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Positive Science Fiction – A Better World

   In the first post in this series, I defined a work of positive fiction as one that conveys a hopeful, optimistic, or other positive mood. In the second post, I argued that the positive image of humanity that supports this mood in science fiction is a realistic one. In this, the final post of the series (or the last one I’ve planned anyway), I will discuss why I think positive science fiction is especially appealing and why I think there should be more of it.

I struggled with how to present this case because there are several points that need to be made. Let me start out with this one, which may be a bit controversial. Speculative fiction is fundamentally a more intellectual genre than others. That may be something of a value call though so let me rephrase it. Speculative fiction, especially science fiction, causes us to step outside our current world and look back at it. In this way it is the most philosophical and scientific of fiction genres because it can question pretty much anything. Every belief, every assumption, every aspect of culture is open to scrutiny. Like other genres, speculative fiction begins with our real world but it isn’t set there. It wouldn’t be speculative if it was. Something must be different and I don’t mean just ray guns or flying cars. The addition of some high tech hardware or alien life does not make a work of fiction speculative by itself. I try to avoid the pejorative use of the term ‘sci-fi’ (sometimes pronounced skiffy) because I don’t necessarily agree that the distinction between sci-fi and SF is as clear as some seem to believe. But a novel with flying cars isn’t true science fiction if all other aspects of the setting are essentially the same as those where the reader lives. It may be ‘sci-fi’ but not SF or speculative fiction.

Science fiction posits a truly different world that would feel strange to us if we were dropped into it. It can have flying cars or ray guns or even ghosts, gremlins, or two-headed crocodile gods but these must have some plausible explanation, at least plausible enough for an intelligent reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist but some means of differentiation is needed.

Speculative fiction often begins by asking, “What if?” What if history unfolded differently? What if something happens tomorrow that challenges our current assumptions? What would we do? How would our world be changed? Many works of soft science fiction especially look at current human cultures and contrast them to what could be. They remind us that human society as it exists today is just one of an almost infinite number of conceivable possibilities, some of which may appear better and some worse.

This questioning of everything is the defining characteristic of speculative fiction and it is what sets it apart from other fiction genres. It is also what makes some people truly dislike it. This brings me to my next point.

People who read speculative fiction are especially bright. The intellectual challenge of being exposed to a different world where very little can be assumed excites them. They want to figure out what makes this fictional world different from their own and how it works. They are open minded and willing to entertain questions about their own beliefs and assumptions. They understand that they occupy a single point in space-time and that it is not a privileged position. Not everyone is comfortable with this. Some may not be capable of it. But speculative fiction readers thrive on such mind stretching questions.

In all speculative fiction something is different than it is in our world and science fiction stories show us how people are affected by those differences. In order to do this believingly, or entertainingly in the case of fiction that is humorous, satirical, or intentionally unbelievable (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the author needs an understanding of humanity and how it might react to such differences, which brings us back to that underlying question about the fundamental nature of mankind. The one thing fictional stories must retain is a realistic image of humanity otherwise readers will not be able to identify or empathize with the characters.

The types of people who are drawn to speculative fiction are capable of asking big questions and they are capable of seeing the big picture. I believe that are also likely to understand that a species such as our own cannot go from flint knives to spaceships without having something going for it. Humanity has demonstrated that it can accomplish great things and readers of speculative fiction especially are likely to appreciate this either consciously or subconsciously. If a fictional story is based upon the mistaken premise that humanity as a whole is stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish then the story will seem contrived to them. They may have a hard time understanding exactly why but it will feel wrong.

For intelligent and insightful readers such as these, positive science fiction can provide a tonic to cure the misconceptions about humanity and its future that the news and mainstream fiction can convey. It can remind us that humanity has progressed and is likely to continue to progress, it can help us put current events into a more historical perspective so they can be seen more accurately, and it can reaffirm a sense of hope and optimism for our future.

Consider what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction in the middle of the last century. The stories that mark this period were often a celebration of human achievement and they inspired not only a sense of wonder about the universe but a hopeful image of continued human exploration and discovery. Stories such as these are the true roots of science fiction. They were a different type of story for a different type of reader and I think part of their appeal was because they were based on a truer understanding of what humanity was and what it is capable of.

