Sun
Feb 21 2010 11:04am

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.

51 comments
Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
I'll start: how about nearly all of the works of Connie Wills (some short stories are kind of depressing)? Much like present day but with time travelling. Rob
ChrisJF
2. ChrisJF
I always think of 'Anathem' as a positive future. Even though it's technically an alternate world we can't get to, it's similar enough to Earth to represent our own future. I like the idea that to people 3000 years from now, global warming will be seen the same way as we see the Dark Ages. It happened, it was terrible for the people who lived through it, but hey, we're still here.

On the other hand, maybe this view is a reflection of how negative things are right now, since this is a sort of cynical type of positivity.
Mimi Epstein
3. hummingrose
Ian McDonald's River of Gods? Not necessarily a nice place to live, but one that's plausible and Singularity-free.
Clark Myers
4. ClarkEMyers
Prague Summer was August of 1968 - perhaps the reference is to Hungary from October to November 1956?

I'd suggest the mood was - despite the Cold War - one of rising expectations. The general recovery from WWII was in full swing - not just food rationing but currency restrictions and so travel weighed less heavily - the increased ease of travel in general as personal transportation from scooters to cabin motorcycles to some really nice new cars were seen on the road - don't overlook the impact of the scooter and cabin motorcycle. Fast airplanes were replaceing the fun but slow steamers. People could see the future coming everyday.

I'd even say the mood during the last Great Depression was that things were bound to get better and today not so much.
Paul Weimer
5. PrinceJvstin
Hmm...Peter F Hamilton?

Pandora's Star/Judas Unchained are a duology set where wormhole technology allows Mankind to spread out onto dozens of planets. Sure, the future is dominated by a number of powerful families, but the idea of getting on a train and taking it to another planet is an *enormously* appealing one to me.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
CEM: You're absolutely right and I'm an idiot. I totally meant tanks rolling in Hungary.

And I'm also quite prepared to believe the mood was optimistic. I think that mood has less to do with objective events than one might think.
ChrisJF
7. Amanda Furrow
The Algebraist? (Does far future count?)
Mike Scott
8. drplokta
Rainbows End isn't a positive future, it's a dystopia, although most of the characters don't realise it. It's a novel about avoiding the Singularity by political repression.

I also don't think you can count the Foreigner series, because it's not really in our future; there's a discontinuity between now and then, which means that the technological progress consists of getting back to where we are now, more or less, and not moving ahead from where we are now.

However, other examples include Ventus by Karl Schroeder, Jack McDevitt's two separate series about Priscilla Hutchins and Alex Benedict, David Weber's Honorverse, Iain M Banks's Culture novels (two of them are post-2000, I think), Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol series (until things go wrong), Kage Baker's later Company novels, Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns, Dan Simmons' Ilium and Olympos, Larry Niven's Known Space series (still going with the Fleet of Worlds series and John C Wright's Golden Age series.
David Dyer-Bennet
9. dd-b
Mood is likely to affect what people write, though. So mood being decoupled from subjective events is your explanation for optimistic SF in the 50s.

"Nice places to live" eliminates situations with "existential threats", I assume; most people wouldn't, given a real choice, choose to live under that level of threat. But in terms of SF, those can feel pretty optimistic. Weber's Fifth Imperium universe (AKA the "Dahak" books) are a fun optimistic read, but perhaps a little too strenuous for most people to choose to live there. (They don't fit your timelimit, anyway; but they're a clear example of "optimistic SF" but not so much a nice place to live.)

Same thing for the Skylark and Lensman universes, for that matter. Lots of technical progress, basically optimistic, but one heck of a series of existential threats that we squeak past by the skin of our teeth.

Nobody has really taken over for Cliff Simak writing the gentle futures.
Clark Myers
10. ClarkEMyers
To answer the question I'd say Jack McDevitt. No points because somebody else posted that while I was composing but it's not a me too.(added on preview - and I'll also add that Known Space has its own dystopian aspects - Dr. Pournelle's collected arguments for going to the moon - both fact and fiction - don't much need revising but they aren't much read - perhaps the lack of new stuff is the sufficiency of old stuff to meet the small demand)

Most of the people I'd think might be writing novels to meet the stated 4 criteria are in fantasy of one sort or another - e.g. David Drake will never write a happy future with Slammers but love conquers all in his Isle's series.

