Co-authored with Zachary Heth
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. Visit the Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project page to see the latest written pieces, database entries, and other research outcomes from the project.
The purpose of this project is to research, organize and celebrate thoughtfully optimistic science fiction—literature that presents creative, constructive ideas about humans and their potential to confront and overcome challenges to create a better world. We identify and analyze science fiction texts drawn from throughout the history of the genre, ranging from short stories, anthologies and novels to poems, films and music. After selecting stories that we believe to be thoughtfully optimistic, we discuss them in a scholarly and critical light and write reviews and annotations of our selections. We’re also creating a public archive (coming soon!) to store this information and make it available for students, researchers, authors and enthusiasts everywhere to explore.
Our goal is to find new ways to look at science fiction and new ways to look at the world. In a time when so much of our science fiction and our broader cultural conversations about the future are mired in an apocalyptic, endgame mentality, we believe that it is necessary to return to science fiction’s roots as literature of inspiration: a genre that proposes and propels inspiring new ideas.
We also believe that this is nothing new. Sure, many of our most beloved science fiction classics, from Frankenstein to Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale, have been dystopian fables, warning us about possible futures that we need to work hard to avoid. But from Jules Verne to Isaac Asimov to Kim Stanley Robinson, science fiction has also always been a fertile ground for visions of the future that are ambitious, achievable and beneficial to humanity – in other words, brighter futures, not just dystopian hellscapes. Maybe we need an alternative history of the genre that unearths and honors its great feats of optimism – to remind us that there is a path into the future that doesn’t end in catastrophe.
If these less gloomy stories about our collective future could be mined and collected into a public database, it would be easier for people to feel inspired, to collaborate, and to pursue innovative ways of thinking and unconventional methods of invention. Human progress is complicated, and always bound up in the intersections between the social, cultural and technological. In the face of this complexity, we need stories to organize the chaos and complexity, to bring people together to engage in a collective conversation about what we want and need the future to be.
It is our hope that this project will contribute to that process and help bring to light some of the amazing stories that humans have told each other about the future.
We define thoughtfully optimistic science fiction through a number of criteria:
Thoughtfully-optimistic science fiction is literature that looks forward and involves some element of human progress. It describes a future spurred by technological innovation or social and cultural development.
–It highlights the positive human elements and traits or contains some sort of hopeful beat or beautiful moment—even against the backdrop of a bleak world or seemingly insurmountable challenge.
–It avoids the dystopian, apocalyptic, endgame mentality that seems to pervade contemporary science fiction and instead offers creative or thoughtful ideas about possible futures we can work together to realize.
–It encourages progressive thinking and innovation, making an effort to explore or unfold new frontiers and solutions. It is not a narrative that encourages stagnation or defeatism.
–It portrays institutions, technologies, social trends or individuals as positive and constructive, rather than cynical and ruthless.
–It depicts “innovation ecosystems” where individuals and institutions converge to develop technological solutions to grand challenges facing humanity and make society more just, equitable and sustainable.
Join us to explore the history – and future – of thoughtfully optimistic science fiction.
Image courtesy of Alvin Ng, used under a Creative Commons license. Thanks Alvin!