It may be something of a cliché but fiction really does shape our future. This is especially true for science fiction. I attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was held the first weekend of October 2011 here in Orlando. This was a gathering of scientists, engineers, and even science fiction writers and philosophers to discuss the future of human space exploration. A point that was made in several talks was how much science fiction had inspired people. One speaker said that an impromptu survey he took of his engineering students revealed that over 80% of them listed Scotty from Star Trek as their primary motivation for going into that discipline. The works of Asimov, Heinlein, and others from the golden age of science fiction were also credited as being major inspirations for scientists and engineers.

Think about that and consider what current mainstream science fiction might be inspiring young people to become if anything. As writers it is our job to entertain, not shape the future but intentionally or not this is something that fiction can do. And I think we should ask ourselves if we are helping to create a bright future or a dismal one.

I would like to see science fiction return to its golden age roots. Other fiction genres can take the dark side but true science fiction should not. I suppose a subgenre distinction could be make between “mainstream” science fiction, which follows the tone and mood of other genres to appeal to wider audiences and “true” or “positive” science fiction, which carries a more hopeful (and truer) tone and mood but I can find no indication that this distinction is being widely made. Perhaps it should be.

Related Posts:

Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity

The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream
On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream

For the last three days, I have been attending the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Twitter search: 100YSS) The following statement from their website describes the intent of the symposium.

The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.

The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.

I went to this event with my son, a recently graduated aerospace engineer whose Master’s thesis was on nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. He wanted to go because this is directly related to his field of expertise. I went because I am a speculative fiction writer with a long time interest in the dream of space exploration and because ten renowned science fiction authors were there as panel members to talk about science fiction and its influence on science fact: Stephen Baxter, Geoffrey A. Landis, Allen Steele, Gregory Benford, Robert J. Sawyer, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Haldeman, G. David Nordley, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge. I was privileged to speak with Robert J. Sawyer, during one of the breaks. He is an amazing fellow.

The sense of wonder the DARPA statement mentions above struck a chord with me. I feel that sense of wonder. My children seem to as well. I almost cannot conceive why everyone does not share this feeling.

When I was a child all too many years ago, I was inspired by books for young adults with space faring heroes, most notably, or at least memorable, was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. I had them all. The science was badly flawed, the characters were shallow, but the books conveyed a dream of space exploration and discovery and I became infected. I read more science fiction, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Sagan and others. I was fascinated with movies about human exploration of space, especially 2001 A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and, years later, Contact. Star Trek created such a hopeful vision for the future that I eagerly embraced it and its cancellation as a television series felt like the end of the world to me, or at least the end of a dream. Later, I felt a resurgence of the dream with the airing of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Of all the science documentaries ever produced, Cosmos, in my mind, is the one that best conveys that sense of wonder the DARPA statement talks about. But again the dream seemed to be shared by only a few.

Humanity must explore and expand to the stars. I believe this as almost a matter of faith. When I was younger, I felt that our exploration of space was inevitable. Now I think it is imperative but that it may not happen — at least, not soon. I feel that somehow we have lost our communal sense of wonder. We have lost the dream. I support the mission of the 100 Year Starship to reinvigorate that dream. I sincerely hope it can. But what can I do, what can we do to help?

Each according to his or her abilities, I suppose. I am a fledgling soft science fiction writer. I saw the genre of speculative fiction, especially books targeted at young adults, trending toward heroes who resolve problems with magic. I have nothing against magic as a plot device and I enjoy fantasy fiction but I felt there was a need for more fictional heroes who expressed skepticism about magical explanations and who searched beyond them to discover how things really were. My first three books carry that as a theme. They begin with items purported to be magical and the characters need to look beyond that simple explanation in order to resolve their problems. Although the setting for these books is a human colony on a distant planet, they are not specifically about space exploration. After my experience at the 100 Year Starship symposium, I am toying with ideas for my fourth novel that will more prominently feature space exploration. This may be the best I can do to encourage this sense of wonder. What can you do?

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