In some large part I think the paying audience for hard science fiction has aged and the story written for a proverbial 14 year old - smart as could be but ignorant in so many ways - doesn't get published. Many readers once didn't have or hadn't yet acquired a solid University technical education yet spent money eagerly on SF. Then too the fact that it's impossible to surpass Mr. Heinlein (and some few others) discourages trying that and suggests trying something else I think.

Mr. Heinlein could do the orbital dynamics for Rocket Ship Galileo on butcher paper and get them right. CJ Cherryh could plot the slower than light travel and get the ships to the stations on time. The general level of technology that even the most skilled professional can handle is well short of future tech in general - though in one area or another something can be done - e.g. Smoke Ring or the earlier He Fell Into a Black Hole were inspired by the sense of wonder attendant on contemporary research and discovery and mostly stale stories I think.

The story written for today's fan - often active in science and certainly educated be it self educated or be it M.I.T. students chanting Ringworld is Unstable at Larry Niven - faces a much more critical audience and so a much more critical publisher and so doesn't get written.

Again taking Drake's latest - Legions of Fire from Tor - he tells us it's Rome but ignore any infelicities because it's Carce with a not exactly hilarious story about sitting on a panel and pointing out a silly mistake never to be made in writing about ancient Rome but already made by everybody else on the panel. More informed ansd so critical audience make world building harder and harder and so building for sale in our world has become less common - mundane doesn't sell.

In particular an old trick of using obscure bits of real current science/engineering as the ooh shiny in a future has become almost impossible because the savvy readership will be picking nits as soon as the writing is out in ARC.
ChrisJF
11. bloggeratf
I enjoyed your post very much Joe and as a simple answer I am going to say Steampunk, which is in and of itself a response to the modern mystery that is technology.

I also highly recommend the recent panel at a con whose name I forget that dealt with the singularity, if you haven't seen it already.

Lastly, scifi, in as much as it projects possible futures, is about dealing with obstacles in those futures. Wouldn't it err on the bland side if everything was just peachy and straightforward all the time? It is the way humans are built to think - thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Anything else is just telling a pretty story that doesn't have a point.
Wesley Osam
12. Wesley
Sometimes whether a future is good or bad depends on where you're looking. After all, reality itself looks very different depending on whether you're standing in Martha's Vineyard or Kabul. In recent SF, C. L. Anderson's Bitter Angels begins on a very pleasant Earth and moves to a dystopian colony. Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries From the Dead and The Third Claw of God take place in a universe with some very bad places and others where most people live decent lives. Saudade, from M. John Harrison's Nova Swing, is probably a nice place to live as long as you stay out of the Event site.

I don't think I'd want to live in the future of the Company novels (unless drplotka @8 is referring to whatever comes after 2355, which might well be pleasant).

ClarkEMyers @10: I think books are being written for 14 year olds. It's just that they're getting published as young adult novels. Most of us are probably less aware of what's going on in that field, not being in the target audience. The idea that it's impossible to surpass Heinlein is an opinion, not a fact. In my opinion, modern SF writers surpass him all the time.
Madeline Ferwerda
13. MadelineF
In terms of miserable futures in 1957, my impression of that era of SF is that it's full of super creepy futures where white men are the unquestioned only interesting actors and everyone else defers to them. I think, though, at the time these were partially meant as optimism and partially meant as phamphleteering "See this is how it ought to be take note". I know there were a ton of books where nuclear hot wars on Earth were part of the back story, but that may have been more of a 60s theme.

For cheery books these days, a random one that comes to mind is A. Lee Martinez's _The Automatic Detective_ from 2008, though it's more of an urban fantasy than a we-got-there-from-here future... Sort of reminds me of the Dresden Files books, now that I think about it. And it could be that that world is not a place you'd want to live in, with just the writing giving a breezy impression.
Ken Walton
14. carandol
You'll hate this, but... all those hundreds of Star Trek novels are pretty upbeat about the future.

But I'm having trouble thinking of anything I've read in the last few years that predicts a cheery future. It's possible to think of cheery futures, but when you start to ask "how do we get to that point?" the answer is usually "I wouldn't start from here."
ChrisJF
15. IcyDepths
A lot of readers, writers, and critics -- not just in SF & F but in all forms of literature (and movies, etc.) -- consider optimism "simplistic" and "naive". Pessimism is "serious" and "weighty" and "deep". If you want to be taken as an oh-so-serious artist, go for pessimism.
Stephen W
16. Xelgaex
@11 You have a point there. Peaceful and stress-free makes for boring stories. However, I think the story need not be problem-free for you to want to live in that universe. Interesting stories usually involve a disturbance of the status quo, an inciting incident that is often unpleasant. So you might not want to live during the story itself, but living in the story's status quo? That's something different.

