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Crazy Story Ideas, part 4A: Ageing in the EU

I mentioned that overpopulation is the elephant in the room. I mentioned I would be getting back to this point.

Elephant in the Room-Banksy_2

So here’s the comeback, initiated both by an article in a recent New Scientist issue where Sir David Attenborough spells it out, and last week’s “Planetary Boundaries and the New Generation Gap” article on Worldchanging.

Attenborough summarises the biggest problem (and why he’s a patron of the Optimum Population Trust):

There are nearly three times as many people on the planet as when Attenborough started making television programmes in the 1950s – a fact that has convinced him that if we don’t find a solution to our population problems, nature will. “Other horrible factors will come along and fix it, like mass starvation.”

World Changing talks about the huge complexity of the intertwined problems, at length, as well. However, they think we can solve our main problems:

There are plenty of reasons for despair and cynicism these days. But it’s really important not to underestimate the power of the politics of optimism, the power of actually having better ideas and answers. They are especially powerful when the people opposing us have nothing whatever to offer besides a white-knuckled grasp on a broken status quo. Their only weapons are fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s time we counter with optimism, vision and examples. We need to counter with a future that works.

(Emphasis mine.)

We need to deal with overpopulation, and we need to deal with it in a humane way. So I am not going to accept stories where most of the world’s people are killed off in order to save the rest, or save the planet (even if we published a story like that in Interzone, “Blue Glass Pebbles” back in #205 of August 2006).

Blue Glass Pebbles

No easy way out (in a storytelling sense): thus no fabricated virusses decomating humanity, no pandemics reducing the population. Population growth needs to be curbed.

If current trends continue, we will reach a peak population of about 9 billion people in 2050, before the population will finally start to shrink. As World Changing already mentioned: “one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.”

One important way of doing that is by empowering women. Another way of curbing population growth is by increasing wealth worldwide. Because there are already countries where the population is shrinking, right here on the continent where I live: Italy, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and even the UK. Admittedly the population of these countries is still increasing, but this is through immigration. But reproduction rates in these countries have fallen below the ‘replacement rate’, that is, more people die – one hopes from ‘natural’ causes – than are born (or sub-replacement fertility levels).

Fertility_rate_world_map

This has the following effects:

  1. the median age of the population will rise (not only because of a decreased birth rate, but also because of increased longevity);
  2. the age distribution of the population will change drastically;
  3. hence, the old economic model of continuous growth will need to change to a ‘zero growth’ model;
  4. Also, a change – hopefully gradual – from a society that mines limited resources to a society that works at a (close to) 100% recycling rate;

Politically conservative forces (who, if they were really about conservation, should be championing green policies like mad) will baulk at the prospect of a shrinking population, mired as they are in the old ways of thinking: the economy should *always* grow, the young should take care of the old, so we need more young people than old ones. Now this is where SF – supposedly the literature of change – comes in: we need to imagine a society with a shrinking population that works. And the place that is at the forefront of that particular dynamic is the European Union.

So why not imagine a story about ageing in the EU.

(Actually, people outside SF are already thinking in that direction. I particulary remember a special ‘future’ issue of Dutch magazine Intermediair – which is basically a carreer-oriented magazine for the well-educated – of about a year ago that predominantly dealt with the effects of an ageing population. It’s not online, AFAIK.)

For one, showing that an ageing society with a sub-replacement fertility rate works sets a good example to the developing world. Quite simply because it would be extremely hypocritical of the West to ask of the developing world to reduce their fertility levels if we weren’t doing it ourselves, and it would hugely help this all-important cause if we can show them that such a society is a happy one.

Thus, the EU not only needs to deal with an ageing population and its subsequent demographics, but make it a shining example, as well.

First thing is to ditch with the contemporary cultural notion that young = cool and old = uncool. It’s bullshit: young and old are just different stages in a human life. Both have their pros and cons, and while the pros of youth have been widely overexposed, it’s time to set the spotlight on the pros of maturity.

For one, as Bruce Sterling chimes in at Beyond the Beyond: an ageing population isn’t apt to support extremist movements. He surmises it’s “Not because we’re any smarter, but because we lack the brio”. Hm: I greatly disagree. My mother, now 72, is still very active and helps out handicapped people on a Red Cross boat. What I suspect is that this older demographic might indeed be a bit wiser – on average – and just won’t put up with it.

