Sunday, February 16, 2020

The New Voices of Science Fiction

This review originally appeared in Interzone 284 (Nov/Dec 2019).

The New Voices of Science Fiction
Ed. Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman
Tachyon, 2019.

Science fiction is about, at least partly, the future. So here is a collection purporting to be about the future of science fiction: the future of the future. What does the future2 hold in store?

This is not a collection that sets out to discover anybody or give anybody their big break: this is an assembly of very accomplished stories, mostly published in the last five-ish years in major magazines like Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and, written by writers whom you may well have heard of or read, and may even have seen scoop up a Hugo or a Nebula Award. They ply their speculative art using a formidable albeit mostly familiar set of tools, plus some modest formal experiments. When a story does something formally striking, it generally has a clear justification closely related to its particular premise; for example, S. Qiouy Lu’s ‘Mother Tongues,’ in which neural interfacing can directly alter linguistic cognition, is very lightly macaronic: it’s almost all in English, but studded with bits of Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue. Across the anthology, far future is out, near future is in; distant planets and ETs are tired, some planet called Earth plus the alien-within-the-human are wired. None of the stories feel out of place, although a few of them could also easily blend into The New Voices of Fantasy or The New Voices of the Weird.

Two of this guy's favourites were by names new to me: Amman Sabet’s ‘Tender Loving Plastics’ and Samantha Mills’s ‘Strange Waters.’ Sabet’s Issa is a foster child raised by a robo-mom, who turns out just fine. Mills’s fisherwoman Mika is adrift on the seas of the centuries, desperate to get back to her children and afraid to check the history books to find out if she ever will. The theme of family threads through the anthology, although I felt like it was a theme that was used more often than explored. For example, the forms of non-monogamy that already exist in the real world are scarcely represented, let alone speculative reinventions or usurpations of the family. Maybe if you’re trying to cram all that rich character-driven narrative into only a few pages, the out-of-the-box resources of trad familial resonances are hard to resist?

Mills’s story exemplifies another big theme, time travel, appearing in six or seven stories. Why so much time travel, New Voices? Well, I felt like these time travel stories emerge more from the matrix of digital connectivity and self-fashioning -- that is, from the feeling of gazing at your Facebook photos from fifteen years ago, or searching for some deeply personal experience to find a forum of folks who share something similar -- than they do from Wellsian musings over future history, or from mindfuck “which-version-of-Baby-Hitler-will-killed-your-future-grandfather?!”-type hijinks. True, Alice Sola Kim’s ‘One Hour, Every Seven Years’ explores the chaoplexic ripples of a moment in time minutely variegated again and again. But in general the deep abiding questions are not so much, “Is causation necessarily linear?” “What dynamics shape social history?” and more things like, “Who am I?” “How literally should I take the term ‘self-care’?”

Nino Cipri’s ‘The Shape of My Name’ is exemplary here, with its interest in the intimate temporalities of an evolving subjectivity within one lifetime: in gender, in memory and identity, in hope and expectation, in personal nostalgia, in loss and grief, and in the changing horizons of who and how it is possible to be. In other words, this is partly a story about everything you wish you could tell your younger self. I liked it a lot, although I felt there was room for a richer exploration of the historically changing nature of masculinities and femininities, as well as the historically changing affordances for liberation, transformation, and subversion.

Amal El-Mohtar’s ‘Madeleine,’ which maybe isn’t strictly a time travel story, forms an interesting counterpoint. It’s a science fictional writing-through of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, especially the famous episode in which the taste of a madeleine cake dipped in tea vivifies a long lost fragment of Marcel’s memory. ‘Madeleine’ is about Madeleine, and about the strange things that are happening to her: and so it half-invites us to imagine things from the cake’s perspective. Or at least, Madeleine’s reality is so fragile, so ready to crumble and dissolve, that we start to imagine what it might be like to lack your own story, to be merely a figment, trigger, or a cache of memories implicated in somebody else’s story. At the same time, Madeleine is clearly a privileged person (packed with cultural capital, for example: I love how she brandishes the maxims of continental philosophers as talismans to banish hexes). In its own discreet way, I think ‘Madeleine’ sets up subtle dialogue between Proustian preoccupations with memory gone privately astray, and questions of collective remembrance, questions of whose experience dominates history, and whose is marginalised or erased. Who gets to have their cake and remember it?