In that spirit, I think Alastair Reynold's House of Suns qualifies as optimistic. From what we see of the universe, it seems a nice place to live, though we do see it from the perspective of some rather privileged individuals. At the least, the thought that humans will still be around several million years from now and spread around the galaxy counts as optimistic in my book. (His other works though, while excellent, have struck me as less pleasant places to live.)
Clark Myers
17. ClarkEMyers
#12 "The idea that it's impossible to surpass Heinlein is an opinion, not a fact. In my opinion, modern SF writers surpass him all the time. "

Quite so but the matter of opinion is what category to put the modern SF writings in. That is the category SF today is overwhelmed by the second F in SF and F - see e.g. the faced new books labeled SF in a big box store

- Sales figures for the Twilight Saga or the WOT surpass Mr. Heinlein's sales by a considerable margin. Neil Gaiman enjoys great success and equally great esteem.

But Door into Summer (from 1957!) is currently #63,353 on Amazon (USA) and Door into Summer is the 13th ranked of Mr. Heinlein's works in sale ranking at Amazon (USA).

Similarly " I think books are being written for 14 year olds. It's just that they're getting published as young adult novels. Most of us are probably less aware of what's going on in that field, not being in the target audience."

Who among us is so unaware as to be ignorant of Mr. Heinlein's juveniles as published in such out of the adult market places as Boy's Life? Surely books are being written for 14 year olds - Playboy Press or Zebra perhaps? - but I show my age. Those books are not resonating with fans today as Mr. Heinlein's did and do today.

New books by "modern SF writers" have not driven Mr. Heinlein from the market nor out-competed Mr. Heinlein for the fan's beer money - indeed that's the topic: Have writers veered in treatment and tone? and I'd argue they have and the change is driven by the market. Nobody has written a better Heinlein and had the world beat a path to that better money trap.
p l
18. p-l
Natural History by Justina Robson comes to mind. So does Stone by Adam Roberts.
I think a lot of our answers (like my second one) will have to include the caveat, "unless you're one of the main characters." Stories about nice places usually focus on the few people for whom everything goes wrong.
ChrisJF
19. NaderElhefnawy
I think ClarkEMeyers has it basically right-both about there being some fiction with positive futures (I certainly agree on the point about Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict books), and about the general nature of the situation (while p-l's also got a point about their caveat).

The issue is not just how bad the present seems to be (because there's always reason for worry, even if some of our current headaches are unique, like anthropogenic climate change), but whether or not we think we can create a more positive outcome. And clearly in the '50s and '60s, or even the '30s, there were more people picturing positive change as a feasible thing.

Today, the prevailing view-in fiction, but also in a lot of discussion of policy-seems to be much more along the lines of "What you've got is what you're going to get." At best, we'll muddle through. At worst-well, that's where the gloomy futures coming in.

Put another way, people pictured a lot of things as doable, whereas now (perhaps because there has been a lot of disappointment) they write them off as impossible.
(Anyone looking for a fuller explanation of what I have in mind can check out a shorter version of my argument here
http://www.thespacereview.com/article/829/1, and a somewhat longer one, here http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-p1/.)

Incidentally, about the YA stuff: every eighteen year old today knows Rowling and Meyer. No science fiction writer has comparable standing now, and the ones they might have heard of are likely to be the older names-like Heinlein. Certainly that was my situation too, by the way, when I started reading much science fiction.
Eugene Myers
20. ecmyers
@ 19 NaderElhefnawy

No science fiction writer has comparable standing now, and the ones they might have heard of are likely to be the older names-like Heinlein.

Scott Westerfeld has made a very good name for himself writing YA science fiction. He may not be as well known to adults, but I'm pretty sure many kids and anyone who reads YA is aware of his work. Other popular SF authors for kids include Neal Shusterman, Nancy Farmer, William Sleator, Suzanne Collins, Susan Beth Pfeffer, M.T. Anderson, Patrick Ness, and many more. Some of John Scalzi's books clearly evoke Heinlein, and I think Cory Doctorow is well on his way to taking a lead in YA SF.

In general, there's less SF than fantasy, or at least the fantasy is talked about more. Oddly enough, most of the SF for young adults that I can think of is dystopian, and that doesn't seem in danger of changing anytime soon.

