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Tomorrow’s Parties cover

Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene edited by Jonathan Strahan

(The MIT Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

If these are Tomorrow’s Parties, then those of you who (like me) have largely given up on parties will find your decision validated. If this life in the Anthropocene, as veteran editor Jonathan Strahan’s pitch would have it, then we can safely say that, for these authors at least, the Old SF cliché—a future that’s in most respects better than the present—is the deadest letter of the lot.

That’s not a bad thing, to be clear—at least not for me, as someone who has watched from the sidelines while Alexandra Rowland’s “hopepunk” concept got hollowed out and filled with something which seems more often consolatory than hopeful. But in the name of expectation management as much as content warnings, wow, does this book end on a bummer: while it does at least offer the prospect of unexpected human companionship and solidarity in a world that is literally trying to kill you—a very hopepunk vibe, at least as I understand it—James Bradley’s closing story “After the Storm” is pretty bleak, and I wish I hadn’t read it just before lights-out. That said, it is one of the best stories in the book, and not only for its refusal to offer any of the easy endings to its protagonist (or, by extension, to us).

Meg Ellison’s opener, by contrast, is one of the brighter pieces, with deftly written dialogue atop a plot that’s as easy to follow (and to see coming) as a tramline, but still satisfying for all that. The rest is a mixed bag, with no obvious booby prize. A stubborn antipathy to certain tropes and styles have resulted in me getting on poorly with Chen Xiufan’s work in general, and this piece—which bears some distant relation to Geoff Ryman’s Air, perhaps—was no exception, but otherwise even the stories that I didn’t think at first would work for me managed to pull something out of the hat. The mid-book tent-pole of Sara Gailey’s “When The Tide Rises”, for instance, looked like it was going to be an obvious escape-the-corporate-dystopia caper featuring a protagonist whose relentless self-pity really strained my sympathies—but at the end, they are confronted with their own cowardice, and the story cuts neatly off before we find out whether they rose to the moment or not. (This suspension of closure may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it pushed me toward being more generous to the protagonist than I otherwise might have been.)

To mention a few others: Daryl Gregory’s “Once Upon a Future in the West” is structurally ambitious, and also reads like it might have been the result of a bet between two authors about the combining of unlikely and transgressive tropes. As a result, I’m not sure I take its vision of the future as seriously as I’m meant to…but I know I’ll never be able to think about Tom Hanks in quite the same way as I have heretofore. Tade Thompson’s “Down and Out in Exile Park”, meanwhile, takes up the perennial scavenger-city trope and gives it a Nigerian twist; not a bad story by any means, but I felt like the elements in play would have benefited from a longer exploration than the form would permit. On a similar note, it’s always a delight to encounter Saad Hossein’s name atop a text, though he’s clearly much more at home in longer formats: his fiction is always pacey, but “The Ferryman” is frankly abrupt, particularly in the latter half, and its bittersweet ending feels unearned, arriving as it does after sudden and total (and equally unearned) violence. I would likely have been less forgiving were I not already invested in the rich world Hossein has built up over a number of publications.

What I want to focus on with this review, however, are two very different examples of what we might think of as the “solution story”. The solution story used to be a mainstay of sf, particularly at shorter lengths, and overlaps considerably with what Tom Moylan termed the technological utopia. We are long past the days when sf writers set out to present purely technological solutions to predominantly social problems—perhaps because this particular form of hubristic hucksterism has in recent years become the preserve of Silicon Valley, almost to the point of self-parody. But the solution story can still be found from time to time in a more mature form, with the sociotechnicality of both problems and solutions foregrounded from the get-go. There is a politics to any fiction, of course, and that’s all the more true of any fiction which includes the changing climate as an agential character. But the solution story, I would argue, is a special case at the level of rhetoric, because it must show both problem and solution in a convincing light. Of the two examples herein, one of them does an unusually good job of this, while the other one falls short on both counts.

Greg Egan’s “Crisis Actors” is the story of a former academic who has gotten involved in what seems to be a cell of a secretive conspiracy-theorist movement: convinced that not only is climate change an exaggeration to party-political ends, but also that “crisis actors” are deployed to sites of natural disaster by the conspiracy in order to reinforce the narrative, the focal character finally makes his longed-for leap from missions of minor sabotage to the big leagues: the infiltration of a volunteer group that responds to typhoons in the Pacific islands off of the Australian coast, whose theatrical deceits he hopes to definitively expose.

