When I set out to edit the Shine anthology, I already knew I would be going against the current (highly reactionary) SF grain. As Jason Stoddard said: “Jetse’s taking on two impossible things at a time”. He was (is) but all too right: the great majority of SF writers either don’t want or cannot write an optimistic, near future story (or both).
So the argument goes that they can’t do it, because … (insert excuses) …
This is a defence mechanism: most SF writers don’t want to write something that is too difficult, too risk-taking, and – dog forbid – relevant. They just want to write about something they find cool, and will throw up a barrage of excuses just to keep doing that. Those excuses are often dressed up as reasonable arguments, but more often than not what they really imply is: “Hey, I don’t want to this near future, optimistic stuff: I just want to stay in my comfort zone.” And indeed, that’s what most dystopias are: a comfort zone for unambitious writers.
A dystopia is easy: most of today’s complexities have been obliterated, and in that simplified milieu we can let the good guy fight it out with the bad guy. Preferably with a huge amount of hypermodern weapons, that never run out of ammo (who makes all these modern weapons in a world where the industrial infrastructure has been reduced to rubble is unimportant: we need guns to overcome the enemy, and the more guns the better). Easy: good & bad, black & white.
There is a myth in writing circles that writers really like a challenge: tell a group of writers that they can’t do something and by golly, they will show you they can. Well, that myth is only true for simple challenges, like when Gordon Van Gelder said he didn’t like elves: immediately half the writing community brainstormed brilliant elf stories that would leave Gordon breathless.
However, now that I’m throwing out a real challenge – near future, optimistic SF – the utmost majority of the SF writing community is enormously reluctant at best, and downright dismissive at worst. Obviously, this is a challenge that doesn’t count. Well, I’ve got a message to all those writers who think they can ignore this challenge: get real, that is: look around in the real world.
In the real world, people face those huge challenges (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) and try to overcome them. In the real world, the majority of people are optimistic. So why isn’t SF trying to address these huge problems in a near future SF story (not use them for implementing the next dystopia, but try to fix them, try to do something about them)? Why is SF extremely reluctant to feature an upbeat outlook?
It’s because most of SF acts like an ostrich: it likes to stick its head in the sand and dream of faraway places and faraway futures, while the real clever monkeys around it wrestle with the intricate mess. Let someone else handle the *actual* problems, because ‘that’s not what SF is for’. Please let somebody else be forward-looking and inventive.
So the first defence mechanism is (deliberately) misinterpreting the meaning of ‘optimistic SF’: immediately declare it a hopelessly naive Pollyanna, a mind-numbing utopia of happy clappy people who’ve put too much pot in the peace pipe. Nobody wants to write in such a dreadfully boring setting, right? And there’s no conflict in such a world, either!
This is current SF’s tendency to simplify things, make everything black or white, good or bad, and greatly ignore all the different nuances within (which form about 99.99999% of the real world out there). Check out what Kim Stanley Robinson said on the New Scientist SF special:
The future is thus a kind of attenuating peninsula, running forward with steep drops to both sides. There isn’t any possibility of muddling through with some good and some bad; we either solve the problems or fail disastrously. It’s either utopia or catastrophe.
And even when SF writers see some shades of grey, they’re almost exclusively the darkest ones: there are many different ways of looking at the world with pessimism, but the moment someone utters that she or he is optimistic, that person is a full-on utopian with zero critical faculties. There can’t be variations, varying opinions and subtle nuances on the positive side of things, right? Because that would be admitting that it might actually matter(#). As it does in the real world.
Second excuse: optimism is not realistic. People will not believe it when you paint a picture that’s too rosy: things will get much, much worse before they may even begin to get better.
This mindset seems very deeply ingrained in the written SF community. Whatever happened to the ‘can do’ spirit of decades ago? Has it left the SF ghetto together with inventiveness, audacity, exuberance and sense of wonder?
First things first, though: if pessimism was the only realistic option, then there would have been no progress at all in the past 50 years (or so).
So optimism is not realistic? Progress cannot happen? Things cannot improve?