As far as positive futures go, in response to the dearth of such fiction, editor Jetse de Vries is publishing an anthology of "optimistic SF" short stories through Solaris in April. He has also been publishing original stories matching this theme online: http://shineanthology.wordpress.com/
Nancy Lebovitz
21. NancyLebovitz
I'm pretty sure the negative mood is something across the whole culture, rather than deriving from something from science fiction or science.

Reagan and Obama were very popular because they offered hope. This suggests that there wasn't much hope around generally speaking.

And when I think about it, I'm not sure why. Life is currently worse because of the economic crisis, but as such things go, not extremely bad.

People both live longer and are healthier longer. The food's been steadily improving since the 90s. The toys get better and better, and the web is amazing. So why aren't our imaginations happier?

If we'll lucky, it's just millennium weirdness, and when (as I absolutely expect) we get past 2012 with nothing extraordinarily bad happening, we'll perk up.

Maybe it's just that I'm in a bad mood, but I don't think science fiction ever really cheered up after the New Wave.

I don't have specific titles in mind, but I've read a couple of recent anthologies of original YA SF which were in happier settings than I'm used to seeing.
ChrisJF
22. robinc
I think it's the weather ... those damn meltemi clouds ...

Both you (Jo) and Doris Lessing (and probably lots of other people I can't think of or quote at the 'mo) have at least raised the idea that the tone, mood, "weather" of a culture is an objective phenomena impinging on our ability to tell ourselves stories, muster will, act, imagine.

The weather's been tough since 1957.

It's not so much whether life has been easy or hard. In many ways, even or perhaps especially in terms of social progress -- I grew up in segregated schools, for example -- things have moved and improved immeasurably.

But the two main stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we're going have died, and we have not written new ones ... yet.

In 1957, as always, there were many stories ... still are ... but the two big ones were the Capitalist story (often called the Democracy story) and the Communist story.

Both offered hope ... one based on a British empire transferred to America, filled with optimism, can-do and Anglo-ish rectitude; the other based on a rationalist planner's dream of harnessing force to serve human needs and making people behave until we got used to it.

Vietnam and its sequelae have mortally wounded the Capitalist story. Not Capitalism, per se, but the story, the optimism, the faith. It's not dead ... but the folks breathing life into it clearly protest too much. The education process that kept the Vietnam war from eradicating Vietnam from the planet had the side effect of educating too much of the population about interlocking directorates, Tuskeegee, Wounded Knee, Watergate, and all the immeasurable incidents of corruption in the Capitalist story.

The pushback against those revelations has taken two powerful forms ... denial, and the Cheney-esque "so what". By the latter I mean, for example, the recent tactics used when it became clear that the USA both spied on our citizens and tortured. The Cheney crew successfully responded to the revelations by normalizing both practices for a significant part of the population. One reason both normalization and denial work so well, without instilling hope or changing the weather, is the media environment we live in ... a sort of microclimate in a bubble. Strong enough to keep us going, not strong enough to instill real hope.

Bad weather.

And as for Communism ... two things happened. One was the Soviet Union going broke, or breaking on the rock that was Afghanistan. The other was the revelations (more in the West than East I suspect) of the actual realities of Soviet rule. Another dream lost.

So ... two big stories we humans used to organize our structures of hope have either died or morphed into something like a nightmare. As a previous poster mentioned, Obama and Reagan were part of that dynamic of trying to restore hope ... one's failing for want of courage; the other partly succeeded through persistent denial. Neither seems to be able to hold.

Weather's tough stuff to beat.

The weather's bad. In bad weather people hunker down and try to get through.

So it's not so much a singularity or a savior, as it is an absence of a positive framework for cultural context. Not much to do with SF, but it shows up there fast because SF is forward looking.

On the bright side, it can't rain forever.
JS Bangs
23. jaspax
I'd suggest another cause alongside the ones that you mentioned: the SFF community became more politically active and more politically fragmented (or at least became aware of its existing political fragmentation). In this environment, any suggestion that the future will be better prompts the question, "Better for who?" This is no longer a question with a universally accepted answer, which makes it much harder to write optimistic SF--MadelineF @13 illustrates this! So now any statement of what a good future is has to be framed as an argument.

