VVEV: Reflections on the Collection (No Spoilers)

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

I’ve been posting a review/response to each of the five sections of Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. In this post, I’ll switch gears to some concluding thoughts about VVEV as a whole.

In sum, I’m very glad this collection exists, and I’m grateful to all the people that made it happen, especially in such a way that it is free to the public. The ability for everyone to be able to easily access and participate in a discussion about our shared future in space is an admirable outcome of this project, and I think it deserves recognition just as much as the works themselves.

I’ve given VVEV a four-star rating on GoodReads. The favorable rating rests mainly on the essays in the collection, which are generally far stronger and of more consistent quality than the fiction. The fiction side of the house is carried by a few gems, enough to float the boat.

My two main reactions to the collection as a whole take the form of: 1) the balance between scifi idea and literary story, and 2) creating interesting stories in positive futures.

I’ve been critical of some of the stories in this collection, just as with Hieroglyph before it. I am similarly critical about many other stories that aren’t associated with either of these specific collections, but suffer from the same Achilles’ heel: their own mission. Explicitly defining a goal like “exploring near-term futures in spaceflight” or “envisioning positive technological futures” and then paying authors to write stories against that prompt carries a real danger of the stories being more about spaceflight and technology than about what makes for good stories: people overcoming suffering.

This is simplifying it a bit, but essentially: There’s got to be a character I care about. They’ve got to have a inner conflict I relate to that results from them being in real, believable danger of physical, emotional, and/or spiritual death. They need to suffer because of that danger. They have agency in the midst of that suffering, and as a result of their own choices in the face of danger, they either succeed or fail at overcoming it. As a consequence, they are substantially and irreversibly changed by the end of the story.

Now, it’s fair to say that there are going to be a variety of different opinions on what constitutes a good story, and mine is only one of them. In science fiction, of all genres, there has always been a sizeable contingent of fans that will place idea first and character arc second, and that is a legit, noble lineage of scifi going all the way back to Asimov. But given a choice, I’d rather read a really good story that happens to feature an awesome idea, over a story that is mainly about describing an awesome and uses the narrative as an example scenario.

I’ve found that a contemporary litmus test is: How do you feel about Neal Stephenson’s work? Generally, I find his ideas enthralling and his stories really boring. I’ve never been able to finish anything he has written with one exception, and I only finished Anathem because the ideas in that book are just so mindbendingly awesome that it pulled me through that tome of terrible narrative about characters that all had the exact same ironically smug, flat personality. This may seem like a tangent, but it’s relevant because: I think the stories in collections like VVEV and its predecessor Hieroglyph are, as a broad generalization, run the risk of appealing to Neal Stephenson fans and really turning off a lot of other people, including anyone who doesn’t regularly read science fiction or futurism.

That’s important because the explicit goal of the collection is to broaden the conversation around human futures in space, including to people that normally fall outside of this conversation. And mind you, as a writer, I don’t claim to be able to do any better… it’s really, really hard. But as a reader, these are qualities I can’t justify skimping on, and I’ve definitely put aside scifi novels like Seveneves and Consider Phlebus after the first couple chapters because I just couldn’t get into them. Then again, these are fairly popular novels by authors who have won the genre’s biggest awards, so maybe I’m the one out of line.

VVEV Stories like Steven Barnes’s Mozart on the Kalahari, Madeline Ashby’s Death on Mars, and especially Vandana Singh’s Shikasta stand out and show that beautiful stories that are primarily about people, yet still have something solid and inspiring to say about our future are not impossible to find.

From a publisher’s perspective, I can see how it might be difficult to turn away a story that was explicitly commissioned. I wonder if the architects of this project would be able to curate a better collection by seeking reprints; that is, searching through the thousands of already published stories that were not explicitly written for any publisher’s particular purpose but still align with their goal, and choosing several that are also excellent from a literary perspective for re-publication in an anthology. The downside here is that this approach circumvents the collaboration between fiction and nonfiction writers, scientists, engineers, and policymakers that were a part of the journey. The only alternative remaining that I can see maintains the basic project structure is a greater insistence by the publisher and editors on literary quality, and allowing writers the extensive time that may be needed to take multiple iterations towards this goal.

My second rant is about compelling stories in positive futures. Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, in her VVEV closer High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic, claims:

Hopeful and optimistic stories can seem like fairy tales, and talking about them can be squirmily uncomfortable, as if one suddenly found oneself hawking snake oil. Writing about darkness and death can carry such realness, such gravitas. The Center for Science and the Imagination’s anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future began to address the need for visions of the future that are intellectually and emotionally credible without reveling in catastrophe, and we’ve continued that work in this volume. We’re not doling out saccharine promises and we’re not covering the old stained sofa with chintz. We are trying to offer new, ambitious but achievable visions of a near future.

I think VVEV strikes this balance well, and generally does it better than Hieroglyph did.

There’s a saying that, in the science fiction genre, you can imagine whatever possibilities you want, as long as you don’t ignore what we already know to be impossible. In other words, it’s fine to invent new physics, but if you’re going to break existing physics you had better have a really interesting, consistent, well thought-out, justified way of doing it. (And it better be really important to someone’s character arc.) Similarly, certain elements of an unpleasant near-future for humanity are almost given constraints at this point, and shouldn’t be avoided.

What tends to bother me about “positive futures” narratives is that they often ignore realities about our near future that are essentially immutable. For example, in the near future, Earth’s climate will change dramatically, and this will cause widespread suffering for tens of millions. We are well past the point of practical avoidance now — the new question is how we will mitigate damage, protect vulnerable populations and elements of the biosphere, and plan for an eventual return to balance distant centuries from now. Any possible future Earth needs to acknowledge this to be credible, or come up with a really good reason not to. Analogous arguments can be made for probable corporate oligarchy in space, the downward spiral of neo-liberal capitalism, and humanity’s inability to denuclearize (indeed the trend is reversing towards expanded nuclearization) despite decades of incremental progress since the height of the Cold War.

A failure to acknowledge these realities borders on escapism — which is a legitimate subgenre of speculative fiction, but has no place in stories or collections that want to start a meaningful conversation about real futures.

None of this is to say that positive stories can’t be told in credible futures — it’s just harder. Steven Barnes’s Mozart on the Kalahari and Vandana Singh’s Shikasta are brazen in their acknowledgement that the future will not magically be rid of the problems of the present, and indeed it is far more probable that that these problems will be worse tomorrow than they are today. And yet, they are able to show how individuals, acting on principle and a certain measure of faith, can carve out positive arcs within that negative space.

I’ll refer back to one of my favorite panel experiences ever at a con, entitled Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise?, at Arisia 2017. I think my posted thoughts on that panel still stand.

Again, my thanks to the creators of VVEV on bringing forth a much-needed catalyst for conversation on issues that affect us all as a species, moving forward into a brave new era where spaceflight will become increasingly common. If I have been critical in places, it is only out of my high degree of personal engagement with the subject matter, and keen desire to see the message sharpened to aid its spread.

I look forward to the next project!

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