Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform

Note: Revised 10/1/08 in response to Jetse’s comments below. Key revisions: (a) Renaming the “manifesto to a “platform,” and (b) An open invitation for everyone to chime in, remix, add, change: consider this the beginnings of an open source platform on positive science fiction, and use it as you’d like, (c) some clarification about characters, big and small.

Okay, so it seems that the debate about positive SF has heated up. Starting with Damien Walters’ blogpost in the Guardian, continuing with Lou Anders and Jetse de Vries and Gareth Lyn Powell and Kathryn Cramer.

I feel slightly responsible for all of this. After all, following Jetse in January, I called for positive change in SF back in February, and followed it up with clarification after that original post was picked up on i09, Futurismic, WorldChanging, and Velcro City here.

And, despite lots of words about how positive science fiction can still be gritty, realistic, and encompass lots and lots of scary crap, people still don’t know what positive science fiction is. So, here’s a shot at a definition:

Positive science fiction starts with acknowledging that there are positive things happening, now. Whether we’re talking about real advances in science, or simply the fact that there are people out there trying to do good things, the world is not, and never will be, a monolithic entity seeking to destroy the ecosystem and enslave the population. Such a monoculture is impossible outside of scenarios that include complete mind control of everyone on the planet. And novels set in such a world would be very, very boring.

Positive science fiction is about the possibility of positive change. If the system is so big and the characters so small, there is no possibility for change. All we can do is watch as the mechanism of the world turns. All we can take away from this is that we can do nothing; we might as well roll around on the ground, crying, saying, “Woe is me! There is no hope!” There has to be a possibility of change. Even if that change isn’t fully realized. Even if that change isn’t what we expect. Even if that change is, in itself, frightening.

Positive science fiction has a protagonist or protagonists that can effect change. Small characters are perfectly fine—but if they can’t pick themselves up and rise above their origins, then why are we spending any time with them? Why can’t we include a full palette of characters who are captains of industry, or doods-next-door with a mission, or brilliant scientists, or girls who bootstapped themselves to fame, or even trust fund babies bent on doing good–or evil–or simply serving their own complex personalities? We need to remember that Elon Musk is not only an “Evil CEO,” but that he made his billions in the dot-boom ecommerce days–and is now head of such forward-looking companies as SpaceX and Tesla Motors. It seems to me that many authors would be well-served by continuing to spend time in business and industry (and not just at a copywriter level). The perspective is invaluable in creating real, believable characters on every level.

Positive science fiction isn’t afraid to look at challenging definitions of “positive.” What we consider “positive” is heavily colored by our politics, our scarcity-based economy, and the current state of the world. A positive mid-future or far-future world might be very, very different than we expect, especially if we start heading into post-scarcity based scenarios. I think of an iPod Touch full of rap videos and Torchwood torrents being transported back to Victorian England. Would they be in awe of our technology—or would they recoil from our mores?

Positive science fiction inspires people to act and influence positive change. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world of slackers who can do nothing more than complain about “the man” and “the system.” I want people to be inspired to get the education and do the work necessary to get us off the planet. To fix the environment. To figure out systems that don’t need to go through destructive boom and bust cycles. To extend our lifespans. To discover wholly new frontiers. To create new life. To develop true artificial intelligence. To make workable nanotechnology. To create space elevators. We will not do this by wallowing in sorrow; we will not do this by bemoaning our fate; we will not do this by laying about on the couch.

So, is this the do-all prescription for instant science fiction relevance and growth? No, of course not. Like I append many of my posts with: this is one doods opinion. This is a start. If you’d like to chime in, that’s great. If you’d like to take this piece in its entirety and remix it, change it, and make it your own, have at it. I have only a single agenda: I’d like to see science fiction succeed.

And, in the end, I agree with Jetse. Moving science fiction in a more positive direction isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. If we can’t help point the ways to the answers, then what use are we, really?

September 27th, 2008 / 1,386 Comments »

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