And I suppose I'm part of the problem, seeing as I fervently disbelieve in all forms of progress.
ChrisJF
24. afterthefallofnight
I find there is still plenty of optimistic SF published. In addition to the good suggestions by drplokta and others, I strongly second McDevitt's novels and I'll add: the Coyote series by Steele, the Old Man stories by Scalzi and stories like Frek and the Elixir by Rucker.

Nevertheless, I agree that current science fiction tends to be darker and more pessimistic than the science fiction published in the fifties and early sixties. As to the "why" of this pessimistic bias... I am sure you are right that the advance of science has made it more difficult for some authors to write certain types of stories.

But I can't help thinking that it is mostly a natural function of the maturation of the art form. It seems to me that "serious" fiction has always had a tendency towards pessimism. As SF has grown from its pulp roots into a more serious form of literature, it does not surprise me that there has been a growing bias towards pessimism.

In fact, a lot of the non-pulp SF I can remember from before the 50's was not very optimistic.
Gary Leeming
25. grazulis
Jetse De Vries has been trying to encourage positive science fiction with his new anthology, and has been blogging about it for a while. Check out http://shineanthology.wordpress.com/
Stephen Covey
26. coveysd
Much of the optimistic fiction of the past was written as a story of discovery, of imagery, or simply as a mystery.

Today we must write thrillers, with conflict on every page. Our protagonists must be personally threatened by powerful antagonists. Our futures must be grim to give us a colorful pallet.

Our critique partners, our agents, our editors, and by extension our readers tell us writers that conflict is king, and happy characters, happy futures, indeed anything except a possibly happy ending is boring.

There is a low level of conflict in Rendezvous with Rama; instead, we are enthralled by the discovery process and Clarke's vision of a future. Asimov largely wrote mysteries and while there were certainly exceptions, Asimov's protagonists were more generally challenged than threatened. Heinlein's protagonists often were happily married with great sex lives (yes, often not in traditional marriages). None of this sells today.

Science fiction captivated me because it opened my mind to new possibilities, it asked the question, "What if?" and allowed me to dream, not only of what could be, but of what I could help build. SF is the literature of the future.

Today's readers don't seem to want to dream of what might be, they seem to want action, and drama, and conflict. They don't want to imagine new futures, they want to escape into fantasies, into worlds that cannot be. And today's writers must write what today's readers will buy.

What does this say about our future?
Nancy Lebovitz
27. NancyLebovitz
covoyed, you can't tell what readers want just by looking at what's currently published. I don't think anyone knew people wanted that series about a school for wizards until it happened.

No one knew that there was a market for science fiction with romance and mystery mixed in, either, though that one was more predictable.

So, the next sf writer who hits really big might be doing optimistic sf.
Jer Brown
28. designguybrown
Being an artist, but not being a writer or otherwise in that industry, my two cents on why there are few 'notable' happy scifi futures:

1) can we sell a novel that has no profound conflict, especially one that refuses to deal with a current negative issue of the times

2) authors don't travel much (anymore?) (real travel - jungles, danger, volcanoes, little-seen-vistas, etc -- not a different int'l airport in a different country) - so they don't have a sense of the inherent complexity of the ways other cultures exist -- and, negative or not -- this is an uplifting (or inspirational to improve their lot) experience. One that can lead to thought-experiments/ explorations on future societies/ solutions/ compelling peoples/ aliens. -- with all due respect to authors - a story is so much more... hmm... deep/detailed/complex/compelling(?) when someone with real life experiences and conflicts writes it as opposed to those top-of-their-class, right out of school types. A well-crafted piece on a simplistic premise can only go so far.

3) the reading population, especially core scifi fans are so knowledgeable and jaded that it is hard to impress them without going so very fringe - and what publisher will take a chance on such a niche market. -- I have been itching to try looking for very independent/ self- publishers so that I can see what is dwelling on the outskirts of traditional (and frankly non-'reality' shows with a scifi flavoring' - type) plots.

4) can authors really publish something profound often enough to allow them to eat and live (visualizing an optimistic future is profound and probably difficult)? I have always pushed for writing as a hobby not a full-time gig. I always wanted to read works from those part-time writers, who while exploring some other branch of science/art/etc.. (see V. Vinge) would have this ultra-unique novel idea bursting at the seams in their mind for 5 years -- then, while going over their well-laid out, super detailed, novel notes (5 years worth)- would just have a tremendous stream of consciousness all over the pages... voila, material that should have been hugo, but was so edgy, that it couldn't be embraced for several years afterward...
ChrisJF
29. C12VT
I think part of the reason is that there are more shades of gray in writing today - many science fiction futures are not bad or good, but contain elements of both. Perhaps this is due to a general shift in mood, or a population that is more aware of the diversity of experiences in the real world today. I think we also see more shades-of-gray characters today, too.