Also, as longevity increases I see a lot of active retirees in my direct environment. Like my mother, they do huge amounts of volunteer work. Actually, women – on average – live longer than men, so we’ll be seeing an increased amount of active, experienced and – dare I say – wiser women. Which is, I think, certainly not a bad thing: rather the contrary.

For another, what happened to the way of thinking that tried to turn a liability into an assett? For example, we need to do away with the ingrained notion that a healthy economy must grow, grow, grow forever. It should be abundantly clear by now that we live on a planet with limited resources, so the most logical answer to deal with those resources is a ‘zero-growth’ or ‘steady-state’ (the latter is from the early 70s: so it’s not a new idea) economy.

zero growth symbol

Thus, the EU with its ageing population needs to change over to a zero growth model anyway (and its economic growth was already relatively low, which did not hamper the quality of living in Europe: rather the contrary).

Also, while we’re at it, it’s also in the EU’s (and the world’s) best interest to, indeed, develop the developing countries. So the EU should take down its tariff walls first and foremost. Yes, this will adversely affect several EU industries and the agricultural sector. But both need to adapt to the new circumstances, and it better to do this sooner rather than later (as is demonstrated by the three big car industries in the US).

Also, the EU should invest heavily in placing huge solar cell plants (like those already made in Germany and Spain) in the Sahara: this benefits both Africa and Europe. It will help develop Africa, bringing wealth to it, and remember that wealthy societies tend towards sub-replacement fertility rates and that population growth is highest in Africa. It will increase green energy production (and oil independency) on both continents, and generate labour and economic activities as those plants are being built, and huge power cables are laid across the Meditarranean.

morocsol

I can see a forerunner role for Spain and Morocco in this: for one, Spain already knows how to make huge solar collectors; for another the distance between spain and Morrocco is the smallest (the Strait of Gibraltar is about 20 kilometres wide), and finally they can do a political/economical tit-for-tat: Spain releases its claim on the Western Sahara in exchange for a hundred year warranty of energy delivered at a premium price.

Then Italy and Greece can make similar energy connections to Libia and Egypt, France can use its old ties with Algeria for a similar energy synergetic connection.

In short: yes, there will be a peak population. This is the bottleneck the world needs to pass through. However, we can try to minimalise the effects of that bottleneck twofold:

  1. Work on making that population peak lower than 9 billion;
  2. Work on making that population peak happen sooner than 2050;

And at the same time accelerate the change-over to a sustainable, green economy which will not only help us pass through that bottleneck with minimal damage, but also pave the way for the new society behind it.

This is getting a bit long, so I’ll be doing the actual *story* idea in part 4B, which I hope to post before, or over the weekend.

UPDATE: (OK: part 2 is delayed. I’m busy.) Just in today via De Volkskrant: “Agreement about Solar Power from the Sahara“. Article in Dutch, but links to the Desert Industrial Initiative, and I see that ABB is involved, as well. Together with Siemens (mentioned in the paragraph below), these are two of the absolute top technological companies in the world (yes: I know this from direct experience in the day job). So this is *very* serious business, indeed!

But the gist of it: a consortium of mainly German companies — Siemens, RWE, Eon, Deutsche Bank, Münchener Rück (a re-insurance company) and Cevital (an Algerian food company), amongst others — want to supply 15% of Europe’s energy from solar power in the Sahara by 2050. Check out the awesome concept on this PDF file.

stage-conceptOK: so I predicted it would be Spanish, Italian, Greek or even French companies, but was wrong: it’s the Germans who want to go there first. Nevertheless, the idea is sound, and yet hardly anybody (to the best of my knowledge: do absolutely feel free to correct me) dares to use this — sorry to say — fairly straightforward prediction in their science fiction.

It’s not *that* hard, right? And in my very outspoken opinion most readers will *remember* a story for making a correct prediction about the principle (Europe receiving huge amounts of solar power from the Sahara, benefitting both Africa and Europe), and *forgive* the very same story for getting the details wrong (it’ll be German/Algerian companies instead of Spanish/Moroccon ones).

So, you SF writers out there: do you still dare?

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Why I Can’t Write a Near Future, Optimistic SF story: the Excuses

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optimism_yellow

When I set out to edit the Shine anthology, I already knew I would be going against the current (highly reactionary) SF grain. As Jason Stoddard said: “Jetse’s taking on two impossible things at a time”. He was (is) but all too right: the great majority of SF writers either don’t want or cannot write an optimistic, near future story (or both).

