Where are the positive futures?

When I was writing about The Door Into Summer, I kept finding myself thinking what a cheerful positive future it’s set in. I especially noticed because the future is 1970 and 2000. I also noticed because it isn’t a cliche SF future—no flying cars, no space colonies, no aliens, just people on Earth and progress progressing. Why is nobody writing books like this now? The science fiction in The Door Into Summer is cold sleep hibernation, time travel, and robotics. There’s no reason why someone couldn’t write a book set fifteen years in the future dealing with those subjects today, and I might even be able to find out—but if I can, I’d bet it would be a dark and grimy future, one far worse than today.

Why is this?

I don’t think it’s because we live in terrible depressing times. 1957, when Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer, wasn’t a particularly cheerful year—Civil Rights was in its infancy, the Cold War was going strong, the Russian tanks had rolled into Prague just the year before, Britain (where wartime rationing was finally ended) and France had just attempted a coup in Egypt and been stomped by the US, women were expected to accept less pay than men and smile about it, homosexuality was illegal in the UK, Canada, and most US states. Anyway, people were writing cheerful optimistic stories about the future in the 1930s, when things could not have been blacker. People always want escapism, after all.

First is the looming shadow of the Singularity, that makes many people feel that there is no future, or rather, the future is unknowable. I’ve written about why I think this concept may be inhibiting SF.

Another thing may be the failure of manned spaceflight. Most hopeful future-oriented SF includes space colonization and we’re just not doing it. It is cool sending robots to Mars and Jupiter, but it isn’t the same. The problem is people in space doesn’t really seem to make sense, and that puts us in the position where we want to have a moonbase because… because we want to have a moonbase. Don’t get me wrong. I do want to have a moonbase. I’d just like there to be some sensible reason for one. If reality isn’t providing us with that reason, it’s hard to write stories set in space. Thus there are books set in deliberately retro versions of the solar system, or in alternate history futures, futures we can’t get to from here.

The third thing I see is anthropogenic climate change—far more than the threat of nuclear annihilation this seems to bring with it a puritan yearning for simpler greener life, self-hatred, and a corresponding distrust of science and especially progress. It isn’t the reality of climate change that’s the problem, it’s the mindset that goes with it. If you suggest to some people that small clean modern nuclear reactors are a good way of generating electricity they recoil in horror. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and sequels have people dealing with the climate change by planetary engineering, but that’s very unusual, mostly it gets into books as something to cower before.

And then there’s the fact that for the most part we don’t understand our technology any more. I know how a CRT monitor works—LCD, not so much. We have a lot of it, it has certainly progressed, but when we take the back off it’s very mysterious. I think this is part of the appeal of steampunk, looking back to a time when tech was comprehensible as well as made of brass. In a similar but related way, maybe progress is moving too fast for optimistic science fiction. It’s already science fictional that we have iPhones that can show us where we are on a map and how to get to places, that we spend our time connecting to others across the world via computers, that we play online games in immersive reality. It’s hard to get ahead of that, except with disaster changing everything. Halting State was out of date practically before it was in paperback.

Then there’s the lingering noir influence of Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk was a noir genre, and not only hugely influential on all of SF but on the world. I think it’s disproportionately influential because much of it did seem to come true, and while in reality we have the cyber without the punk, without the noir, all the elements of the genre linger to influence later SF.

But am I totally wrong? Is this like that list of reasons why the dinosaurs couldn’t live, despite the fact they flourished for far longer than we have? Are there in fact just as many cheerful SF novels today as there were in 1957? Or contrariwise, were there just as many miserable futures then? After all, the notably grim A Case of Conscience won the 1959 Hugo. So, have I just been reading the wrong things? Or am I just going on a set of vague impressions that have plenty of counter-examples once I sit down and think about them?

After all, there’s Cherryh’s Foreigner sequence—they started earlier, but she’s been publishing about a book a year for the last decade. There’s  Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep trilogy which I wrote about recently, and his Learning the World, which is about a generation starship and a first contact. There’s Vinge’s Rainbows End, just to prove believing in the Singularity doesn’t impair people’s ability to write futures. There’s Robert Charles Wilson’s awesome Spin. And right here on Earth with no aliens or anything there’s Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Give me more examples of books that fit the following criteria:

a) Published since 2000

b) Set in our future (or anyway the future of when they were written)

c) With continuing scientific and technological progress

d) That would be nice places to live.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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