- Life expectancy increased from 64.5 (1950-52) to 75.1 (2001-03) for males, and from 67.1 (1950-52) to 80.3 (2001-03) for females (numbers from the Department of Health and Children in Ireland, but they are about the same throughout the western world). Life expectancy has gone up everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa.
- The number of armed conflicts has fallen considerably in the past few decades, as well;
- Information (immense amounts which are growing day by day) is now available at the touch of a few fingertips through the internet, and the number of internet users per 100 inhabitants is rising rapidly, worldwide;
Note: this does not mean that everything is wonderful and perfect right now (sorry to repeat this, but the black or white, dystopia or utopia mindset is deeply ingrained in the SF ghetto, which also ignores actual progress and keeps muttering about flying cars and jetpacks), but that things are getting better. Yes, there is still a very long way to go. Yes, progress is certainly not easy. But progress is ongoing, and things keep improving. It’s not necessarily a straight line: there will be setbacks, blind alleys, wild goose chases. But the general trend is up: has been up for the last century at least.
And here’s my not-so-bold prediction: the general trend will remain up for the foreseeable future. Optimism is more realistic than pessimism.
Third excuse: you cannot predict the near future exactly, so you might as well not try. A variation is: if you make a few bold predictions, you will almost certainly be wrong, and I can’t bear the critical scrutiny. Another variation is: SF is not meant to predict the future, merely be a mirror of our times. (If SF is truly a mirror of our times, it would be much, much more optimistic. What they mean to say is that SF is a simplified, dark mirror of our times, because that is where my comfort zone is).
Now, there is no denying that writing near future SF is extremely difficult. To quote Kim Stanley Robinson again:
It will get harder to do, though, because it needs to spring from the realities of the time, not from some past decade’s ideas. These days rapid technological change, volatile global politics and inevitable climate change all combine with contingency to make imagining our real future impossible. Something will happen, but we can’t know what.
“Ha!” I hear some of you say, “There it is: he said ‘impossible’.” Indeed he did, but he also said, somewhat further on:
So we have to do the impossible and imagine the next century.
We have to face this head-on: no Flight Forward, no Dystopia Lite, no Technofix (for explanation of those see my previous post An Update on the Shine Submissions, part 1) or other tricks to skirt the issues. We have to boldly imagine the near future, and take the possibility to be wrong for granted. We have to seek for solutions, and dare to be gloriously wrong.
Fourth excuse: there is no possibility for conflict in a full-on optimistic future. A writer needs a really, really, really dark world so that his/her heroes/heroines can overcome all those adversities, win against all odds. Heroes will only rise up when things are at their bleakest (a huge cliché, both in and out of the genre, and nonsensical: if those heroes had risen up sooner, then there would have been much less suffering. It’s such an overused, overtired narrative device and people using it keep claiming it’s ‘realistic’. Yeah right).
Which makes me think: so in this world of today there is nothing to overcome? Everything is peachy and perfect?
This is basically a variation of the very first excuse, that is deny that there is world out there which contains an immensely complex variety of grey scales. For Shine I’m looking for stories that try to address (at least) one of today’s huge problems (or die trying). If you need me to tell you which huge problems I mean, then you should start reading the news, or look around you.
The hugely complex problems of today (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) are much more difficult to overcome than a lone hero/heroine fighting his/her out of an imaginary hell.
Because is the latter case the world is created by the writer, so the writer already knows a way in which the protagonist will overcome the problems. This is the equivalent of a magician’s act: it looks impossible, but the conjuror has the act worked out to a T well before the actual performance. Also, by evoking an apocalyptic event (nuclear war, asteroid impact, mass volcano eruptions, global warming gone amok) there is no need to address today’s problems anymore, as they’ve been superseded.
Then there is near future SF that handles real problems. That is the act of a true dare devil walking across Niagara (or, to non-Westerners: Victoria or Iguassu) Falls over a tightrope without a net. The utmost majority of SF writers don’t want to do the equivalent of truly trying to be relevant and thinking about solutions, not only because it’s too difficult with unpredictable outcomes, or because ‘it’s not SF’s job to troubleshoot today’s big problems’(*), but mostly because they are too afraid to be wrong. If you’re wrong, gloriously wrong, then your most feared enemies will get you, and rip you to pieces.