So the argument goes that they can’t do it, because … (insert excuses) …

This is a defence mechanism: most SF writers don’t want to write something that is too difficult, too risk-taking, and – dog forbid – relevant. They just want to write about something they find cool, and will throw up a barrage of excuses just to keep doing that. Those excuses are often dressed up as reasonable arguments, but more often than not what they really imply is: “Hey, I don’t want to this near future, optimistic stuff: I just want to stay in my comfort zone.” And indeed, that’s what most dystopias are: a comfort zone for unambitious writers.

A dystopia is easy: most of today’s complexities have been obliterated, and in that simplified milieu we can let the good guy fight it out with the bad guy. Preferably with a huge amount of hypermodern weapons, that never run out of ammo (who makes all these modern weapons in a world where the industrial infrastructure has been reduced to rubble is unimportant: we need guns to overcome the enemy, and the more guns the better). Easy: good & bad, black & white.

There is a myth in writing circles that writers really like a challenge: tell a group of writers that they can’t do something and by golly, they will show you they can. Well, that myth is only true for simple challenges, like when Gordon Van Gelder said he didn’t like elves: immediately half the writing community brainstormed brilliant elf stories that would leave Gordon breathless.

However, now that I’m throwing out a real challenge – near future, optimistic SF – the utmost majority of the SF writing community is enormously reluctant at best, and downright dismissive at worst. Obviously, this is a challenge that doesn’t count. Well, I’ve got a message to all those writers who think they can ignore this challenge: get real, that is: look around in the real world.

In the real world, people face those huge challenges (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) and try to overcome them. In the real world, the majority of people are optimistic. So why isn’t SF trying to address these huge problems in a near future SF story (not use them for implementing the next dystopia, but try to fix them, try to do something about them)? Why is SF extremely reluctant to feature an upbeat outlook?

optimism

It’s because most of SF acts like an ostrich: it likes to stick its head in the sand and dream of faraway places and faraway futures, while the real clever monkeys around it wrestle with the intricate mess. Let someone else handle the *actual* problems, because ‘that’s not what SF is for’. Please let somebody else be forward-looking and inventive.

So the first defence mechanism is (deliberately) misinterpreting the meaning of ‘optimistic SF’: immediately declare it a hopelessly naive Pollyanna, a mind-numbing utopia of happy clappy people who’ve put too much pot in the peace pipe. Nobody wants to write in such a dreadfully boring setting, right? And there’s no conflict in such a world, either!

This is current SF’s tendency to simplify things, make everything black or white, good or bad, and greatly ignore all the different nuances within (which form about 99.99999% of the real world out there). Check out what Kim Stanley Robinson said on the New Scientist SF special:

The future is thus a kind of attenuating peninsula, running forward with steep drops to both sides. There isn’t any possibility of muddling through with some good and some bad; we either solve the problems or fail disastrously. It’s either utopia or catastrophe.

And even when SF writers see some shades of grey, they’re almost exclusively the darkest ones: there are many different ways of looking at the world with pessimism, but the moment someone utters that she or he is optimistic, that person is a full-on utopian with zero critical faculties. There can’t be variations, varying opinions and subtle nuances on the positive side of things, right? Because that would be admitting that it might actually matter(#). As it does in the real world.

Second excuse: optimism is not realistic. People will not believe it when you paint a picture that’s too rosy: things will get much, much worse before they may even begin to get better.

This mindset seems very deeply ingrained in the written SF community. Whatever happened to the ‘can do’ spirit of decades ago? Has it left the SF ghetto together with inventiveness, audacity, exuberance and sense of wonder?

First things first, though: if pessimism was the only realistic option, then there would have been no progress at all in the past 50 years (or so).

So optimism is not realistic? Progress cannot happen? Things cannot improve?

Life Expectancy_2

Percentage_living_on_less_than_%241_per_day_1981-2001

Internet_users_per_100_inhabitants_1997-2007_ITU

Note: this does not mean that everything is wonderful and perfect right now (sorry to repeat this, but the black or white, dystopia or utopia mindset is deeply ingrained in the SF ghetto, which also ignores actual progress and keeps muttering about flying cars and jetpacks), but that things are getting better. Yes, there is still a very long way to go. Yes, progress is certainly not easy. But progress is ongoing, and things keep improving. It’s not necessarily a straight line: there will be setbacks, blind alleys, wild goose chases. But the general trend is up: has been up for the last century at least.

