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… 😉