The Optimistic Directive

Neal Stephenson talking at the Boulder Book St...

Neal Stephenson talking at the Boulder Book Store at his signing of Anathem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noted writer Neal Stephenson has argued that contemporary science fiction is too focused on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios. The current crop of such works, such as the Walking Dead,  are compared rather unfavorably to the hopeful view of the future that was supposed to be common theme in the mid twentieth century.

One obvious question is why this should be regarded as a problem. Stephenson, however, seems to see the current situation as rather problematic because he worries that the current crop science fiction lacks the optimism about the future needed to inspire scientists, engineers and others. To be more specific, if science fiction stories predict an apocalyptic world, then the readers will not be inspired to do things such as inventing space ships or solving the fossil fuel problem.

In support of his view, Stephenson points to an incident in which the president of Arizona State University and co-founder of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes  Michael Crow told him that science fiction writers have been “slacking off” and are thus (at least partially) responsible for the (allegedly) slow pace of innovation.  To address this problem, Stephenson created the Hieroglyph project which aims at getting science fiction writers to create inspirational works infused with optimism. The first work is supposed to be an anthology slated for a 2014 publication. As Stephenson puts it, “we have one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace and no holocaust.” Thus, there seem to be three main goals. First, to avoid “hacking”, which is just using old solutions as opposed to trying to create something new. Second, to provide optimistic inspiration (hence no holocaust). Third, to avoid any “impossible” or “magical” solutions to problems, presumably so that the inspiration will be focused on what is possible. As might be imagined, Stephenson raises some interesting matters for philosophical consideration.

One obvious point of concern is that dystopian science fiction is nothing new. A rather early work in this genre is Mary Shelley’s 1826 The Last Man.  In this book, humanity is beset by a terrible plague and the work ends in 2100 with one apparent survivor, the last man.  A somewhat later work is H.G. Well’s 1895 vision of the far future in the Time Machine. In this classic work, humanity is divided into the cannibalistic Morlocks and their beautiful (but ignorant) food, the Eloi. Jack London even wrote within the dystopian genre, producing a political  dystopia in his 1908  The Iron Heel (1908). Rather interestingly, London’s 1912 The Scarlet Plague is about a world wide pandemic which echoes the The Last Man. H.P. Lovecraft also presents a rather dystopian world during the early twentieth century-one in which humanity is supposed to ultimately be destroyed by Nyarlathotep. There are, of course, all the classic dystopian works such as 1984, Brave New World, and a Clockwork Orange.

Given that dystopian science fiction is a well established genre in science fiction, it seems somewhat odd to blame the alleged slowdown of innovation on the dystopian and nihilist science fiction of today. After all, if this sort of science fiction retards technological innovation due to its pessimism, then it would seem to follow that past dystopian science fiction should have been slowing down innovation all along. At the very least, it would seem to follow that it does not present a special problem now, given that it has been around so long.

One obvious counter is to claim that while dystopian science fiction has been around for a long time, it is only recently that it has come to dominate the fictional universe. To use an analogy, while there has been junk food for quite some time, it is only fairly recently that it has come to dominate the foodscape. Thus, just as obesity is now a serious problem in the United States, the retardation of inspiration is now a serious problem in science fiction.

As a science fiction fan (and a very, very minor writer), I am somewhat inclined to agree with this. In my own case, I find myself loading my Kindle with science fiction from the early to mid twentieth century and ignoring the new novels. In part, this is pure thrift-I can, for example, get H. Beam Piper’s works for free. However, part of it is because the new stuff seems to lack something possessed by the good old stuff. While I have thought about this for some time, I am beginning to suspect that my experience seems to match Stephenson’s: the new stuff generally seems to lack a certain thread of optimism that ran through the good old stuff-even the old dystopian stuff.

For example, consider Fritz Leiber’s 1960 story, “The Night of the Long Knives.” On the face of it, this story is dystopic and nihilist: the world has been devastated by a nuclear war, the survivors have divided into warring states, and the main characters are murderers. However, the story is oddly optimistic: some surviving scientists have created technological marvels and at the end the main characters struggle to free themselves of their need to murder. As another example, consider Asimov’s Foundation stories. While humanity builds a vast galactic empire, it falls into the long night and civilization all but dies.  The capital of the empire, Trantor, goes from being a metal encased super world, to a wrecked planet whose inhabitants subsist by selling the remains of the great civilization for scrap. However, there is still the Foundation (or, rather, two) that restores civilization and the original trilogy is thus ultimately optimistic. This is not to say that all the dystopian stories have optimistic aspects. In fact some of them are (or at least seem) unrelenting in their pessimism. There is, I think, nothing wrong with this. After all, not all good tales must have happy endings.