‘Madeleine’ is also part of a cluster of tales built on VR / simulation / out-of-body-experience conceits. ‘Utopia, LOLS’ by Jamie Wahls was very enjoyable -- a full unapologetic mash of late 2010s cutesy internetspeak and geek pop culture references with post-singularitarian ambiguous utopia in the vein of Banks’s Culture or Egan’s Permutation City. I bet some readers will find it cloying, but I was charmed. I admired Rebecca Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning 'Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™' for its elegantly constructed eeriness. As an exploration of cultural appropriation and the commodification of indigenous identities, however, it felt like it was often pretty broad brush. It could have been nice to dive into murkier and more conflicted aspects of these same themes?

On the cusp of 2020, we are allegedly in the early stages of a profound new wave of automation, occasioned in part by the rapid growth of machine learning AI, and the big data on which it feeds and flourishes. ‘Tender Loving Plastics’ addresses automation overtly; E. Lily Yu’s snappy and engaging ‘The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi’ does so indirectly, portraying a humane, post-work future in which the world self-divides into Doers (who actively participate in society) and Don’ts (who passively consume). Yu claps back a little at the knee-jerk veneration of hard work for its own sake, without totally dislodging that paradigm.

Other stories, perhaps, address automation allegorically. There is certainly a little cluster about being assimilated into something spooky and transcendent. Of these, Lettie Prell’s ‘The Need for Air,’ sticks closest to a techno-scientific register, exploring that tricksy transition to posthuman singularity, again through the lens of parenthood. Jason Sanford’s ‘Toppers’ and David Erik Nelson’s ‘In the Sharing Place’ both have a nice pulpy, slipstream-inflected vibe. Nelson’s reminded me a lot of Google’s convolutional neural network DeepDream, the one that spawns the trippy of oily-irridescent eyes swimming around in fractal puppies. The eye-mouths are calling: “What are you waiting for? Jump in!” What are you waiting for?

Sarah Pinsker’s marvellous ‘Our Lady of the Open Road’ is near-future punkpunk, which takes its sweet time and never feels slow, and is partly about the fear of being replaced by a hologram Bruce Springsteen (a Universal Fear). Luce and her band are on tour till they choke, in a US of A where there are precious few live gigs left. The nature of this technological displacement is interesting: the story assumes humans will still want humans making music -- even if we are content to have bands holographically beamed in by Amazon-esque content aggregator megaplatform StageHolo -- rather than imagining human bands being displaced by AI bands. Luce’s principled stance is emblematic of something larger, of course. Not only will Luce not sell out to StageHolo, she won’t even use a phone. Then again, Luce is no luddite: she just likes tech she can get her hands dirty with, tech that extends and empowers her, like her band kit and her van Daisy.

Still … as Luce doggedly crashed for the umpteenth time on a stranger’s slightly moist sofa, somewhere in the vicinity of a cat litter, I got to wondering. I got to wondering about automation anxiety itself as a species of Americana. The almost-lone refusenik is not the only way to represent resistance to the future decreed by Google et al., right? But I don’t believe there are any workers’ unions anywhere in New Voices. Much as I stan Luce, much as I see where she’s coming from, I’m not sure I like where she’s headed. Social and economic consequences of technological developments are never inevitable -- people matter, and the choices we make can change history -- and I feel like the story’s underlying idiom of ferocious resistance, resilience, and resourcefulness ultimately deserves better than Luce’s stoic rugged individualism, even if it comes with generous side-servings of friendship, community, and countercultural solidarity.

So I can heartily recommend The New Voices, although given how it helps itself to hype like “new kids” and “avant-garde,” I was a little wistful for a few more risks. Then again, what looks like a solid and safe strategy from the outside may well have felt fraught and conflicted from within. If the editors did feel they were taking risks, I’d be interested to know what those were? I guess if anything, some of these tales felt a bit too polished, almost as though they were ticking the boxes of what a really good piece of speculative short fiction should do. I’m looking at you, Sam J. Miller’s ‘Calved’: oh, you’re you’re going to deftly deploy ice imagery as you explore taciturn masculinities at the intersection of class, race, and sexuality, in a gritty climate change-centric near future, are you? Well, that really annoys me for some reason.

I was very grateful for the slow boil of Kelly Robson’s ‘A Study in Oils,’ the gung-ho chibi space opera japes of Suzanne Palmer’s ‘The Secret Life of Bots,’ the ‘here-is-a-robot-dinosaur’-ness of Darcie Little Badger’s ‘Robo-Liopleurodon!’, and the rough, ungainly energy of Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s ‘A Series of Steaks,’ which is very much “maybe the real getting blackmailed to 3D print boutique beef by a shadowy cartoonish villain ... was the friends we met along the way!”

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