Future on Fire
Orson Scott Card
Tor , 1991. Mass-market paperback:
Suggested retail price: $4.95 (US)
Future on Fire is an short fiction anthology of fifteen prominent writers of the 1980s selected by Orson Scott Card as authors to watch in the 1990s. Selected authors including William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Connie Willis. Card prefaces each story with extensive essays on the art and craft of sf, the sf publishing industry, and the moral dilemmas and implications of the selected authors' fiction. The anthology contains no fiction by Card.
Orson Scott Card's greatest contributions to the field of speculative fiction may not be his fiction after all, but his non-fiction. As a critic of sf as a literary field as well as of individual works, Card may have no peer save perhaps Algis Budrys. Although much of his non-fiction work in the field was written almost a decade or more ago, his essays and reviews have aged very well indeed. One clear example is his anthology of 1980s authors to watch in 1990s, Future on Fire (Tor, 1991).
Card almost unerringly chose the future top names of the field: Pat Murphy, Michael Swanwick, William Gibson, Michael Bishop, Lucius Shepard, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pat Cadigan, Ursula K. LeGuin, Connie Willis, James Patrick Kelly, Bruce Sterling. Card did miss the boat on Felix Gotschalk and Greg Keizer (of whom both have not been published since the anthology) and on Wayne Wightman and Susan Palwick (of whom both have had less than a handful of publications since). Novelist Rachel Pollack's later career has been marginal.
It wasn't Card's success as a genre prophet, or the stories of the authors themselves that influenced me to purchase this anthology, but Card's intriguing introductory essays. Recently in a private SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) discussion area on the online service Genie, a discussion thread evolved on the ephemeral nature of much of the best sf criticism of the field: the introductory essays to short story anthologies, many of which written by the genre's masters.
Luckily, Future on Fire is still in print and you can read Card's wonderful essay on why sf is important and why so much (good) short fiction exists in the genre. There are also essays on academia vs. the working writer (sort of a bookend to Dave Wolverton's recent column in Tangent), a history primer on the sf short fiction magazine market, and a running commentary on the ethics of writing and of a writer's worldview.
Like most successful playwrights, Card is a master of the pithy epigram. Here are a few from the anthology:
"Not that science fiction readers will be prepared for exactly the future that comes. .& .& . Rather, the readers of science fiction are prepared for many futures." (pg. 3)
"I wonder sometimes if the motivation for writers ought to be contempt, not admiration." (pg. 5)
"The size of a writer's audience tells you something about the audience. It tells you nothing about the writer." (pg. 9)
"...many of these traditional 'competent man' heroes are so smug you want to grab them and strangle them while shouting, 'Look, Bozo, I could look just as smart as you if I had a writer making the rest of the world fit in with my plans!'" (pg. 13)
"..the easy, cop-out, ain't-life-a-***** ending that has long been the mark of fashionably angst-ridden adolescent writers. The child's version of tragedy. ROMEO AND JULIET, where everybody dies because the author felt like it, instead of LEAR, where the tragedy arises inevitably out of the characters." (pg.45)
"..a standard for one thing good criticism must achieve. It must illuminate, not smear; it must build, not destroy." (pg. 70)
"I could only teach them as much about the writing process as I understood at the time...if it wasn't the blind leading the blind, then it was the blind being led by a guy with a squint." (pg. 164)
"'Cyberpunk' has been co-opted to become the latest fad among the shallowest of artists in many fields who always seize on novelty, having long since given up on truth." (pg. 521)
To me, if there is one fault to this anthology, it is in the criteria Card used to select the authors. Card chose the authors of the 1980s "who have changed us all, often against our will." By that Card not only means those who have reshaped the way we view fiction and the world, but those whose worldviews and outlooks Card admits repeatedly that he disagrees morally and philosophically with -- often strenuously. But he selected those stories and those authors and gave them and that worldview just that much more exposure, that much more critical acclaim. There were plenty of "hot," trend-setting 1980s authors that Card could and should have selected, those with worldview not diametrically opposed to Cards (or mine for that matter).
There is such a thing as giving the devil his due, but one needn't tip him handsomely as well.
Still, however, FUTURE ON FIRE is well worth the cover price and the time spent gleaning through Card's essays. Even after half-a-decade or more, the flames are still burning.
Lee Allred firstname.lastname@example.org www.leeallred.com
© 1997 Lee Allred