If, as a matter of empirical fact, the dystopian and the nihilistic dominates the current field of science fiction, then Stephenson could have a case. But, of course, making such a case requires drawing a connection between science fiction and technological innovation. Fortunately, this seems easy enough to do.

Many technological innovations can be traced back directly to science fiction stories and science fiction has been explicitly credited with inspiring many engineers and scientists. To use the obvious example, Star Trek has proven to be a major inspiration for technology as well as inspiring scientists, engineers and astronauts. A specific example is Well’s 1903 story “The Land Ironclads” in which he presents the tank. Naturally, there are also the contributions of Jules Verne. One could, in fact, fill a book (or more) with all the innovations that first appeared in science fiction (for good or for ill). In light of this, it would seem completely reasonable to accept a connection between science fiction and innovation. However, there is the question of whether or not the dystopian and nihilistic works would lack inspirational power.

On one hand, such works could provide ideas which would inspire later innovation. For example, a dystopian work could still include descriptions of interesting technologies or innovations that latter engineers of scientists might duplicate. There is also the possibility that such works could provide an inspiration in a negative way. That is, by portraying a horrific future a write could inspire people to try to avoid that possible future. To use the obvious example, the stories about nuclear war could plausibly be taken as motivating people to want to avoid such a way. Likewise, stories about pandemics could motivate people to develop the means to prevent them in ways that tales of a disease free future could perhaps not. After all, we can often be rather inspired by the threat of something awful. To use an analogy, a leader might inspire people by bringing to their attention the terrible consequences of failure.

On the other hand, works that lack optimism of the sort specified by Stephenson could very well fail to inspire, despite including interesting technology or providing a plausible threat. To use an obvious analogy, if a leader tries to inspire people by sharing an anecdote of failure (“and then everyone died a pointless death”), then this will hardly be motivational. That is, the bad can be inspiration, provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good. Works that lack this would, not surprisingly fail to inspire. One final point I will consider is whether science fiction writers have any obligation to write inspirational stories.

As might be imagined, it is easy enough to argue that writers are not obligated to create such optimistic novels. After all, it could be contended, writers should have the freedom to create works as they see fit and it is up to the writer whether or not they wish to present optimistic or nihilistic tales. Oscar Wilde, for example, would no doubt argue that writers should not be constrained by any such imposition.  This view is, of course, consistent with writers electing to produce optimistic tales and even working within the limits imposed by Stephenson in the 2014 book project. After all, if it is acceptable for writers to limit themselves to time travel stories for a time travel anthology, it seems equally acceptable for writers to limit themselves to the sort of stories required by Stephenson.

It is, of course, also easy to argue that writers should contribute to beneficial innovation. After all, being a writer does not seem to grant a person a moral exemption such that his or her actions no longer have moral consequences (including the consequences of the author’s writings). If a utilitarian approach to ethics is taken, then a fairly solid case could be made that authors should write such inspirational works. After all, if writing such works increases the likelihood of good consequences (such as developing clean energy or a means of replacing diseased or damaged organs), then it would seem that authors should write such books. After all, a failure to do so would result in a worse world.  Kant, given his view of the moral badness of letting one’s useful talent’s rust, would no doubt favor the writing of such positive fiction. This is not, of course, to say that writers should be compelled to write such works and the usual arguments for artistic liberty would have their normal weight here. Plato, of course, would be against the liberty of creating harmful works, but he might favor science fiction that yielded good results (after all, he did endorse the noble lie).

To close, writers should (obviously) be free to craft nihilistic dystopian hellscapes. But it would be nice to have a bit more optimism.

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  1. I wonder if the issue in contemporary sci-fi is not so much a missing sense of optimism as a lost sense of wonder. In the science fiction of yesteryear, visions of the future were fantastic in nature. Covers of Bradbury’s books were illustrated by silvery spaceships that gleamed in the light cast by alien suns, and aliens had inexplicable powers of technology and telepathy. Transporters and replicators on Star Trek, the robots and gadgets of the Jetsons, rayguns and rocket packs of Flash Gordon: these were magical technological wonders, and indeed Isaac Asimov is oft quoted (here paraphrased) “any science significantly advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” And magical indeed seemed the worlds shown.

