Sunday, March 9, 2008

Optimism in SF: Is It Dead?

On the one hand, this might seem a somewhat belated reaction to Jason Stoddard's blog posts "Strange and Happy" and "More Strange and Happy". On the other hand, my column in the BSFA's magazine for writers, Focus, published on January 2007, was about exactly the same topic. It is a recurring one.

So, to show where I stand for those outside the BSFA, I'm reposting it here:

Let’s face the future with a smile

In my first column for Focus under Martin McGrath’s stewardship (and thanks to Simon Morden for the previous years), I’d like to start with a challenge.

In the last couple of years, SF short stories have been predominantly dark and pessimistic. Not all of them – there are obvious exceptions, like for instance Jason Stoddard’s “Winning Mars” (IZ #196) – but the majority most definitely is. I was discussing this with the afore-mentioned Jason Stoddard, and we agree that it’s almost as if it’s forbidden to write an uplifting story.

Problem is, that writing a convincing optimistic story is difficult, very difficult. Or, to quote Gardner Dozois: “As someone who has written post-apocalyptic stuff myself, I can tell you that it IS easier. It's easier to write about how the current world went wrong than it is to come up with believable ways how the current world is going to survive and prosper (to say nothing of changing in unexpected ways).

For example, High Country News (HCN) magazine put out a call to submissions for the 2006 Summer Reading Issue, calling for a short story that showed how things developed for the better in the American Midwest. They already had a dystopian story (Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter”), and wanted to offset it with an optimistic one, and they were willing to pay well (30 cents a word). “We’re not looking for an idyllic utopia, but a realistic assessment of people and their place in the landscape.” Many stories were sent in, none were taken. Or, to quote their Special Summer Reading Issue’s editorial: “Some interesting glimmers, but no one had a plausible explanation for how we might get from here to there.”

At LACon IV, Paolo Bacigalupi told me that the readers of HCN were both extremely well-known and highly critical about all matters Midwest, so that trying to write a convincing optimistic story about the American Midwest was like trying to pass a fictional story about a Theory of Everything through an editorial board consisting of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Edward Witten. Well-nigh impossible.

Also, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden had planned to edit an anthology called ‘Up’, filled with stories about how the future changed for the better. That was back in 2002, and as far as I know that project is still on ice.

Now, I’m not asking you to please the readers of HCN. However, I am getting fed up with all these dark and dystopian stories. I agree with Jason Stoddard when he said that Paolo (Bacigalupi) is a great writer, but that his stories sometimes make me scream in despair, because of their bleakness. And I sincerely wonder if writers *really* like a challenge.

So here it is: write an ambitious story about how the future changes for the better: one that is convincing, as well. As realistic and plausible as you can get it. Then send it my way when I re-open Interzone for email submissions (probably May 2007, but keep an eye on our website and, or to another market. Get it out there.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should go back to unlimited, na├»ve optimism of the pulp era, or the 50s. It also means we shouldn’t aim at the romance genre’s HEA (happily ever after) as a prerequisite. No: we live in the 21st Century, so give me a 21st Century story. Let it be grounded in the real, but a real that is more than just nihilistic, cynic, diffident, or disinterested. The progress can be incredibly hardfought, the progress can be met with all possible resistance, have setbacks, and all. But in the end, let there be some kind of progress.

In short, give me a gritty pollyanna, and show me it’s not an oxymoron.

And, while we’re at it, let it be ambitious. Joe Sixpack getting a better job is trivial. Jane Doe winning an office argument is boring. Reach for the sky: try to find at least a partial solution, a partly positive development from the great problems of our time. You could do worse than reading through Edge’s article “What Are You Optimistic About? Why?”, where some of the greatest minds of our time answer exactly that question. Obviously, Jason Stoddard and I are not the only ones who are tired of this trend of depressive thinking.

Don’t be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution. Write that story: it’ll be a hard, enormously hard. But the reward is phenomenal. Be inspired, and then be an inspiration. Let’s face the future with a smile.

