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Positive Science Fiction – Understanding Humanity

  In my last post, I concluded with the suggestion that a realistic understanding of humanity would cast us in a positive light and that this may be one of the reasons that fiction that conveys a hopeful mood is appealing to many people. Consciously or subconsciously they may understand that this vision of humanity is closer to the truth than that implied in darker fiction in which negative human traits appear to be the norm.

In our age of instant communication and information overload, it is easy to see why people can get a negative impression of humanity. The news headlines are full of accounts of horrendous acts perpetrated by people upon other people but the important thing we must remember is that these news stories do not represent normal human behavior. That is why they are news. We hear a lot about crime, but here in the United States crime has actually been falling for at least 20 years. You would never know this based on what you see in the news. Conflicts that are resolved nonviolently outnumber those that result in war or bloodshed but they get far less attention. The events that fill the media are the exceptions and when much of our understanding about the world comes from this source, we can understandably conclude they are the norm when they are not.

Taken out of their historical context, headline stories about individual psychopaths, violent extremist groups, corrupt officials, greedy businessmen, economic disparity, hunger, disease, war, and natural disasters can shock and disturb people. And they should. That shock proves our humanity and supports the idea that people, in general, are decent. If they weren’t, such stories would be entertaining rather than disturbing.

Now the philosophers out there (pretentious buggers that they are) will object that I am taking a culturally biased position. I freely admit that. In our culture, well, mine anyway, things like peace, mutual respect, individual freedom, fairness, honesty, and the like are considered “positive” and laudable goals. Violence, intolerance, and subjugation are thought of as “negative.” But this post is about speculative fiction and how it is seen as either positive or negative by people who share my culture, which is that of people prone to reading speculative fiction.

As another bow to the pesky philosophers, let me just clarify that I am using the term “culture” in this instance to mean core fundamental beliefs and perceptions that are held by a group of people. Different groups of people have different cultures (or perhaps we should call them subcultures). In the modern world, culture is less geographically homogenous than it was in the past and any one person’s culture may be closer to someone who lives 10,000 miles (16,000km) away than it is with their physical next door neighbor. But when all humanity is grouped and all the separate cultural elements are combined, we can talk generally at least about a human culture.

But back to the point, if one’s subculture regardless of where they physically live leads them to truly believe that the world would be a better place if people who do not share their religion, nationality, gender, politics or taste in music should be suppressed or even killed, I feel compelled to say that I think human nature and the flow of history are against them but I won’t try to argue the point. Chances are we won’t like the same books anyway.

The indisputable fact is that mankind has progressed over time and continues to progress both technologically and culturally. Whether your view takes in the last 40,000 years or only the last 400 years the result is the same. It is not steady progress or universal by any means and there have been temporary declines but the trend has been toward peace, prosperity, mutual respect, and discovery. I think this is because people are fundamentally builders rather than destroyers and they are capable of rational thought and decision making if they are free to do so. The reason why this has happened is secondary though. It has happened.

Statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species’ existence. People alive today have a much lower chance of being the victims of violence than at any time in history, or probably even prehistory. Individuals regardless of their social class, beliefs, gender, or ethnicity are almost universally regarded as having the same basic rights. Think of things not only common but considered normal not all that long ago such as slavery, genocide, the burning of heretics, gruesome executions, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, foot-binding, torture, mutilation, animal cruelty, wars of conquest, colonialism, and subjugation. Now think about how such things are considered today.

The rejection of acts such as these, which I think most of us would see as barbaric, did not happen all at once. From a historical perspective it has been fairly rapid though and each of these cultural advancements has been built on those that came before it. We didn’t go from genocide to racial and ethnic equality or from the Inquisition to religious freedom in one step but we did get there. Humanity seen on the large scale has progressed and continues to progress.

We have also made significant advances in our understanding of the universe and have used this knowledge to our benefit. I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate much on this point as it seems obvious. No one can seriously dispute that our achievements in science and technology have helped us to live longer, healthier, and more comfortable lives. Don’t undervalue things like indoor plumbing, electric lights, and microwave ovens. These may not sound significant but try living without them for a week.

People today are also more likely to survive childbirth and infancy, and recover from disease. Statistically, we are less likely to suffer from hunger, exposure, and even from natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes than our ancestors. These things still happen but we have learned to deal with them better.

What may not be as obvious is that there has been a significant cultural shift in the last few centuries that I think is likely to accelerate our rate of progress. We have learned how to learn, or maybe it is better to say that we have learned that we can learn. We no longer view the universe as a mystical and unknowable vastness that imposes its will on us. It is something we can study, understand and affect to better ourselves. This insight has led to us placing an increased value on widespread literacy, education, research, exploration and discovery. These types of things are valued now not just by an educated elite but by most people because their benefits are recognizable in our everyday lives. This paradigm shift is not yet complete but I think it is irreversible. We have learned that we don’t have to suffer whatever fate the universe has decreed for us. We can change it. We can make things better.

This doesn’t mean that progress is inevitable, just that it has happened and is still happening. This suggests to me that we as a species have an innate need to improve ourselves and that we are capable of doing so.

Can humanity digress? Can it return to increased violence and intolerance? Of course. This is not impossible. But the fact is that such things have decreased over the history of human civilization. If we are to extrapolate from this based on the logical assumption that the future will be like the past, we would have to conclude that we will continue to make slow and steady progress and will eventually be able to find ways to overcome most obstacles that are presented to us.

Much of current science fiction, if not fiction in general, seems to take the opposite stand, that continued progress is either unlikely or will lead to irresolvable problems. Despite the fact that history shows otherwise, these dark tales are often touted by critics as being more realistic. Clearly, they are not. Based on what mankind has accomplished and continues to accomplish, fiction that carries a positive mood and image of humanity is more realistic.

