Alastair Reynolds on writing an optimistic future

Paul Raven @ 28-05-2010

The Borders Sci-Fi blog is currently hosting Alastair Reynolds as guest blogger, and it’s interesting seeing him talk about optimism in science fiction, and his personal quest to avoid melodrama in his plotting; evidently writing a piece for the Shine anthology got him thinking about the idea pretty seriously (even if his story in said anthology isn’t very serious).

Here’s Reynolds describing the basic setup for a new series of novels he’s starting on, and pondering the obstacles to producing an exciting plot when you eschew the now-traditional dark background of sf:

I wanted to keep the whole thing entirely free of those naughty thriller elements, but at the same time I wanted to make it readable and exciting. It can’t be impossible, I reasoned – Clarke did it all the time. Of course, Clarke had a mind like a planet … but you’ve got to try, haven’t you? So my groundrules, going into book 1, were basically as follows:

  • No wars. War is effectively eliminated by the mid 22nd century, largely due to a benign world-spanning mesh of ubiquitous computing, implant technology and robotic telepresence – something I call the “Mechanism”.
  • No crime. You can’t steal anything, since everything in the world is tagged and trackable. You can’t injure someone, since there are no weapons and anything that might, in principle, be used as a weapon is being tracked and monitored by the Mechanism. You can’t even pick up a rock and try and club someone. The Mechanism will detect your intentions and intervene.
  • No one is ever unintentionally out of contact with anyone else. Almost all conversations are effectively public. Nothing is ever forgotten or misplaced – “posterity engines” are recording every second of your life from the moment of birth.
  • No poverty. No famine. No plagues. On the plus side: mass literacy, and global access to technologies of seamless telepresence and information retrieval. Almost no accidental deaths due to technological failure. A median lifespan of 150, and increasing. Rapid interplanetary travel, and a burgeoning, peaceful, solar-wide economy.

But it’s not utopia. There are still lots of reasons to be miserable or less than ecstatic. There’s still money, but not enough for everyone to have as much as they’d like (so scientists still  have to fight for funding, and artists still have to take on tacky commissions), and there are still nation states and governments and politics. There are still some forms of scarcity and the environmental damage of the previous two centuries is only slowly being undone. In other words, it’s a future that, right now, I can sort of take seriously … but that’s just my take, of course. You might find it laughably implausible.

The hard part is, how do you get a story going when you can’t have crime, you can’t have war, you can’t have accidents and disasters? That, really, is the problem I’ve been bashing my head against for the last year.

Now that’s a book I really want to read. What about you lot?

And Mr Reynolds, just in case you’re reading this, and you maybe wanted to kick around ideas for this new setting in the short fiction format, but you were wondering where you could get them published, well… 😉

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11 Responses to “Alastair Reynolds on writing an optimistic future”

  1. UselessCamper says:

    “The hard part is, how do you get a story going when you can’t have crime, you can’t have war, you can’t have accidents and disasters? That, really, is the problem I’ve been bashing my head against for the last year.”
    Just an idea…You can still have crime. What’s important to people in this culture? What if they lose those things or have them taken from them? Things like data, or information, or processing power, or backups?

  2. Stephen J. says:

    I’ll tell Mr. Reynolds how he gets his story going:

    Make his protagonists the people (and there would be some) who absolutely HATE HATE HATE this utopia and want to destroy it. And write the story of how they succeed, and why we should sympathize with them for wanting to.

  3. Jetse says:

    I was wondering when the first whiner would post. And indeed, it’s already the second one.

    A perfect demonstration of how thinking about destruction is multitudes easier than thinking about solutions. Thankfully, there are still people like Al Reynolds who *really* like a challenge, and refuse to take the easy way out.

  4. Sarah Ennals says:

    Sounds like a good setting for character-driven stories – after all, personal relationships are still going to be as messed-up as ever. Also, stories about people trying to game the system.

  5. Robert Grant says:

    I think Jetse is being a little over harsh there.

    I can see how a world where no-one is out of touch with anyone else and all conversations are effectively public could cause a lot of grief and aggravation. Never being alone or having any private time would, for a lot people – me included, send them insane. It would make it really difficult to lie to people as they would be able track your responses to other poeple and make direct comparisons and it’d be impossible to lie about where you are as well because any journey would be tracked and stored and accessible. NO more bunking off work, or pulling a sicky, no more ‘getting away from it all’.

