Deep worry: writing the meathooks

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Over at SF Signal, John H Stevens pokes through some dystopian short stories to see if he can throw any light on Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent statement: “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” From his conclusion:

… my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present. This is not because the genre lacks a focus on politics as a part of speculative storytelling, but because much of that work, while a product that may reflect some ideas and anxieties of its time, do not seem to focus vigorously on current concerns. There are some, certainly, but there seems to be no pervasive sense of “deep worry” across the wider genre. This is a point, however, that I would stress needs more consideration and surveying to answer more concretely.

At the risk of seeming to contradict Stevens using the same evidence, I think the “deep worry” is actually hiding in plain sight. The widespread refusal to grapple with grim meathook futures is the surest sign of existential terror that I can think of, and also displayed itself in the kneejerk rejection of Jetse de Vries’ optimist manifesto – even worse than the prospect of writing about the many possible pitfalls along the civilisational superhighway is the prospect of imagining how we might overcome them! If you’ll forgive me the vanity of quoting myself:

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.


Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

Speaking from my own limited personal experience, near-future sf is the subgenre I’m driven to write, but I still feel a sort of paralysis of potentiality every time I start a story; an embarrassment of possible dooms, you might call it. A large part of that paralysis stems from my lack of skill and experience, I fully expect, but another part of the problem is my interest in not just exposing that “deep worry” Stevens talks about but addressing it, too: interrogating it, attempting to answer its concerns, trying to see what people might actually do in a world which – depending on which angle the light catches it – seems on the brink of either catastrophic collapse or civilisational transcendence. As should be obvious to regular readers, that’s an extension of the project that Futurismic has become… unless, perhaps, it’s the other way around.

To be clear, I’m a fellow-traveller of Jetse’s optimist project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s something all – or even most – writers should be doing: it just sits well with the sorts of stories I want to tell, and the reasons I want to tell them. I’ll leave it to more experienced fiction writers and more widely-read critics to determine whether or not that underlying drive is in some way inimical to the writing of stories that people actually want to read; in the meantime, I figure that the only fair response I can make to my own hypothesis is to get my Ghandi on and become the change I want to see.

On optimism

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

My good buddy Jeremy Tolbert has a searching and honest post about optimism, both within the context of science fiction storytelling and the wider context of the world itself:

… I used to believe in the power of sci­ence to make the world bet­ter.  And I’ve spent my entire life watch­ing peo­ple in power reduce the public’s opin­ion of sci­ence to the point where more peo­ple in the U.S. ques­tion evo­lu­tion than believe in it, which to me is basi­cally on par with dis­be­liev­ing grav­ity. The wealthy have attacked the public’s faith in sci­ence because it would have cost them money for us to believe that the planet’s cli­mate is being changed by their indus­tries.  An entire polit­i­cal arm of this coun­try dis­trusts the notion of experts.  The only sci­ence they care about is that which allows them to wring more money from the world.


Where’s my opti­mism?  Where’s my abil­ity to write sci­ence fic­tion like “The Kansas Jayhawk vs. The Midwest Monster Squad?”  Where did I leave it?  And would it be delu­sional of me to even try and adopt it again?  That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re a pes­simist and your pes­simism doesn’t come true, you get to be happy along with the opti­mists.  But if you’re an opti­mist whose pre­dic­tions prove false, then there’s lit­tle to be happy about.  The pes­simist at least gets the grim sat­is­fac­tion of being right. Even if they’re no hap­pier about the out­come than the optimist.

Jeremy mentions a video (clipped from a rather good documentary on stats from the BBC which I watched late last year) which was linked to in the comments thread of another post by Mike Brotherton; it covers (in a flamboyant data visualisation style) the sort of points I try to make a point of repeating to myself like a mantra on a regular basis: yes, on a day-to-day level, life seems pretty tough and the world looks to be high-tailing it to hell in the proverbial handbasket, but when you look at the aggregate experience of the human species over a comparatively short span of time, things have consistently improved, and show every sign of continuing to do so (paradigm-breaking Outside Context Problems or existential risk events notwithstanding). Indeed, sometimes I think our capacity to worry about the future is the strongest indicator that the here-and-now isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be.

