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An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

Why I Can’t Write a Near Future, Optimistic SF story: the Excuses

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optimism_yellow

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?

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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?

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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.

Why?

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.

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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 taleBrave 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.

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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?

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42 Comments»

  TomMarcinko wrote @

Oh, but I do take it as a challenge, and I’m just crazy enough to give it a shot.

I could say a lot more, but I think I’ll save it for the MSS.

  Jake Freivald wrote @

This post rocks. Makes me want to submit. Now I just have to think of something to write about.🙂

  BJ Muntain wrote @

‘it’s not SF’s job to come up with solutions for today’s problems’

What? Since when? I was under the impression that this is *exactly* what SF is meant to do. The day we stop taking on today’s (and tomorrow’s, and all) problems is the day SF becomes what the snobs out there think it really is: giant squid, technology without story, story without meaning. SF may not always do it in a positive sense, but even in negativity, the truly great can tackle the world’s problems and find a solution (even if their solution is to not let it get that bad in the first place).

If we can’t use our imaginary futures (or near-futures) to address and propose solutions for societal problems, then what is SF meant to be? Shallow technology? If we’re not meant to fight the world’s problems, then what are we supposed to do? Why do we even write the stuff?

Sorry for the rant, but if that statement were true, SF would deserve the disdain of the literary community it now receives. But it’s not true, and that’s why I’m not ashamed to write in this genre.

  Jeff VanderMeer wrote @

What if you just honestly believe there won’t be anything resembling the civilization we have today in, say, 100 years? Like, I honestly believe we’ll be effectively extinct in under 400 years. Don’t really know how to write my way around that. It’s like elves. I don’t believe in them, so it’s hard to write about them.

I also don’t think human life expectancy means anything in terms of a viable world, as it generally comes at the expense of our world.

I am very interested to see what the Shine antho is like, however, and am happy to review it.

JeffV

  Blue Tyson wrote @

iii)

Can you get them to sign that they are too thick to do it? (Then publish🙂 )

Coz, well, all those geniuses in Hollywood can do no-brainer postapocalytic and nasty. All of SF writing almost has sunk to that level of horrible hackery?

  Blue Tyson wrote @

Jeff,

That makes no sense.

Because if you believe that, then you probably don’t believe in sentient meerkats and other stuff like that, either? How do you manage to write about that, then?

Not to mention all the fantasy (or fantasy at all, speaking of elves). Large amounts of the totally unbelievable and impossible there.

I thought it a pretty fair chance 25 years ago or so that idiot Americans and Soviets would trash everything. Didn’t happen yet.

Sounds pretty much exactly like the lame excuses Jetse mentions above.

  This Is An Excuse « Everything Is Nice wrote @

[…] a comment » Jetse de Vries has an post in which he sets out seven reasons (although he calls them “excuses”) why SF writers […]

  Eva Chapman wrote @

Wow. Impassioned piece. Great challenge to writers out there to be at the vanguard of the zeitgeist and dare direct it in a creative realistic way and inspire audiences with their daring.

  Matt Kressel wrote @

A totally amazing post which has now convinced me I want to write something for this anthology.* It all depends on if I get it finished in time for your deadline, but I do hope to have something for you.

* It’s not that I didn’t want to write one before, but simply that I had been working on other stories that either were not science fiction, or were too far-future to be relevant to this anthology.

  JeffConn wrote @

A great response to the “give me dystopia or give me death” crowd. . i really want to support you and buy this anthology more than ever. i get so sick of picking up Asimov’s or Analog and feeling like slitting my wrists after reading an issue. With such pessimism, is it any wonder we can’t get new folks to read and ENJOY science fiction?

  Scott wrote @

Insightfully and well-argued. I see two of your reasons as the biggest causes of the high number of pessimistic stories in the genre:

1. I had been taught that if your characters are having a good time the reader isn’t. Peril and difficulty turn the pages. It is easier to do that in a world that is falling apart. There are plenty of obstacles for a protagonist to surmount, however, in a positive change scenario. People profit from, and derive power from, the way things are. Try to change the status quo, even if it is for the greater good and you’ll get a fight. That’s one way to introduce conflict into an optimistic story.

