A Philosopher's Blog

The Optimist Directive for Sci-Fi?

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 18, 2012
Cover of Hunter Patrol, written with John J. M...

Cover of Hunter Patrol, written with John J. McGuire (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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7 Responses

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  1. adaptorcry said, on May 18, 2012 at 6:41 am

    Do you think, perhaps, the increase of dark and hopeless tales is a global pandemic or is it a Western disease? I wonder if we, the great generic we, are too jaded for utopia?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 18, 2012 at 10:16 am

      Dystopian works do seem very Western, but this could be due to 1) the fact that the West has most of the media and 2) our sample would tend to be Western works. As such, it might not be specific to the West.

      I think Utopia came to an end about the time it was created (thanks, Voltaire).

  2. Edward Carney said, on May 18, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    “In light of this, it would seem completely reasonable to accept a connection between science fiction and innovation.”

    Yes, but it would not be reasonable to assume that that connection is a causal one. Just as likely, the authors correctly extrapolated from current trends in order to anticipate innovations that were to come about regardless. Also, it could be pure coincidence, with the appearance of connection largely being a consequence of cherry-picking examples and ignoring the writings that did not come true and the innovations that came about without being anticipated in writing.

    “…the bad can be inspiration, provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good.”

    I don’t quite see why that is necessary. Your statement seems to contradict the acknowledgement of negative inspiration. A positive ending to an otherwise dark story can be a source of positive inspiration, but it inspires the reader towards solving problems that are already ongoing, rather than anticipating and preventing problems that are yet to come. The latter is uniquely the purview of negative inspiration, and leveraging an optimistic sub-thread into a story that aspires to this kind of optimism is potentially counterproductive. If you set up a scenario that depicts absolute disaster of the Earth and its inhabitants, but then conclude it by suggesting that the world can still be rebuilt out of that destruction, you may convey the impression that the problems don’t necessarily have to be prevented ahead of time because things are going to work out in the end anyway.

    Global warming might be a worthwhile example. A story in which climate change devastates the ecology and human civilization but is normalized again by a rag-tag group of scientist-survivors might serve to support current perceptions that even if there is a problem we’ll still be able to address it when things get really bad. A story in which the destruction is irreversible would not have this effect, and might do a better job of generating political will for acting now to prevent catastrophe.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 19, 2012 at 10:42 am

      “Yes, but it would not be reasonable to assume that that connection is a causal one. Just as likely, the authors correctly extrapolated from current trends in order to anticipate innovations that were to come about regardless. Also, it could be pure coincidence, with the appearance of connection largely being a consequence of cherry-picking examples and ignoring the writings that did not come true and the innovations that came about without being anticipated in writing.”

      Those are reasonable points. After all, to say that the invention of A was influenced by a sci-fi story about A could be a mere post hoc. However, there are clear cases in which a causal link can be reasonably attributed, such as when innovators actually say that they were influenced by science fiction. Star Trek, for example, gets credited as an influence on some inventions.

      >“…the bad can be inspiration, provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good.”<

      "I don’t quite see why that is necessary. Your statement seems to contradict the acknowledgement of negative inspiration."

      I don't claim it is a matter of necessity, but you are right to note that a completely pessimistic story could have a positive influence. As you note, tales that end in failure, doom, death and disaster could motivate people to try to avoid that fate in the real world. I would, however, contend that it might be more effective to have at least the possibility of the good being present. Using your example of climate change, a story that essentially said "the earth was doomed and nothing could be done, there was no possibility of the good" would seem to be more likely to lead people to think that there is nothing they can do now than to inspire them to change. Now, if the story ends in disaster, but also includes the idea that something could have been done to change things, then that could have a positive impact.

      Thanks for the insightful comments.

  3. D said, on May 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    How many literary works though, are dystopian due to a rejection of industrial age (etc.) society that romantically fantasizes about a return to a more agricultural lifestyle and values?

    For myself, personally, I’m a huge fan of modern antibiotics, dentistry and indoor plumbing, but I can see the other perspective, too.

  4. John Nelson said, on May 24, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    In books with post-apocalyptic landscape, I always look for hints on how we got in such a mess. During the Cold War the common reason was nuclear destruction, but that’s been done and over done.

    In my dystopian thriller Against Nature I start off in the present (post-9/11 American landscape) and we travel together into the destruction. The catalyst is a global pandemic; a disease without a cure. The sins of our recent past (torture, secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, domestic spying, military tribunals and wars based on falsified intelligence) come back to haunt us. Those misdeeds perpetrated on foreign soil wash up on our shores during a catstrophic national crisis.
    You can use our current social dysfunction as a starting point for designing a modern dystopia. You don’t have to just start off in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 24, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      True-that has been effectively worn out, at least until some clever writer comes up with a new twist. Or enough time passes for it to become retro-cool.

      Tracing the path of the apocalypse is an interesting approach. As you note, the usual deal is that the work opens after the disaster (the world was nuked years ago or zombies have been running around for a while). There have been some exceptions to this, of course (such as Dawn of the Dead).

      I always expected the dust mites would get us.🙂

      Good luck with the book. Have you started negotiating a movie deal?🙂

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