Time for another of our 10-question interview feature! Recently Solaris Books has announced a forthcoming anthology to be edited by former Interzone co-editor Jetse de Vries. The anthology, Shine, is set to present Science Fiction with more of a positive outlook. From the press release:
“Shine is a science fiction collection of near-future and optimistic stories, where some of the genres brightest stars and some of its most exciting new talents portray the possible roads to a better tomorrow. Definitely not a plethora of Pollyannas (but neither a barrage of dystopias), Shine will show that positive change is far from being a foregone conclusion, but needs to be hard-fought, innovative, robust and imaginative. Most importantly, it aims to demonstrate that while times are tough and outcomes are uncertain, we can still bend the future in benevolent ways if we embrace change and steer its momentum in the right direction.”
I’m pleased to present Jetse de Vries to chat about optimistic SF.
Jay Tomio – Describe Science Fiction ‘with Optimism’ for me.
Jetse de Vries- That’s a tough one. Lesser wars have been thought on the pages of SF magazines, fanzines, and the blogosphere over the definition of SF alone, with no clear outcome. Same with optimism: that can also be a subjective, somewhat slippery concept. So I’ll describe what I see as ‘optimistic SF’.
To paraphrase Jason Stoddard: optimistic, near future SF is like doing two impossible things at the same time. Writing about the near future is very, very hard as this needs to integrate, to a high degree, the complexity of the real world and how everything is interlinked. To make matters worse, things change so fast and so unpredictably that your wildest scenario might be overtaken by reality before you know it. Writing with a convincing optimistic tone is just as hard as people tend to believe that things will go down the drain, and are very reluctant to believe things will actually improve.
So I define the optimistic, near future SF I’m looking for as SF just a few steps away, grounded in the real, aware of the intricacy of its environment, fully realising that our current problems are complex and intertwined; but also SF that sees these problems as tractable if we really put our combined minds to it. Therefore such ‘intelligent optimists’ are teamworkers and teambuilders: they realise their specialist’s knowledge alone is not sufficient, and that co-operation across the fields is necessary. Neither is one single ideology the answer, as most ideologies are like a Theory of Everything, and society, like reality, is too multifacetted for the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach: quintessentially different aspects require tailor-made solutions. Thus a truly apt troubleshooting team cherrypicks the best solutions from the broadest variety of sources, and are interdisciplinary, practical go-getters: intelligent optimists.
Jay Tomio – Can you point to some past examples that you’d consider masterworks of this brand of SF that you want to promote? I realize you have stated you want progress, not just a look back into SF’s pulp days but are there examples you can point readers to that signify the tone you are looking for?
Jetse de Vries – What I’m looking for is not a highly specific slice of optimistic SF that (might) perfectly fit my taste – and even that imaginary slice doesn’t exist, as my taste is broad and develops constantly – but any sort of optimistic SF that makes me think it might work, that, at some level, convinces me. I want to limit a writer (or reader) as little as possible: so show me what you think works as optimistic SF, and win me over. I like to be surprised.
Nevertheless, I’ll mention a number of novels that worked for me in the optimistic aspect, but please see them as signposts, as inspiration rather than perfect examples written in stone. Geoff Ryman’s Air (convincing, near-future, non-Western setting), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (at great cost, we can colonise Mars), most of Greg Egan’s novels (a deep-rooted belief that our intelligence will eventually overcome our limitations), especially Diaspora (not humanity, but humanity’s intelligence will survive), Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire (humans coming to grip in a post-capitalism world with zero [economic] growth and getting old [longevity]) and Islands in the Net (which is not really optimistic, but looks at the – mostly negative – effects of globalisation and sees problems not as isolated things but as interlinked, complex events. Use the same viewpoint to portray the – possible – positive effects of globalisation, and you have a winner), Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars (entrepreneurs are more ahead of the curve than governments, even if the positive effects of their ventures were not originally intended as such), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (not SF, but a compelling and humourous depiction that progress does overcome – even if through a lot of obstacles and side alleys – human folly), to name but a few.
Jay Tomio – Do you read enough non-English fiction to pin-point whether or not this lack of optimism is an American or Western-centric trend?
Jetse de Vries – Unfortunately, not anymore. When I was in high school – back in the early eighties – I read mostly Dutch literature, and I didn’t particularly notice a trend either way. Rumour has it that upbeat SF is doing well in developing countries like China and India, but that’s only hear-say.
I do think that SF, like almost all literature, is grounded in the zeitgeist. What SF should attempt more is rise above the zeitgeist and try to lead the way: quite often it imagines new technologies or developments without sufficiently incorporating how people will change because of that, leading to stories about new gadgets wielded by the same old people. Change is much more elaborate than that.
