and where they can be solved. It illustrates bottom-up problem solving in response to a real issue, and having the sister be the effective actor as opposed to the brother doesn't hurt. However, some weaknesses stem from the space limitations. The pollution solution is based on nanite technology: they'll eat the waste, make more of themselves, then build up healthy topsoil that can be built on or farmed in, and the soil will also be a solar power plant. This incredibly complex engineering problem is solved in three retrospective paragraphs. The problem is, nanotechnology is twenty years away from solving all our problems, and always has been. True, there are some nanotech based industries operating today, but they are much more limited in scope than science fiction has always hoped for. It's been a long time since I've been able to swallow nanotech as the solution to our problems. So the story rang a bit false for me.
Likewise, Yuen gets the populace on her side by giving One Big Speech, which precipitates the showdown with her father. The story shows us that the One Big Speech doesn't always work; her brother gets arrested in the middle of his Speech after he's returned from his self-imposed exile. But the One Big Speech in real life requires laying a lot of groundwork before, during, and after—it rarely makes the difference on its own. Yuen is shown being nicer to the lower classes than her father, but one nice aristocrat does not a grassroots movement make. Again, it all comes off as too simple.
A similar problem can be seen in a story that, as a piece of writing, is my favorite of the anthology. In "Castoff World," Kay Kenyon describes the unusual life of a young girl. She grows up with her grandfather on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean gyre, the place where plastic trash from all over the world is collecting in an eddy larger than Texas. Their raft is a special one, constructed and released as part of a fleet to clean up the trash in the ocean. It also uses nanites: this time they break down the inorganic trash in the ocean and uses it to make the raft bigger. They take organic bits (like the bones of the birds that the Girl and her grandfather catch and eat) and throw them overboard into the ocean. The Girl and her grandfather are too big to throw overboard, and they keep some of their own inorganic articles, such as a plastic kayak, suspended above the raft's deck. There are some wonderful moments as you learn what the grandfather has told the girl about the boat and the world, and how she misinterprets that to form her own worldview. There's also a sobering moment that feels very real when she recalls how he told her that if things get too bad, she can open her veins and ‘go to sleep.' Eventually the grandfather dies, and the girl and the boat (which does not have an AI, at least not the sort that talks) grow even closer. It becomes clear that the boat is actively helping her survive.
Again, this is a beautifully written story, told without much dialog, packing great emotional heft in a fairly spare style. But in the context of an anthology meant to showcase plausible solutions to today's issues, I really can't emphasize enough that nanites and nanotech are unlikely to be able to do this. Even if we can someday release them to pick up trash from the ocean and convert it into an easily disposable form, any nanite agglomeration is unlikely to conceive of making clothing for a young girl that spontaneously turns into a life jacket upon contact with the water—without being programmed or asked to do such a thing.
I also have trouble reconciling this world, with its orphaned girl hiding from pirates in a polluted ocean, with something that de Vries explicitly states in his Introduction that he does not want: " . . . not a story where over 90% of humanity is killed and where the survivors eventually make do." (p. 7) Because that's exactly what this story, with its orphaned heroine on a mostly empty ocean, feels like. (Not that I blame de Vries for taking it; it's such a well-done story that I'd make an exception for it too.) Frankly, given the wide variety of stories found in this anthology, I could make an argument that Paolo Bacigalupi (the number one name in dystopian science fiction today) has written de Vries' sort of optimistic SF in The Windup Girl. Sure Peak Oil has come and gone and left huge disruptions in its wake. But after waging a quick revolution, the Thai customs agency saves its critical genetic seed bank from the rapacious GM agriculture companies. And we'll genetically engineer better versions of ourselves (like Emiko, the eponymous windup girl) to survive even in this new future. That sounds like a solution to me! But now I'm just being contrary.
Getting back to the stories, perhaps the strongest in the anthology—brimming with optimism that feels genuinely uplifting—is "Paul Kishosha's Children" by Ken Edgett. This short story covers almost an entire lifetime: Paul Kishosha leaves his NASA job and returns to Tanzania for his mother's funeral. He decides to stay, rediscovering stories that he wrote as a child. He turns those stories into a hit TV series broadcast throughout Africa, teaching kids about science in a really fun way that shows Africa and Africans as an integral part of the future. As the years progress we see how the generations raised on this TV show make an impact on Africa's future and its place in the world. I especially like the fact that the show—called "Joe the Martian"—sounds just silly enough to work.
