Optimistic Science Fiction

The best optimistic science fiction, interesting discussion at io9

“A lot of the best science fiction inspires us, by showing how people can solve problems and conquer ignorance,” writes Charlie Jane Anders at io9. “What’s the most uplifting piece of optimistic science fiction you’ve ever seen?” There are many suggestions, and a good discussion.

Some of my comments:

While Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is a GREAT science fiction story, one of my favorites of all times, perhaps I wouldn’t call it “optimist.” In Childhood’s End the evolution of humanity into something else, perhaps better, comes with deep unhappiness. Remember the collective suicide of the two main human characters with the rest of the New Athens colony. I love Childhood’s End, but I think there are more optimistic examples of radical evolution and upgrade. Joining the Overmind in a higher form of consciousness may be the “right” things to do from a cosmic, evolutionary perspective, and it may feel good to the children who depart. But for the adults who stay behind it is a sad, unbearable loss. I wish Clarke had found some ways for the adults to join.

Surface Detail (and the rest of the Culture series by the late lamented Iain M. Banks) is a very good choice. The last Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, is also worth mentioning in the optimistic SF gallery. It gives more details of the “Sublimation” business (the advanced civilizations that escape the old boring physical universe and go live in higher dimensions).

In Diaspora, by Greg Egan, much of humanity has evolved into an advanced civilization of immortal uploads, without losing basic human traits and feelings. When a cosmic catastrophe of unknown origins strikes the Earth and wipes out the remaining “fleshers” (biological humans) the uploads go out to the stars in a quest to understand what happened, and protect humanity from other forthcoming cosmic catastrophes. They manage to escape to other universes in an infinite-dimensional manifold, and join the community of very advanced civilizations. It is difficult to get more optimistic than that, and Diaspora is one of the SF novels that I re-read often, and always with powerful positive emotions. Diaspora is a Big Idea story, not an introspective novel or a love story, so we shouldn’t expect too much character development. Yet, many characters, especially Orlando, feel like real and nice persons. What I find very optimistic in Diaspora is the vision of how we could become a space faring civilization of immortal software uploads without losing our humanity.

Some other options:

In The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, scientists find that the fabric of space-time is full of micro-wormholes connecting every pixel of space-time with every other pixel of space-time. Soon, they develop the capability to resurrect the dead by “time-scanning,” copying us from their past (our present) and uploading us to their present (our future). They embark in a grand project, first suggested by the Russian Cosmist philosopher Nikolai Fedorov: to resurrect every person who ever lived. Sure you cannot get more optimistic than that.

I consider most of Arthur C. Clarke’s fiction (and non-fiction) as optimistic SF at its best. He often shows a near future where a peaceful humanity is colonizing the planets and planning to go to the stars. At the end of The Fountains of Paradise, we receive the first visit of a more advanced civilization, which had previously established contact with an intelligent probe.

Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is simply the greatest science fiction novel of all times (and, I wish to add in passing, Kubrick’s 2001 is the only great science fiction film ever made). “And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic,” writes Clarke. “But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter. Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselves; and on a thousand worlds the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death then crumbled into rust. They were lords of the Galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rov at will among the stars and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space.” This is, quite simply, the best and most inspiring vision of a radiant future for intelligent life in the universe.

The best SETI novels, for example Carl Sagan’s Contact and James Gunn’s The Listeners, show how SETI pays off after decades of frustrating silence, to reveal a Cosmos full of life.

There are many other examples of optimistic SF (not as many as I would like, but many). I just wish to note that optimism was much more common in 20th century SF than today, which I find disturbing. I think SF is at its best when it ignites our mind with imaginative, daring visions of beautiful possible futures, and the drive to turn them into reality.

Many “Golden Age” SF works of some decades ago are very optimistic, and deeply inspiring. In light of today’s scientific knowledge and the literary sophistication of today’s best SF, we might consider “old” SF as “naively optimistic,” but that would be entirely missing the point. Golden Age SF, naive as it was, inspired young people with the awesome potential of science, and motivated them to study science and engineering, and build the space program and the Internet. I have the impression that modern science fiction has abandoned this important role. Reasons: a general decrease of optimism in society in the last decade after 9/11, and a certain (pseudo)”intellectual,” (fake)”liberal,” “cultural” (all scare quotes intended and deserved) fashionable apology of mediocrity and crusade against imagination.

Picture by Frank R. Paul (October 1945)