Plus, (correct me if I'm wrong) books tend to be longer these days - more space for authors to flesh out their futures. I think any world is going to have positives and negatives, and the more closely you examine a world the more negatives you will see. A lot of the "positive" futures in older works have serious negatives when you read between the lines.
john mullen
30. johntheirishmongol
In Heinleins future, it was often an individual issue/conflict set against a background of progess/improvement (except Revolt in 2100) but oftentimes what I see now are books of a pretty dark future. The funny thing is that if you take a look at the progress from 1957, I would say the optomists are right. Personal computers/cell phones/microwaves/civil rights/ and tons of other outstanding improvements but no 3rd world war/nuclear war/communism has lost...all the bad things that could have happened and what we actually got was relatively minor in comparison.

However, during WW2 we got happy musicals and comedys and during the 50's we got film noir so it may just be that entertainment goes in cycles.
Marcus W
31. toryx
Since time has been getting loopy on me lately, I'm not sure how recent (or not) they are, but a lot of Robert Sawyer's books are fairly positive. There are always rough things going on but they paint a relatively positive future with good advances going forward.

As for the lack of bright futures in fiction, I'm inclined to think that part of it is that it's becoming difficult to envision things getting better anytime soon. Overpopulation, the warming (and increasingly erratic) climate, and growing ignorance all seem to point toward a decline. I wasn't around during a lot of the classic stuff (before the seventies, anyhow) but it seems to me that with the advances of technology alongside the fears of oblivion, there was a lot more reason for hope, so long as people didn't blow themselves up.

Or maybe I'm just feeling especially pessimistic because it's a Monday.
ChrisJF
32. randwolf
Surely the main character of The Door Into Summer skipped over the bad parts, like a reader skimming? There was a global economic collapse and a big war (I don't remember how big) between its past and future sections.

I think we've become afraid of what used to be optimistic futures. Think of John Brunner's world governments: we're afraid of them now. We're afraid of solving our ecological problems because they might mean changes in our ways of life and we're afraid of making peace because the wealthy and privileged might have to give up some of their wealth and privilege. It is as if we have glass daggers in their hearts: we are convinced that optimistic futures have no place for us.

And all the while we become steadily richer, steadily more able to address human needs, steadily more ethical. Who knows if this will last? But there is some reason for hope.
Mike Conley
33. NomadUK
johntheirishmongol@30: Personal computers/cell phones/microwaves/civil rights/ and tons of other outstanding improvements but no 3rd world war/nuclear war/communism has lost...all the bad things that could have happened and what we actually got was relatively minor in comparison.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the direction of improvement varies considerably for differing values of 'we'.

randwolf@32:Think of John Brunner's world governments: we're afraid of them now.

There's that 'we' again. A very small, but very powerful and very, very wealthy, minority fears these things. The rest of us? Not so much.
ChrisJF
34. Shireling
Thank you, Jo, for addressing this question. So much of current SF is depressing. It probably does have something to do with the influence of cyberpunk. I have tried a number of the books and authors suggested here, with varying results. Agree with the recommendations of Robert Sawyer (who manages to explore completely different ideas with every book/series), Connie Willis, Vernor Vinge, MacLeod's Learning the World, Simmons' Ilium.

Personally, for both SF and fantasy, I follow the Three Societies Rule(TM): If the first 3 cultures/societies the author introduces are utterly horrible, I stop reading. This includes books by classic authors who are akin to SFF gods.

Perhaps there could be a roundup of new positive SF titles every so often?
René Walling
35. cybernetic_nomad
Large segments of society today are risk-averse and this stifles the creativity we will need to build a better (ie positive) tomorrow. Perhaps this is why we can't find a path from today to most imagined futures that are positive.
Clark Myers
36. ClarkEMyers
#30 "during WW2 we got happy musicals "

Not exactly. For Americans in the South Pacific (and their family members) White Christmas (maybe played on a walkie-talkie in a green jungle on Guadacanal) is about as sad a song as ever was. It was indeed a Long way to Tipperary and Lili Marlene in whatever language was the most recent Girl I Left Behind Me.