[ To pre-empt the rejoinder that life hasn’t improved for everyone to the same degree, and that there are still places that progress – however defined – has yet to make much of a showing, and that we in the Anglophone West have by far the best deal of them all: this I understand, and I’m not trying to downplay the suffering of others. On the contrary, I’m trying to show why we should push forwards with hope and aspirations of a better life for everyone. ]

These things are observable, measurable. Why, then, as Jeremy asks, is it such a struggle to be optimistic? Is it as difficult for everyone? (As shocking as regular readers may find it, my peacenik globalist optimism is something I have to work at rather hard, and sits very much at odds with a lengthy history of depression; I know other people who seem to just bubble over with optimism, but I have no idea what effort – if any – they expend to achieve such a state.)

And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that optimism isn’t just hard work, it’s scary: it invites disillusionment, it openly courts the up-ending and down-throwing of one’s conceptions of the world. To maintain optimism, one must keep picking oneself up after the arrival of a disappointment, rebuild a new theory of the world, adjust and amend it as new data comes to light. By comparison, pessimism is easy: sit back, shake your head stoically as you predict bad things to come, and then just open a newspaper or web-browser and pick out the evidence to prove you were right. People are a lot like electricity, in that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Pessimism has a nice fat copper cable strapped straight to the psychological earth-point; the gratification of being proved right, gained with minimum emotional expenditure.

As a result of that, pessimism seems to be the more popular stance, at least at present; it therefore follows that optimism is unfashionable, not to mention easily undermined by pointing to all the short-term badness in the world. Hence optimism becomes harder still to maintain: you’re flying in the face of popular opinion, and that’s rarely a fast route to popularity and choruses of agreement.

Furthermore, I think optimism contains a component of agency – a feeling that things can be changed, and changed for the better, by doing stuff. Pessimism is predominantly fatalist, as the responses to my post about the Giffords shooting demonstrate very clearly: thinking that we can change the tone of political discourse is naive and condescending! The corporations and politicos have got it all sewn up, and there’s nothing we can do but ride it out and hope the powers that be fix it so we come out a bit better than Those People Over There (whether Over There is the next neighbourhood along, North Korea, or any other strawman enemy-of-the-moment; doesn’t matter, really, so long as there’s some way to make it look like you deserve better than they do).

But just look at history: we have changed the tone of politics, many many times over, and we will do so again. And those who change it will be the ones who didn’t just sit back and sigh, imagining the inevitable dystopia just around the corner. This is not a partisan point, either: activism works. But it’s also work. I’m reminded of the apocryphal slogan of Generation X (the source of which escapes me): “Can’t win, so why try?” Maybe that’s why being optimistic is a struggle; perhaps it’s just generationally out of fashion.

Of course, this is all easily portrayed as conjecture and hypothesis on my part, mixed with a generous handful of self-justification… and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps pessimism really is the more rationally valid and sustainable attitude: after all, the universe is a machine for creating entropy. But I’m going to struggle on being optimistic as best I can, regardless: for one thing, my mind needs the exercise.

And for another, I’ve never been one for following the herd. 🙂

Charlie’s utopia: optimistic sf redux?

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

Over half a year after the publication of the Shine anthology, Charlie Stross wonders whether we need more optimistic utopian thinking in science fiction, and indeed in general:

The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.


We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Compare and contrast with this post from Jetse de Vries written during the Shine submissions period, as writers supplied reason after reason for why they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – write an optimistic piece:

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?


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.

There’s an obvious difference in character here (Charlie is being rather more cautious and diplomatic than Jetse, perhaps), but it looks to me like they’re both driving toward the same destination by slightly different philosophical roots… and Jetse himself calls out Charlie’s piece as a vindication of the Shine project (albeit a somewhat belated one).

So let’s raise a recent ghost after a long year of tough times all round, and ask again: should science fiction be trying harder to think positively about the future?

And if not, why not?

Mega-engineering: awesome future concepts from Shimizu Corporation

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2010

Get yourself over to Pink Tentacle right away; they’re hosting a bunch of mega-engineering promo images and design concepts from Japan’s Shimizu Corporation, who plainly aren’t afraid to think in directions with strong science fictional undertones. Directions such as floating lily-pad cities, million-citizen pyramidal cities, space hotels… and turning the moon into a gargantuan solar power station.

The moon reconsidered as solar power station - Shimizu Corporation

This one’s the winner for me, because any image of a planetary satellite re-engineered into a solar power plant that has the words “MASTER PLAN” masked onto it in large letters is, by any sane and reasonable metric, better than pretty much any other image. Of anything.

Bonus! Compare and contrast with these images of Russian space-race installations and rolling stock decaying the middle of nowhere [via Chairman Bruce]. Maybe one day in the deeper future, people will tut and shake their heads at images of Shimizu’s lunar power station, pocked with impact damage and slowly drowning in lunar dust…

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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