And here’s my not-so-bold prediction: the general trend will remain up for the foreseeable future. Optimism is more realistic than pessimism.

Third excuse: you cannot predict the near future exactly, so you might as well not try. A variation is: if you make a few bold predictions, you will almost certainly be wrong, and I can’t bear the critical scrutiny. Another variation is: SF is not meant to predict the future, merely be a mirror of our times. (If SF is truly a mirror of our times, it would be much, much more optimistic. What they mean to say is that SF is a simplified, dark mirror of our times, because that is where my comfort zone is).

Now, there is no denying that writing near future SF is extremely difficult. To quote Kim Stanley Robinson again:

It will get harder to do, though, because it needs to spring from the realities of the time, not from some past decade’s ideas. These days rapid technological change, volatile global politics and inevitable climate change all combine with contingency to make imagining our real future impossible. Something will happen, but we can’t know what.

“Ha!” I hear some of you say, “There it is: he said ‘impossible’.” Indeed he did, but he also said, somewhat further on:

So we have to do the impossible and imagine the next century.

We have to face this head-on: no Flight Forward, no Dystopia Lite, no Technofix (for explanation of those see my previous post An Update on the Shine Submissions, part 1) or other tricks to skirt the issues. We have to boldly imagine the near future, and take the possibility to be wrong for granted. We have to seek for solutions, and dare to be gloriously wrong.

Fourth excuse: there is no possibility for conflict in a full-on optimistic future. A writer needs a really, really, really dark world so that his/her heroes/heroines can overcome all those adversities, win against all odds. Heroes will only rise up when things are at their bleakest (a huge cliché, both in and out of the genre, and nonsensical: if those heroes had risen up sooner, then there would have been much less suffering. It’s such an overused, overtired narrative device and people using it keep claiming it’s ‘realistic’. Yeah right).

Which makes me think: so in this world of today there is nothing to overcome?  Everything is peachy and perfect?

This is basically a variation of the very first excuse, that is deny that there is world out there which contains an immensely complex variety of grey scales. For Shine I’m looking for stories that try to address (at least) one of today’s huge problems (or die trying). If you need me to tell you which huge problems I mean, then you should start reading the news, or look around you.

The hugely complex problems of today (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) are much more difficult to overcome than a lone hero/heroine fighting his/her out of an imaginary hell.

Why?

Because is the latter case the world is created by the writer, so the writer already knows a way in which the protagonist will overcome the problems. This is the equivalent of a magician’s act: it looks impossible, but the conjuror has the act worked out to a T well before the actual performance. Also, by evoking an apocalyptic event (nuclear war, asteroid impact, mass volcano eruptions, global warming gone amok) there is no need to address today’s problems anymore, as they’ve been superseded.

Then there is near future SF that handles real problems. That is the act of a true dare devil walking across Niagara (or, to non-Westerners: Victoria or Iguassu) Falls over a tightrope without a net. The utmost majority of SF writers don’t want to do the equivalent of truly trying to be relevant and thinking about solutions, not only because it’s too difficult with unpredictable outcomes, or because ‘it’s not SF’s job to troubleshoot today’s big problems’(*), but mostly because they are too afraid to be wrong. If you’re wrong, gloriously wrong, then your most feared enemies will get you, and rip you to pieces.

Who are these ‘most feared enemies’? The state police? Terrorists? Violent mobs? Debt collecting agencies? Serial – or other – killers? No: the reviewers and critics. They will tell that you were wrong, in scathing terms, and that’s just the end of it.

While across the world real risk takers, activists and entrepreneurs start up new businesses and initiatives with the intent to change things for the better whose real risk is indeed the state police (think political activists in dictatorships), terrorists (ask anybody living near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border), Violent mobs (feminist activists in Muslim countries), or bankruptcy. And still they try. And still they fail. And still they try again.

Compared to those people, the ‘forward-looking’ SF community makes a very poor figure, indeed.

If the rest of the world was just as ‘forward-looking’ as most of the current written SF scene (exceptions acknowledged), then there’d be no progress at all.

People, in their optimism, take risks all the time, and while they often fail, they just try again. And sometimes, they win big time because they allow themselves be led by their optimism.

“The Audacity of Hope”, anyone? Or should Obama just have thrown the towel?

Same for scientists and research centres: They should just stop trying, and stop curing people from all those diseases they died from a century ago.

Dog forbid that people with an upbeat attitude, even in, or especially in dire times, make progress in the world around us: that never happened before, and will never happen again.