Folks are I think today essaying the comfort read - the Karres Ventures was lost for lack of sales interest but two recent Karres sequels in other hands made it into print. I'd call them YA myself and suggest them for the bright but unsophisticated reader I once was not for today's old man.

Then again in a world where I see the Malmo syndrome will go along with the Stockholm syndrome I'm more likely to read and to gift the Small Change series -

It was however ever thus FREX
"In 1970, science fiction writer, editor and professional future- forecaster Jerry Pournelle commissioned 8 science fiction writers to each produce a short story set 50 years into the future, in the year 2020. Those stories plus an introduction by Pournelle were published as 2020 Vision, in 1974. ....""2020 Vision"
Jim Blair for brief descriptions at http://www.bigissueground.com/scienceandfuture/blair-2020vision.shtml

Just possibly Thor Power Tools and the practical application of Sturgeon's Revelation have resulted in fewer comfort reads recently published.

- consider the sheer number of different pulp magazines that either came and went in the '50s or indeed endured and prospered to add to the flow, the number of Ace Doubles and DAW and all the writings forgotten as well as remembered

- and so that 10% remnant has shrunk in proportion?
ChrisJF
37. James Davis Nicoll
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.

You really don't want to know how this just combined with the stuff I've been thinking about since seeing an episode of Desperate Romantics (inspired by the Romantic movement and based on ... mainly the impressive collection of beards the Pre-Raphaelites had, as far as I can tell. Not so much the actual historical record].
ChrisJF
38. James Davis Nicoll
About McDevitt: the Alex Benedict books are moderately upbeat. The Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins books are somewhat less chipper, in that there's pretty strong evidence that most civilizations comparable to Earth's go extinct pretty quickly and the one we see that is ancient is also pretty stagnant. Humanity does not appear likely to be burdened with stagnation.
ChrisJF
39. James Davis Nicoll
Think of John Brunner's world governments: we're afraid of them now.

Compare and contrast, for example, John Brunner's The Whole Man (AKA The Telepathist IIRC) with the somewhat more recent Emerald Eyes by Daniel Key Moran. Both involve telepaths and their relationship to the UN but there definitely some differences in the tone.
Jetse de Vries
40. Jetse
Thanks to ecmeyers and grazuli for mentioning the SHINE anthology.

In general I think the SF community is out of touch with society at large, especially the younger generation who are trying to forge their future now: these people are, by and large, optimistic. In the Training Centre for the multinational I work for we get to train young people from every corner of the world: these are forward-looking people. They are also mostly not interested in written SF, and I can't blame them, as it does not offer them much in the way of working towards a better future.

If these people *can* see a better future, while the utmost majority of SF writers can't, then I call that both SF's lack of ambition and failure of the imagination; see also "Why I Can't Write a Near-Future, Optimistic SF Story: the Excuses".

As mentioned, I try to lead by example through SHINE: ToC here and excerpts here.

To warm up, check out the DayBreak Stories.

As to upcoming upbeat SF novels: Jason Stoddard's Winning Mars will be out from Prime March 1.
ChrisJF
41. MBG1968
I laughed out loud and loved Kage Baker's "The Empress of Mars". She's already been mentioned many times in previous comments, but that is the one that most comes to mind as to a positive future.

I definitely agree with recs for McDevitt, Coyote series, and some of Scalzi.

What about Sheri S. Tepper's "The Fresco"? That's always been my favorite of hers as it is hilarious, not quite so intense, and has some great spoofs of the Clinton years and politicians/politics in general.
ChrisJF
42. ShanaR
Ryk E. Spoor and Eric Flint: _Boundary_ and (coming in June) _Threshold_.

Also Ryk's upcoming space opera _Grand Central Arena_.

How about Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden series?
Trey Palmer
43. Pilgrim
Hmm.
Halting State by Charles Stross
Engines of Light series by Ken Macleod
ChrisJF
44. vcmw
Assuming I could live on one of the planets NOT being currently raided by slavers, bombed from space, or what have you, I would be pretty happy to live in the universes of Moon's Vatta books or Bujold's Vorkosigan books. They don't sound like utopias to me, but they don't sound any worse than our world, and they have cool things we don't have (I would totally consider childbearing if it came with a uterine replicator option), and there are still diverse opinions and new things to explore.
Karen Lofstrom
45. DPZora
Clark E Meyers @10 spoke of David Drake, who pointed out:

"a silly mistake never to be made in writing about ancient Rome but already made by everybody else on the panel."