My two other favorites are "Overhead" by Jason Stoddard and "At Budokan" by Alastair Reynolds. In the former, we learn about the history of a utopian colony on the Moon just as it is having to sever its ties with the Earth. They are not only able to successfully stand on their own, but also to launch a mission to explore the solar system, specifically Europa. Hope and ingenuity find a way! The alternating viewpoints work well to build the world and drive tension, and the characters have a Heinleinian-"Man Who Sold the Moon" quality to them that is endearing. (Although again, it seems a bit too easy to imagine that a colony that has to manufacture everything it needs to survive will have enough left over to launch a mission that the governments of Earth haven't yet. And historically, utopian experiments have often failed to achieve greatness.) And while it doesn't say too much about solving the problems of the future, the Reynolds story about gigantic dinosaur rock stars simply kicks ass.
"Twittering the Stars" is an interesting experiment by Mari Ness. The entire story, lasting over five years, is told as if reading the twitter feed of the narrator—including the most recent tweets appearing first, meaning that you're reading the story ‘backwards.' It tells the tale of an asteroid mining crew, their discoveries out in the asteroid belt, and their dramatic journey home. This is a fascinating experiment that works better than you'd think; Ness does a great job of ramping up the tension as you try to work out what's happening. The format adds an extra layer of cognitive estrangement and a lot of fun. It suffers from being a bit too long, however. It's hard to sustain that kind of byte-by-byte effort and tension over five years' worth of story.
Three stories have the opposite problem, being rather too short. "Sustainable Development" by Paula R. Stiles lays out a scenario in which NGO-donated robots go from being the amusing toys of the men in an African village, not used for anything useful, to being fully utilized by the women of the village. But it doesn't get into who or how the change is made. Likewise Lavie Tidhar's "The Solnet Ascendancy" describes bringing "Solnet" to the Pacific island Vanuatu. The islanders take the tech, which is the "Sola Wireless Network Initiative" and drastically improve their lot in life. Again, there aren't many details specifically showing how the tech has been used by the people involved. And "Seeds" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia tells of a scenario in which a pervasive fungus attacks all the GMO corn in Mexico—leaving it edible, but ruining the monopolistic GM agriculture company. But there's only a single vignette breaking the news to a company rep, so we don't get a deeper understanding of what's happening. All three of these show tech being introduced to a poor country, but are told from the viewpoint of a first-world observer—leading to an unfortunate lack of depth and understanding from that observer.
Now to briefly summarize the remaining stories. In "The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up" by Jacques Barcia, a climate changed carbon-trading future may be saved by virtual reality—if developed in an energy responsible way. Holly Phillips gives us "Summer Ice," where in a post-global warming future, an artist produces an ice sculpture. "The Church of Accelerated Redemption" (Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard) comes under attack by a group of AI liberationists in Paris led by a mysterious man, and a lowly server tech tries to figure out the issues involved. In "Sarging Rasmussin" by Gord Sellar, some male chauvinist players get played, all to the good of the overall green movement. In "Scheherazade Cast in Starlight," Jason Andrew shows us a woman webcasting in Iran whose fame helps bring the release of political prisoners, including her brother. Eva Marie Chapman also showcases the power of publicity when Russian Orthodox thugs try to take down a commune devoted to sustainable living in "Russian Roulette 2020." And after using surveillance tech to both see and feel his partner get beaten to death, the protagonist of "Ishin" by Madeline Ashby works to use technology to materially improve the world, such as bringing better medical care to war zones.
All in all, de Vries has brought together a collection of good stories that, taken together, make a case for a future where we can solve a lot of the problems that we see today. It spans a wonderful diversity of issues, locations, cultures, and protagonists. These futures are not as bright and shiny as those from the 1950s, but they're also not as naïve. However, we come back to the limitations of the short story. Solving problems is rarely a simply matter, especially when there are matters of people and politics to complicate things. None of these stories forget that there are always people and politics to be dealt with, but most of them lack the space to get into the complexities that the future will bring. With any luck, some of these authors will go ahead and write the novels that give us more detailed road maps of the issues between here and there. But for now, as well as basically achieving what he set out to do (my quibbles aside), de Vries deserves plaudits for compiling an anthology that truly engages with today's issues—without losing heart or hope.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She blogs at the Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.