“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab

Clarkesworld #132, November 2017
Cover by Vladimir Manyukhin

“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab.
Novelette. Clarkesworld September 2017.


Bruce Arthurs’ recommendation on File770 is what first caught my eye:

I was very impressed by this story’s combination of world-building (centered around efforts to restore/refresh a future Earth damaged by ecological and climactic change, supplemented by a society with better support systems for emotional and intellectual growth/stability), and how it also tells a very human story. It deals with longing, and love, and the difficult choices we still have to make, even in a better future.

I was also struck that this story didn’t rely on dramatic cliches or violence for plot development. No bombs, no killings, no sinister villains lurking in the wings. It tells a story of the heart, rather than a story of the fist or gun.

Rocket Stack Rank is less impressed:

This is a tale, not a story. That is, there’s no protagonist trying to accomplish anything; this is just a collection of disconnected events. The only common element besides the environment is Amir’s obsession over Mani, and that isn’t described well enough to make us believe in it.

Given the lack of a plot, the story goes on way too long.

High praise from Tangent Online reviewer Filip Wiltgreen:

I’m not much for romance. And yet, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab made me cry. It’s beautiful beyond words, a biochromatic albatross wing of worldbuilding wrapped around a solid story of post-eco-apocalyptic civic reclamation as seen through the eyes of a pair of not-quite lovers. And there’s a work-life balance thread there, too.

If you like beautiful writing, amazing worldbuilding, mesmerizing, believable characters, and all of it wrapped around a story with a solid plot that tugs at the heart-strings, you’ll love “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics.” The only possible drawback is the sheer amount of information and new-speak Jess Barber and Sara Saab manage to cram into the story. To unpack it all, you might need to read it twice. But then again, you might want to.

Charles Payseur calls this “an amazing piece, and one of my very favorite stories of the year, period,” writing:

The story, through the exploration of these characters lives and relationships, begins to build a picture of what it might take to make the world work better. It stresses that it’s not technology alone that will save us, because without a philosophy to match, the exploitation and consumption will continue to escalate, pushing past all obstacles and barriers and safeguards. I love how the story implies that humanity needs a different framework in order to respect humans and the environment, in order to put cooperation and compassion ahead of personal ambition or passion. And it is a beautiful story that touches on how love still works in this philosophy, not quite in the same way that we now expect but still in profound and powerful dimensions that allow Amir and Mani’s story to be one of hope and healing and triumph, even as it is often about longing and distance as well.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

3 thoughts on ““Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab”

  1. I love how this story deals with the idea of possession, especially in a romantic sense, and allows for an idea of love that is not consuming but freeing. Where people don’t own each other. In that it reminds me a little of LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and how relationships worked there, in the absence of the idea of ownership. Which, in turn, comments on how societies should work. I love this story.

  2. I’ve got mixed feelings about this one.

    There’s so much about this I love. I love how much thought and detail this story has; how rich the world is. The authors did a fantastic job of imagining a world and a culture which has survived catastrophic climate change, made painful adaptations, and is now working on adapting further. They’ve thought about water and academia and funding and relationships and JUST SO MUCH. It’s everywhere in the story, it comes to life, and it’s beautifully done.

    But as the story progressed, it became less and less about that, and more and more about Amir and Mani as a near-tragic Missed Connection. And… it did that in a weird kind of way.

    In a way that lionizes teenage relationships (Amir and Mani have new relationships; Amir has at least two relationships he describes as really significant; but we’re meant to be really invested in his relationship with Mani getting somewhere).

    And, in a way that presents specifically sex as the One True Signifier of love and of a relationship. Amir’s history is so rich. Amir and Mani’s friendship and relationship is something that, at various points, has been intimate, constant, joyous; and at other points, productive, constructive, producing wonders. They’ve even done everything they reasonably can to resolve their tension and awkward feelings. But the climactic (sorry) moment, at the end of section 4, isn’t anything except for sex. It literally feels to me like the arc of this story is presented as, “Amir had a really meaningful with Mira as a young man, goes on to be a mature and brilliant adult, but Mira is always going to bug him until they also get to have sex.”

    I don’t know. I think I’d be fine with practically any other expression of love, or closure. (Or, sex AND something else, fine.)
    But the way that the closure is just sex, with no other component, really bugs me. If this is what we’ve been waiting for all this time, I feel like it cheapens everything else in the story. Their intense friendship; Amir’s other relationships; the ability to maturely work professionally together and care for one another while recognizing that things are different — none of those are “enough,” but One Sex is “enough.” Gnash, gnash, gnash.

  3. The one thing I loved the most seems almost incidental, but I think it’s in the bones of the story.

    “Pan-humanism is all about realizing a civilizational system that game theory would say is impossible, right?”

    It’s a capsule summary of the the characters’ worldview, and really, a worldview that’s so necessary for us today. The rest of the story, they’re all busy with the details of actually getting some pan-humanism done — but understanding the cause they’re serving, the path they’re following, is crucial to the story.

    It’s right in the title: “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics.” And the story lets us see exactly that, in action. What living that way means. I really like that.

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