2. The zeitgeist of SF today rewards conformity. Although editors take risks, sometimes, in style and structure, they are loathe to experiment with message. They could get complaints, and lose those precious few subscribers. A writer’s sales volume and professional standing depends on editorial acceptance, to the conformity affects the manuscript. Sequels are a blow to creativity, to new writers and new directions.

Not despite of, but because of these obstacles, I had loads of fun taking aim at this anthology’s focus. I hope it exceeds the highest sales expectations!

  gilliangray wrote @

A few days back, I read an anthology of Russian SF (translated in French).
The stories were amazing!
I was surprised – and delighted – to see that in the 70ies the Russian writers knew exactly what a computer was; what possibilities it would offer; the ways it would open …and its limitations.
The story was written by the Strougatski brothers.
In the 70ies, when computers were hardly mentioned in Anglophone SF, the Russian writers had foreseen that the AI would be able to learn and auto-improve; that there would be computer ” pirates”;that a computer could go ” insane” if faced to problems it could not sort out.
In another story, (by different writers) , they depicted how a virus could mutate and become dangerous because of human manipulations.
The Russian writers clearly understood science and knew science.
In my opinion, one of the reasons why Anglophone SF is so repetitive and limited to a few ideas, might be that SF writers do not follow science and technology. They prefer the comfort of a subject written 10000 times than treating a new one.
How many stories of medical SF have you read?
There are amazing progresses in medical sciences, but all you can find in current SF is about some superficial references in operations to transform humans into mythological beasts, dangerous viruses which attack humanity the way alien spiders did in older SF and some drugs to console people from their misery.
The same is valuable for computer science. There is, for the moment, a huge problem with pirating books in the Internet, laws can not follow the new situation, the old copyright laws are reduced to garbage.
How many stories about this issue have you read in SF?
What about the astounding phenomenon of the success of twitter and face book?
Very few things about this appear in SF literature.
The ones who pretend that ” SF’s job is to come up with solutions for today’s problems” should be more interested in current science,, its successes and its side effects and the way people try to face them.
That would make SF more diversified. AND more optimistic, in the spirit of SHINE anthology…

  shineanthology wrote @

Jeff VanderMeer–

(There is another Jeff in the comments)

If you honestly believe that today’s civilsation ends in 100 years or so, then why is your blog called “Ecstatic Days”?

Inquiring minds need to know and all that…;-)

  Angiportus wrote @

Very well done. I might add only, for the 7th part, that those who refuse optimism simply because they don’t want to be told what to write, might have already been told in one way or another for years that only pessimism will work; they have absorbed this idea from too many sources to count, and don’t even know they have been brainwashed, perhaps…while thinking no one can tell them what to write, they have already been told. Just a guess.

  anodyne wrote @

Not that I’m less than excited by the prospect of optimistic science fiction, but I feel your argument is fundamentally flawed in a very drastic way.

Science Fiction is post-modern and post-structuralist. Those are its roots and characteristics. It tends to express the alienation felt by individuals living in twentieth (and now twenty-first) century industrialized nations. But beyond that its darkness illustrates the meaninglessness of the human condition, how our technological ability is rapidly outstripping our rate of maturity as a species. Born during the cold-war era when the entire earth might go up in a giant flaming ball of radio-active death at any moment, is it any wonder that science fiction is a dark and apolocalyptic genre?

Yes, you are submitting a challenge to the writers of science fiction, but it is not the challenge you think you’re proposing. You’re asking people to radically alter the basic assumptions of the genre. And while it’s an interesting and nouveau approach, it’s a great deal more complex than an unwillingness to leave the comfort of the known.

P.S. The history of publishing is one of conformity and mercenariness.

  shineanthology wrote @

Anodyne–

“Born during the cold-war era when the entire earth might go up in a giant flaming ball of radio-active death at any moment, is it any wonder that science fiction is a dark and apolocalyptic genre?”

I didn’t know science fiction was so young. So people like, say, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, or Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke weren’t writing SF?

