Book Review: Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries

Science fiction is not a cheerful genre. You might think that people preoccupied with the future would be purveyors of all that is happy and uplifting–flying cars, wonder cures, brave new worlds, friendly aliens, robot maids–a merry universe filled with optimistic geekery.

You’d be wrong, mostly. Oh, the happy-sappy stuff is out there, but it’s dominated by gloomy, grimy, horrific tales of Humanity Gone Wrong. Stories that wake you in the wee hours to whisper in your ear, You will all die–or you will desperately wish you had.

Enter Shine, “an anthology of near-future optimistic science fiction.” Editor Jan de Vries has collected 16 stories with a common theme: There is hope for the future. Is he peddling naive visions of rainbows and lollipops? Hardly. de Vries is convinced that getting to the future is going to be an uphill climb. It will require blood, sweat, and ingenuity. We will fall along the way, and we will pick ourselves up and keep going. We will never surrender, and we will win through.

Lofty sentiments–more worthy, I think, than your run-of-the-mill apocalyptic death cult dystopias, though I expect it will take something more than a stiff upper lip to set things right on ‘ol Terra del Sol, and I consider myself an optimist.

At any rate, these are some thoughtful, well-written stories that don’t settle for easy answers. Like all speculative fiction, they are children of the times that spawned them. There’s a preoccupation with Green issues and technology. Transhumanism, the melding of mind and machine, pops up quite a bit. There are fewer space travel/colonization stories than I expected, but Shine focuses on the near future, wrestling with problems we experience now or expect soon. The authors are multinational, offering some fresh perspectives set in unusual locales.

An exhaustive review of all the stories would be too time-consuming, and I’ve rambled enough. It’s a good anthology. If you’re hankering for optimistic, sophisticated sci-fi, it’s here. Buy, read, enjoy, and prepare to be challenged a little. A few of the stories include rough language and adult situations, so if you’re sensitive to that, be forewarned.

Here’s a quick roll call:

Eric Gregory, “The Earth of Yunhe” – An exiled son returns to his dying village in China with technology that offers hope of renewal, but old ways of thinking prove difficult to change.

Jacques Barcia, “The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up” – A Brazilian eco-warrior stumbles onto a conspiracy that could save the world–or destroy it.

Jason Stoddard, “Overhead” – The true danger of winning the eco-wars might be declaring victory too soon. A moon colony sponsored by a Randian entrepreneur must decide where their loyalties and their future lie.

Holly Phillips, “Summer Ice” – Through the eyes of a young artist, we watch as a city evolves Greenward, and discover something small but meaningful has been sacrificed in the process.

Paula R. Stiles, “Sustainable Development” – A tale of enterprise, technology, tradition, and feminism set in Africa. This one didn’t work for me, perhaps because I figured out right away where it was going.

Gareth L. Powell & Aliette de Bodard, “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” – Confession time: I’ve yet to meet an Aliette de Bodard story I didn’t like, and this collaboration with Mr. Powell is no exception. A network tech has a chance meeting with a mysterious activist and finds herself entangled in a very unconventional war of liberation.

Lavie Tidner, “The Solnet Ascendency” – A tiny island nation tiptoes into the Information Age, with unexpected results. Something like “The Mouse That Roared” for the 21st Century, but not absurd at all. I liked it.

Mari Ness, “Twittering the Stars” – It was bound to happen. An updated version of the classic postal correspondence story, told in a Twitter stream of 140-character “tweets.” It’s a fascinating, heartrending story of a long, lonely mission to the Asteroid Belt. It has the added charm of demanding to be read both beginning-to-end and end-to-beginning.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Seeds” – Nature still gets the last word in the world of genetic engineering, a truth an ambitious agribusiness executive discovers in the land that invented corn.

Alistair Reynolds, “At Budokan” – A future without rock and roll? Unthinkable. A jaded producer discovers the ultimate rock star. Sometimes you’ve got to step into the past to find the next big thing. The next really big thing.

Gord Sellar, “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)” – In which life, innovation, and societal evolution prove to be simply one huge, intricate game of influence and emotional manipulation. Not what I’d call a hopeful future, but perhaps not a completely fanciful narrative of how business gets done, both now and tomorrow.

Jason Andrew, “Scherazade Cast in Starlight” – A vignette of revolution in the Muslim Ummah, as told by a contemporary Scherazade. Brief and thought-provoking.

Eva Marie Chapman, “Russian Roulette 2020” – Cultures clash to the benefit of both sides as plugged-in teens encounter an off-the-grid community in Russia. Too many stereotypes all around for my taste as geeks and Greens find common cause and unlikely romance, once the geeks figure out that real human contact is cool, and lust isn’t the same thing as love.

Kay Kenyon, “Castoff World” – A little girl ponders life on a semi-sentient raft of garbage, adrift in the North Pacific. Does she have a future in this polluted world? Maybe. Just maybe. Sad, sweet, and, ultimately, hopeful.

Ken Edgett, “Paul Kishosha’s Children” – If you’re a writer, a dreamer, or a little of both, this story of a young African man who finds something in his life worth sharing will steal your heart. My recommendation: save this one for last. It’s worth the wait.

Madeline Ashby, “Ishin” – This story is hard to classify. It’s about friendship under fire, and a logical extension of current military and robotics technology, and what happens when advanced technology is employed in a primitive society in an attempt to solve ancient problems. It’s a good read.

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