Malka Older’s “Legion”, meanwhile, posits the titular network: a chimera composed of a social movement and an app which, through a growing network of women and other vulnerable (i.e. non-cis-white-male) persons wearing multiple micro-cams that constantly stream live footage to one another, makes possible the witnessing of and intervention into (if not necessarily the reliable prevention of) acts of harassment and violence. This might be thought of as a sort of 2.0 upgrade to the mutualist sousveillance concept that was all the rage around the time of the Arab Spring, when the first wave of phones with cameras were becoming ubiquitous, or at least commonplace.

Egan’s “solution” is somewhat similar, in that we discover—or at least we are given strongly to suspect—that, although he doesn’t realise it, the protagonist is in fact enrolled in a network which is actually directing him to do things that support climate change adaptation and mitigation, even as it encourages him to believe that he’s actually working to expose or prevent the deceits on which he takes the whole edifice to be based. He’s an unwitting double-agent, in other words, whose passion for the cause is being very cleverly leveraged to the end of its neutralisation.

This should go without saying, but for the avoidance of any doubt: I fully recognise both of the social issues depicted in these stories and believe them to be serious. What interests me here is the role of the solution story in the context of such undeniably social (and hence political) problems, and how their representation works to endorse the proposed solution. Egan achieves something which has come to feel almost verboten, namely the humanisation of a character who represents a political Other as seen from the prevailing culture of genre fiction: the protagonist is shown as a caring father, thoughtful, intelligent, motivated by a sincere (if misguided) concern at both the micro and macro social scales. This approach makes the story much richer, as we try to resolve the dissonance between a relatable character and their allegiance to a project to which the assumed audience of the story is strongly opposed. By refusing to moralise from the outset, Egan makes a compelling case for his solution to the social problem depicted—which is all the more surprising when we consider that his solution, namely to exploit the conspiracy narrative in order to combat its worst effects, comes with its own moral quandary to be considered after the tale is finished: is it virtuous to bamboozle the already-deceived into doing (what we believe to be) good? Answers on a postcard to the usual address, please.

Older’s story, by contrast, comes with an arguably less fraught solution (albeit a shop-worn one which failed to deliver on its early promise), but undermines its own answer by personifying the problem in a focal character whose almost cartoonish villainy—amplified by some odd and seemingly arbitrary choices regarding the setting—makes the piece read like the outline of a Fox News expose on “what feminists really want!” The narratological choices may not have helped, here: in first-person present tense, the talk-show host POV character is such a comprehensively nasty yet self-aware asshole that it’s hard to imagine that he’s made it so far, in what seems to be to be a future at least a generation (or maybe even two) down the line from the present. To reiterate, I’m not suggesting that such monsters do not or will not exist; what I am suggesting is that this absolute worst-case parody approach feels like a straw-man argument, a rigged game, even to someone who fully believes that male violence and harassment is a serious and persistent social problem. The obvious counter to my case would be to say that I’m taking the #notallmen angle—and there would be some truth to that, in that yes, I am saying that this protagonist is not representative of the majority of men who engage in harassing or violent behaviour. Or, to put it another way: the story proposes a technological solution to a structural social problem which the story portrays as being entirely individualised.

Egan’s story works as a rhetorical argument because it presents the problem in the most generous light possible: the conspiracy theorist is not reduced to his conspiracy theories, but is instead depicted as an intelligent, rounded human being who happens to have fallen for a complex and compelling falsehood which somehow integrates with his moral reasoning. Older’s talk-show host, meanwhile, not only knows he’s a villain, but revels in both his villainy and his knowingness of it, doing everything short of twirling the ends of his moustache unrepentantly in the closing perp-walk scene. Egan’s earnestly useful idiot, by contrast, is more commonplace than we are easily willing to admit—and, I think, far more closely resembles the mainstream of privilege in his obliviousness.

Of course, fiction is not a cage, even in the legendarily censorious halls of genre, and rhetorical choices remain the author’s prerogative. It would be hard to deny the sense of catharsis that follows the comeuppance of Older’s talk-show scumbag, and catharsis is as good an affective goal for a short story as any other…so why not write a vengeful caricature? Because it is rhetorically weak, for one thing, as already argued above—but it is also poor story craft, which remains the only reasonable assessment of reductive worst-case stereotypes, no matter who’s wearing the boot. Egan, meanwhile, is often (if rather unfairly) thought of as a writer who specialises in portraying extremely alien subjectivities—but here he demonstrates a keen understanding of the least other of all Others. That compassion makes Egan’s case, and his story, so much the stronger.

Review from BSFA Review 22 - Download your copy here.


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