Time-traveling, a fantasy carnival and superhero fiction. We read a trio of Cory Doctorow short stories from the collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More (2003) – “A Place So Foreign,” “Return to Pleasure Island,” and “The Super Man and the Bugout” – and noticed a common trend between these radically different stories.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1993) initially presents a markedly optimistic vision of the future. The terraforming technology he envisions has enormous potential: it enables colonists to leave an environmentally devastated planet Earth to create a utopian society out in space.
Like any genre, science fiction has changed over the years. Just as romance novels evolved from sociopolitical fairytales to the popular, racy stories of today, so too science fiction has transformed. In the Golden Age, science fiction stories were mostly forays into the fantastic, the unreal: they were sweeping epics; they were grandiose space operas; they were explorations of sublime worlds, outlandish technologies, futuristic and expansive societies. Characters in this kind of science fiction were often merely vehicles for traversing strange narrative universes, the author’s intricately-fashioned galaxies and dreams.
Contemporary science fiction storytelling is dominated by gloomy, dystopian narratives. The Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project at the Center for Science and the Imagination is an attempt to uncover an alternative history of the genre that focuses on more hopeful and inspiring visions of the future that are still thoughtful, critical and complex. A group of student researchers has been hard at work since 2013, laying the foundation for a public database and a series of essays, reflections and comments about the history of thoughtfully optimistic thinking.