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Shine: An Anthology Of Near Future Optimistic Science Fiction
editor: Jetse de Vries
Solaris paperback �7.99

review by Patrick Hudson

It's worth stating up front that it's a long time since optimism and I were on speaking terms. Oh, we hung out a while when I was a kid, as you do, but sometime in my late thirties, well, we had a kind of a bust up and that was that. I don't hear from it much these days, just the occasional glimpse, enough to get me through the day, to limp from one disappointment to the next as the flesh degrades, the mind de-coalesces and neophilia evaporates into buyer's regret.

In his introduction, Jetse de Vries states that the genre feels the same as I do. Maybe my imagination is just a shittier shade of crap than the genre at large, but I'm not sure I'd agree with his assessment that "at least 90 percent of written SF today is downbeat."

Most SF, as far as I can tell from Amazon recommendations and scanning the bookshop shelves, seems to inhabit far future space operas or secondary worlds (increasingly of the steampunk variety) that don't really address the spectrum of hope or lack thereof at all, but just provide interesting settings, albeit often front-loaded with conflict, in which their dramas play out. Looked at outside of the demands of plot, these settings seem to suggest pretty neutral futures, by and large, trending towards satisfaction for the people that inhabit them, the nameless spods working for a living and getting on with the tediously mundane business of living life and enjoying exotic variations on the muted pleasures we enjoy today.

As for the stories themselves, they remain mostly adventures, variations on the hero's journey going through stasis, conflict and resolution. Even The Road - officially the most depressing book ever written - ends on a note of hope and redemption. So, I don't know if we really need a cure for anything, but I was hopeful anyway of reading a bunch of new stories that would intrigue, amuse and amaze me in the way I always turn to SF to do.

There are a handful of good stories here. The best is probably Cast Off World by Kay Kenyon, a brilliant bit of hopeful post-apocalyptica. It's somewhat reminiscent of The Road in its portrayal of the tender love of a (grand) parent and a child travelling through a newly hostile world. It shares that novel's strengths of building up the tension of the dangers all around, and adds considerably more in terms of imaginative super-tech. It really is fantastically done and the final� brings a cathartic mix of relief and hope.

Alistair Reynolds turns in a hugely enjoyable piece in At Budokan, which hews close to some of my favourite things, namely heavy rock and dinosaurs, by which I don't mean the latest line-up of Rainbow, but actual slavering scaly monsters. In comparison to a lot of the stories here, it's slick, focused and professional and you immediately get that familiar sensation of being in the hands of someone who knows absolutely what they're doing. Perhaps significantly, it's the story that engages the least with the theme of optimism: rather than striving for a heavy-handed treatment of tolerance or peace or recycling, it just gives us a great story set in a world not unlike our own. Maybe it's enough that the genetically engineered dinos just want to shred massive riffs rather than human flesh?

Like Reynolds' story, Sarging Rasmussen by Gord Sellar lifted my spirits through humour rather than lecturing, featuring a bunch of sleaze bags who use the language and persuasion techniques of the pickup artist scene (google it if you want to lose all faith in the male gender) to affect a positive result in political ecological negotiations. The idea of re-purposing social technology (which is what the vile PUA 'rules' is) for good is a brilliantly original idea that Sellar pursues with enormous wit and energy to produce something genuinely new and interesting.

There are also solid entries from Lavie Tidhar and Jason Stoddard, both of whom focus on strong characters and vivid settings to provide the excellent fictions we've come to expect from them. The Church Of Accelerated Redemption by Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard is another enjoyable one, full of character and wit, although the central premise is fraught with problems and contradictions that the authors just about get away with ignoring.

Aside from these, though, it's pretty meagre pickings. There are a lot of names here familiar from online venues such as Strange Horizons, Futurismic, and Abyss & Apex - Tidhar and Stoddard, of course, but also Jacques Barcia, Eric Gregory, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Paula Stiles - and all of them have better stories out there on the web than are featured here.

Generally speaking, I felt that too many stories focused on conflicts that were unrelated to their SF premise - various forms of personal or relationship troubles set against a background of tangential technological changes that never came together with the main plot strand to form the kind of metaphorical unity that I expect from an SF story. The hectoring tone of some of these stories was always going to be something of a challenge in an anthology with this theme, and I was disappointed to see it come up so often. A few times I wanted to poke my head in and roll my eyes at the characters, and go 'tsk' in that kind of jaded, passive/ aggressive way that passes for passionate refutation among those of us who have lost all capacity to really care.

This anthology feels like it wants to engage in a kind of genre conversation rather than just present great stories, a feeling that's emphasised by de Vries' introductions to the stories. I think de Vries has those sorts of 'millennial' collections in his sights - Dangerous Visions and Mirror Shades - but the stories just aren't there, and it's a little too self conscious. The whole thing comes across just a bit too much like a panel at a convention, and not quite enough as an exercise in storytelling. On the other hand, though, if you are interested in that sort of thing, then you may get more pleasure from this aspect of it than I did. You pay your money, you take your choice.

As a final note of dyspeptic, middle-aged irritation, there were rather a lot of editorial glitches here. Not the sorts of typo that can be easily spotted by a spell-checker, but missing words and malapropisms that spoke of editorial inattention during the production process. Most bizarrely, the price on the back cover is quoted as: "UK $7.99" Then again, given the state of our nation's finances, perhaps a US takeover of the currency is the most hopeful idea in the whole collection.

Shine edited by Jetse de Vries



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