What is this mistake?
ChrisJF
46. NaderElhefnawy
Speaking of MacLeod, what about Earth as we see it in The Stone Canal (and later in The Cassini Division)? (I remember one of the last lines in the book: "The thirty billion have refuted Malthus: everybody's rich. They've refuted Mises: nobody's paid. They've refuted Freud: nobody's sad," and on top of that, "There is no end.")

Or for that matter, the "Culture" in Iain Banks's books (admittedly, just a part of the broader, messy sprawl of his universe)?

There are many who might not find those particular outcomes to their liking, but that just raises a point we've overlooked in this discussion, the whole matter of how what we think of as positive and optimistic is connected with our politics. (Compare Banks and MacLeod, for instance, to Weber's Honorverse mentioned earlier, which comes from a very different part of the political spectrum.)

Also, since I didn't get to mention it earlier, I do think robinc's got a point about the damage done to the "grand narrative"(s) of progress.
Clark Myers
47. ClarkEMyers
#45 -"I commented in passing that the quickest way to tell that an author didn't understand the classical world was if they gave the dates AUC--ab urbe condita; that is, from the founding of Rome. .... everybody else on the panel gave dates AUC in their novels. I hadn't been wrong, but I'd been unconsciously unkind. I know enough about ancient Rome to know how very much I _don't_ know. Calling the city Carce instead of Rome is an explicit acknowledgment of my limitations." David Drake - with elisions by cem.

THE LEGIONS OF FIRE, the first of four books in a new fantasy series, due from Tor as a May, 2010, hardcover. Buy the electronic ARC from the Baen site or order the book at your friendly local bookseller.

I suppose like the measurements issue giving dates AUC saves the reader making all sorts of complicated conversions or skimming past.
Rick Rutherford
48. rutherfordr
@40 Jetse: "In general I think the SF community is out of touch with society at large, especially the younger generation who are trying to forge their future now: these people are, by and large, optimistic."

I think this is a real blind spot with a lot of SF authors and editors. I'm a parent of two young children (one in preschool and one in the first grade), and I watch them and their peers boldly forging ahead into their futures regardless of what I might be afraid of.
ChrisJF
49. greenmanza
How about James Alan Gardner's League of Peoples novels? Some of them were published after 2000. The future has flaws, but also lots of good things. The technological progress has a lot to do with the interference of very powerful pacifistic aliens though.
ChrisJF
50. Damien R. S.
Japan seems promising, from my limited sampling:

Planetes (starting in 2001). Classic near-system space SF, about orbital garbage collectors.

Voices of a Distant Star, 2002. Wacky SF, with a war with mysterious aliens, and there's not a lot there to show the progress but still, it's not pessimistic.

Crest of the Stars started in 1996, but it's sort of Bujoldian space opera with haut-quaddies.

Yokohama Kaidashi Kik? started in 1994, and is mixed -- the human race seems to be dying out through low birth rates and the seas are rising, but everyone's cheerful about it, perhaps because there are sweet immortal human-like robots to take over.

Aria (2001) is like YKK in OH MY GOD THE CHEERFUL and being SF without, shall we say, overworking the 'S' part, but lacks the fuzzy apocalypse of YKK; it's just fuzzy.

Chobits (2001) explores one angle of humanoid robots without going Terminator or pessimistic.

Mind you, when I look at this list for stuff I haven't read or seen, most of my first half-dozen samples involve environmental disasters and/or world-destroying plots, or weird psychic stuff.

In English, there's the webcomics Schlock Mercenary and Freefall, and Miracle of Science though it might be harder to take that one seriously, and possibly the 'manga' Earthlight.
ChrisJF
51. Tom Whitmore
Haven't read all the comments (and I thank Bryan Alexander for pointing me here), but I'd like to bring up the idea that the editors have something to do with what gets published -- and that the editorial scene is very different now than it was in 1957. It's not so much that the cultural climate was better in 1957, but the people who were buying stories grew up in a culturally more comprehensible time. The despair of the 50s and early 60s, the radicalization of youth in the late 60s and 70s, and the Me Decade of the 70s/80s -- this was the youth of the people who are the gatekeepers of fiction now. And what people learn in their youth stays with them.

There's nobody of Campbell's stature as an editor in the field right now (there are many more editors, and several of them are outstanding, but there's no one person that dominates the field editorially, and that people have to respond to in the same way that Campbell required).

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