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An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

Archive for April 17, 2009

Things to keep in mind when writing a story for Shine.

As the open submission window reaches, here are my latest thoughts on what would help make a story succeed for the Shine anthology.

A caveat: these are general things I’m looking for, not laws written in stone. As with most writing ‘rules’, they can be broken, but will only be broken successfully by a highly accomplished author who knows exactly what she or he is doing. In other words, ignore at your own peril, when you’re absolutely sure that what you will do will blow me away regardless.

Do refresh your mind with the guidelines here.

In no particular order, the following:

1) Make — at least — one change (more is better), and make it a real change, one that makes — at least — one aspect (more is better) of today quintessentially different. A development that turns something we take for granted completely upside down, or makes it obsolete, counterintuitive, or awkward.

This point was driven home to me when I read Peter Ingham’s (The Telegraph‘s SF reviewer) review of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days. The relevant quote:

“India, it seems, is coloured rather than changed by the technology and the central concerns of the stories – the marriage market, tribal rivalries, population imbalance – are conventional rather than futuristic. Colourful, exciting and fun, but probably not a reliable picture of the future.”

(Emphasis mine.)

I was reading Fast Forward 2 when travelling to and from LX2009 — last weekend’s EasterCon — and while I hugely enjoyed Ian McDonald’s superb prose, sharp eye for telling details, lush and colourful sense of place and his — apart from maybe Geoff Ryman — almost unparalleled immersion in and understanding of an exotic (non-western) culture, I still thought there was something missing in his story “An Eligible Boy”, but tired as I was after a long weekend of conventioning, I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then Peter Ingham did it for me: the wedding arrangements, the dowry and all are still the same but only the roles are reversed (woman are now in demand instead of men). Also, the AIs in the story don’t develop to something transcendental, strange and essentially alien, but just into a virtual version of love and soap opera.

So, ideally, in a story for Shine something we take for granted today changes so much that it irrevocably alters a way of life. A clear example is a piece that I’ve just (yesterday) accepted for @outshine, and which I’m now pre-publishing here:

“Your great-grandfather bought one of the very first hybrid cars.”


“Because he wanted to conserve gasoline.”

“What’s gasoline?”

(by Tony Noland, will be on @outshine on Saturday May 23.)

A more subtle, yet irreversible and counter-intuitive trend that social networks (there’s another great tweet coming on that on @outshine on Wednesday June 22, BTW) have on both government overview and huge corporations’ marketing. By seeming coincidence (I say seeming because trends develop in many places, at different paces. “The future’s already here, but distributed unevenly,” as Bruce Sterling William Gibson [thanks to Ken Brady for the correction] had it) I read two pieces almost at the same time:

The short of it: the rise of social networks like MySpace, FaceBook, Hyves (which is a Dutch social site) and Twitter, where people freely put certain private data online, will force corporations, agencies and governments to carefully watch what they (corporations/governments) are doing.

twitter-groupIs that counterintuitive, or what? Shouldn’t the internet citizen, with all her/his private data easy available to everyone on social sites be careful, especially of the overview of the state or the marketing eyes of corporations?

That’s exactly what Volkskrant journalist Malou van Hintum asked Valerie Frissen, and she answered that people ‘show themselves to the eyes of the world’ because they have an innate need to get in touch with others, to share information and experiences. This ‘opening up’ may look naive, and may make one vulnerable, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

For one, it reinforces the trust in others, even in complete strangers. Furthermore, the data people put online form only a minor part of a profile that a government or corporation tries to make of each individual. Such profiles are mostly made by other actions: use of mobile phones, credit cards, chipcards, border crossings etcetera.

The latter are involuntary use of data. Now, the technology that makes gathering of these data possible can also be used to *protect* privacy. Frissen then says literally:

“Don’t tell people to stop their organised culture of trust (she means social sites), but implement rules against violation and abuse of privacy. It’s not the citizen that should watch what they’re doing: it’s corporations, agencies and goverments.”

twitter_fail_whaleNow, if she had been totally up-to-date, she could have quoted #amazonfail as exactly such an instance where a corporation is watched by the internet community and is caught, red-handed, on discriminatory behaviour:

Sometime during the holiday weekend, members of the literary community noticed that a number of gay-related titles were disappearing from Amazon’s bestseller’s list and being flagged as “adult” content. A firestorm ignited on twitter and other social media and Amazon was forced to play catch-up with the resulting nightmare.

(From the National Post: “The fallout of #amazonfail continues.”)

So there you go: where the almost archetypical near future novel 1984 did foresee that a government would try to abuse a system of near-total surveillance (Hey, I’m looking at you, England and your 8 million CCTVs), it didn’t foresee that such a system might arise in such a way — the internet — that this watching would go both ways, thus enabling large groups of internet citizens to watch both corporations and the government.

The sword often cuts both ways.

(UPDATE): Another recent example is the Tomlinson case:

Tomlinson collapsed and died around 7:25pm on 1 April, shortly after being attacked by at least one riot officer. He had been attempting to walk home from work when he was confronted by lines of riot police.

