Sick of the apocalypse? Check out 16 futures worth living in!

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Science fiction can be a downer, and not just because the world has a nasty tendency to end, aliens to invade, wars to continue past the deaths of the last humans, and robots to go nuts and kill everyone in range of their pincer claws.

Even "positive" science fiction, which posits that humanity can rationally comprehend the universe and solve technical and social problems with the power of reason, can be a drag. Positive futures for whom is one question, and much science fiction answers the question like so: positive futures for Anglo-American engineering students who believe the municipalization of garbage collection to be the moral equivalent of Stalin's death camps, duh! Who else even reads the stuff?

Enter Jetse de Vries and his anthology Shine, which with an international stable of newer writers offers up "near-future optimistic science fiction." And a glowing, nude, nippleless woman on the cover.

Like any anthology, Shine is a mixed bag. A few stories are a bit on the drier side, just like any PowerPoint presentation detailing how many kilowatt-hours a civil engineering project is going to save. But then there are gems like Alastair Reynolds' "At Budokan," in which T. rexes are cloned, genetically engineered and handed giant Gibson Flying V guitars to grind out heavy metal with. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing! Nothing can go wrong! Even when something goes a tiny little bit wrong, it's all just rock 'n' roll, baby. Now that's some sci-fi! At the opposite end of the spectrum is the contemplative "Summer Ice" by Holly Phillips, a well-written and quiet story that could have been published in a leading literary journal if there weren't just a mild hint of global warming in the background.

Not every story works perfectly well, since optimism is often just another word for naivete. "Sustainable Development" by Paula Stiles, about robots taking over the "women's work" of a West African village, is rather too much of a happily-ever-after story, especially given the social dislocations that often accompany sudden technological changes. (A quick Google of "Yir Yiront" and "stone ax" would have helped.) Jason Stoddard's "Overhead" is better as summary (idealists go to the moon) than as story. In it, a good idea is damaged by characters who speak their ideologies as if quoting from an instruction manual: "'An algorithmic search of online habits can easily be correlated with tendencies towards religion, economic philosophy, gluttony, and many other undesirable influences,' said another geek"--a geek said that? Really? Then there's "Seeds," by Silvia Moreno-Carcia, a story about messing with GMO corn, which offers some stick-it-to-the-man glee, but the tale is too short for much else.

The futures in Shine aren't quite all of a type, but there are broad tendencies in play. The state is viewed with suspicion, while the market moves so quickly that malevolent corporations die off with a minimum of fuss. China, Brazil, tiny Vanuatu all have powerful roles in a post-superpower future. Wikipedia and Google and Twitter are still around in 50 years and will be joined by strong AI and annoying eyeglass-telephones. Two of the better stories play with current social technologies. Mari Ness offers a formally challenging tale of an astronaut gardener's tweets, and the messages are even presented in reverse chronological order, which makes for an evocative experience. "Discussion over what to do with T's body" is just one of many powerful lines, but the story is hurt by an uninspired little fart of a title: "Twittering in Space." Gord Sellar offers up a great title--"Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)"--and a great story about the use of the current creepy trend of Pick-Up Artistry, augmented by cyberstuff, to save the world and find a li'l love.

Overall, Shine is utterly worth reading, though de Vries himself is a bit too intrusive. The extensive story introductions tend to go on a bit (spoiler alert: good writers sent de Vries stories! He meets a lot of people via the Internet!) but are easily skimmed. Shine isn't all rainbows and flowers, but luckily it isn't all policy wonks riding their ideological hobbyhorses either. Have I mentioned the thrash-metal dinosaurs? If you're curious what the future will bring if you want it to, give Shine a read. And try to act surprised when the world turns out to be a better place.

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