  Scott wrote @

Or, could it be simply that the writers are projecting their anguish on the worlds they create, all because they can’t get a date?
🙂

SF was filled with hope not too long ago. The original Star Trek had an implied, united, racially integrated Earth free from prejudice on its bridge not 5 years after the civil rights act. Asimov’s Foundation series ends with galactic renaissance. Out here in the real world, we have:

Child labor laws
The Salk Vaccine
Velcro
Chemotherapy
Air bags
UNICEF
President Obama
to add to the excellent list in the reference article above, and many more, if other people would only chime in!

  BJ Muntain wrote @

Anodyne:

I agree with Jetse about the age of science fiction. Many science fiction writers accept that the first real science fiction novel was actually Frankenstein. And science fiction has not always been dark. I wouldn’t have started reading it — let alone writing it — if that were the case.

And I agree with Scott about Star Trek’s hope for the future. More than that, it probably contributed in some way to the future we know today — where people of all races and genders can work together without anyone looking askance. Once we normalize in fiction the ideas we want to bring about, they become more and more accepted in reality.

Science fiction is a very widespread genre, with the potential to cover anything and everything, and to do it in many different ways. The only thing that limits it is: imagination.

  Dorothee wrote @

Well said! Realy! You know the very first story I wrote, as a 10 year old child in school (back then I still had all my fantasy andcreativity) was a SF about our future world, and it was quite optimistic! So it can be done (even by a 10 year old girl!). Hope everybody feels challenged enough now. I will try my best anyways.

[…] to create a taxonomy of excuses as to why we can’t write positive SF (among other things; the post is quite substantive, and well worth reading in its […]

  anodyne wrote @

We’re talking squares and rectangles here. Speculative Fiction has roots in the far distant past. Science Fiction is specifically, in literary theory, a post modern movement.

To be classified as science fiction, just as to be classified post modern or post structuralist, it needs to have those key elements.

Deviate from that, and while it may be speculative fiction or science-based narrative it is not science fiction.

Yes, Verne and Wells were the grandfathers of science fiction, just like Blake could be said to be the grandfather of the comic book, but to say that the birth of any genre begins with its pioneers is both misleading and simplistic.

(P.S. Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov all wrote during the cold war, I fall to see how citing them contradicts my claim)

  joycemocha wrote @

Unfortunately, as someone whose training is in political science and to some degree social analysis, I have to disagree with you about the overall optimism, especially when you take the Dismal Science (economics) into account. We have some very major socio-political problems facing us right now, worldwide, and unless you want to postulate a deus ex machina to eliminate some of them, the working out of these problems is not going to be pretty. In the long run–say fifty years or more–things could be better. In the short run–less than fifty–things are going to be a real roller coaster ride.

However, my suspicion is that your limitation runs more to the near-future aspect of the anthology, rather than the optimistic aspect. Near-future pieces that are good are very likely to be overrun and outdated by technology and current events. Just ask Charlie Stross about that….

  Optimistic Futures | The Crotchety Old Fan wrote @

[…] original post can be found HERE:  Please read it and give it more consideration that I […]

  Josh Heggen wrote @

I guess what bothers me about this essay, as interesting as it was to read an argument for an optimistic future and against the obsession with bleakness, is that I don’t see where you’re allowing for conflict. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point, so I’ll ask:
Are you opining that the setting should be optimistic, or that the plot should be optimistic? Because I can imagine any number of stories with difficult conflicts or struggles as plots that are set in what could be an arguably optimistic version of the future. Hell, I’d argue that Brave New World is set in an optimistic future, if one has a specific definition of optimistic progress (i.e. Cessation of violence, loneliness, depravation, deprivation, etc).
I have much more trouble viewing a plot that is overwhelmingly optimistic (Everyone gets along! We’re solving all of our problems through frank and honest discussions between equals!) that doesn’t make me want to vomit rainbows.
I will agree that the dystopian future is an overused trope in SF (even as I write my dystopian novel…) and that there are so many more sources for conflict than the total oppression that that sort of setting creates.

  Josh Heggen wrote @

Also, while I liked the essay, it was kind of hard to read in the thin column in which it was presented.

  shineanthology wrote @

Joyce—

We have to agree to disagree about things needing *at least* 50 years to get better.

Let’s go back to the time I grew up: the early eighties. There was a severe economic crisis, pollution problems (hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, red tides, and more), numerous armed conflicts (Falklands War, Afghan War) and on top of that a cold war threatening to get hot – not helped by such incidents as (
this
– as well.

