It’s easier to knock the optimists if you ignore what they’re actually saying

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2008

If nothing else, Damien Walter’s post about positivity in sf has poked up the embers and got some debate crackling. But when I say “debate”, I may actually mean “knee-jerk reactions to someone suggesting that change wouldn’t be a bad thing”…

Jason Stoddard decided to codify his ideas in a Positive Science Fiction Manifesto, and Jetse de Vries chipped in again as well. Jason’s manifesto made the error of mentioning capitalism in a positive light, however, causing David Moles to mis-paraphrase him as saying the problem with contemporary science fiction is that it doesn’t love capitalism enough, and for io9 to do an unusually sloppy job of yeah-what-he-said bandwagoneering. Both posts address half a point out of the five that Jason lists… is it overly capitalistic of me to be keeping score?

Just for the record, I’m very fond of dystopic fiction but I’d quite like to see some more optimistic pieces as well; I don’t see why both can’t coexist, given the number of specialist niche venues in the market. What I find grimly amusing is to see the same knee-jerk reactions that the Mundane SF manifesto caused happening all over again… so much for sf readers being open to change, huh?

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7 Responses to “It’s easier to knock the optimists if you ignore what they’re actually saying”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Interestingly, before all of this kicked off I was considering writing something about how I thought that SF was too optimistic. I’m a fan of Ring-era Baxter – If a novel doesn’t end with us all dying on the edge of a cold and indifferent universe then something has gone very wrong indeed.

    Having said that, I think that io9 raises an interesting point – Why HAS optimistic SF raised its head just as everything goes tits up? by and large, when things really are bad, people don’t want to be reminded of it in their media. You can see Hollywod starting to drift positive with films like Ironman and Speed Racer… all bright sunny days and colours. Even The Dark Knight was a lot less bleak and gothic than Batman Begins.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the desire for optimistic SF was not escape from the increasingly bleak word that we inhabit. The fact that Optimistic Sf seems to be argued for not from a cerebral or ideological position (as with Mundane SF) but rather a rather vague sense that “change is good” also supports the idea that Optimistic SF is about scratching an itch and addressing a sense that it isn’t right to be dwelling on the negative now.

    Aside from my personal aesthetic preference for darker themes (and we’re not talking dystopias here… dystopias are but one of numerous ways in which Sf can be gloomy) I also think that there’s a political reason for opposing optimistic SF NOW rather than at another time. To my mind’s it’s precisely because things are starting to turn bad that we need people like Paolo Bacigalupi warning us of quite how bad things can get.

    It’s easy to be pessimistic when everything is going okay, but it takes character to look at a bad world and say ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet!’. Conversely, to want to be happy when things are going bad takes only one thing : a desire to escape.

  2. GLP says:

    I admit that Jonathan’s point about escapism may be true for some readers. Personally, I agree with Paul – I’d like to see both kinds of SF co-exist. We need to strike a balance between optimism and pessimism within the genre. Too much of either is bad. Somehow we need to find the right balance between a) showing people how bad a situation can get, and b) inspiring them to do something about it.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Jonathan, I don’t think Stoddard is arguing that things can’t get bad a la Bacigalupi’s stories; the way I see it, he’s saying we can have things getting bad without having to have characters passively accepting that bad as their given lot. Everyone seems to be seeing this as a binary thing (dystopia OR happy-happy-joy-joy), and I’m not sure that it has to be that way. I suspect the two can coexist… even in the same work. Then again, I could be wrong on that point, which might explain why I’ve struggled to move on with the New Southsea stories in recent times. YMMV.

  4. Jason Stoddard says:

    Paul got it right: in a positive story, things can be bad. The characters can even fail at changing it. But the thing is: they try. And they are in position to effect change–whether this position is a guy-next-door rising up to challenge evil corporate giants, or a benevolent-but-misguided brilliant scientist, or even a plain old businessman who wants to do good. In real life, things rarely break down along perfect party lines; let’s acknowledge that and start thinking about how things might really *change* in the future, rather than reflecting the current crisis du jour.

  5. Jonathan M says:

    If there’s a binary being proposed it is coming from the language of the calls for more optimistic SF.

    In fact, one of my problems with this idea is that I’m genuinely having trouble working out which stories optimistic SF is supposed to be a reaction against. The concept floated was ‘dystopia’ but outside of 1984 and the British wave of Cosy Catastrophes, I can’t really think of any point at which there’s been a wave of dystopias. Admittedly, I don’t read as much short fiction as some others but going by the Year’s Best and the Hugo shortlist, there has been no sudden trend in dystopias.

    Now the idea is one of passivity. Again, I am not sure which stories are being painted as bad here. 1984’s protagonist rails against the system and is ultimately absorbed by it. Similarly Watts’ Blindsight has a whole gallery of characters who struggle with the idea that actually, being sentient isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Lovecraft’s human characters try and do something but Lovecraft’s works are universally and relentlessly gloomy.

    What bugs me about this is the absolute lack of concrete examples.

    a) There’s no definition of better
    b) There’s no particular type of story that is being reacted against.
    c) There are no actual stories or authors that are being reacted against.

    It was always clear who the Cyberpunks and New Wave mob were reacting against. Even Mundane SF directed its ire at particular tropes.

    Optimistic Sf, by contrast, exists in bold, empty statements that look a lot like an insipid desire to have something to read that will make you happy or that will take your mind off things.

    Where’s the meat?

  6. Martin says:

    Of course the two can co-exist, they already do, that is the status quo. The “positive science fiction” crew don’t want something new, they want their prefered sort of fiction to dominate. It is not a question of being SF readers not being open to change.

    Gareth Powell says we need to “strike a balance between optimism and pessimism within the genre.” Why an Earth do we need to do that? Do we really believe that fiction should have quotas? what is wrong with each individual writer writing whatever they want?

  7. Paul Raven says:

    I’ve not noticed any calls for dominance, Martin, or any suggestions that *all* sf should conform to this manifesto – just an expression from a group of writers that they’d like to see more of it and plan to produce some, which is a rather different thing.

    And Jonathan: you suggest the binary comes from within the language of the Positives, but then the rest of your comment goes on to express confusion that there’s no clear target that the Positives are opposed to – surely that’s you looking very hard and failing to find this binary which you say is so obvious?

    And for the sake of editorial propriety, I’d like to formally state that I am neither ‘for’ or ‘against’ this manifesto, or any other. My primary motives in covering it here have been to watch it develop – and these very comments seem to confirm that the content of the manifesto is irrelevant, because the reactions are always the same. I am but the stenographer here, if you will… though I will admit to a smidgen of goading when people (cough*io9*cough) clearly haven’t read what they’re attacking. 🙂