Furthermore, it will be interesting to see if the outcome of the last US elections will change the tone of SF stories, although it’ll be months, or even years before we see that.
Jay Tomio – “Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not”. Does Asimov strike to the heart?
Jetse de Vries – This comes very close to the old aphorism that dystopian SF (all the way back to Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984) is not meant to predict the future, but as a warning to prevent it from happening. The straightforward extrapolation: if this goes on, we’ll all wind up in dystopia type X. Thing is, the future does not happen in a simple extrapolative bound, but in a highly complex, chaotic, intricate and interactive manner. So things both get worse and better. There are not just problems and catastrophes, but there are very positive developments, as well.
To state the obvious: in the past fifty years the quality of life for most people, not only in the West, but in great parts of Asia and Latin America, as well, has greatly improved. I grew up in the eighties in a country that was one of the very first in line to get nuked if World War III would break out: now our greatest threat is terrorism, a trifle in comparison. And while I most definitely don’t want to understate or underestimate Global Warming – it’s a serious problem that needs a long-term, world-wide and multi-facetted approach – it’s a walk in the park compared to a nuclear winter.
So while we certainly don’t live in paradise, I do think that a lot – a huge lot – of things have improved over time, and will continue to do so. Especially if we keep working on it, with an open mind. And if you give me one cent for every science fiction novel or story that ‘foresaw the inevitable’ – such as WWIII in the countless dystopias that have been published – and were wrong, well I’d be able to get drunk, very drunk, over several weekends. Typically, a doomsayer who’s wrong is just cautiously realistic, while an optimist who’s wrong is hopelessly naïve: that’s measuring with different yardsticks.
Jay Tomio – Don’t a lot of SF writers/enthusiasts tend to lambaste franchises like Star Wars that tend to offer this very kind of hope? Or is this ‘pulp naivety’?
Jetse de Vries – I have seen five of the six Star Wars movies (and plenty of Star Trek: I was a fan of the original series when it was televised in Holland), but haven’t read any of the franchise novels. I see both Star Wars and Star Trek more are as ‘modern’ (let’s say: late 20th Century) fairy tales rather than SF. Feel good escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a bit like ‘serious’ musicians lambasting ‘pop’ musicians: sometimes I’m in the mood for easy listening, and sometimes I’m in the mood for an intense progressive experience.
It’s also partly jealousy: Star Wars & Star Trek franchise novels sell better than most midlist ‘serious’ SF novels. But criticising Star Wars for being escapist is a bit like criticising MacDonalds for not having a Michelin star: that’s not its aim.
The short of it: Star Wars is feel good escapism, but what I’m looking for is realistic hope, mired in the world’s inherent complexity. If people say they don’t like optimistic SF because it’s all empty, franchised, feel good fluff, they’re like cognac connoisseurs saying they can’t drink whisky because it all tastes like Jack Daniels: such people should try a 21-year-old single malt.
Jay Tomio – In your role as editor of Interzone did you ever find yourself guilty of the proliferation of the trend of bleak SF?
Jetse de Vries – Allow me to correct that: I have been part of the Interzone editorial team, so was a co-editor, never the editor of the magazine itself: that’s Andy Cox. The stories were – and I suppose still are – selected by the whole team. So in that aspect some stories were published that I voted against, but that’s part of working in a team (and the same thing happened to my colleagues).
More to the point, I have voted, quite a few times, for bleak SF stories that have appeared in Interzone. The magazine was (and is, I hope) broadly oriented: publishing a wide range of both science fiction and fantasy, both humourous and serious, and both upbeat and downbeat stories. One hopes to acquire the right mix, and this depends on the stories that are sent and the choices the team makes. I think that the new team (the post-Pringle one) got the mix mostly right (it’s almost impossible to get it perfect) in the first three-and-a-half years, and indeed tended more to downbeat in the last year or so. It’s one of the reasons I quit: a growing difference in taste (a lot of people prefer downbeat fiction).
Also, I think the trend of bleak SF in general was already there, and that my personal influence on it has been minimal. Basically, with Shine I’m not trying to turn SF into a total Pollyanna paradise, but improve the upbeat/downbeat mix more towards the upbeat side. SF is huge, it contains multitudes, but we must also make sure this diversity is maintained and does not deteriorate into a monoculture (mixing metaphors, indeed).?
Jay Tomio – Can you identify a specific point, or project that you think perhaps popularized the shift to a less optimistic outlook in SF? For instance, in a field like comic books people would point to Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns symbolizing a dramatic shift of what could be status quo.