So, has this little 'call to arms' generated some upbeat fiction sent to Interzone? Well, judging from what I've seen so far the response is decidedly less than overwhelming. Not sure why, but here are th
ree guesses:

  1. Writers only like 'easy' challenges, not truly 'complex' ones. For example, if a well-known editor says he hates elves, then writers jump out of the woodwork with elf stories just to prove him he's wrong. However, ask them to do something that actually challenges their own assumptions -- a convincing upbeat story, or a convincing near-future story, let alone a combination of the two -- then the utmost majority logs off. Too hard.
  2. The reasoning of 'How can you write an upbeat story in the current dark en depressing political and economic climate?'. Well, I like to think that good SF tries to be ahead of the curve, and that it tries to lead instead of follow, and that it might try to set a good example (and not *only* dystopias as dire warnings: if something's done to death...). Silly me for thinking that.
  3. SF actually likes to wallow in self-despair, and loathes getting out of its self-imposed ghetto. Nothing worse than 'normal' -- or even young -- people being attracted to it, right?
Now, if there is a publisher out there interested in doing an SF anthology of upbeat stories, then I am hereby volunteering to edit it. Just goes to show I'm an optimist at heart.

(Side note: maybe we should become Hispanic.)


Jeremy said...

I'm taking you up on this challenge in my work right now. Trying not to be outright pessimistic anyway. I'm writing sequels to my first IZ story actually, which is all about future positivity.

Anonymous said...

Jetse, thanks for the mention. The problem is less with dystopian or negative scenarios, I think, and more with the hopelessness of a lot of today's writing. There's a BIG difference between a cautionary tale and wallowing in it. And a lot of the stuff coming out today wallows in it.

True doom and gloom is the antithesis of science fiction's golden past, when we could look forward to the future's bright wonders (unless we had an atomic war) and tackle big ideas with enthusiasm (unless we wanted lit cred.)

So, a question for the gloom and doomers: If you're really embracing the darkness, if you're really saying we're all out of answers, then why bother getting up in the morning?

Anonymous said...

Jetse this is a great topic that you and Jason have started. Ken McConnell over at my site suggested a great idea for an optimistic SF story - a Harry Potter for science rather than magic. I think the Heinlein YA novels of the 1950s were very optimistic. It would be great to combine Heinlein and Rowling and build a series around science.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I would immediate jump to the conclusion that writers don't like complex challenges. Just that the more complex the challenge, the more time it takes to do something worthy of it. I read this post about 30 minutes ago, went off and wrote a semi-flash bit of what I consider optimistic fiction. And maybe that will become a rather short story in the future. But the thing I wrote was slightly glib. To write something with more substance would take me more time. I'd have to think about what I'd want to be optimistic ABOUT, for one thing. And then I'd have to come up with an actual story to go around that. I'm not a big fan of fiction that is all idea and very little story. I prefer to strike a balance, and that, I think, is difficult for some of us to do likerightnow.

So my suggestion would be to give it some time. Maybe there are many folks like me who didn't see the original post and are just now cottoning on to this idea of yours. Which, btw, I think is an interesting one. Thing is, I don't know that I feel there's much to look forward to. I can't really imagine much to look forward to right this second. Give me a few months and I might be able to come up with something.

Also one other thing to consider -- a lot of our bright, optimistic future SF happens in TV and movies. I can't help but think of Star Trek. BSG isn't actually in the future (well, the old one wasn't). and I can't help but feel that some SF writers would be a bit wary of being painted with the "like Star Trek in it's optimism" brush. But perhaps that's just me being silly.

Anonymous said...

To add to the discussion, I think we need to consider where unrelenting gloom and doom may lead us. If we *really* think there is no hope for the planet, if we *really* think that we will never find solutions to our challenges as a species, if we *really* think there is nothing more than linear extrapolation of what we see today, why bother going on? Why have *kids*, for heck's sake?

I can readily imagine a post-post-apocalyptic scenario with humans emerging from giant underground bunkers, blinking at the sun and looking around at the verdant landscape and saying, "Why did we go down there in the first place?" Then finding that humans who'd remained up top had solved all the problems that had driven the other faction underground. Perhaps not a great story, but it illustrates the danger of negative thinking.

And that is the key. We have to keep trying. Otherwise, we might as well not live.

Jetse de Vries said...


I say go for it!

Even if the current market seems against it: for one, I'm not sure if that's true; for another if you try to write about what's in vogue now, you're already behind the curve.

Write what you feel you must write, and if your heart tells you to write an optimistic SF story -- or novel -- that mixes (updated) Heinlein juveniles with Harry Potter (with SF instead of fantasy), then by all means do it.

Jetse de Vries said...


True: only BSFA members saw this a year ago, and they might be a too small subset to draw large conclusions from. I do certainly hope more people are willing to try, and I do understand that you need time to write such a story.

So let me amend that to: I didn't see any good optimistic stories from UK writers, so far.

On the other hand – as I mentioned in the column – Patrick Nielsen Hayden did announce, back in 2002, that he planned to edit “Up”: an anthology of stories where things change for the better (*). As far as I know, it’s still on ice. Which is just too bad, and I certainly hope it wasn’t because he didn’t get any decent stories.