    In contrast, contemporary sci-fi seems bent creates visions of a utilitarian future where the technology is grungy, the aliens so alien as to be horrific, and humanity’s venture to the stars is based more on corporate greed than the wonder of discovery. In cinema, this trend probably started, ironically enough, with Star Wars, which though steeped in the fantastical with laser sword lightsabers and the magical power of the Force, also presented technology such as Han Solo’s starship the Millennium Falcon, the sight of which caused Skywalker to exclaim, “What a piece of junk!” After that, films strove to make the ships and technology more functional and “realistic” in look, Bladerunner being an incredible example of the same time period.

    The first of the Alien movies popularized this grungy, horrifically alien, corporate vision of space (Outland starring Sean Connery is a lesser known but no less potent example of this anti-fantastic vision of the future), and cinema hasn’t looked back. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) which invented the cyberpunk genre of sci-fi with mega-corps, hackers as anti-heroes, and endless urban sprawl, probably cemented this grungy, “realistic” vision of the future in novels, though Phillip K. Dick’s novels certain had a strong influence on this trend. These science fiction stories, however, still retain a certain sense of optimism, often the individual overcoming the faceless corporations or governments–Ripley survives the titular Alien and destroys it, despite her employers’ desire to preserve it, and Case (the anti-hero of Neuromancer) succeeds in his task to form a new super-AI in opposition to government regulations and regains his personal freedom that had been destroyed by his corporate employer(albeit a freedom to destroy himself with drugs). The worlds presented within these stories are futuristic but anti-fantastic, not magical but numbingly realistic. And this science fiction inspire not wonder with gleaming spaceships and fantastic alien planets but resignation to a dirty future of the same tired masses laboring under corporate machines but with new toys–but still with the gleam of human optimism, like pinpoint stars in the blackness of space.

  2. “any science significantly advanced is indistinguishable from magic” I think you will find that this was Arthur C Clarke.

  3. Keith:

    Thanks for the catch. Doing a quick check I see it should have been “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” as well.

  4. Given that I have always felt that science fiction was shameless extrapolation from existing trends to a perceived future, I think Neal has it about face: What we are seeing in contemporary SF is how people think things will pan out…the sense of the helplessness of the individual in the face of a mass of organizations and corporate raping of the last resources of the West, the sense that science has been bought and deployed solely for use by, and as a marketing adjunct of, corporatism.

    And the overriding feeling that after all, Conan the Barbarian is not set in the past, but in the future, so post apocalyptic that he doesn’t even remember what happened a thousand years before.

    In short we lack any coherent vision of a better future. And certainly not one created by science and technology.

  5. michael reidy

    Very nicely written and reckoned to be one of the first of the modern dystopias is Lord of the World written by Robert Hugh Benson, pub.1907. It has that rare element in S.F., humour.

    “The room itself was lined throughout with the delicate green jade-enamel prescribed by the Board of Health, and was suffused with the artificial sunlight discovered by the great Reuter forty years before; it had the colour tone of a spring wood, and was warmed and ventilated through the classic frieze grating to the exact temperature of 18 degrees Centigrade. Mr. Templeton was a plain man, content to live as his fathers had lived before him.”

    You can find it on Gutenberg Project in various formats. Obviously a book that ends with the Second Coming doesn’t have a great outcome for socialists and other malefactors.

    How could S.F. be anything but bleak when ordinary science tells us that climate change is an inevitablity if we don’t change our ways. Does that seem likely when a drop in growth is always presented as bad news?

  6. Well,well,well where we go people of XXI century?
    Future? Do we care?The richest people do they care?
    What about?More money? More having?
    The poorest people do they care? The middle people do they care? What about?Children,teens,another people?
    or Again money,more having?
    Do we care about us, no matter money,or having,us people.
    Where are we, all human beings where are we now?

  7. Well, it’s certainly true that the more positively something (such as science) is regarded, the easier it will be to do things that advance it–such as securing funding for research, creating new scientists, etc.

    So, I think there’s justification for worry over negative portrayals in that sense.

    On the other hand, we’re living in an age where environmental collapse is a real possibility, a possibility attributable to the application of advanced science coupled with a lack of either foresight or concern for its collateral effects.

