Some further thoughts ...
Here in the 21st century, science fiction is still a literature of ideas, but as science and technology have become more complicated, it has become harder to project what might happen.
I had no idea people were even having that problem. I don't. Guess I'm being weird again, but to be fair, I have ulterior information.
As our world became more complicated and our shiny futuristic infrastructure began to age and fail, dystopias emerged as a subgenre of science fiction. Some of these stories, such as "Pump Six" by Paolo Baciagalupi and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow are cautionary tales. But many, zombie plague novels for example, are not. Dystopia has become an off-the-shelf setting for science fiction the way the past is for fantasy.
Yes it has, and I am heartily sick of it. If I wanted to watch the world being a fucked-up mess, I would watch the news. I want to do better than dystopia.
Consequently I will be over here setting fire to Omelas.
Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University challenged him, saying that we had stopped getting big stuff done because science fiction writers like Stephenson had stopped envisioning is.
Well, no, we stopped getting things done because people stopped being willing to PAY for it. They can't even be arsed to hire construction workers to keep the fucking bridges up, let alone send a colony to Mars.
However, I agree that beneath that unwillingness to contribute is a fundamental lack of inspiration and passion. It has always been the job of creative people to inspire their culture, and SF writers are largely lying down on that job right now. I find that the more depressing the world gets, and the more dystopic the entertainment gets, the more resentful I feel and the more I become inclined to want something else.
It's not that I'm incapable of writing bleak futures in plausible and meaningful ways; see for example Diminished Expectations, which is very much inspired by some real-world issues. It's not my favorite series, though, and more tellingly it's not my audience's favorite either. Only a few people have expressed interest in it. Tripping into the Future has a little more support.
I observe that I am increasingly inclined to fantasize about characters who actually work on their personal issues, who build thriving communities, who strive to solve problems in the most rational and least violent way possible, who try to make the world a better place and thereby demonstrate some techniques that actually work in our culture too. I imagine artificial intelligence, gengineered people, aliens, and other lifeforms not as slaves or enemies, but as partners. I think about space exploration, both in terms of what we could do for sure from here and in terms of amazing things that might happen later. I write and read science fiction for the sense of wonder. And I want my future back, dammit.
Evidently so does my audience. Both Schrodinger's Heroes and The Blueshift Troupers are quite popular, and An Army of One has a pretty good following too. The final book is technologically optimistic science fiction. It is optimistic in the sense that it takes the position that our problems have solution.
You cannot have a future you do not first imagine. Problems are easy to see, so dystopias can lapse into lazy writing. Solutions call up objections, inevitably, and so provide the conflict that fiction needs to frame its questions.
Well said, and this touches on why I dislike dystopias more often than not. They tend to be predictable, which bores me. The tend to be depressing, which frustrates me. This is not entertaining.
It's easy to get hung up on whether a given story is optimistic or pessimistic about the future. But what's more important is to write an optimistic protagonist -- someone who expects to create change. Because creating change is how strong characters take agency.
I am really, really getting sick of characters who get railroaded by a world so mired in evil that nothing much can be done about it. They try to help people but fail. They are crushed by the system. Or the environment. Or rocks fall everybody dies. Literary tension depends on a situation in doubt. The challenge should be matched to the hero(es) so precisely that the audience cannot with certainty predict who will win or how. You might get a good guess but you shouldn't be able to call it every time because that's boring. So if the heroes are overwhelmed by a wretched world, there's not much point to telling the story unless it's just down to witnessing the heroic last stand so it doesn't go altogether unremarked. I greatly prefer characters who can imagine improvements, find solutions, and make effective changes.
To me, governance is the meta-problem we have to solve. We have the other tools and technologies to fix all the issues facing humanity and the planet; what we lack is the ability to collectively decide upon and commit ourselves to the right courses of action. But if this is our greatest challenge, it's also our greatest opportunity. Solve the problem of governance, and all other problems are solved. Solve that problem, and we seize the future.
Sociology is a science too. I am delighted by this author industriously banging rocks together trying to start a fire. Because if that works, it's going to have about as much impact as actual fire did.
Hieroglyph uses the playfulness and the visionary capacities of science fiction in order to encourage people to think seriously about the future. The stories are intended to be fun to read, but there is a larger purpose: to encourage you to visualize the infrastructure your descendants deserve. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in Language of the Night, "Great artists make the roads.
And you don't get good roads without investing in good workers and good materials. I note that some of the old Roman byways are still fully functional, because they were built to last with attention to engineering principles.
Maybe I'm just a scout slipping through the dark forest, barely leaving a trail, while other folks are using bulldozers. But I know where the good stuff is, because I've been there, and if you follow me, I can show you. Just understand that it's a long hike up to the top of the mountain.
The view is worth it.