Solaris, 2010, 453 pages, £7.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-906735-66-1
Sometimes, when I get bored reviewing books, I take on self-imposed challenges. Many of them are self-defeating. Some are just silly. A few have gotten me in trouble. But some are interesting style exercises, such as Can you review a themed anthology without saying anything meaningful about any of the individual stories?
Most of the time, that’s simply not possible. As much as anthologists would like us to appreciate all of their hard work in delivering themed anthologies with carefully-picked stories, there’s rarely more to see in the package than stories around a common, sometimes arbitrary theme. “Oh, some Sherlock Holmes mysteries”. “Oh, a book of cat-detective stories.” Shine is different. It’s “an anthology of near-future optimistic science-fiction”
It says a lot about the current state of SF that we’re at a point where this kind of theme would be noteworthy. Simplifying outrageously, SF as a literary genre tends to be manic-depressive, with phases of excitement alternating between cycles of depression. The manic excitement of cyberpunk may have followed the dour catastrophes of the seventies, but the genre currently seems stuck in a gloomy phase, reeling from the aftershocks of the Bush administration and associated traumas. In-between milestones such as The Windup Girl, The Road and one-note symphonies of gloooooomy “Year’s best SF” anthologies, the fact that an anthology of optimistic near-future SF would get people excited is itself noteworthy, and a welcome push-back against the prevailing atmosphere.
We’re also lucky that this someone would happen to be Jetse de Vries, an oversized personality who managed to transform his vision in a coherent book. Thanks to his introduction (in which he clearly outlines the goal of his anthology) and individual notes on each story detailing how he got in touch with the authors, de Vries transforms Shine from an anthology to a sustained think-piece, each story flowing into the next. If Shine can be discussed without paying attention to the stories themselves, it’s because it feels like a substantial piece of work by itself
It probably helps that the universes imagined in Shine’s sixteen stories end up sharing quite a number of common assumptions. I don’t think that’s an accident: Today’s fears about the future are clearly defined, and so are our best hopes for salvation. As a result, the fiction collected here is heavy on globalization, social equality, environmentalism as a way of life, tightly-connected communication networks and a long-term vision that goes beyond the next quarterly report. I’m pleased, after years of having internalized the notion that “there’s no common future any more”, to discover that there can actually be a vision for a better tomorrow… and that it doesn’t look like classical Science Fiction as much as a trawl through interesting blogs.
That’s as good a reason as any to discuss Shine’s list of contributors, and how it doesn’t look like the usual slate of suspects you can find in other SF anthologies. Flipping through the list of authors, I notice only two established SF writers, may up-and-comers, a lot of non-Americans (this is significant), a few scientists, some bloggers (heck, even a regular commenter on blogs I read) and others whose biography escapes any easy categorization. At a time where genre SF is contemplating its own insularity, this too is a welcome change.
This diversity of voices goes hand-in-hand with de Vries’ up-to-the-moment use of social media tools to solicit stories and draw support for the anthology. Since the project’s beginning, de Vries has been updating a web site and tweeting, getting in contact with newer authors in this fashion. (I’m probably breaking my vow to not say anything substantial about individual stories by pointing out that one of them is written Twitter-style.) The impression that de Vries’ enthusiastic use of modern communications suggests is a demonstration of his own thesis: there’s still a bit of wonder in seeing how an individual can assemble not just an anthology of this global reach, but a social community of like-minded people by using tools freely available to all. (And lest you think that this was just a promotional effort, note that the Twitter feed is still active as of February 2011, nearly a year after the release of the book.) In some ways, Shine is the first true major twenty-first century SF anthology, inconceivable and impossible even ten years earlier.
The flip-side of such a strong editorial presence and crisp premise is that the project can overshadow the stories to a point where a review can dispense of discussing them entirely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the project, or the anthologist himself, but the poor authors may have to read other reviews in order to get their kudos. Fortunately, thanks to our bright current future, that too is just another web search away…