If we had the life expectancy of a century ago, about 90% of current SF fandom would have been dead. So yeah, believing in things changing for the better is really highly unrealistic.

So, there is more than enough to overcome here. The world is full of conflicts that need to be resolved. Actually, a true sharp near future story can contain more conflict and complexities than any dystopia cares to come up with. Dystopias are merely simplifications: good near future SF tries to feature some of the intricate items that plague us today. Which is indeed immensely difficult. Which is why it’s such a huge challenge.

optimism_black

Fifth Excuse: I can’t do it because we live in dire times. How can I be optimistic when we are in the biggest economic crisis in ages, when there is still huge discrimination, war, poverty and hunger?

See above (I’m getting to the point where I’m excessively repeating myself. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of prejudice and fossilised thinking overcome): people everywhere are trying to improve matters, even in, especially in hard times.

People rise above their circumstances and make life better, all the time, all around the world. And – as mentioned in the Second Excuse point – things do get better. The trend is upward, through the Great Depression of the 30s, through two world wars, through every financial crisis since 1900. I’m not saying that things are great financially right now: far from it. But here’s another not-so-bold prediction: we will overcome it. And when viewed in the long run, the trend will remain upwards.

That’s why some optimism is needed now, when things are (relatively) bad. It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well, and takes courage when things are going not so well. Being a pessimist in dire times is like howling with the wolves, running with the pack. I would hope that a writer is more of an individual than that.

The related excuse says ‘these things are cyclical’, that is in dire times we write pessimistic fiction and in good times we write optimistic fiction. This is nonsense in two ways: for one SF was already overwhelmingly bleak in the 90s when the Iron Curtain had come down and the economy boomed; for another: how do we get from one cycle to another? How do we get from pessimistic to optimistic if everyone keeps writing downbeat fiction (using all the excuses described in this piece)? By magic? Or do we wait until the rest of the world is doing it, leaving the ‘forward-looking’ genre far behind?

Sixth excuse: my downbeat SF story is meant as a cautionary taleBrave New World and 1984 were also cautionary tales, with the warning of ‘if this goes on, that will happen’. And because we heeded these warnings so well they didn’t happen.

This is one of the oldest and lamest excuses in the book. Saying that the Brave New World’s and 1984’s dystopias didn’t happen because of them is vastly overrating the influence of books. They didn’t happen because the predictions in it were wrong.

‘But,’ the excuse goes on, ‘if we do not heed the possible dangers ahead, we cannot prepare for them!’ That’s why, like little children, we need to be told of these possible dangers in excruciating detail, in all possible and impossible forms, over and over and again and again until we become completely tone-deaf to them.

Imagining things going bad, technologies grossly misused, the world going down the drain is so goddamn easy that everybody’s doing it. So if almost everybody’s already doing it, then why do we need to keep stating the bleedingly obvious? Maybe some of that creative energy, that imaginative potential might be used for envisioning a solution?

Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.

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Seventh Excuse: I will not confirm to your positivist agenda: nobody tells me what to write. Or a variant: we are against the notion of prescribed optimism in storytelling.

Translation: nobody should tell writers what to write. They should write what they’re happy to write, and send that out. This means that a writer’s assumptions about theme, style, content and, well, everything about their storytelling should not be questioned or challenged. Ever. Leave them in their comfort zone, and wonderful things will happen.

Which is nonsense: writers have been questioned and challenged by editors, by readers, by reviewers and critics about their work all the time and this is a good thing. Most writers, if not shook up once in a while, will grow complacant and will write the same old pap over and over. This is also true for the scene at large: it needs a good challenge, a paradigm shift in approach in order to evolve, stay healthy, relevant and interesting. The SF/F genre would be a much poorer place without the New Wave, cyberpunk, the New Weird, the singulitarians and the mundanistas (to name but a few).

Saying one should never tell a writer what to write is adamant to maintaining the status quo. And for anybody paying attention: written SF isn’t selling that well. Not well at all. It’s kowtowing to an aging core while offering precious little for young people, who should become the new fans. Saying SF writers should keep putting out bleakness by the megatonne and ignore countervailing voices is equivalent to saying ‘don’t fix it if it is broken’. Which also sums up much of SF’s attitude towards current global problems.