    I think the kind of utopian portrayal of science Stephenson advocates is, just as he says, good for the advancement of science.

    I also think the kind of dystopian portrayals he worries about are good for generating foresight and concern for the unintended effects that can come from applying increasingly powerful scientific knowledge.

    Realistically, I think we’re best served by promoting both.

  8. Asur,

    Good points.

    To modify a saying, if a story cannot be a good example, then it can at least serve as a warning.

  9. Leo Smith,

    Good point. It is well worth considering that the art is expressing the spirit of the age and the temper of the time (with apologies to Oscar Wilde) and that Stephenson has his causation reversed.

    Howard does lay out a history for Conan’s world that makes it clear he intends it to be set way in the past, but (of course) author’s don’t always get their worlds right. :)

    Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth is a good example of the sort of setting you mentioned-a world so beyond the apocalypse that apparently all history of the past is lost. Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series has a post apocalyptic fantasy world in which bits and pieces of the past are remembered (such as in the names of places).

    You are right-the vision of the future is generally not bright enough to require that we wear shades.

  10. jim p houston

    in case of its tangential interest, there’s a three part series in the NY Times by Simon Critchley on Philip K. Dick ‘Sci-Fi Philosopher’

    (if memory serves Dick wrote an essay on pessimism in sci-fi many many moons ago too)

  11. jim p houston

    from “Pessimism in Science Fiction” (1955)

    Since science fiction concerns the future of human society, the worldwide loss of faith in science and in scientific progress is bound to cause convulsions in the SF field. This loss of faith in the idea of progress, in a “brighter tomorrow,” extends over our whole cultural milieu; the dour tone of recent science fiction is an effect, not a cause. If a modern science fiction writer mirrors this sense of doom, he is only doing what any responsible writer does: If a writer feels that present-day saber-rattling and drum-beating are leading the world to war, he has no choice but to reproduce his feelings in his writings – unless he is writing purely for profit, in which case he never reproduces his feelings, only those sentiments that he feels will be commercially acceptable.

    (Dick, 1955, p. 54)

  12. Jim,

    Dick certainly did create some dystopian works, such as “Second Variety.” I do agree that dystopian sci-fi is not new to today and it does make sense that artists would be influence by their times (although Oscar Wilde would have something to say here…or would if he were not dead).

  13. I feel like dystopian fiction just moves the onus of innovation from science to the common man. There’s absolutely one hell of a lot of innovation in dystopian fiction, it’s just that it’s often ‘low level’ stuff like rediscovering skills we’ve lost due to our modern ways of life or practical changes that make sense to the new normal. There’s also social innovation, as we learn how to live together under radically different circumstances. Those things shouldn’t be discounted.

    If you read the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, there’s definitely scientific innovation there. Blood testers with wifi to send the results to the CDC instantly, decontamination machinery, complex computerized security systems to avoid zombie outbreaks, etc. It’s there. It’s not Big Science – but does it have to be to qualify?

    Part of the reason we don’t have that sense of wonder in science fiction anymore is because we don’t think of the future as some fantastical idea – we accept it as fact, and to some extent, we’re living it. The wonder at something like a transporter is replaced with the impatience of getting it invented already so we can put it to work. Mid-twentieth century science fiction did its job too well.

    Dystopian science fiction is mostly about practical, near-future or near-past innovation. Just because it isn’t about Big Science innovation doesn’t mean there’s none going on. You don’t have to like the content that’s out there, but you do have to recognize it for its merits. Innovation in science fiction isn’t dead. It just shifted gears.

  14. Great piece, but I read Stephenson’s Mandate as simply a rhetorical strategy for a reader of science fiction to get more of the kind of science fiction he likes. The fact that he’s willing to encourage movement by compiling an anthology of his own is commendable. Honestly, I agree with him … the Dark Age of Cynicism, World-weariness, and Irony has left us climbing out of a culture-wide depressive funk. I think that Stephenson may be craving not only optimism, but earnest hope. It may be that science fiction is no longer the place for that, but I hope (earnestly) that it is. I’m going to listen to some prog rock (“shining flying purple wolf hounds …”) and feed my sense of wonder while reading that free Kindle H.Beam Piper set.

  15. Gary,

    Good points. I do hope that he is successful, if only for selfish reasons. While I do enjoy the occasional work of dystopian cynicism, I tend to prefer something a bit less depressing.

    This is not to say that I want my sci-fi Polyanna, of course. :)

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