21 February 2008

Superb title, uneven stories

How to Save the World

Charles Sheffield, editor
Tor Books, 1995

We have no friendly advisor looking over our shoulder. We will have to make do with the next best thing: humans who are close observers of the actions of our species, but who are not directly involved in trying to run the affairs of humanity.

This of course is exactly what writers are and have been through recorded history.... Even among writers, I argue that the writers of science fiction form a special sub-group. They tend to be interested in global problems, in the impact of science and technology, and in the long-term future of humanity. They are observers of events at the largest scale. (pp. 12-13)

This then is a collection of these observations, examining themes as far ranging as the failure of public education in the US to the breakthrough in space exploration to the cure for patriarchy to an ugly dilemma inherent in the feminist rhetoric of "reproductive choice." For those of us who (often) feel motivated to save the world, this book provides an entertaining meditation on the shadow side of the utopian and of the unknowable consequences of our wholly benevolent intentions.

Sheffield writes, "Some of the stories in this book may offend. I certainly hope so." (p. 14). None of the stories offended this reader, but disappointingly most didn't make much of an impression either way. The unevenness of the stories was a definite let-down, particularly considering the devastatingly understated (or, as Sheffield puts it, "unduly modest") title. After all, what self-respecting Christian anarchist bodhisattva utopian would pass up the manual on how to save the world?

So here are some thoughts on the stories that impressed a little SF wisdom on me, providing visions of possible futures and of some pitfalls that might face us along the way. They also all rocked as stories.
  • "Zap Thy Neighbor" by James P. Hogan. I'd read this one almost a decade ago in an anthology of Hogan's stories and science writing called Rockets, Redheads, and Revolution, and enjoyed rereading it. Hogan has envisioned a world in which everyone has a listing in a big directory, and that anyone with a grudge or grievance, if she can find two willing accomplices, can "call your number." It's a simple system with a twist that ensures that it really works as promised---in creating a more civil society.
  • "Choice" by Lawrence Watt-Evans. In college anthropology I was first introduced to the dilemma faced by many feminists in Asia (and other locales) regarding abortion. It is, in short, that the rhetoric of "reproductive choice" that has dominated liberal discourse on the issue for almost two generations (i.e., that a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy is absolute and absolutely hers) stands in uncomfortable company with third-world cultural realities which lead most women with free access to contemporary reproductive technologies to abort only female fetuses. Watt-Evans presents a "culturally pure" (read: third world) society, presumably in the Middle East, where poverty, disease, overpopulation, etc. have been become things of the past. How? By allowing women to make their free choices, aborting females and keeping males until the ratio of men to women is over 10 to 1. This, as we see in the story, poses its own interesting problems.
  • "The Meetings of the Secret World Masters" by Geoffrey A. Landis. This story reminded me of the film The Last Supper except that instead of serving individuals poisoned meals, a handful of scientists genetically engineer myriad changes to the human race. A pretty chilling story about way too much power being in the wrong hands--or in any hands.
  • "The Invasion of Space" by James Kirkwood. Reminisces about the crucial "Big Bang" moment in deep space exploration and how it was a poet (and an inadvertent martyr), and not a scientist, who was needed to get humanity's mythological juices flowing in the direction of outer space. Because without that, you can only get so far off the earth.
  • "Buyer's Remorse" by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg. Why is this story here? I absolutely hated, hated, hated, hated this story. Completely pretentious short story told in the form of letters to an advice columnist about life in the far future and the columnist's responses. Confusing and didn't say much to me, which means I probably need to re-read it a couple of times until I finally get it. (That or simply forget about it).
  • "My Soul to Keep" by Jerry Oltion. In the near-future US, religion is seen as a dangerous, infectious neurological disorder and so free exercise of said infection is therefore no longer enshrined in the US Constitution. When the Pope is injured while on a clandestine trip to the US, and the contagion is released, all hell (ahem) breaks lose. One scientist begins to regain her faith, and so her fellows protect her from the illness. For her own benefit, of course.

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