Five Upbeat SF Classics Featuring Barely Any Doom!

[Warning: May contain sarcasm.]

Not to take a side in the struggle between Merril et al.’s New Wave and more traditional science fiction and fantasy, but…

One may admire the artistry of the stories in anthologies like England Swings SF, even if one eventually tires of the pessimistic tone taken by such young scamps as Ellison, Spinrad, and Ballard. Why can’t these authors be more like their venerable predecessors? Here are five instances of the sunnily optimistic science fiction that exemplified the genre in the days before the younger set decided to indulge in such gloomy literary prose.

 

The War in the Air by H. G. Wells (1908)

Bert Smallways embraces Edwardian can-do-ism; he is determined to enrich himself without much distress over petty ethical concerns. Thus, when a moment of altruism leaves Bert stuck in a runaway balloon with the blueprints for Butteridge’s revolutionary heavier-than-air flying machine, Bert does not lament his temporary misfortune. Bert takes the long view and considers what sort of price he can exact for the blueprints—and from whom.

Bert’s forthright determination and not entirely truthful claim that he is Butteridge earns him a place on the team of fellow visionary Prince Karl Albert. Karl Albert has a simple dream: conquer the world through applied air power! To this end, Karl Albert’s vast air fleet sets off to crush America with an overwhelming sneak attack. Bert accompanies the aerial armada. Bert Smallways gets to see firsthand how a paradigm-breaking technology can utterly transform a stodgy world.

***

 

“With Folded Hands…” by Jack Williamson (1947)

Salesman Underhill sells robots, but even he would admit that the best robots often fall short of perfection. Too many of the robots and other mechanicals on sale have been poorly designed or badly made. Not only that, but the market for such contrivances has become oversaturated. The appearance of a new competitor is an unwelcome development. At first.

Underhill soon learns that Humanoid Institute’s mechanicals deliver what lesser companies can only promise. Equipped with a crystal-clear knowledge of humans’ best interests, the Humanoids leave no human need unaddressed. Before the Humanoids, humans had to labour by the sweat of their brow. Now that they have arrived, humans can look forward to an eternity of perfect tranquility, as the robots have taken over every aspect of human existence…

***

 

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)

Sidelined by a snakebite while in California’s mountains, Isherwood Williams returns to civilization to discover that, in his absence, virtually the whole of humanity has perished from a novel and highly contagious pandemic. This is a real bummer, but Ish does not succumb to despair. He and fellow survivor Em found a new community in their native California.

Armed only with determination, what he already knows, and the books moldering in the abandoned libraries of the Bay Area, Ish schools the children of his town. True, reading, and arithmetic may seem to have little immediate relevance to a generation more interested in procuring their next meal. Nevertheless, Ish is determined to inculcate the younger generation with the values and knowledge of Western civilization.

Success should be certain. Who, given a choice, would choose to degenerate into a tribe of superstitious hunter-gatherers?

***

 

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth (1952)

No matter the challenge, humanity’s ingenuity always finds a solution. Air pollution is met with nose filters, oil shortages with pedicabs, fresh water shortages with reasonably priced brackish water. Consumerism works and nobody is more important to making it work than the admen who persuade the masses that they could live in the best of all possible worlds if only they bought the right products. Star-class copywriter Mitch Courtenay is one such adman.

Mitch’s employer, the Fowler Schocken advertising agency, lands a doozy of a contract: sell the public on the notion of settling inhospitable Venus. Fowler Schocken assigns the task to Mitch. Venus has little to recommend it, rivals may scheme to sabotage the plan, and assassins may even try to kill him, but not even being kidnapped can stop a determined adman like Mitch Courtenay!

***

 

“The Year of the Jackpot” by Robert A. Heinlein (1952)

When statistician Potiphar Breen is not advising insurance companies on current and future trends, he spends his time studying the cycles of human behaviour that govern the world. What might seem like unrelated bizarre events to others are, for Breen, indications of the hidden order governing reality. To paraphrase noted physicist Jon Osterman, Breen is a puppet like everyone else, but he is a puppet who can see the strings.

Breen’s work assures him that the world is marching towards a day when all manner of seemingly unrelated events will come to a simultaneous head—the eponymous Year of the Jackpot. Some might be alarmed at this prospect, but Breen embraces the opportunities at hand. Why worry about a tomorrow that may never come when Breen can win the woman of his dreams and spend the rest of his life with her?

***

 

These are just the first five works that came to mind. There are many, many more. What, oh what, have the bright young things of today written that are as joyful and optimistic as these cheery tales from yesteryear?

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.

citation

Back to the top of the page

65 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.