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Strange and Happy: Science Fiction and the Bright Green Future
Alex Steffen, 17 Feb 08

Jason Stoddard proclaims the need for speculative fiction that is strange and happy:

The world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve read about active corneal overlays for augmented reality and Russian chatbots good enough to pass simple Turing tests (and immediately being used for sex chat.) Where we live is getting strange. But this doesn’t mean it’s a dystopia, or that we’ll be bowing to evil corporate overlords whose only mission statement is to rape the planet, or that we’ll have mind control installed against our will, or that we’ll all die because of climate change or slowing economic growth or whatever the cause du jour is. So why can’t we be strange–and happy?

The need for speculative fiction that uses the lens of the future to help us more completely understand the possibilities of our quickly-shifting present is something I've written quite a bit about.

But positive futures are difficult to write, for exactly the same kind of reasons comedy is: lacking tragedy's visceral grab at our attention, tone and execution become all-important.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Syd Mead, the designer who did much of the worldbuilding for the movie Bladerunner. I asked him this very question: what would it take to make a movie of Bladerunner's imaginative power, set in a positive future. He paused for a second and said he thought it'd be very difficult, that catharsis is so important to people, and people are so terrified of the future, that you'd need some completely new vision of what the future will look like to even set the scene for a new narrative... and that is obviously no mean feat.

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Are you listening you lit magazines and other writing contests? Strange and happy. Think Buck Rogers + sustainability + Web 2.0. Do it.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 17 Feb 08

I was inspired about a year ago after hearing George Monbiot speak and reading this great article by Bill McKibben, "Imagine That: What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art":

...and started work on my fourth novel, trying to digest the issue of climate change for myself through my medium, to discover my own creative/spiritual/intellectual take on it, rather than just running to keep up with scientific arguments.

I wanted to write a funny novel, but after several months of research, there was nothing particularly funny about the topic. Still, it was important to me to not preach or wag a finger. So what I came up with was a different world -- which, I've read, is a kind of speculative literature called "geofiction", creating a world with its own geography, money, stamps, etc, and setting a story there. This has proved to be a convenient way to avoid harping on "America" and lots of other default conversations around climate change.

I'm in the home stretch now, and will be finished soon, but in the meantime I've been serialising the chapters. If anyone is interested in reading a piece of climate change fiction -- what I hope is just the beginning of a cultural reaction as we process what this means to us -- please get in touch through, and I'll give you access to the chapters.

Apologies if this sounds like shameless self-promotion. My hope is that LOTS of us doing this right now, because art, I believe, is how we know ourselves, how we move from the current 'scientistic' thinking to perceiving the true impact of things. As McKibben says, "Here's the paradox: if the scientists are right, we're living through the biggest thing that's happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don't know about it. It hasn't registered in our gut; it isn't part of our culture."

Posted by: Hamish MacDonald on 18 Feb 08

"Strange and happy" is a little bit vague. It's true that all visions of the future need not be dystopias, but most of them are not. Most speculative fiction seems to me to follow a storyline in which the future presents new challenges and the characters in those stories work to overcome those challenges. This is probably where speculative fiction ought to be. A bright green utopia is certainly NOT what we want. The dystopia sub-genre arose because ideas about a perfect society are kind of creepy. As a result, we get "Nineteen Eighty-Four", "Brave New World", "We", and other dystopian classics about the ugliness that underlies a "perfect" society. The ideal future is one where the challenges never stop coming. Where we're forced to grow and change our minds. Of course, this may be what is meant by "strange and happy", but that describes most of the genre already.

Posted by: Josh on 18 Feb 08

David Brin's opus "Earth" is exactly, I think, what you're looking for. His Kiln People also fits. In many ways, Kiln People is an optimistic Blade Runner in a bright green future. Doesn't lack for catharsis, either. His next novel will continue along this near-future "strange and happy" vein, I hear.

Greg Egan has a couple good ones as well--Permutation City coming to mind as having the most "green" themes; but a bright green future there is a backdrop for Egan's transhumanism.

Even Ben Bova's Grand Tour series has elements of optimism in a green future (though since his Earth is suffering a tipping-point scenario he called "greenhouse cliff" one might argue the absolute brightness of his green future--but Bova isn't writing a Utopia-- but its far from dystopia, too. He's writing a future he could see happening).

This sort of Sci-Fi is out there, if you peak under the right rocks. (just break out of the cyberpunk subgenre)
But I agree wholehearedly, we need more.
I also agree with the first comment-- a contest would be grand! Even if you can't scrape up a cash prize, for many budding authors promise of publication (perhaps if you ever do another Worldchanging anthology?) is plenty.

Posted by: Tyler August on 18 Feb 08

Sterling's Holy Fire also fits here ... where an eighty year old actuary sees the world as a physically 20 something fashion model after her longevity treatment. And Kim Stanley Robinson, another wc favourite, of course has Pacific Edge, his Californian future in a utopian small community setting, but still caught up in human drama.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 18 Feb 08

Last I heard, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor at Tor Books, was putting together an anthology to be called UP!, of optimistic science fiction stories. He invited me to submit, and I'm afraid I never got a chance, being busy with other projects; so I don't know what the status of the anthology is. But you could certainly ask him.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 19 Feb 08

Sci fi outline here for future novel and screenplay.

Posted by: danny bloom on 24 Feb 08

And Ian McEwan is writing a new novel about global warming now. Should be out in about two years.

Posted by: danny bloom on 24 Feb 08

Well said, sir.

"This is all to the good, but we need something more than what we have. We need some serious future-building around both what a post-hydrocarbon world would look like, and what kinds of challenges a warming world holds in store for us (and how we might respond).

Most of all, we need these new visions and stories now, because a planet in the grip of massive climate change is not an alien world or a fantastic future, it's the planet where we're all going to spend the rest of our lives."

Posted by: danny bloom on 24 Feb 08

But being depressed and re-reading PKD is so fun.

Posted by: Patrick Hall on 26 Feb 08



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