Who are these ‘most feared enemies’? The state police? Terrorists? Violent mobs? Debt collecting agencies? Serial – or other – killers? No: the reviewers and critics. They will tell that you were wrong, in scathing terms, and that’s just the end of it.
While across the world real risk takers, activists and entrepreneurs start up new businesses and initiatives with the intent to change things for the better whose real risk is indeed the state police (think political activists in dictatorships), terrorists (ask anybody living near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border), Violent mobs (feminist activists in Muslim countries), or bankruptcy. And still they try. And still they fail. And still they try again.
Compared to those people, the ‘forward-looking’ SF community makes a very poor figure, indeed.
If the rest of the world was just as ‘forward-looking’ as most of the current written SF scene (exceptions acknowledged), then there’d be no progress at all.
People, in their optimism, take risks all the time, and while they often fail, they just try again. And sometimes, they win big time because they allow themselves be led by their optimism.
“The Audacity of Hope”, anyone? Or should Obama just have thrown the towel?
Same for scientists and research centres: They should just stop trying, and stop curing people from all those diseases they died from a century ago.
Dog forbid that people with an upbeat attitude, even in, or especially in dire times, make progress in the world around us: that never happened before, and will never happen again.
If we had the life expectancy of a century ago, about 90% of current SF fandom would have been dead. So yeah, believing in things changing for the better is really highly unrealistic.
So, there is more than enough to overcome here. The world is full of conflicts that need to be resolved. Actually, a true sharp near future story can contain more conflict and complexities than any dystopia cares to come up with. Dystopias are merely simplifications: good near future SF tries to feature some of the intricate items that plague us today. Which is indeed immensely difficult. Which is why it’s such a huge challenge.
Fifth Excuse: I can’t do it because we live in dire times. How can I be optimistic when we are in the biggest economic crisis in ages, when there is still huge discrimination, war, poverty and hunger?
See above (I’m getting to the point where I’m excessively repeating myself. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of prejudice and fossilised thinking overcome): people everywhere are trying to improve matters, even in, especially in hard times.
People rise above their circumstances and make life better, all the time, all around the world. And – as mentioned in the Second Excuse point – things do get better. The trend is upward, through the Great Depression of the 30s, through two world wars, through every financial crisis since 1900. I’m not saying that things are great financially right now: far from it. But here’s another not-so-bold prediction: we will overcome it. And when viewed in the long run, the trend will remain upwards.
That’s why some optimism is needed now, when things are (relatively) bad. It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well, and takes courage when things are going not so well. Being a pessimist in dire times is like howling with the wolves, running with the pack. I would hope that a writer is more of an individual than that.
The related excuse says ‘these things are cyclical’, that is in dire times we write pessimistic fiction and in good times we write optimistic fiction. This is nonsense in two ways: for one SF was already overwhelmingly bleak in the 90s when the Iron Curtain had come down and the economy boomed; for another: how do we get from one cycle to another? How do we get from pessimistic to optimistic if everyone keeps writing downbeat fiction (using all the excuses described in this piece)? By magic? Or do we wait until the rest of the world is doing it, leaving the ‘forward-looking’ genre far behind?
Sixth excuse: my downbeat SF story is meant as a cautionary tale. Brave New World and 1984 were also cautionary tales, with the warning of ‘if this goes on, that will happen’. And because we heeded these warnings so well they didn’t happen.
This is one of the oldest and lamest excuses in the book. Saying that the Brave New World’s and 1984’s dystopias didn’t happen because of them is vastly overrating the influence of books. They didn’t happen because the predictions in it were wrong.
‘But,’ the excuse goes on, ‘if we do not heed the possible dangers ahead, we cannot prepare for them!’ That’s why, like little children, we need to be told of these possible dangers in excruciating detail, in all possible and impossible forms, over and over and again and again until we become completely tone-deaf to them.
Imagining things going bad, technologies grossly misused, the world going down the drain is so goddamn easy that everybody’s doing it. So if almost everybody’s already doing it, then why do we need to keep stating the bleedingly obvious? Maybe some of that creative energy, that imaginative potential might be used for envisioning a solution?
Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.
