The Difficulty of Optimism

The other day, Jo Walton, another author, posted a commentary on about the decline in “optimistic” science fiction books, claiming that she found few SF books that showed a “positive future” and asking “Why is nobody writing books like this now?”

I won’t quote extensively from her article, but she does make the point that optimistic science fiction was written in the depths of the Great Depression, through WWII, and through the 1950s, none of which were exactly the most cheerful of times, despite a certain later gloss of nostalgia, while noting that today most SF views of the future are rather grim.

What struck me about both her commentary and the initial responses posted was that both Jo and the commenters restricted their views to a comparatively few handfuls of writers, and those writers tend to be those who have high visibility in the F&SF fan community and press. Even some writers who have fairly high visibility and who show a certain optimism about the future — such as Joe Haldeman, Michael Flynn, David Drake, or Walter Jon Williams — aren’t mentioned. While my optimism is of the somewhat cynical variety, I do often write about futures with optimistic features and places, and I-m optimistic about solutions — just not about their costs… and needless to say, I’m not mentioned either.

So, as Jo herself asks, how much of this is merely seeing what one wants to, and how much is grounded in a fundamental change in what is being written? Another relevant question is: How does one define optimistic? From the viewpoint of the tens of thousands of American mothers who lost children to so-called “childhood diseases” every year prior to about 1940, the health situation we have today would look incredibly optimistic. The same would be true of all the slaves in the south in 1850. On the other hand, the Jeffersonians of 1800 would be appalled by the centralized banking and commercially dominated economy of the twenty-first century. For all the housewives of the years before 1950, modern conveniences would likely seem the ultimate optimistic convenience, and long-distance modern transport is definitely far better and more optimistic than sailing ships and horse-drawn wagons.

I’m a great believer in the fact that life comes in all shades, particularly of gray, and the events of the past half-century, in particular, have reinforced that feeling in millions of Americans. We have comparatively few Americans, in percentage terms, in grinding poverty, particularly compared to most of the world’s population, but we also have far higher taxation rates than we ever had when grinding poverty was the norm for twenty percent of our population. Despite the tabloid headlines, civic violence is far lower than it was a century ago, but there are far more restrictions on personal acts and behavior. And so it goes. In a way, one might even call these trade-offs the “loss of societal innocence.” This makes it difficult for an intelligent writer to present an unblemished and totally optimistic view of a future where technology will solve all the major problems facing society — or even one of them.

Yet, despite my quibbles with what Jo Walton has written, and despite those of us who struggle to show optimism in depicting the future, I think she touches a vital point. It is getting harder and harder to be both realistic and highly optimistic in writing about probable futures, although I do believe, as I think my writing shows, in qualified optimism.

In the end, the question becomes: Can any realistic future high-tech society present other than qualified optimism, given higher population levels, higher and often unrealistic societal expectations, and the need to maintain basic levels of order among society itself?

3 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Optimism”

  1. Daze says:

    To add some other qualifiers:

    * any story that involves travel further than Mars is optimistic: on present knowledge, the radiation damage to an unaltered human will prohibit going any farther than that.

    * any story that has uninterrupted progress beyond this century is profoundly optimistic: the combination of politics and science that currently prevails means we are unlikely to get away with less than 3-4degC warming – see Mark Lynas' Six Degrees for what that means. On that basis, I regard (say) Adiamante or Gravity Dreams as optimistic.

  2. christoph says:

    Great topic! I have recently started to write down some fantasy-style sci-fi that has been running around in my mind for many years. Concretizing those ideas has forced me to deal with precisely this issue.

    I won't want to bother with the specifics of how I am dealing, but the end result will likely (and originally quite unintentionally) appear as complete fantasy to someone with a materialist/scientific viewpoint and as science fiction to someone with a very moderate spiritualist/religious point of view. Of course, this requires that it be set at least a few centuries in the future.

    Side note: many thanks to Mr. Modesitt for reading and posting here. In my opinion, you are to fantasy what Asimov was to Sci-Fi. I must confess having not read beyond the Recluce saga fearing (probably ridiculously) excessive influence on my own creative process.

  3. Tim Stave says:

    I recently read in the Economist that the growth of population is starting to slow even in places such as Africa and that World population may peak as early as 2050.

    It is just a matter of time, however, when scientists solve cell senescence and people (at least the upper class) begin to rarely die of natural causes. Nearly immortal life-spans have the potential to cause a large amount of unrest since wealth will start to accumulate with the older population.

    I think a large part of the current problems we are facing is the gradual shift of our society to a multi-media informational connected world. The human brain is changing (I see it every day in my high-school classrooms), but social constructs are not keeping up with the change.

    On a side note: I am a long time fan of your books, and just recently finished Imager's Challenge. I am glad you are a prolific writer because I enjoy each of them.

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