Also, your reaction:

"I can't really imagine much to look forward to right this second."

seems a very typical one. I’m wondering if that’s not the root cause for the lack of upbeat fiction: if people don’t feel happy, they think they can’t write optimistic stories.

Obviously, I can’t change people’s mindsets (or at least, not without a huge effort). Still, as Jason already said in his second post: gloom and doom doesn’t move you forward. As an example I’d like to point to a recent post in John Scalzi’s Whatever: Whatever. In short, ten years ago John Scalzi was thinking about buying a house, but got laid off. It depressed the hell out of him, but still he and his wife Krissy eventually decided to buy it anyway, and move forward. And lo and behold: they *did* move forward.

It’s not wishful thinking alone that will change things (you need talent, persistence, and luck, among other things), but it can sure help you take that next step that will improve your lot. Even if you’re down in the doldrums.

Thinking the worst, believing nothing will come of it are mostly excuses to throw the towel. It’s the easy way out. As is writing about how the world goes to shit. Writing about a change for the better is immensely more difficult. But also immensely more rewarding.

{(*) = I even emailed him back then – and I was a total unknown at that time, down from mildly unknown right now – if I could send him a story. He said OK, I did, then I didn’t hear anything for three years. I queried, was asked to send it again, and then silence again.
It probably wasn’t good enough, and I realise Patrick is a very busy man. I did sell it here (first in the print version, reprinted in the online version), and here, so it did find two nice homes.}

Anonymous said...

Everytime I try to write an upbeat, positive SF story set in the Midwest, it comes off sounding like a very wooden attempt to mimic the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (wiki up Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White, Bill Engval and Larry the Cable Guy). I've got two or three laying around but they just don't fire me up.

When we say, "optimistic" just what, exactly, are we looking for?

I guess since I live in the Midwest, I could outline some improvements I'd like to see. But they are mundane for the most part.

Light rail in Kansas City (city leaders have fought this tooth and nail for decades).

Roads with the potholes filled in. Decent police protection in Kansas City, Missouri (it sucks, pure and simple). An end to the Gross Earnings City Income Tax. Disbanding the KCMSD school system, terminating all of the teachers and starting out with something fresh.

Most of that isn't very science fictional. More over, most of those problems are intractable.

As for the rural Midwest, well, aside from the fact that living wage jobs are not easy to come by (if they were, I'd be living out there, trust me) I do not have any real complaints. I happen to like it just the way it is, though the winters could be less severe than they are.

Which sort of leads to why post apocalyptic tropes are so useful to a story set in the Midwestern United States. You see, down at the heart of the matter, many rural Midwesterners and those of us who live in the cities, feel that the cities are the problem. Blasting them off the face of the planet or finding some other way to neutralize them (I used a singularity in TDT to accomplish this task) seems like a viable solution. Without the cities to upset the economic and political balance of power, the rural Midwest (many believe) would prosper.

As for things to look forward to, well, there is the Stowers Institute here in Kansas City, which is poised to do some cutting edge research. University of Kansas Medical Center also does cutting edge work. The Sprint/Nextel campus in Overland Park, Kansas (part of the larger area) is here as is Cerner Medical Corporation (which has the NHS contract in the UK if I recall).

All seem to provide the basis for some sort of story, perhaps even a positive story. But I can't quite see what the conflict would be outside of the standard issue Conservative Anti-Biological Research types versus some KSR Scientist-Activist clones (not the sort of thing that interests me personally).

As for the tech options, I've worked with too much tech gear to place a great deal of faith in the stuff not breaking down or having some sort of problem. Broken down technology is one thing that does appeal to me that doesn't immediately get hemmed up in the standard issue political nonsense that goes on in American SF.

So, I see positive things coming down the road, especially here in the Midwest. There are fiction possibilities here.

Thing is, they don't really interest me as a writer. And the ones that do are either not saleable concepts or trend toward the usual political polemical stereotypical crap that usually gets written about the Midwest.

I'm not interested in perpetuating an ongoing cycle on that front.

Maybe something will come to me. But it isn't where my creative heart is.

S. F. Murphy
North Kansas City, Missouri

Jetse de Vries said...


Even though "Tearing Down Tuesday" was set in a post-apocalyptic world, and Kyle went through several circles of hell, I still felt that it had a somewhat upbeat ending as Kyle was finally taking matters in his own hands (and getting to grips with his past).