Jetse de Vries – I don’t think there’s a specific point, but that there has always been a mix of down- and upbeat stories, and that the balance of that mix mostly depends on the zeitgeist. Roughly speaking, after the Second World War there was a general feeling of optimism, and this was reflected in much of the ‘Golden Age’ SF of that time: the future was a ‘can do’ environment (even if there was an overemphasis on technological solutions: technology is a tool, and value-neutral as such). Then, as the Cold War reached its heights, the balance shifted towards the downbeat side, a trend strengthened by the cyberpunk movement.
But it’s always been a mix, as SF is a very broad genre: for every number of ‘can-do’ Golden Age SF novel there was your Philip K. Dick, for every couple of post-apocalyptic dystopias there was an Uplift War or an Eon, and even in the cyberpunk movement it was not all gloom’n’doom, just check out Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire and Rudy Rucker (especially his later novels).
Jay Tomio – Solaris is publishing an anthology that you will be editing called Shine. Tell me about what kind of stories I’m going to see in Shine and more importantly, tell me what they won’t be
Jetse de Vries – I’m looking for stories that portray a near future just as complex (or even more complex) than today, and where – to paraphrase the band Voivod – we use ‘Macrosolutions to Megaproblems’: inventive, collaborative, interdisciplinary, cross-political approaches to our current, highly complex problems. Where intelligent optimists provide convincing solutions (or at least the beginning of such solutions). They face incredible odds, they have to fight every inch of the way to get just a little bit forward, they go through hell and back again, but in the end there needs to be a (at least one) positive development. Even if the rest is still quite bad.
What I certainly don’t want are relentless Pollyannas or feel good escapism stories: nothing against them, but it’s not what I’m looking for, as there needs to be a very plausible reason for the optimistic feeling. Also no easy technofixes like inventor invents tabletop fusion and poof: all our energy problems have vanished overnight, or some mad professor develops solar-powered, self-replicating Van Neuman robots that produce everything we need (or want) virtually for free: food, clothes, gadgets, cars, houses, and what-have-you (and keep in mind that all modern achievements in technology are almost always teamwork: the lone genius is a dying breed, if it really ever existed at all). Also no New Agey, power-of-positive-thinking power dream where people suddenly turn everything around because they’ve acquired the right mindset: even though that may help, there needs to be a realistic cause for the positive development. Not mindless optimism but intelligent optimism. Imagine your readers are the greatest skeptics on the planet, and then try to win them over.
Jay Tomio – Is there a sense of SF writers looking to their ‘literary’ counterparts using SF and being influenced by them (like a Atwood, a Ishiguro, a McCarthy)? We have seen someone like Chabon – I think – get some undue negative criticism for embracing speculative fiction in manner and unlike those mentioned above, he tends to have that more enforced sense of hope or whimsy in his work.
Jetse de Vries – In general, I think a writer should read broadly and be influenced by a large range of styles, viewpoints, and approaches. Both SF and literature can be ghetto-minded: only our ivory tower is the right place to be. While in reality a good writer doesn’t really care about genre boundaries, but writes first, and worries about what it really is later (if at all). Genres are mostly marketing categories, after all.
Personally, one of my ideals in writing and reading is fiction with the sensawunda, gosh-wow feeling of great SF combined with the superb prose, depth and sheer bravado of great literature. It’s a rare combination, and from the genre side a Chris Priest or an Ian McDonald sometimes come close to that ideal. I’m not familiar enough with current English literature to know of counter-examples from that side, but I do think that as SF becomes more and more absorbed by the real world its influence will indirectly show up in literature.
Actually, when I read Dutch literature some 25 years ago we had a Flemish writer called Hugo Raes who wrote literature and SF, and easily switched between the forms, and everybody – as far as I can recall — accepted that as normal at the time.
Jay Tomio – Excluding your thought that writing optimistic SF is tougher (though more rewarding for it) why do you think this lack of such work exists? Are we talking about a problem or simply a lack of the types of work you currently prefer?
Jetse de Vries – It’s definitely not the lack of types of work that I prefer: I really think that there is a dearth of positive SF. Apart from the fact that downbeat fiction indeed more difficult to write than convincingly optimistic fiction, I strongly suspect that this is because SF, no matter how futuristic it tries to be, is still a literature of its time, embedded in its contemporary circumstances. The political circumstances – the George W. Bush years: 9/11, the Iraq war, the clampdown on civil liberties, the credit crisis – do certainly not inspire hope, so I think the overabundance of bleak stories is simply a sign of the times (not just in the US, also in the UK, albeit somewhat less so).
So maybe things are changing: however, I was going to do Shine irrespective of the outcome of the US election. I like to think that at least some SF should aspire to rise above the current circumstances (even if they’re dire), and point the way forward, or die trying.
Jay Tomio – I want to thank Mr. de Vries for chatting with us today at BookSpot Central and wish the best of luck with Shine – the future is already looking brighter