Ann VanderMeer: Five Things I Learned Editing Avatars, Inc.

Mars 2080. 

While on a mission to Mars in the year 2080, a young astronaut encounters a decommissioned robotic Avatar unit, partially buried in the Martian dust. She pops open the cranial casing to find its central processing chip, still intact. She holds the chip up to her visual display unit to reveal its contents. Within moments, she is flooded with what-seem-to-be “memories” from the life of the avatar. This is Avatar Inc’s 24th successful mission, as part of an overall campaign to physically retrieve, preserve and archive the memory cards from their most valuable robotic avatar units. They searched the world, and deep into the solar system, to acquire the chips that contain avatar memories spanning the 21st century. These are those memories. 

Stories can heal and also bring us closer together, even when we’re miles apart

Even as we are faced with what seem to be insurmountable odds, the human spirit still rises to the occasion. Keep in mind that the avatars are controlled by humans. And they make mistakes but also decisions that help save lives even to their own detriment. I see this in Ken Liu’s “Uma,” when the person behind the maintenance avatar decides to go against protocol and save a family. I see it again in “Oannes, From the Flood” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, when people on an archaeological dig are faced with that same dilemma. What this tells me is that even in our most dire circumstances, our inclination is to do what we can to help others, no matter where they are or where they come from. Beyond the excitement of the gadgets, technology and devices, it is the human element that brings us all together.

This anthology is launching in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and each hour the news seems to be getting worse and worse. Some may think this is the wrong time to be reading stories. But I disagree. I see many people online posting and engaging with the stories. What better way to take a break and still connect with others? These connections make me hopeful for what can be.

Writers may veer from the original prompt but that’s ok

Establishing a prompt that is provided to each contributing writer is an important way to design a cohesive theme and an enjoyable experience for the readers, but you also don’t want to creatively hamper the writers or have the prompt be so limiting that you start to see repetition across the stories. For Avatars Inc, we noticed that writers slightly deviated from the original prompt, which forced us to take a hard look at the overall narrative of the campaign. We ended up adjusting the prompt in response to the authors’ interpretations, and we are thrilled with the result.

I know that sometimes giving more freedom to a writer can be a dangerous thing (insert smiley face here) but in this case, it was a marvelous idea that generated extraordinary fiction.

Science Fiction stories never cease to amaze me

I’ve spent the last few years heavily immersed in fantasy stories after editing THE BIG BOOK OF SCIENCE FICTION and THE TIME TRAVELER’S ALMANAC.  Fantasy was a nice break for me. As I worked on Avatars Inc, I was reminded of why I love science fiction so very much. I feel challenged and comforted at the same time. How can that be? The stories in this anthology forced me to take a different look at the world as it is today, but also to feel hopeful that humanity will rise to the occasion to deal with complicated issues. Are all the futures generated in science fiction stories hopeful? Of course not. Right now, we’re inundated with dystopian fiction worldwide. But as long as we can reach for the stars, and writers keep sharing their vision of what could be, I can take comfort in that.

The relationship between Art and Science is getting stronger

I’ve always known there was a relationship between art and science. I’ve seen it while working on various projects in how writers approach their work, riffing off of current events and yet extrapolating into the future. And I am also seeing so many science experts reaching across the divide to include writers in storytelling, to help get messages across to the larger public. Just as many universities are having multidisciplinary conferences that bring scientists and artists together, organizations like XPRIZE also recognize this important relationship.

The Use of Avatars can be much greater and more creative than I ever thought possible

I was surprised by all the different ways avatars were being used in the stories. I knew there would be space stories, of course. But I never thought of crime scene cleanup, as an example, and it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Nino Cipri came up with that idea in their story “At the End of a Most Perfect Day.” I also was intrigued with Johanna Sinisalo’s story “A Bird Does Not Sing Because It Has an Answer.” We think in terms of using avatars to go where it would be dangerous for humans. However, in this story the avatar is adopted because humans are dangerous to the natural world! And in “La Mer Donne” by Sarah Pinsker, the avatar is operated for weather reporting in the middle of a storm. Living in Florida, I am very used to seeing reporters trying to stay put on solid ground while a storm whips around them. I expect that, just as I was surprised to read about novel avatar use-cases in the stories, that I will also be surprised to see what teams are developing as part of the real-life ANA Avatar XPRIZE.

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Over a 30-year career, Ann VanderMeer has won numerous awards for her editing work, including the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award. Whether as editor-in-chief for Weird Tales for five years or in her current role as an acquiring editor for Tor.com, Ann has built her reputation on acquiring fiction from diverse and interesting new talents. As co-founder of Cheeky Frawg Books, she has helped develop a wide-ranging line of mostly translated fiction. Featuring a who’s who of world literature, Ann’s anthologies include the critically acclaimed Best American Fantasy series, The Weird, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Sisters of the Revolution, The Big Book of Science Fiction, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, and the forthcoming Big Book of Modern Fantasy (Vintage).

Avatars, Inc.: Digital anthology (free)!