I don't know the American Midwest well enough to pinpoint what is wrong, and what remedies might be taken. I like to leave that up to the writer to imagine, as this is, obviously, a challenge.

A thought experiment: if you think the cities are a major problem, then imagine developments that would make rural living a better alternative.

For one: the oil price is now hovering around $100 a barrel. Double, or triple it as peak oil passes. Then hugely increase the amount of fields used for biofuels: prices of food will go up drastically, as well. Similarly the cost of electricity and gas will rise steeply, as well.

Cities are not self-sufficient: they need to import food, energy, and other products. Now if both the price of transport, energy, and that of food itself goes up *very* considerably, then rural living, where people grow (most of) their own food, use alternative energy sources (wind, water, and sun) to reduce their energy bills, might become a viable *economical* alternative.

Throw in a home-made, wireless local internet so that a lot of things can be done through remote (teaching, meetings, etc.), reducing the need to travel and you might have a reason why rural living might become a preferred lifestyle.

Just thinking out loud.

Of course, you would still need to write a good story incorporating such a development, but that's part of the fun.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Well, I thought I'd avoid pointing out the positive things (or anything) about TDT, Jetse. But there are upbeat things in that story (Kyle's adventures with a straight razor notwithstanding).

The problems with Kansas City are numerous. First, it is one of the largest cities in terms of sprawl. Second, tied to the first, there is no effective mass transit. Our bus system is a joke and the Powers that Be in this town fight against light rail because (A) they don't wanna pay for it (B) they are afraid of crime (translate: African Americans) (C) they argue no one would use it (I'd use it, damn it).

Third, Kansas City isn't just one city. I can't even count all of them but there are two KC (KC Missouri and KC Kansas) in addition to a number of other competing municipal governments. There is no unified government over the whole, no unified finance system (considering how badly KCMO manages its money, there are reasons the others don't want to join in).

My personal solution when setting a story in the Midwest is to:

A. Destroy Kansas City (see TDT)
B. Use a counterfactual to eliminate KC from history and have another city grow in her place, a more idea city (I do this by throwing the first bridge across the Missouri River somewhere other than KC).

There are other problems, at least in the American Market, Jetse. For one thing, a fair amount of SF set in the Midwest is fairly stereotypical. You'd think that the only people living out here were a bunch of "white crackers and rednecks," but that isn't right at all.

In fact, if TDT suffers from one flaw, it is that I did not include enough Hispanics in it. That said, there is no lack for ethnic diversity.

Some of the trends you point out in your thought experiment are in progress now. A number of wind farms are going up in Northern Missouri and in the Kansas Flinthills not far from Wichita, Kansas. Folks are growing more organic crops and there is a move toward more sustainable living. Furthermore, farmers are growing more corn to meet the ethanol demand.

Whether or not ethanol is a real solution is up for debate, but farmers are cashing in.

Still, KC is an economic black hole, or the center of gravity in this region, depending upon your view. Short of blasting it off the map, I don't know what can be done with it.

Which is why I set my stuff out on the farm.

I'll have to see what I can work up.

BTW, when is the next e-mail submission period? I might be able to get a story worked up and ready if it is this summer.

S. F. Murphy

Luke said...

Speaking personally, I have no interest in puppy dogs and ice cream. It's the darkness that moves a story forward and makes it compelling. Everything else is so much fluff. Others have said it better:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy


"You've got to accentuate the positive/ Eliminate the negative/
Latch on to the affirmative/
Don't mess with Mister In-Between."

Happiness is a bit artificial and cheesy.

Ahmed A. Khan said...

I read your post and I go hmmm! And I look at the list of my published stories to see if I could categorize any of them as optimistic. And here is what I find:

With the exception of a couple of stories, none of my stories are dark, but then there are only three stories that I could call out and out optimistic, and all three stories have an off-world setting.

So what does this signify? Blessed if I know.

(And for the curious, these are my stories that I think are optimistic:
Day of Dust
The Meaning of Life and Other Cliches
The Pulsar and the Planet

Anonymous said...

"Then send it my way when I re-open Interzone for email submissions (probably May 2007, but keep an eye on our website and, or to another market. Get it out there."

It seems your blog's in a time warp. So when's the email window? I have a story I want to submit of the future-is-here-now variety.

Anonymous said...

Only just seen this, but I have to say, here at Jupiter I would love to see more 'feel good' fiction. SF used to show us, how wonderful the future could be, I agree that these days too much seems to want to show how bad things will get.

Anonymous said...

Should you decide to include a poem or 2 in this proposed anthology, I have one entitled "The State Of Optimism" and am working on a YouTube for it...