Burning Worlds

Climate Change and Robotics Reshape the World in ‘Avatars Inc.’

An interview with Ann VanderMeer.

Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature is addressing climate change, in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.

The XPRIZE Foundation–a nonprofit dedicated to organizing competitions to develop new technologies in space travel, ocean clean-up, robotics, and other environmental initiatives–published a free anthology called Avatars Inc. that can be downloaded from the project’s website. Edited by the award-winning editor Ann VanderMeer, Avatars Inc. is a compilation of short sci-fi stories about so-called Avatar units that can transport human consciousnesses across long distances and contain them in robotic carapaces. Once inside the giant metallic bodies, the human presences can complete dangerous tasks such as rescue missions or explorations of unknown worlds without risking injury to human bodies.

The collection features some of today’s most notable names in science fiction, including Ken Liu, Julie Novakova, Nino Cipri, and Sarah Pinsker. It opens in 2080 on an astronaut’s mission to Mars, where she finds a decommissioned Avatar unit and pulls out its memory chip. With the use of a futuristic visual display device, she reviews the unit’s memories of the last quarter century. Among them are encounters with deadly hurricanes and flooding, and other climate-related catastrophes.

I spoke with Ann about how the anthology came together, why she sees so many stories these days linking climate change to Artificial Intelligence and robotics, and how she sees climate change manifesting in her own life.

Amy Brady

This anthology isn’t specifically dedicated to stories about climate change, but it features many stories that explore the climate crisis and what a future Earth might look like in a time of ever worsening hurricanes, wildfire seasons, and flooding. Why do you think that so many sci-fi writers are now addressing the climate crisis in their work?

Ann VanderMeer

We are seeing more and more of this in fiction, and not just science fiction, because the evidence of climate change is all around us. We’re seeing changes in storm patterns, changes in migration paths and changes in growth patterns of plants, among other things. The timing of what is happening in the natural world is off and we can feel it as well as see it. I recently read an article in a wildlife magazine written by a woman who lives in Maine, in which she recounts how tick season up there starts sooner and is longer and more aggressive than it has even been.  I’m sure that writers are taking all of these things into consideration when they put pen to paper. It would be naïve and dishonest to write without including these ramifications, especially if you are writing about the future.

Amy Brady

How did the anthology come together?

Ann VanderMeer

This anthology was the brainchild of Eric Desatnik on behalf of the XPRIZE foundation and All Nippon Airways (ANA). In addition to being an incredible original anthology, Avatars Inc is also a project that promotes the good work of the foundation, in this case the ANA Avatar XPRIZE. When Eric asked me to edit this anthology, I was excited about the idea. He had already secured some of the writers, tapping into XPRIZE’s Science Fiction Advisory Council,  and I brought in several more. We’re both very happy with the lineup of talent and the diversity of storytelling in Avatar Inc. To note, we have also included a writing contest as part of Avatars Inc, in an effort to identify new talented voices as well.

Amy Brady

Taken together, these stories depict an archive of memories taken from Avatars, robotic systems that once held human consciousnesses in their bodies, or carapaces, while the humans themselves were safely elsewhere. I’ve noticed a lot of books recently–fiction and nonfiction–that address climate change, robotics, and AI all at once. It’s almost as if these three phenomena are becoming linked in the public consciousness. Have you noticed this trend as an editor? How early in the development of this collection did you know that it would address all of these things?

Ann VanderMeer

It’s difficult to see the purpose of any fiction being written today that doesn’t address these issues, unless you are writing something nostalgic or historical. All of these things are part of our modern daily lives, even if we don’t recognize it. Most of us are carrying around smartphones. We have access to virtual assistants like Alexa or Google. Although we may not understand the technology that goes into their creation, we certainly understand their usage and benefits. Climate change, robotics and AI are not far-future ideas. They are our here and now. What I am seeing a lot as an editor are stories of human resilience. Of how we address and resolve (or fail to resolve) the complicated challenges we face. Science fiction has always been about addressing current issues and extrapolating that into the future. What would it look like if we could do X or Y? What are the ramifications?

Amy Brady

These stories are about remarkable steps forward in technology, but they’re also incredibly humanizing. They’re compassionate toward their characters, and even animals. As an editor, how do you help your writers balance drama and tension with compassion and empathy? Especially in stories about climate change or health issues, when the dangers that people (and animals) face are so immediate and terrifying?

Ann VanderMeer

There is that sense of danger, true. But still we’re all human and the best fiction will have an emotional resonance beyond the gadgets and technology. What I seek out when reading stories is that emotional core – what is at the heart of the story. And usually it is something that is personal to the writer. Once we have that, the strength of the story is evident and the writer knows where to take it.

Amy Brady

Do you think about climate change and environmental issues beyond your writing and editing work? How do you see climate change at work in your own life?

Ann VanderMeer

Of course, I think about this. I have children and grandchildren and I think about what kind of world we are leaving for them. We have a saying in the Jewish faith – Tikkun Olam – which roughly means to heal the world.  We are all responsible to do our part. We need to consider our relationship with the natural world and how we can live together in harmony with all living things.

Technology can help us to do this. And I have faith that many brilliant minds are exploring ideas for how to do this better. I know from the Current Futures anthology I did with Eric last year that there are so many creative ideas for healing our oceans, for example. There is power in sharing ideas and creativity. A perfect example personally is my own backyard. My husband, Jeff VanderMeer, and I recently moved into a new home. We live right on a ravine, so the yard is most definitely a challenge. The previous owners used all kinds of poisons, pesticides, and herbicides to control the yard. We made the decision to forego any use of poisons inside or outside of the house. And Jeff spent countless hours (weeks and months) getting rid of invasive plants and making sure only native plants live in our yard. The transformation has been remarkable.

When we first moved in the mosquito problem was overwhelming. Now we barely have any mosquitoes.  And the amount of wildlife now in the backyard is amazing. Box turtles, rabbits, armadillos, raccoons, foxes, frogs, lizards, butterflies, dragonflies, bats. We even saw a deer once! And so many different birds! At last count I think Jeff identified over 90 different species.

Amy Brady

What’s next for you?

Ann VanderMeer

Jeff and I have finished The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, which will be released in July 2020. It contains the best fantasy fiction from 1945 through the early 2000s. It is the companion to The Big Book of Classic Fantasy (July 2019), which included stories from the early 1800s through 1945. Both of these projects were huge undertakings, but we’re pleased with how they turned out. We have fantasy stories from all over the world, some translated for the first time into English. I am looking forward to having both of these volumes out in the world.

SCIENCE FICTION
Avatars Inc.

Edited by Ann VanderMeer
XPRIZE
Published March 13

Ann VanderMeer has won numerous awards for her editing work, including the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award. She served as editor-in-chief for Weird Tales for five years and is currently an acquiring editor for Tor.com. Ann is also co-founder of Cheeky Frawg Books and co-editor of the forthcoming Big Book of Modern Fantasy (Vintage).

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