In those days, my father got back home from a job in South Africa, physically ill because he was so upset about the treatment of black people there.

My nightmares at the time were about total nuclear war (
which nearly happened
) and the hope that if it did come about, I’d rather be struck directly by a nuclear warhead – I live in The Netherlands, *very* close to the cold war frontline – than surviving for a short while in horrible conditions.

My father died, totally unexpected, in March 1985 (I was 21 at the time).

I thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and we wouldn’t survive to see the nineties (let alone the millennium).

However…

The Iron Curtain came down in 1989, ending the Cold War. The Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991. Apartheid ended in 1994. The economy worldwide boomed throughout the nineties. The internet and cheap computing and electronics began spreading throughout the world.

Today is much better than 25 years ago: there are less conflicts, and less casualties from conflicts than 25 years ago. There is less poverty than 25 years ago. Immensely more people have access to information, at the touch of a few fingertips, than 25 years ago. Life expectancy has increased almost everywhere (except Sub-Saharan Africa).

If somebody would have told me that 25 years ago, if I was in a *good* mood I’d probably have told them that:

“We have some very major socio-political problems facing us right now, worldwide, and unless you want to postulate a deus ex machina to eliminate some of them, the working out of these problems is not going to be pretty.”

Had I been in a *bad* mood, I would have told that time traveller that she/he was totally and absolutely bugfucking insane.

Silly me.

I also suspect this thinking – “the problems we have now are bigger than the problems in the past” – is a more than a bit chronocentric, that is the idea that people of any era think they’re the pinnacle of civilisation and anything can only go downward after their prime is over.

I’m not saying everything is perfect now, far from it. But humanity has come a long way, and I think it can and will go quite a way yet.

So I’ll repeat my prediction: in 25 years from now, things will be better than today, and I sincerely hope all of us will be around to compare notes.

  Scott wrote @

“My nightmares at the time were about total nuclear war (which nearly happened)”

Yes, let’s give our present troubles a little perspective. In grammar school in the early ’60s I was treated to fallout drills where we went in the basement and were told what to do in case of a nuclear attack.

I remember a survey of school children in America in the early ’70s that a majority of them did not expect to survive into adulthood, but rather be killed in a nuclear war.

Terrorism isn’t half as scary as a whole race questioning itself on whether it was going to be here tomorrow.

Today, young people are preparing for their future, learning, worrying about the economy, pollution, other problems, but fully expecting to survive.

So many little things are quietly getting better, it is hard to notice. It flies under the radar. It doesn’t make the news, since it isn’t sensational. But it’s there, from new treatments for diseases to citizens from several nations working together in relative harmony at the International Space Station.

  Terry B wrote @

Yes, the SF market (esp. in short fiction) is aging and dying. But don’t blame only the writers. When editors start buying stories that appeal to “mundanes” and young people, then more mundanes and young people will start reading them–and more writers will start writing them. And the fan base will grow.

Seriously, how hard is that equation? The problem is getting over SF’s “unwashed masses” mindset. Writers write for editors, editors buy for critical acclaim, the acclaim comes from writers and long-time fans. Outsiders need not apply. Being profitable almost seems like a stain of dishonor.

SF is the only genre that will reject out-of-hand premises that “have been done before.” Imagine that criticism levied in mystery, romance, or any other genre. We forget that to new fans and young people, *none* of these stories have been done before.

Congrats on Shine’s courage in bucking the trend. Good luck!

[…] mind I’ve been thinking about this anthology more and more and recently Jetse posted a link “Why I can’t Write Optimistic Sci-Fi – The Excuses” and after reading and working through each of the many excuses and counter arguments most writers […]

  Paul Kincaid wrote @

This is all very well, but what do you mean by ‘optimistic’ sf?

Is, for instance, Iain MacLeod’s Song of Time optimistic, because it posits the survival of the human race throughout the next century accompanied by continued technological advance? or is it pessimistic, because it posits a succession of social, political and economic catastrophes, escalating terrorist attacks and the like?

