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Sci-Fi Swings towards Positivism

  1. Jul 22, 2014 #1


    Staff: Mentor

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2014 #2
    Well, Sci-fi in its heyday extrapolated the future as a continuation of the very high rate of apparent technological development and standard of living seen between perhaps 1940 and 1970. Then came the cancellation of Apollo, the space shuttle and all it failed to be, the oil crisis, Harrisburg, Chernobyl, environmentalism coming into the foreground...

    No one is going to write a bestseller about what NASA might do in 20-30 years because people know what ever is being planned will very likely be canned. Dystopias can be a way to show facets of human nature that aren't always apparent in our own relatively comfortable lives. At worst it'll be an ill thought out and failed analogy to real and perceived injustices in our own world (YES BLOMKAMP, I MEAN YOU).

    Compare that to utopia, which just like the latter will tend to be very colored by the political ideals and world view of the author. What is one man's utopia, might some times be someone else's dystopia, but dystopias, being more universal, are rarely the utopias of others. They're simply more universal. There is also the risk that "everything always ends well" removes much of the conflict/drama that drives the plot.
  4. Jul 22, 2014 #3
    I see pretty much positive thing in W40k for example.
    (Ok i saw that Imperium a bad place until i didnt watch BSG.)
  5. Jul 22, 2014 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    The point of the article was for Sci-Fi writers to become more proactive in creating a new future by not using plot devices like hyperspace, havoc or hackers. Its much easier to write a doomsday story than to create a new society with novel engineering and science ideas. Its something the older generation of sci-fi writers did quite well which in turn inspired kids to become scientists and engineers.
  6. Jul 22, 2014 #5
    It's not really about Dystopia vs. Utopia, it's more about breaking away from the constant barrage of, "In the future, everything turns bad because the people at the top are corrupt and people are selfish and eventually everything will collapse!" and take the tougher route of saying, "Times are tough, but it's possible that we'll pull through and do this pretty cool thing".

    The trouble is creating an engaging story in that climate. It's fairly simple to create an exciting story about a few people fighting against an utterly broken system. It's exciting when there's a clear boundary between the bad guys and the good guys (or, more appropriately, between the bad worldview and good worldview). It's somewhat more difficult to paint a picture of a society which has progressed technologically and socially, but still has problems (especially coming up with what those problems may be).

    I guess the epitome/extreme of this idea might be found in Star Trek (TNG delved into this more deeply, I think) where it is constantly explained that the Federation is a society that's pretty darn good. They have no use for money, there is no racial/sexual/gender discrimination, everyone is educated and can live a comfortable life. Yet, they struggle with morality as they deal with the problems of enforcing their Prime Directive.

    Or, take Asimov's Foundation series. The premise of the story is that the galactic society is in fact in a pretty good place (not utopian, but mostly pretty good) for most people but there is an impending catastrophic downfall thousands of years in the future. Asimov's characters must battle human short-sightedness in order to preserve relative comfortability (not even to create a utopia, just to prevent a dystopia).

    These types of stories must, almost necessarily, be driven by characters and social issues, which is pretty tough to do. So, we see lots of stories of good guys fighting against a broken system.

    disclaimer: that's not to say that dystopian stories can't be just as thought provoking and clever as the positive-driven stories. They're just different. Dystopian stories take current trends of society and extrapolate (and typically exaggerate) them into potential undesirable outcomes and explore why those trends are bad. Positively driven stories imagine a future where many issues are solved, or where we have progressed technologically faster than we have socially, and try to imagine how society would function and what the issues would be.

    My take on what the article, and in particular Mr. Crow, is saying is that while dystopian stories can surely be entertaining, and while they may spur conversation or thought into social issues, what we need more of is the technological wonder created by stories set in a future where society has progressed much further than what we have now. What engineer was inspired by 1984? Maybe some CCTV enthusiast, but that's about it. But things like Star Trek (I'm not a trekkie, it's just a darn good example!) inspired countless youths to enter science fields because the stories and setting inspired wonder and imagination.
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2014
  7. Jul 24, 2014 #6


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    Science fiction is story-telling. For a science fiction story to sell and survive as literature, it must tell an interesting story and tell it well. That means that predictability, stereotypes and cliches must be avoided. Good guys must not always wear white hats, win over evil and get the girl in the end. Realism should prevail, with good and bad blurring together in fresh appealing ways. A science fiction story with both feet grounded in positivism, deliberately concocted to convey an optimistic image of the future my be a commercial failure in a market expecting a gritty realism they can identify with.

    On the other hand, it is a truism that artists - writers, painters, poets, singers, musicians, etc. - often function as Pied Pipers and lead the culture to new ways of understanding life and reality. If a positivist can artfully tell an optimistic tale of the future to entrain a queue of new young scientists and engineers, that would be a great achievement.
  8. Jul 25, 2014 #7

    "This organization creeps me out. A planet-wide government that runs everything, and that has abolished money. A veritable planetary DMV. Oh sure, it looks like a cool place when you're rocketing around in a Federation Starship, but I wonder how the guy driving a Federation dump truck feels about it? "

    In my book, i dont plan to be positive... war in space, pollution, wide spread poverty, tyranny, Aliens like places... i see i need such a frame for making a big epic story. Otherwise... i guees i rather want to inspire people to avoid greed and dont develop AIs for war purposes.
  9. Jul 25, 2014 #8
    Most Sci-fi TV shows are rather positive, Star Trek has been mentioned but there is also Babylon 5 where all the younger races unite to re-claim their galaxy, or Stargate where humanity of Earth, through cunning repeatedly saves itself and ends up winning against multiple far more powerful opponents.

    The thing with TV-shows, in particular ones adhering to older (until ~1995) canon is that they very strongly tend to solve things through "reversing the polarity of the polaritons," simple deus ex machina solutions that would simply not work in written form where you don't have had hundreds of hours and help from actors to gradually build characters as well as cool CGI and sound effects, but instead must rely on things being balanced and well, believable to achieve "suspension of disbelief".

    Hence, books are less positive than TV shows and movies, but also tend more towards realism. Then of course there is the whole "sci fi as thinly veiled social criticism" trend which in me causes almost an allergic reaction.

    Lets take for example the relatively recent movie Elysium:

    A society which has:
    the ability to build a ring-shaped space station humongously big enough to have open roofs
    the ability to build single-stage to orbit shuttles with almost no visible fuel/reaction mass tanks capable of also hovering for hours
    the ability to heal extreme injuries such as heads turned into bolognese-like mush in something like a minute.

    Also has a ridiculous amount (100 billion?) of brown people, who are apparently incapable of creating anything but crime and poverty ridden ghettos with 2000s vintage technologies in the 2100s. These are the guys your are supposed to root for because the USA in our days are treating Mexican immigrants badly, and the whole movie doesn't have make sense because it is at its core not sci fi, it is social criticism with cool CGI.

    But enough ranting! As long as it is well written, sure, go on, write some positive sci fi! But there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of grimdark to make people appreciate their everyday lives :)
  10. Oct 7, 2014 #9


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    In a novel, you must have a struggle. How do you have a struggle if everything is peachy? (It can be done, but it's just a lot harder. So it's no surprise that most SciFi are dystopian)
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