Charlie’s utopia: optimistic sf redux?

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?

5 thoughts on “Charlie’s utopia: optimistic sf redux?”

  1. Sad Songs and Waltzes
    I’ll come at this from a different angle. What made some of the best old folk/country music so powerful? It was dark and sad, about drowning your sorrows in beer and your wife running out on you. There’s a real catharsis in destruction in art. Somehow, when we see a fictional world torn down before us, a part of us says, “Hey, I’m glad that’s not me.” It’s probably for the same reason we laugh when we see someone slip on a banana peel.
    The problem here, it seems, is trying to categorize SF as some sort of technological crystal ball. That’s a mistake. Sure, SF has predicted future technology, it’s also predicted plenty of bunk (in fact probably much more). Any technology or world extrapolated to the nth degree is going to start to fall apart at the seams.
    One more reason to hurrah dystopic futures: they’re much more dramatic. I want to read about a person fighting to save what they believe in, rather than comfortably waiting to die in a suit that recycles his own sweat.
    Let’s burn up the fictional world, use up its natural resources, and overpopulate it, then let’s put real character in there and see what they do … maybe then we can predict what we should do if and when we’re faced with the same.

  2. I think that optimism and pessimism are two sides of a coin, sugar and spice. Deluge your meal in sugar coatings and powdered confections and you end up spoiled, rotten, and fluffy-headed. Drown it in spice and you eventually wind up burning out, addicted only to the hot moment of sadistic / masochistic glee, and forgetting the full experience. Any great chef will tell you the magic word in cooking is “balance”, and I think this concept applies to fiction and especially science fiction as well. Optimally, balance in fiction roughly equates to neither optimism nor pessimism but realism. Not realism with a capital R or in the high literature sense of only describing life exactly as it is experienced, but rather, as Mark Twain approximately once said, “Telling truth with lies”.

    If the reality is that things simply are not looking so optimistic for Homo Sapiens in the near-to-medium term at the moment, then I see it as not pessimism but simple honest realism to have the pendulum swing more towards negative imaginary futures. It should also be said that even cautionary tales where the ocean has swallowed the continental rashes of coastal megacity, the financial system has turned into an insane algorithm driven Cthulu-entity, and people are growing third arms from eating gene-spliced beef can be profoundly hopeful, without necessarily being optimistic or pessimistic. The danger of creating optimistic imaginary futures, especially when times are darker, is that if they are not grounded in reality, they can become Matrixes, fluffy Disneyworlds, whole self-perpetuating happy-worlds, blinding one to the hard reality as the castle is falling to pieces. This was the bane of Soviet Russia, applauding the eternal Bright Future, ignoring the fact that the state was falling apart. Look at the recent “tech religions”, and the tech movements which have until only very recently been essentially monocultures singing the praises of every next gadget and app “making the world a better place” and almost totally oblivious to the many potential pitfalls, the many ways this new technology will profoundly change us, and not always for the better. And even now, the voices of the “tech pessimists” (sure they would prefer realists) are dwarfed by tech company marketing- I mean free thinking tech optimists.

    I think of Nouriel Roubini. Years before the 2008 collapse during the housing boom, a climate where everyone from home buyers to economists to the media to the Fed chairman were singing the praises of the “housing market”, calling it the “Great Moderation”, Roubini was one of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of voices who cried out that prices could not continue and that the mother of all bubbles would soon burst, outlining in rigorous detail exactly why and how the house of cards would crumble. The largest financial news networks dubbed him “Doctor Doom”, as if to turn him into a cartoon character. Of course we’ve seen how that turned out. In truth he was simply “Doctor Realist” in a milieu of fools and criminals. He could have been viewed as pessimistic, relative to the ponzi-economics cheerleaders, but they wre ultimately a false optimism, and actually in a sinister way, much more cynical and pessimistic if they knew they were screwing the world over while they were tossing around the subprime derivatives (many did). Roubini’s was a true hope, if not exactly optimism about financial markets and economies, optimism about the potential of people.

    Science fiction doesn’t need more utopian optimists, but neither does it need more pessimists who simply get off on watching the world burn *coughcouplandcough*. We need more Roubinis.

  3. This may not be an original observation, but I think much of the appeal of dystopias is that the disaster has happened already. Whereas now we are concerned about the future, worrying that we are not doing enough, feeling guilty about our lush western lifestyle, in the dystopia the thing we’re afraid of has happened, the future is out of our hands, and our only concern is for ourselves and surviving the zombies or whatever. It’s paradoxically relaxing.

  4. Jetse de Vries was vindicated, if only by the almost ostentatious omission of Shine in that post. Also, the use of “utopia” (versus more neutral terms) is guaranteed to trigger the “Oh, but it’s boring because it has no conflict” reflex. People forget that Le Guin’s The Dispossessed had plenty of conflict at several levels, as did Joan Slonczewski’s Door into Ocean, and Alex Jablokov’s Carve the Sky. Optimistic SF is there, if you look beyond the cyberpunk/urban noir retreads — it’s just not considered “edgy” and hence is consigned to backwater niches.

    My view of current SF:

    SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

    To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club


    Here’s a design document that imagines an ecological world of 2050 with nine billion people living mostly in cities. It was written by Peter Head, Chief of Global Planning for Arup, one of the largest engineering firms in the world.

    “…how urban centres can be developed and retrofitted to improve resource efficiency while maintaining or improving quality of life. Ecological footprint analysis is used to show how we can move towards the goal of environmental sustainability, setting out a vision of life in a sustainable community of the future.”

    If that’s not optimistic futurism then I don’t know what is. Imagined by someone who can actually do something about it.

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