Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; his 9-to-5 home is at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. There he works on Skylight, the smart profiler for Rails, and does Ember.js consulting. He is best known for his open source work, which also includes Thor and Handlebars. He travels the world doing open source evangelism and web standards work.

Optimistic Sci-Fi

I had forgotten how much I missed optimistic Science Fiction. When we look back at the history of science fiction, the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered for an adventure into grittiness, pessimism, and exploration of the devils, rather than angels of our nature. Perhaps it was a needed excursion, but it has been an exhausting decade.

Perhaps science fiction simply reflects its era, and the last decade has certainly been an exhausting look at the devils of our nature in reality as well as fiction. Just as I am glad to see the pessimism and grittiness of the last decade give way to the hope and optimism of an Obama administration, I was glad to leave the movie theater from the new Star Trek movie feeling like the shadow of the last decade has lifted.

To be fair, television series like Battlestar Galactica were excellently produced, directed, and acted. The genre is better off for its existence; indeed, the darkening of Stargate SG-1, and the darker themes in Stargate Atlantis relative to its parent series made for compelling, interesting science fiction.

But I lost sight of the fact that optimistic stories, those that did not rely on racism, prejudice and other human failings had all but vanished from television. Even Star Trek, which always showcased the elimination of racism hundreds of years in our future, trotted our a grittier, conflict-ridden series in Enterprise, in which the ongoing conflict between the humans and vulcans was a thinly veiled metaphor for modern-day racism and hatred.
The thematic changes are even reflected in the lighting. Even shows from the 90s like Babylon 5, which tried to paint a more realistic, gritty face on science fiction, featured relatively bright settings and an overall optimistic theme. After several seasons in which the heroes battled relatively evil (but sometimes ambiguous) villains, they emerged victorious, and the victory was soaring and uplifting. In contrast, virtually all shows in the last decade have involved morally ambiguous heroes and dark, gritty sets.

Again, there is certainly a place for that sort of thing, but the utter lack of optimistic, bright, unambiguous science fiction over the past decade has fatigued me in a way I hadn’t realized at all until I stepped out of the theater from Star Trek this weekend. Having gotten past the unpleasant future of the Enterprise world, Star Trek (the new movie) features a racism-free future, flawed but uplifting heroes, and bright, large sets that evoke feelings of optimism. I have to say: it felt good.

7 Responses to “Optimistic Sci-Fi”

I just left the theater as well my friend. Its funny, my friends and I kept saying, “man, I can wait for [blank] to happend.” Whether its hot green chicks, kick ass motorcycles, cool city layouts, or masters of physics we all just wanted the future to turn out like that.

Well said sir.

Lighting and photographic styles make a really big difference in tone. I’m of the opinion that the human condition doesn’t really change all that much (yay shakespeare). But there is something to be said for inspiring fiction, that can provide us some hope in the future.

Nevertheless, we still have to deal with the reality we live in, and the fact that stuff is… well still shitty. We’ve got a lot of work and sacrifice ahead of us, before we can get to a positive outlook again imo.

Exponential human growth & environmental catastrophe FTL.

I know what you mean. It’s so easy to mock the characters in Star Trek – like how they can’t walk down a corridor without learning and growing as people. But that movie just made me feel good. What if we really could kick our collective neuroses?

Hey, if we get stuff like Firefly/Serenity and BSG out of the deal, I’ve got no problems at ALL with morally ambiguous and occasionally Sci-Fi. If you need optimism, there’s always Eureka.

*occasionally dark

Interesting article, but I’m not convinced that all of the science fiction in the 21st century is pessimistic. Racial hatred is not just a one-way street. For example, there are several white groups opposed to everyone that doesn’t belong to their group. Likewise, there are black, brown, red, etc. that are also racially selective. Bigotry and pessimism are still a hurdle that humanity will be struggling with for a very long time. Still, there is always hope as long as some people continue to strive for peace. Then we can organize to fight the monsters that attempt to divide us. Hopefully, you will find my recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal, (a romantic action adventure in space) optimistic.

I remember a scene in Terry Bisson’s “Fire on the Mountain”, in which one of the characters in his Utopian fictional world complains that science fiction seems to always feature worlds that are worse than reality — apparently his own apologia for his trying to create a world he liked better than our own.

Creating a believable optimistic world is a challenge, arguably a harder one than creating believable characters who are smarter and more moral than oneself. Much easier than trying to create characters and a world we can comfortably hold in contempt.

And of course, sometimes you create a world you think is way cool and would be fun to visit, as Somtow Sucharitkul did with Mallworld, and a reader writes in to praise it as a “chilling dystopia”. Sometimes you can’t win.

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