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Optimism – A Bad Fit For SF?


Why doesn’t science fiction write about shiny happy futures? Why is it all doom and gloom? In these troubled times, shouldn’t the genre be focusing on what’s right, what’s good, what we can make better?

Well, no.

It’s all very well writing about gleaming futures full of food pills and jetcars, as if – like in William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ – doing so would dream it into being. It’s all very well positing a future in a science fiction short story in which today’s problems no longer exist. It’s all very well showing how, in a sf text, today’s problems could be solved.

But isn’t that irresponsible?

The world is as it is; it is in many respects how we have made it. If science fiction is to have relevance, this is something it must acknowledge. It is something it must discuss. Just because in a novel a real world regime is overthrown in 2020 AD… it doesn’t mean that novel can’t discuss the moral choices made by the leaders of that regime.

Science fiction can, perhaps, show what might be the effects in one hundred years of decisions taken now – for example, which do we protect: profits or the environment? What are the consequences of choosing one over the other? Why do some people privilege themselves – i.e., profits – over everyone else – i.e., the environment? And should we let them be the ones making the decisions?

Science fiction is not about prediction. It is no longer primarily didactic. But that does not mean it cannot inform. And more than that, it can inform on the important issues. Racial survival. Human rights. The impact of new sciences and technologies. Economics. Politics. Morality. Philosophy.

Writing about a bunch of geeks killing a bunch of gooks with ever more awesome weaponry is cowardice. It’s a failure to engage with the real world. The problem is not that nations are at war, it’s that nations go to war. The latter is fit for speculation, the former is not.

If it is possible to write optimistic science fiction, then it can only be by focusing on the quotidian, by writing fictions which are intensely personal, which look for small everyday victories, which ignore the big questions. Some might call that a failure of imagination.

Science fiction doesn’t need to be optimistic, it needs to be honest.

4 thoughts on “Optimism – A Bad Fit For SF?

  1. Actually, I think you raise a very interesting point.I have very deep reservations about ‘optimistic SF’ as a current or method. In fact, even without the rather unpleasant hint of pandering embedded in the concept, I’ve yet to see it yield any interesting stories. One story promoted as ‘optimistic SF’ actually suggested a future that seemed nothing short of hellish.HOWEVER, I think you’re right when you say that on a personal level, SF can be optimistic. I think between the Second World War and the Islam vs Neoconservatism wars, it’s become clear that visions of political utopia are blood stained things that in truth bring only misery and death simply because we’re all individuals with different values and the costs for building a utopia compared to the end benefits will always be unpalatable to some.BUT, you can still write stories with happy endings. Narrow, personal utopias in which one person finds a better world.But the problem is that it is not clear in what way this differs from saying “not all stories should have down endings”, which is patently obvious.

  2. I think you’re very right; causes for optimism stem from within as well as without. An “optimistic” story should be about the capacity to make decent, informed decisions about the future that benefit our fellow humans (or transhumans). That could mean toppling fascist regimes, but it might also mean simply sharing that last bit of fuel with a stranger.

  3. I must admit that I’ve never fully understood what is meant by “optimistic SF.” Is it SF that doesn’t try to be realistic about the future world? Is it SF that focuses only on a positive side of a future world? Is it happy endings?I understand the push for optimism, but I agree that you can’t really do that at the expense of realism. SF is about a future that could happen, in theory (whether that be 10,000 years from now, or 10 hours). You have to be faithful to that universal truth.

  4. I’ve never been convinced that science fiction has to be “about a future that could happen”. The genre has never been predictive, and it stopped being didactive about five minutes after people realised Hugo Gernsback original agenda was rubbish.

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