    That doesn’t sound like utopia to me, that sounds like hell on Earth.

  6. TheShiffy says:

    A couple of points:

    “Everything is tagged and can be tracked” is ludicrously impossible. This is like an 19th Century person saying, “in the future there will be no crime because we will have a database of everyone’s fingerprints!” There’s a hack for everything, always and forever.

    As Stephen J. and Robert Grant mention, I would definitely be one of those people who absolutely hate that “utopia.” The very rock throwing scenario illustrates the total lack of freedom these people have.

    This sounds a lot like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.” Brilliant work, and the point is that one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia: so there’s no such thing. There are always malcontents, and non-conformists and society should be judged by them, in my opinion.

    Finally, I sympathize with Alistair Reynolds’ attempt. In my view, the problem isn’t making a “bright” future instead of a dark, but making a “mundane” future. The future will be just as dull and gray to it’s people as the present is to us. The same goes for the past; reality’s mediocre, after all.

  7. LAG says:

    Great story idea! Except for the total lack of conflict, freedom of action, and any possible realism in the presumably human cast. At what point did human character change so dramatically? Look, the odds against bank robbers is very high, yet people still rob banks every day. What makes them do it? What makes Reynolds think they’ll stop doing anything else they’ve been told can’t be done? Does he know any teenagers?

  8. Patrick H says:

    A big fictional problem is the lack of secrets. Most drama – especially in genre fiction – is generated by secrets: some has done something they want to conceal, someone else wants to find it out; someone is hidden, someone else wants to find them. In a world of complete openess, the story becomes (IMO) about how people hack it. I suppose points of conflict could be generated through unique things that everyone wants, but then a future of replication means this becomes difficult. Ownership of (say) the Mona Lisa becomes a point of honour when you can endlessly produce exact facsimiles.

    Or, of course, possession of an individual, ie love stories. Maybe love stories are the future of optimistic SF? How about a romantic comedy in that setting?

  9. Jetse says:

    Robert Grant–

    Privacy is already considered a non-item by most young people. Just check what they put up in public view on sites like MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter, etc (all of which are not only trackable, but already eagerly used by advertisers). The time proposed is the mid-22nd century, about 150 years from now: by that time hiding all your ‘private’ matters might be considered as hopelessly outdated.

    I can imagine that many people from the Victorian Era (about 150 years ago) would consider today’s social and cultural mores indeed ‘Hell on Earth’, while — conversely — I find many aspects of the Victorian Era like poverty (the terms ‘slums’ originates from that era), women’s rights and child labour (let alone how the Empire treated the indigenes in its colonies) also ‘Hell on Earth’.

    To think that in 150 years our social and cultural values and mores will remain unchanged is naive at best. Things will change, in directions that many of us may think of as horrible. But humans will adapt, and consider their previous generations considerably less enlightened.

    To think that ‘this time’ is the pinnacle of human achievement is a folly that has been repeated in history time and again.

    Also, being unable to lie would prevent people selling unaffordable mortgages, worthless investments and crappy cars. It would prevent people from lying about safety measures against deep sea drilling, about dumping highly poisonous waste in developing countries to save money and many other things.

    In other words, is a less polluted, more peaceful and more just world a price worth paying for not being able to ‘bunk off work’, ‘call a sicky’ and tell white lies? The answer to that might define if one is a typical exponent of the “I, I, and nobody but I” era of the late 20th, early 21st Century…;-)

  10. Sarah Ennals says:

    Actually I doubt a society of universal surveillance and tagging would prevent lying – on large matters it probably would, or if the person to whom one attempted to lie were already suspicious – but I suspect the sea of information would drown a lot of details – most people can’t be bothered to check the source and accuracy of every single thing they’re told – they usually let the plausible-sounding things go.

  11. Patrick H says:

    I struggle to believe that a world of perfect openess could exist. Perfect openess would require an absolutely flat power structure which seems impossible given the variation in human abilities – there’s always going to be someone weak and someone strong, someone clever and someone dumb. The only possible mitigation to this would be a perfected morality where the strong give up some of their power to the weak.

    I guess this could be enforced on a macro level – the development of Western societies since the enlightenment seems to be heading in that direction (although as with investment, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns!) – but on an individual, day-to-day basis there will always be (perhaps short-term) inequities in power. That’s where the stories would surely lie.