The truth is, surely, that very few works are entirely optimistic or entirely pessimistic. Even stories set in post-apocalyptic gloom usually have a glimmer of hope. So I’m not sure I recognise your characterisation of contemporary sf as mired in visions of doom and gloom.

  Joe Chiappetta wrote @

I really appreciate you writing this direct and “get real” article as a beacon of hope and light in a dark, cynical world.

Your “ostrich” analogy, while not manly or pretty, is quite powerful and I totally agree. I would even add that many writers and artists, not just science fiction authors, escape to a dream world and reinvent the universe in their image rather than tackle tough issues. I know I have been guilty of doing this many times in numerous novels (Silly Daddy) I have written. It is pretty refreshing in the curent SF book I am working on (Star Chosen) to take a focused, optimistic approach. I have been at it for almost 5 years refining the story and weaving futuristic solutions into modern-day problems.

It is nice to find a kindred spirit in your approach to dismantling the pessimism of today.

[…] couple of days ago I wrote a very bad piece about Jetse DeVrie’s polemic on optimistic near future SF (an exercise in demonstrating what he is NOT looking for with […]

  shineanthology wrote @

Paul–

Optimism, like the definition of SF, is very much in the eye of the beholder.

The optimism I’m looking for is the kind where the future is beter than today. Not a mindless Polyanna, but a future just as complicated and gray-scaled as today, but where (at least) *some* hardfought progress has been made (or is being made), where things change — even if some difficult sacrifices need to be made — for the better.

I haven’t read Song of Time, so I don’t know if most of humanity is killed off before it survives and advances technologically. What I certainly don’t want is stories where a catastrophe decimates humankind, and then, after a group of survivors have gone through hell and back again, some part of the human spirit triumphs. If a writers needs to kill off billions of people just to let a handful of people thrive then I don’t want that kind of story, where the future is enormously much worse than today.

This is what I call Dystopia Lite in my post .
here

The onus is on the writer to imagine a humane way of population decrease, progress that — even when hardfought — has a net positive result.

  Blue Tyson wrote @

Maybe the World Science Fiction Convention needs Erin Brockovich as a guest speaker?
🙂

If they can’t see conflict in ‘group fights hard to change something for the better’ then their knowledge of history is disgraceful.

  gillian wrote @

International SF in Mind Meld: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2009/06/mind-meld-guide-to-international-sff-part-i/

Could international SF give more ideas to Anglophone SF writers?
Could it improve the efforts to make SF more optimistic and challenge by new standards?
Moreover, in some other countries, SF writers do not seem to have any problems to be more positive about near future…
Interesting points of view. International SF could be a source of inspiration for those English speaking writers who try to imagine a more luminous future.

[…] Why I Can’t Write a Near Future, Optimistic SF Story–this one is a brilliant essay and really calls into question the nature of science fiction.  Have we been feeding off science to create doomsday scenarios and don’t-touch-this theologies?  These are great excuses about why people CAN’T write positive science fiction, but in the end, we should. […]

  gillian wrote @

http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/2009/06/kissing-cousins-japanese-sf-science.html?showComment=1247480700354#c5509265123629352540

A very interesting article in Galaxy Express. Heather Massey points out that some romance – such as in the mangas -could make SF more attractive. Maybe also more human and – why not?- more POSITIVE. After all, why excluding the most powerful human feelings from SF which is supposed to be interested in human nature and the future of humankind?
I am wondering what humankind would be without dreams and feelings…
Probably a poor bunch of sad individuals, even if they had the most perfect technology.

  Remarketables 08.20 | Blog | design mind wrote @

[…] [picture credit: Shine Anthology] […]

  Kindred Spirits, part 7 « Shineanthology’s Weblog wrote @

[…] mine.) This almost exactly echoes the points I made on the “Why I Can’t Write a Near-Future, Optimistic SF Story: the Excuses“  post, especially the Sixth Excuse: Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going […]

[…] (photo credit: From Shineology) […]

[…] the ‘mother copy’ for SHINE would be folly. I’ve put up several posts explaining what I was looking for (not to mention a few crazy story ideas), and none of them mentions my on story, very […]

[…] my first Worldcon in Montreal back in 2009, I met Jetse de Vries, who was in the process of pitching the idea of his anthology of near-future optimistic science fiction […]


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