There is a huge imbalance between pessimism and optimism in written SF today: the genre is overwhelmingly bleak. With Shine I’m trying to redress that lopsidedness somewhat. It’s a challenge: try your hand at this for just one short story only. But the general impression I’m getting from the SF ghetto is that ‘you’ll have to pry the pessimism from my cold, dead hands’ (exceptions acknowledged, of course). And indeed, if SF stops trying out new avenues, if it stops renewing itself, if it will not take risks, if it does not try to be relevant, then it will die.

At which point it can keep its bleakness.

Here’s how Ian McDonald sees it :

It’s enquiring, it assumes nothing will stay the same, it embraces change and it looks to possibilities, it assumes there will be a future and it broadens the horizons from the ‘Me! Me! Me!’ mindset endemic in Western 21st century society. It’s a way of navigating the now. And at its very best, it dazzles you with wonder.

Now write that story and send it to me!

(#) = a variation on this is the argument that equates all positive SF with tacked-on happy endings that do not work with the preceding story, like the way Hollywood does in numerous genre flicks. ‘This sugercoating of reality hides the truth. I want the truth.’ (Implying that pessimism and bleakness are the truth.)

Yes, it is undeniably true that there are wrongly attached happy endings (mostly for commercial reasons) to many movies. However, equating all optimistic SF with tagged-on Hollywood happy endings is ludicrous: there is much more variety to upbeat fiction than that. And the variety I’m looking for has the upbeat tone or ending as an inherent part of the narrative in a realistic manner. It ends well because we worked our arses off to get there, because we overcame incredibly complex problems.

That (optimism) is also truth, as evidenced in how life expectancy and access to information continue to increase while the number of armed conflicts and the poverty rate continue to fall.

(*) = I’ve heard this argument – ‘it’s not SF’s job to come up with solutions for today’s problems’ – on many a panel at many a con. Which then is fortified with ‘I’m a writer, not a scientist, politician or captain of industry’, followed by ‘greater minds than me have tried and failed’.

Almost invariably, in the same discussion it is noted that ‘SF is not here to predict the future, but is a reflection of our time.’ Whereupon someone will complain that SF does not get enough respect (either from academia, or in the wider world).

Let’s go through this one by one:

i)                    Either SF is not a literature of its time and then does not need to address current problems; or SF is a literature of its time and does need to address current problems. If you use the rights of something, then you must also carry its responsibilities: otherwise you’re a freeloader, who is, indeed, not entitled to any respect.

ii)                  People across the world who are not scientists, politicians, captains of industry or otherwise influential and/or powerful still try to build the best future they can. They try, against the odds (against overwhelming odds, if the pessimists are right), they fail, and they try again. And again. And again. Now tell me why SF is already giving up before the first try.

iii)                ‘Better minds than mine have tried and failed.’ Indeed: which hasn’t stopped them from trying, over and over. Also, see ii) above, lesser minds than yours are trying, day in, day out. What’s your next excuse?

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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.”

“Why?”

“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.

tomlinson_g20_090408_mn

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 FreePress.net, 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.

brainsky

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.

gestaltpatterns

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.

space-elevator

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!]

There are more than one of us…

shine-the-movie1So, in the interest of disambiguation, I’ve added a note at the top of column 4, explaining that this is the site of the badass SF anthology for the good, and that others are, for example:

  • The Shine Journal: a webzine of flash literature, poetry, art & photography;shine-latrobe1
  • The Shine anthology: a showcase of student writing from LaTrobe Secondary College, published in 2004 (indeed, I did run across this — freely available — anthology when I checked the internet if there weren’t any other *SF* anthologies or magazines called ‘Shine’. I decided that the difference was very obvious);
  • Shine the yahoo lifestyle magazine: it’s about almost everything except science fiction. OK, if you search it for ‘science fiction’, you get exactly three hits among the kazillions of articles;
  • Shine the movie: I am very well aware of this one, as my sister — who lives in Melbourne — took me to that very movie when it came out. I love it: superb performance by Geoffrey Rush (and so quintessentially different from what I’m doing that I didn’t worry about the name sharing: rather the contrary);
  • LG’s Shine mobile phone: sold a measly 5 million or so. Kidding aside (I certainly won’t complain if my SHINE sells 1% of that number), there are so many products either called ‘shine’, or referring to ‘shine’ that I only focussed on the combination ‘shine’ and ‘science fiction’.

lg_shine_imgp0493_resize1Therefore, if somebody knows of a ‘shine’ anthology, magazine or website that is also strongly involved with science fiction, then don’t hesitate to inform me.