Pessimistic science fiction is a cop-out

Paul Raven @ 18-06-2009

opportunity center signIt’s nearing the submission deadline for the Shine Anthology, and editor Jetse de Vries has heard every excuse under the sun from science fiction writers who cannot or will not write optimistic near-future science fiction stories. Indeed, he’s heard enough of them to taxonomise them into seven distinct categories, to which he has posted a lengthy rebuttal on the anthology blog. [image by streamishmc]

The excuses – and he really does see them as excuses – are as follows:

  1. (Deliberately) misinterpreting the meaning of ‘optimistic SF’.
  2. Optimism is not realistic.
  3. You cannot predict the near future exactly, so you might as well not try.
  4. There is no possibility for conflict in a full-on optimistic future.
  5. I can’t do it because we live in dire times.
  6. My downbeat SF story is meant as a cautionary tale.
  7. I will not confirm to your positivist agenda: nobody tells me what to write.

If you’re at all interested in short form science fiction, you should read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from the post:

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

The genre’s antipathy to change and new ideas is an observable phenomenon – one only need look to the backlash that Mundane SF produced for the proof – and Jetse’s dismantling of the seven excuses is lucid, logical and provocative. Essentially, all the defences boil down to one: I don’t wanna. And that’s fair enough, I guess – though it does somewhat put the lie to science fiction’s claim to be the foremost literature of the imagination.

There is one other excuse that Jetse misses off his list, though, possibly because it’s more honest than the others. As James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer puts it:

I’ve been trying and it’s really bloody hard! […] the three months I’ve been trying to write optimistic stories are not enough, I have a feeling that it’s a life time’s work. I’m not going to give up though.

Kudos to him for that – any sort of change takes effort and will, after all.

So, all you writers among Futurismic‘s audience: do you have an excuse that’s not on Jetse’s list?

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6 Responses to “Pessimistic science fiction is a cop-out”

  1. Martin says:

    Putting a challenge out there is one thing (anthology editors do it all the time). However, de Vries basically says that if you chose to write anything other than what he wants then you are a chicken. This isn’t a very compelling argument.

    As you note at the end, he doesn’t actually have any rebuttal for people who want to write what they want to write. Nor does he explain why this would “somewhat put the lie to science fiction’s claim to be the foremost literature of the imagination.” Presumably the underlying reason is his bizarre belief that science fiction is monolithically pessimistic and that literally everything that isn’t Optimistic SF can be grouped into one giant chunk. Again, this isn’t very compelling.

  2. Nader says:

    I read over the full article just now. There are some good reasons to write optimitsic as well as (rather than simply instead of) pessimistic stories, and the responses to “excuses” 1,3,4,6 and 7 have some validity. But I found the responses to 2 and 5-which come down to a hard-headed assessment of how things have been going-to be rather superficial. These last few decades have been very rough indeed, and even if they do not totally eliminate the room for optimism, to say that anyone who expects things to go badly (or to downplay the economic and ecological problems, which are really unprecedented, and which we’ve been doing a terrible job with so far) is simply “lazy” is unfair.

  3. GLP says:

    I think Jetse is being deliberately provocative but he does have a valid point – speaking as a writer it is easier to default to a dystopian post-Bladerunner future than it is to try to identify the slivers of hope in our apparently-bleak near-future. Personally, I have no desire to link myself with any particular “school” of SF (and accept the constraints such a linkage would impose) but I do like to stretch myself as a writer and I applaud Jetse for taking a brave stance and trying something new. And so I have taken up his challenge and submitted a story, just to see what happens.

  4. GLP says:

    … of course, I will continue to write dystopias in the future. But thanks to Jetse and Shine, I will make an effort not to write them to the exclusion of all else.

  5. jon says:

    If history and the present are any guide, then chances are the future will be positive in some parts of the world and negative in others. Surely SF can accommodate both?

  6. Paula Stiles says:

    Kinda funny that people are debating whether Jetse has the “right” to declare this kind of writing challenge. Of course he does. It’s his antho. He can demand any criteria he wants. And if you want to be in his antho, you have to give him what he wants. You have to hit his sweet spot.

    As for the idea that his challenge is impossible, it’s not. How do I know? I’ve got a story on hold with him and I’ve sold two microstories to OutShine. I’d say it’s very possible to meet his challenge. Even if he doesn’t end up buying my story for Shine, I’ll know I met his challenge. And you know what? It really wasn’t that hard.

    But these things are not what Jon asked. He asked if there were any more excuses on Jetse’s list. I’ve got two:

    1. Optimistic SF doesn’t sell. It’s really not that hard to write, if you have the right skills and experiences, but it’s damned hard to sell. Markets, in my experience, like dark better. Hysterical protags who do everything wrong to heighten the manufactured drama, too rather than protags who keep their heads and solve the problem. Eh.

    2. A lot of SF writers simply lack the necessary skills and worldview to write a good optimistic near-future story. This will make a lot of people mad, but just read some of the nonsense even major pro markets put out about our future. In the West, for better or worse, a lot of the tech problems have been solved and as a result, many people in the West have lost the ability to problem-solve basic infrastructure problems. No need to go out and forage or look for water or watch out for non-human predators. Not to mention that even those with a very strong scientific background don’t tend to have one in applied or field science. And where do most SF writers come from? North America and Britain.

    I was talking with another writer (one who has appeared in Futurismic, I might add) about how this writing challenge is really not that hard for an educated person from a developing country. You want realistic problems to solve? Come up with a cheap, efficient way to clean contaminated water and/or desalinate salt water. Water is the single most threatened resource in the world. Find a way to deal with biological wastes in aquaculture and mariculture. Come up with a way of cleaning up the radioactive pollution in the high Arctic (especially considering that most of the world’s fresh water is locked up in the cryosphere). Figure out how the Mesoamerican rainforests came back so thickly after a civilization-ending drought over a millennium ago that only recently have people realized there even was a drought, let alone extensive deforestation at one time; use that information to halt and reverse deforestation in Southeast Asia and Africa. Figure out a way to use genetic archaeology to solve border and heritage conflicts and improve the situation for minority populations in Europe and elsewhere. Discover how to bolster wild fisheries stocks on the Grand Banks. Find a cure for malaria. Learn how to prevent/cure PTSD in EMS personnel quickly and painlessly. Really, it’s not that hard. There are plenty of solvable scientific problems out there around which you could write a story.