Monday, 17 April 2017

Recommend: Optimistic SF

This time, we're asking for recommendations of optimistic science fiction. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. First, a few ideas from editors, authors, reviewers and other friends:

Tracie Welser (author page)

A common enough complaint about science fiction is that much of recent writing in the genre is dystopian or deeply pessimistic. Gone are the golden age stories about exploration and hope, to which I say "good riddance," as much of the sense of wonder and speculation of those years drew heavily on imperialist themes and angles of approach to "others." It seems inevitable that trends such as social suppression of dissent, growing divide between economic classes, environmental degradation and rapidly changes in technology produce distinctly dark responses from science fiction writers. Lauren Buekes' Moxieland comes to mind. In the early aughts, this complaint seemed louder than usual (just search for "positive science fiction" to take a peek at posts from Time and others decrying the grimness of SFF books and film). There were even suggestions that negative stories stifle scientific innovation, rather than inspire.

I, for one, think dystopian narratives while not inherently hopeful are backdrops for hope, where solidarity and struggle are elevated. The popularity of dystopia themes in young adult fiction (ie, Hunger Games) is not so surprising, as the sub-genre is inclined to take risks and whack fascism firmly on the nose, a sensibility enjoyed by young readers and adults alike. Similarly, seemingly hopeless stories, of shattered civilization and economic despair (Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl) offers some kernels of resistance and revolution. Attempts at overtly positive science fiction in the recent past are harder to come by.

Two that come to mind are METAtropolis edited by John Scalzi. A series of shared world stories by different authors, the collection posits some realistic (read: gritty) futurism but with hopeful notes about urban community. The second is the anthology Hieroglyph, which includes the notable, playful story by Charlie Jane Anders titled "The Day it All Ended." The history of the Hieroglyph Project itself is fairly interesting, a deliberate effort to create and publish more positive visions of science fictional future.

Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)

The world is not an optimistic place right now; it’s been a long time since science fiction felt optimistic, to the point where the issues explored over the last twenty or thirty years in fiction have become commonplace in daily life. In common with many, I fear for the future and often find it hard to read sf these days because the brain can only stand so much dystopia. It was a genuine pleasure, then, to read Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station recently and to feel that perhaps not all has been lost. Tidhar’s fiction doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions but there is the promise nonetheless that life will continue, and not necessarily a bad life either. The people (and I use this term in the broadest sense) who gather around the Central Station to sell food, tend bar, collect books, solve problems, look out for one another, fall in love, practise their religions, aren’t so far removed from the people I know. It is both encouraging and comforting to know that at least one writer believes in the persistence of ordinary daily life, no matter what.

Don Riggs (faculty page; alumnus page)

When I was in the 8th grade, I first learned about the Big Bang theory—the actual theory, not the television sitcom. The ultimate implication of the universe starting off with a bang and an unceasing expansion is entropy, which is the tapering off of the energy of the universe until the Heat Death of the Universe happens. I was thoroughly depressed by this, and so, when our next theory was presented, the Oscillating Universe, where the universe expands as far as it goes until it then is sucked back into another primordial point of all matter, which will again explode in another Big Bang, I decided that was the theory I wished to embrace. “Utriusque Cosmi,” a short story by Robert Charles Wilson (in Neil Clarke’s Galactic Empires, 2017), combines the story of a sixteen-year- old girl living in a trailer with her meth-addict mother and her abusive boyfriend, with that of that girl’s future self, “raptured up” to the Fleet of the intelligences of creatures saved from dying worlds, itself pursued by the Invisible Enemy, which ultimately turns out to be a group of Elder Beings that in turn “rapture up” the Fleet and thus survive the next collapse of the universe.

Stephanie Saulter (author page)

It’s a shame that science fiction isn’t a more generally optimistic genre. Too often we extrapolate possible futures so dire and hopeless the message seems to be that humanity is aboard a rocketship to all-but-inescapable doom, or at best unalleviated misery. I can’t think of too many writers who buck this grim trend, but among the few is the late and greatly lamented Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels are the ultimate vision of a far-future, galaxy-spanning, inclusive and egalitarian polity in which humans are only one of many species and virtually omniscient AIs, instead of being the harbingers of our destruction, are committed and wryly indulgent protectors of organic life. The Culture’s liberal ethos combined with flexibility and at times ruthless pragmatism allows it to withstand assaults from without and respond to concerns from within. I’d suggest The Player of Games for a first visit.

Another exception is the grande dame of speculative fiction, Ursula Le Guin. Her SF looks at harmful gender and social constructs, the iniquities of politics and commerce, and conflicts between ideology and idealism with an eye less to endless iterations of the problem than envisioning possible solutions. The Dispossessed is an extraordinary book.

What are some other positive examples of science fiction? Please share recommendations in the comments.

8 comments:

  1. I'd like to add to the list the following books:
    - Shine, (an Anthology of Near-Future Optimistic SF) edited by Jetse De Vries, Solaris, 2010
    - Hieroglyph (Stories and Visions for a Better Future) edited by Ed Finn & Kathryn Cramer, William Morrow, 2014

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  2. I'd recommend my hopeful 'shamans vs aliens' dealing with the potential destruction of everything novel, Owl Stretching [http://www.immanion-press.com/info/book.asp?id=436]

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  3. Thanks, @Xabaras. I'd thought of Shine, but haven't finished reading it yet. Do you have a favorite story in there to recommend?

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  4. I like the science fiction from the 1950-1960s because of its optimism but it does have the imperialist flavour likeTracie says. Some of the classic post apocalyptic SF like Earth Abides, is optimistic in its building up a new world. Might I also point in direction of my debut book from 2015? The Stars Seem So Far Away. Called optimistic dystopia by Interzone, and full of hope by quite many. Thank you!

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  5. There is also Happiness At The End of the World: http://www.seriouslysarah.com/blog/2010/02/02/happiness-at-the-end-of-the-world/

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  6. I think two recent examples are Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and wild argue the Ancillary Justice trilogy goes in a very different direction to the classic Space Opera

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  7. I've only recently started reading Connie Willis, and particularly her time travelling fiction. Although some of it is incredibly grueling (Doomsday Book), there's an underlying optimism about humans and their capacity to save, build, improve, and self-sacrifice. (I don't usually feel so chipper about people, and it's nice state of mind to visit.)

    Her novella Firewatch is an interesting start-point: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/firewatch.htm

    If you want to dive into something both daft and touching which uses the same time-travelling framework, then To Say Nothing of the Dog (from 1997) is a delight. It has lots of nods to other comic fiction, including Three Men in a Boat.

    I'm probably too fond of the college setting of all of these. There's something anachronistically soothing about it. Under-prepared students ping off to different eras and miss their 'drop' and are frantic to get home, but there's always an Oxford college at their back, with harried historians working to bring them home. Professor Dunworthy presides over it all, and pops into every story, flawed and principled and hardworking.

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  8. @Maureen: thanks for suggesting Central Station, which I picked up on the strength of your recommendation (both because I needed some cheering up, and I love Lavie’s work in general). I read it in record time (for me!), of about a week of morning commutes, and loved it. So much invention, so much bending of reality, characters at once familiar and alien; lovable and infuriating. Like a world-citizen version of Jeff Noon. Very cool—thanks a lot!

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