Seventh Excuse: I will not confirm to your positivist agenda: nobody tells me what to write. Or a variant: we are against the notion of prescribed optimism in storytelling.
Translation: nobody should tell writers what to write. They should write what they’re happy to write, and send that out. This means that a writer’s assumptions about theme, style, content and, well, everything about their storytelling should not be questioned or challenged. Ever. Leave them in their comfort zone, and wonderful things will happen.
Which is nonsense: writers have been questioned and challenged by editors, by readers, by reviewers and critics about their work all the time and this is a good thing. Most writers, if not shook up once in a while, will grow complacant and will write the same old pap over and over. This is also true for the scene at large: it needs a good challenge, a paradigm shift in approach in order to evolve, stay healthy, relevant and interesting. The SF/F genre would be a much poorer place without the New Wave, cyberpunk, the New Weird, the singulitarians and the mundanistas (to name but a few).
Saying one should never tell a writer what to write is adamant to maintaining the status quo. And for anybody paying attention: written SF isn’t selling that well. Not well at all. It’s kowtowing to an aging core while offering precious little for young people, who should become the new fans. Saying SF writers should keep putting out bleakness by the megatonne and ignore countervailing voices is equivalent to saying ‘don’t fix it if it is broken’. Which also sums up much of SF’s attitude towards current global problems.
There is a huge imbalance between pessimism and optimism in written SF today: the genre is overwhelmingly bleak. With Shine I’m trying to redress that lopsidedness somewhat. It’s a challenge: try your hand at this for just one short story only. But the general impression I’m getting from the SF ghetto is that ‘you’ll have to pry the pessimism from my cold, dead hands’ (exceptions acknowledged, of course). And indeed, if SF stops trying out new avenues, if it stops renewing itself, if it will not take risks, if it does not try to be relevant, then it will die.
At which point it can keep its bleakness.
Here’s how Ian McDonald sees it :
It’s enquiring, it assumes nothing will stay the same, it embraces change and it looks to possibilities, it assumes there will be a future and it broadens the horizons from the ‘Me! Me! Me!’ mindset endemic in Western 21st century society. It’s a way of navigating the now. And at its very best, it dazzles you with wonder.
Now write that story and send it to me!
(#) = a variation on this is the argument that equates all positive SF with tacked-on happy endings that do not work with the preceding story, like the way Hollywood does in numerous genre flicks. ‘This sugercoating of reality hides the truth. I want the truth.’ (Implying that pessimism and bleakness are the truth.)
Yes, it is undeniably true that there are wrongly attached happy endings (mostly for commercial reasons) to many movies. However, equating all optimistic SF with tagged-on Hollywood happy endings is ludicrous: there is much more variety to upbeat fiction than that. And the variety I’m looking for has the upbeat tone or ending as an inherent part of the narrative in a realistic manner. It ends well because we worked our arses off to get there, because we overcame incredibly complex problems.
That (optimism) is also truth, as evidenced in how life expectancy and access to information continue to increase while the number of armed conflicts and the poverty rate continue to fall.
(*) = I’ve heard this argument – ‘it’s not SF’s job to come up with solutions for today’s problems’ – on many a panel at many a con. Which then is fortified with ‘I’m a writer, not a scientist, politician or captain of industry’, followed by ‘greater minds than me have tried and failed’.
Almost invariably, in the same discussion it is noted that ‘SF is not here to predict the future, but is a reflection of our time.’ Whereupon someone will complain that SF does not get enough respect (either from academia, or in the wider world).
Let’s go through this one by one:
i) Either SF is not a literature of its time and then does not need to address current problems; or SF is a literature of its time and does need to address current problems. If you use the rights of something, then you must also carry its responsibilities: otherwise you’re a freeloader, who is, indeed, not entitled to any respect.
ii) People across the world who are not scientists, politicians, captains of industry or otherwise influential and/or powerful still try to build the best future they can. They try, against the odds (against overwhelming odds, if the pessimists are right), they fail, and they try again. And again. And again. Now tell me why SF is already giving up before the first try.
iii) ‘Better minds than mine have tried and failed.’ Indeed: which hasn’t stopped them from trying, over and over. Also, see ii) above, lesser minds than yours are trying, day in, day out. What’s your next excuse?