As the video in the article clearly shows, Tomlinson was struck down by an overtly aggressive riot police officer. At first, the cause of death was reported — by the police — as a heart attack. But further investigation, most probably instigated by the video evidence, reports the cause of death as abdominal haemorrhage, and the riot officer who struck him is now questioned under suspicion of manslaughter.


As Shaun Green mentioned on Twitter, “This would never have happened if it weren’t for the ubiquitiy of video recording and the public outcry — really unprecedented”.

So there you have evidence part 2 for Frissen’s case. Police cannot strike down innocent people during an important conference like the G20 anymore without being held responsible for it. While I greatly detest and mourn Tomlinson’s totally unnecessary death — and my sympathies to his family and friends — I do hope that this sets a strong precedence that prevents excessive police violence in the future.

(UPDATE 2): And the examples keep coming: this morning I received my newsletter from, coalition organisers ofthe Save the Internet coalition (you can subscribe in the top right corner of the site) where they announced: “You Roared, Time Warner Cable Caved!” To quote:

Time Warner Cable on Thursday afternoon shelved its plan to impose excessive Internet fees against those who use the Web for more than email and basic surfing.

The cable giant backed down under intense public pressure that bubbled up from the grassroots and culminated in calls by leading politicians to end the price gouging.

free-the-internetIt’s another victory — even if maybe a temporary one — of the public at large against a huge company. Still, it’s another proof of Frissen’s “It’s corproations, agencies and governments that should watch what they’re doing.” Although slightly off-topic, I fully agree with the article conclusion:

There’s little doubt cable providers will be back soon with some new scheme. But the answer is not to concoct scarcity, penalize innovation and ration access for profit. The answer is to build capacity to meet exploding user demand.

(UPDATE 3, via Futurismic): The Global Collectivist Society is the New Socialism. This article actually suggests that increased internet participation does not make automatically lead to a totalitarian surveillance state, but to a new type of digital socialism.

So, after five recent examples, is there anybody still unconvinced that the internet can change things in unexpected and postive ways?

2) Don’t let superior intelligences — be they AIs, Aliens or what-have-you — *force* humanity to behave better for its own good. A recent example of this I saw in “The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress (also in Fast Forward 2). I strongly suspect that many people have a (subconscious?) notion that humanity will never learn unless pounded into shape/led by the hand of a superior intelligence/God. This trope is at least as old as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and it is not Shine‘s remit: the idea here is that humanity can learn, and will learn, even if only step by step, little by little. And through doing it wrong, several times, before getting it (at least partly) right.


Don’t underestimate humanity’s intelligence and potential. Look at history: things have become better. Better agriculture, more food, better medicine, more healthcare and better treatments of diseases. The main reasons more people die is because we are able to keep so many more alive!

Things will keep developing for the better: see the above point re. Twitter & #amazonfail. Imagine another such development, which will occur, despite the most pessimistic protests that it won’t.

3) No technofixes and no flight forward into space.

The Outshine Twitterzine is also very useful to me in that it gives me a glimpse of what I might expect on the Shine anthology slushpile next month. A small number of pieces trust on a technological development to fix all our problems, while at the same time we can carry on living as we did. In effect this is the ‘get-out-of-prison-for-free’ card.

Reality doesn’t work that way: technology is a tool, not a panacea, and neither a doomsday device. Technology is also a two, or even a many-cutting sword: it’s impact greatly depends on how we, the people, intend to use it (technology is not good or evil by itself), and there is the upshot that there are always unforeseen uses and side effects of a technology.

See again the internet and computer technology: it can be used by corporations and governments to spy upon citizens, but that works both ways. And new uses, strange side effects are developed or happen constantly.


A new technology is a complex matter that deserves a complex treatment in a story.

A much larger number of pieces for @outshine see ‘near future optimism’ as space colonisation: we will go to the Moon, to Mars, and spread through the solar system. Now I’ve had a very interesting discussion about this (near future exploration of the solar system) with Al Reynolds at EasterCon, and we both agree that it will be very costly, difficult and above all slow. Not to mention that space is inherently inimical to humans: we haven’t evolved to get into space.

Furthermore, it’s often a flight forward: instead of dealing with the problems we created on Earth, we flee into space, and hence export our bad tendencies and problems with it. I could fill entire libraries with SF books written according to that very premise: this is emphatically *not* the Shine anthology’s remit: the ideal story for Shine attempts to propose a solution, or at least the beginning of a solution for the huge problems (overpopulation, pollution,  environmental degradation, climate change, and more) that are plaguing us today.


So space exploration stories will be an *extremely* hard sell. Not an impossible sell, as I can imagine that an immense, supranational (one hopes) project like building a space elevator will have a positive effect (through the spirit of co-operation, through spin-off technologies) on the world at large.

In the days ahead I plan to post a few ‘Crazy Story Ideas’ (I’ve only done one, so far, but will try to do more in short order) in the hope to kickstart your imagination, or help modify your already existing efforts.

[Edited for incorrectly attributing the Gibson quote to Sterling: thanks to Ken Brady for pointing this out!]