In my next post in this series, I will discuss why I think positive fiction is especially appealing to science fiction readers and why I think there should be more of it.


Related Posts:

Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

Positive Science Fiction – Emerging from the Dark

   I was cruising the internet a few days ago for book recommendations and I stumbled across a discussion on Amazon between people looking for science fiction novels that have a positive outlook on the future. These can be a bit difficult to find, which was why I was looking myself.

There is no widely recognized “positive” subgenre for science fiction or fantasy. I checked, which means I ran the phrase through an internet search engine, which might not pass muster for a thesis but I figured it was sufficient research for a blog post. I found some mentions of “positive science fiction” but the term is not well defined although several people seem to think we need more of it. I would be one of them.

I had a pretty good idea of what I meant by the term. I know what I like to read and so after a bit of I thought I concluded that the essential distinction between a work of positive fiction and one of negative or dark fiction is the mood it conveys.

It certainly seems as if most of the new releases by both traditional and indie authors tend toward the dark side (no pun intended). They often take place in apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings in which war, environmental collapse, starvation, disease, overpopulation, or alien invasion play a key role. Sometimes they are dystopian in which economic exploitation, intolerance, oppressive ideologies, and other curses of our past are resurrected to plague humanity.

The one thing most of these have in common, I think, is a negative perception of mankind. They imply that our species is not intelligent or enlightened enough to successfully address problems before they lead to some kind of catastrophe and we are forced to deal with disastrous consequences as best we can afterwards. They start with an unspoken and, I think, mistaken premise that most people (including nonhuman aliens) are, by nature, stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish, and that it is only the rare individual who can rise above these tendencies. The protagonists in such stories are often such exceptional people and the plots show how they struggle and possibly even triumph over whatever it was they are confronted with. But even when the protagonist wins, even when the theme of the book is obviously to serve as a warning, the mood (the prevailing emotion the reader is left with after reading such a story) is negative because the protagonist is the rare exception. When the reader turns the last page and arrives back in the real world, they are left with a residual impression of humanity that is depressing, hopeless or discouraging.

The mood conveyed by a piece of positive fiction is almost exactly the opposite. A word I found often when researching “positive science fiction” was “hopeful” and that is certainly one of the moods a work of positive fiction can provide. Others might include, fanciful, happy, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, optimistic, or even thoughtful. Positive fiction seems to start with a different assumption about humanity, that people in general are fairly decent. It is the antagonist in these stories who is often the exception. The protagonists in such stories may have some exceptional abilities or resources at their disposal but in most ways they are representative of mankind in general. They are “good” people.

This positive premise is, I think, more accurate, which may be part of the reason it is appealing, at least to me. Why it does not dominate the speculative fiction market is a different question and one I can only speculate about.

I can hear the cynics already. People are decent? Come on! Don’t you read the news? Don’t you know what the real world is like?

Yes, of course. That is precisely my point but it will have to wait in order to keep this post at a reasonable length. Why I think this positive view of humanity is more accurate will be the subject of my next and significantly longer post.

Related Posts:
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood

Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?

The Unique Perspective of Doctor Who

 With the next new episode of Doctor Who coming out at the end of this month on BBC America, I figured this was a good time to do a post on why I like Doctor Who because, based on the plot line, I really shouldn’t.

If you are not familiar with Doctor Who, and many Americans are not, I encourage you to check it out. It’s been around since 1963 and is the longest running science fiction T.V. show ever. Prior to the new series, which began in 2005 (and which I personally find absolutely brilliant), the episodes had an almost ‘homemade’ feel and the special effects were pretty basic. These are not the reasons it should not have appealed to me though.

The premise of the series is that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey and he travels in his TARDIS, a space-time vehicle with the outward appearance of a 1960s era British police call box (although it is much bigger on the inside). He almost always has human companions who he seems to truly care for (platonically).

I am not normally drawn to time travel based plots because I don’t think time travel is plausible in any practical sense. I also find the paradoxes involved difficult to fit into any coherent philosophical outlook and irreconcilable with my personal understanding of physics. Since I am unable to suspend disbelief in this particular area, I cannot normally get into time travel stories.

But I really like Doctor Who. Why?

It is the character of the Doctor I find compelling. There is his quixotic outlook toward injustice, his almost childlike sense of wonder, his enthusiasm for discovery, and, of course, his unique sense of fashion. The combination makes for a mildly eccentric and totally likeable character. But what I find most appealing about the Doctor is his perception of humanity.

In many, if not most science fiction stories, aliens come in two types insofar as their regard toward humanity goes; hostile and benign indifference. The Doctor is different. He does not see humans as worthy adversaries (e.g. Klingons), best ignored (e.g. Vulcans), or lunch (e.g. Alien). He finds us fascinating and, surprisingly, admirable and inspiring. Yes, we can certainly be barbaric, judgmental, superstitious, and paranoid but he also sees that we recognize these shortcomings and work to overcome them.

The way he looks at humanity as a whole across time and simultaneously as unique individuals provides the basis for his unique perspective. A few episodes, very few, suggest that the Doctor himself is “half human,” but it remains unclear if this is meant to describe his genetics or his attitude. Which of these it actually is hardly matters though with regard to his unique outlook. He sees us from the inside, as individuals inhabiting specific points in space-time, as well as from the outside, as an evolving species across the vast expanse of space-time, and he admires our desire and ability to progress and grow, both as individuals and as a species. Our need to understand the universe and ourselves, our capacity to reflect and question our assumptions, our instinct for compassion–these are the things that have allowed us to go from competing bands of odiferous vermin collectors heaving shards of flint at one another, to large, technologically advanced societies with (relatively) just laws, which strive to coexist. He seems certain that these traits will allow us to continue to learn, understand and evolve. I would like to believe he is right.

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