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Why are there so few positive stories about the future?

By Garry Peterson

Today’s stories about the future seem to be pretty bleak. Recent big apocalyptic novels have been McCarthy’s The Road, Atwood’s Year of the Flood, but I can’t think of many influential positive environmental futures after Ecotopia in the early 1970s.

On, science fiction novelist and critic Jo Walton speculates about why there are not more positive futures?:

When I was writing about The Door Into Summer, I kept finding myself thinking what a cheerful positive future it’s set in. I especially noticed because the future is 1970 and 2000. I also noticed because it isn’t a cliche SF future—no flying cars, no space colonies, no aliens, just people on Earth and progress progressing. Why is nobody writing books like this now? …

Why is this?

I don’t think it’s because we live in terrible depressing times. 1957, when Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer, wasn’t a particularly cheerful … Anyway, people were writing cheerful optimistic stories about the future in the 1930s, when things could not have been blacker. People always want escapism, after all.

First is the looming shadow of the Singularity, that makes many people feel that there is no future, or rather, the future is unknowable. I’ve written about why I think this concept may be inhibiting SF. Another thing may be the failure of manned spaceflight. Most hopeful future-oriented SF includes space colonization and we’re just not doing it. It is cool sending robots to Mars and Jupiter, but it isn’t the same. The problem is people in space doesn’t really seem to make sense, and that puts us in the position where we want to have a moonbase because… because we want to have a moonbase. …

The third thing I see is anthropogenic climate change—far more than the threat of nuclear annihilation this seems to bring with it a puritan yearning for simpler greener life, self-hatred, and a corresponding distrust of science and especially progress. It isn’t the reality of climate change that’s the problem, it’s the mindset that goes with it. If you suggest to some people that small clean modern nuclear reactors are a good way of generating electricity they recoil in horror. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and sequels have people dealing with the climate change by planetary engineering, but that’s very unusual, mostly it gets into books as something to cower before.

And then there’s the fact that for the most part we don’t understand our technology any more. I know how a CRT monitor works—LCD, not so much. We have a lot of it, it has certainly progressed, but when we take the back off it’s very mysterious. I think this is part of the appeal of steampunk, looking back to a time when tech was comprehensible as well as made of brass. In a similar but related way, maybe progress is moving too fast for optimistic science fiction. … It’s hard to get ahead of that, except with disaster changing everything. Halting State was out of date practically before it was in paperback.

She asks her readers for examples of books that are:

  • Published since 2000
  • Set in our future (or anyway the future of when they were written)
  • With continuing scientific and technological progress
  • That would be nice places to live.

On her site people cannot come up with many near future positive stories. Can any Worldchanging readers suggest novels with positive environmental futures?

This post by Worldchanging Canada writer Garry Peterson was originally published on Resilience Science.

For more on this topic check out our Imagining the Future category.

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A decade ago I asked this question of Ursula K. LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson. They didn't have much to offer either.

I saw the future, once upon a time. It had some aspects of the past and other aspects of the present. It was livable and workable and made a lot of sense. It was the New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth, MA. New Alchemy no longer exists but the site is a solar cohousing development with a working market garden and hosts a farmers' market every year. Most of the people who worked there are still working on the same principles and ideas twenty years after it ended. John Todd, one of the founders, is teaching and building ecological design around the world.

If there's a positive future vision, I pick New Alchemy Institute.

Peter Head of the engineering firm Arup has a sustainable vision for the cities of 2050 when the world is expected to include 9 billion people:

Posted by: gmoke on 1 Apr 10

Kim Stanley Robinson was mentioned, but not "Pacific Edge" the third book in his "Three Californias" trilogy, which in my mind is a very believable Utopia. It is believable because it shows a very positive ecologically sound future where there are still problems. The problems involve personal and political conflict, things that probably won't go away. But that book came out twenty years ago. I have seen some new positive future oriented SF novels recently (I work at a big library) but can't remember their names off hand. Most seem to be from small presses or non-fiction publishers. I would like to see the genre go in that direction myself.

Posted by: Justin Patrick on 2 Apr 10

Not long ago, I read Larry Niven's classic novel 1970 Ringworld for the second time. Revisiting it so many years later, I was blown away by the novel's startling originality and by the "bigness" of its thinking.

This got me wondering: Where are all the big ideas in science fiction? Has the well gone dry?

When is the last time any of us read a new SF novel that wasn't either a retread of earlier ideas or a dystopian commentary on future (and present) decadence? As I scan back over my reading history, I can find several recent novels that I enjoyed quite a lot, but if I'm looking for the kind of huge thinking that characterizes the greatest SF writers, it seems in short supply today.

For me, the last truly great science fiction novel was Greg Egan's Diaspora (1998); that one can go alongside any of the early masterpieces from Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, et alia. The only newer book that I might put in that category is John C. Wright's The Golden Age (2002). Before that, the best of cyberpunk -- Steel Beach, Holy Fire, etc. -- is great stuff, but remember, it's also 15 to 20 years old.

Maybe I'm just evincing some general curmudgeonliness or longing for the (non-existent) good ol' days, but I suspect there is more to it than that.

In William Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, there is a line that alludes to, among other things, the plight of the science fiction writer in the early 21st century: "Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day," a marketing mogul theorizes, "one in which 'now' was of some greater duration."

So, perhaps we are experiencing a sort of collective post-millennial malaise, a contraction of imagination and energy stemming from the realization that we already are living in the future and it's not what we'd hoped for or expected.

Posted by: Mike Treder on 2 Apr 10

I wonder if there are really fewer positive stories about the future. Maybe publishers just aren't interested. Sort of like films, if there isn't a lot of swearing (or at least a little) in a script it is labeled phony, not believable or fake "moral majority" junk. It may have become the common belief that positive future stories don't sell or make money.... The good thing is people are noticing the whole, so the trend should change soon...I hope...and believe, but I am a dreamer. The future is bright and great!

Posted by: Craig Alciati on 2 Apr 10

It will be a highly CONTROLLED future with RFID chipping, electronic cashless transactions and corporate. Quaint concepts like freedom will be gone while corporations concentrate on providing the maximum production to the maximum number. IBM chips using satelittes will control everything globally with the financial and technical elite. Ultimate control but hopefully more of an even distribution of goods among the selected. The others will be gotten rid of one way or the other and humans will begin to look the same. Already happening, RFID in your passports and many people. "governments" have been rendered obsolete except as a front. Have a nice day.

Posted by: Tech on 3 Apr 10

Peter F Hamilton's Commonwealth Universe stories are set in a rather positive future setting, as does his Confederation Universe. They both come up against huge antagonists, but the theorized futures they life in both sound amazing; I'd give a body part to live in one of his bitek habitats.

Jack McDevitt's series that follows Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins isn't exactly positive, the "headlines" show the same issues of hunger, war, terrorism exist, but the human race does have established space travel & has colonised several planets.

Posted by: Eugenia on 4 Apr 10

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