Pessimism is easy, optimism is hard

Why science fiction needs a dose of optimism

You can map all stories about the future onto a 2x2 grid.

One axis represents the difference between the story being told and our current reality. This axis spans from left to right, where the left side of the line is a clone of today’s world, and the right is a hardly recognizable version. The other axis runs up and down and represents technology’s impact on the future. This axis spans from utopian to dystopian.

There are four stories about the future: similar but worse, similar but better, different but worse, different but better.

Most science fiction today is dystopian. For example, Black Mirror is a future that is similar but worse than our own. We recognize the characters because they remind us of ourselves. Their technology seems within reach but out of control.

Movies like Interstellar paint a much darker vision. The future is Earth, but one that’s been decimated beyond recognition. Characters have no energy to fight with each other because they’re too busy trying to stay alive.

The other two quadrants are hard to quantify because it’s rare to find stories that paint the future in an optimistic light. The last twenty years have imprinted upon us that technology will make the future worse, not better. These stories have the same underlying theme: humans cannot maintain a healthy relationship with technology. It’s killer robots and mind control all the way down.

This is a cop-out.

Good stories require conflict, but making technology the bad guy is a cheap way of achieving that. Rather than relying on technology as an antagonist, I want to see more stories where science fiction paints a future that is different and better than the present. Technology in science fiction stories should blend into the background rather than being the story's focal point. The most influential stories in Western history — The Bible, Shakespeare, The Constitution — focus on the conflicts that emerge between people, not people and their environment. These stories hold their power over time because the lessons don’t change.

Science fiction should inspire. For a vision of the future to have power, it must be different than the present. The current visions of the future have been weaponized into dramas that make for good television, but they’re bad for the soul.

If we’re going to spend our time imagining a future, let’s do it in a way that helps us create one we want to live in. Although the future we create may be fiction, its effects are no less real than the stories we tell ourselves about the present.