Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness. — Cioran, History and Utopia
There’s a fault line running in science fiction that predates it: the Great Optimism -Pessimism divide. The most obvious trope of each is the role of utopia/dystopia in the science fiction work, but that is slightly more complicated than it appears.
After Leibniz first defined optimism as the idea that the world is the best of all possible worlds because it had been chosen by the Creator out of all possible worlds, Voltaire satirized that notion as a utopia in his novel, Candide, and the trope was born.
Today, optimists think the task of science fiction is the romantic and idealistic version that start with big ideas, and unleash a horde of clean-cut all-American engineers at impossible problems, often solving them with laser guns. Neal Stephenson is the best current exponent, but at its worst it’s a right wing reactionary spit-take at the Hugo Awards. Optimists in scifi promise that space elevators to asteroid colonies for off-world mining, and nanotechnology to solve hunger and cure disease, are all just around the corner.
In Voltaire’s Candide, an exaggerated version of optimism results in a Pollyanna-ish caricature that projects a naive form of utopia, which can be self-destructive with a fatalistic attitude towards the future. That means a practical orientation of optimism that gives hope and anticipates a better future, a better condition of the human condition is necessary and takes steps towards that actualization.
Optimists understand that the Utopia trope has a function in catalyzing change for today. Whereas other forms of utopia in literature and myths, a Hyperborea or Shangri-La, depict a location elsewhere in space than in time, or in the past or in a world beyond time and space, Utopian imagination in science fiction is located in the future. But without any plausible account of transforming agents and processes that could help change wishful thinking into political action, such depictions of utopia function as compensation (escapism) or critique. In a challenging world, escapism may help bolster the reader, and critique may hold up a mirror to the present to expose its defective characteristics and effects, and help propose alternatives.
The common definition of pessimism is often determined by its detractors by consigning it as defeatism, where the glass is half empty. Only the worst can be expected, for nothing is getting better anytime soon. However, the astute writer gets beyond this facile impression and grasps the complexity of existence, thanks to the teachings of the Buddha and Schopenhauer. Being born into existence necessarily means being born into suffering, due to the ineradicable nature of desire.
The pessimist scans through the science fiction glass darkly. They are equally romantic as the optimists regarding utopias, but they are too aware that it’s not here yet, despite a century’s worth of triumphalist futurism. Whoever shills for utopia today is burning off the remaining carbon based fuel on this world. Indeed, pessimists do agree that the job of science fiction is to align big ideas with people, and function as a blueprint for the future. But in doing so, we’re drinking up all the fresh water and making room for brand new horrible diseases, while abdicating control of global food supply to a couple of mega-national corporate giants.
The best current exponent of this view is Paolo Bacigalupi, who developed a new genre in scifi on the tail end of the cyberpunk: the biopunk. Less dystopian, and more post-apocalyptic, the biopunk consists of a post-oil world that’s destroyed by global warming, exploited by corporations, as well as bio-engineered humans who survive the blasted landscape. There’s no frontier in space, no convenient source of infinite energy that doesn’t pollute.
Such pessimistic writers are resigned to the realization that utopia has lost the catalyst for change, and has degenerated to palliative consolation or cheap criticism. Writers like Bacigalupi are all-too aware of the disparity between the imagined future of space age scifi and the horrific nature of current trends. This leads writers like Stephenson to make the claim that in recent decades we are suffering from some kind of “innovation starvation,” because science fiction has moved away from the techno-optimism of the golden age, towards a more skeptical and ambiguous tone.
Brief History of Scifi
In the United States, this is at least partially true, because the precursor of technological optimism began with Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories in 1926, and remained the prevailing ideology until Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. After the advent of the atomic bomb, as well as the Cold War, science fiction could no longer pretend to be value neutral with respect to technology and society. The emerging paranoid atmosphere in the fifties helped shift the focus from technology to sociology and politics.
Moreover, Stephenson’s rhetoric doesn’t hold especially if we look at the entire history of science fiction. Dystopian science fiction was already prominent in the first half of the 20th century, especially in Europe (R.U.R. by Karel Capek, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World by Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell), given the political pressures of the time (two World Wars, Depression, fascism, communism, etc). Nowadays, dystopian science fiction is back on the upswing, due to young adult and teenagers consumers who are trying to cope with the sheer hypocrisy of our times. In other words, science fiction writers and consumers are much more in tune with the Zeitgeist than Stephenson is willing to credit them with.
It is true that many scifi writers resist the easy categorization of optimistic and pessimistic, because while some of their stories do focus on reconciliation based on some harmony between technological man and nature, making it optimistic, they often write in an elegiac and nostalgic tone, making it pessimistic.
Others mediate between such extremes of optimism and pessimism, often in the ironic mode, which is the result of events that are contrariwise to what was or may have been expected. Ironic writers understand more than sarcasm or cynicism, they incorporate the vastness and unpredictability of things. J. G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, and recently, Iain Banks, William Gibson are some of the more well-known science fiction ironists. In my opinion, the best working science fiction ironist today is Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, largely because he has realized the fundamental truth of science fiction – technology can change lives, but not who we are.
Consequently, this fault line does not need to be a black or white issue. This does not reduce to facile opposites like Tomorrowland versus Snowpiercer, or Star Trek versus Bladerunner. The stark reality is that we will end up with a misshapen combination of all of these versions. After all, Gibson did say that the future is already here – just not evenly distributed. The future won’t look like an update of San Francisco or Tokyo – it’s more likely going to look like Damascus or Lagos or Makeni. In order to get the future we want, we will have to fight the one we already have.