Ring the Bells That Still Can Ring: On Optimistic SF in Dystopian Times
Last week I was Guest of Honor at Chessiecon, a small SFF convention in Maryland. The GoH experience was lovely. The staff and volunteers and congoers all made me feel welcome. I had a reading, a concert, an on-stage interview, a signing, and several panels. They made me into a playing card in a con-wide Concardia tournament, which I had to put onto my author bingo card in order to check it off.
Sunday morning, I had an interesting back-to-back pairing of panels: "Who's Writing Optimistic SF?" and "The Handmaid's Tale in the Real World." I'll talk about them in reverse order, since the main point of this post is to pass along the list of optimistic SF.
"The Handmaid's Tale in the Real World" was a great idea for a panel. At the time the panels were generated, months and months and months ago, nobody foresaw the results of this election. In my notes to myself where I said, "Don't forget to talk about Purvi Patel" I didn't imagine that the architect of the Indiana law that jailed her would actually make it to DC, or that Ohio and Texas would ram obscene new abortion bans through their legislatures.
"The Handmaid's Tale," like "Parable of the Sower," wasn't meant to be predictive. Those books are explorations of possible futures, possible futures with big warning signs posted all over the fence. The fact that these dystopic visions feel more real this month should be chilling all of us.
I started the panel by reading the paragraph I keep coming back to:
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
Panels with "…in the Real World" and "____ After the Apocalypse" are great intellectual exercises as long as the threat of the title is theoretical too. Once the threat feels imminent, as it does now, the thought exercise drifts into the possible. I look at the paragraph above and it carries the weight of truth. I'm not sure that's a truth I can face in fiction right now, when it's pervading the rest of my life.
That doesn't mean we have to abandon those books or those exercises, but we have to approach them in a different way. We have to acknowledge that the topics we are playing with are serious and real. That "over there" has the potential to become "over here." That every hypothetical we toss out might be something a real person has to actually face. That involves approaching the topic with greater empathy: toward the audience, toward the other panelists, toward ourselves.
On the Handmaid's Tale panel, we acknowledged all of that. We read the paragraph above, then we left the Handmaid's Tale behind. We talked about how to prevent that, how to fight it, in the real world. The audience went there with us. They gave concrete suggestions. We discussed methodology and safety, vigilance and action.
We're not supposed to read these books and despair; we're supposed to read them and react. We're supposed to open our eyes and keep them open. We're supposed to stand up and say, "What can I do to keep this from happening?"
I hope that conrunners and programming chairs don't shy away from these books or topics in the future, but I hope they approach them with sensitivity and care. Framed poorly, they amplify fear and further marginalize. Framed well, they give strength.
Which leads me to my other Sunday morning panel, "Who's Writing Optimistic SF?" We started with a discussion of optimism vs. hope, and optimistic characters vs. optimistic situations. Then we started throwing out names and titles. The audience joined in. I also asked the same question on Twitter a few days before and got some great answers. I'll include those below as well.
We need both of these kinds of fiction. The dystopic still serves a purpose, but hopeful visions become even more important in dark times. Faith in human goodness, in small acts, in the positive outcomes that can come from human persistence? Those are all things that feel like they're in short supply right now. I don't want or need them to be the only things I read, but even the smallest positives feel important and necessary right now.
I haven't read or vetted all of these, but here are some of the books and authors discussed by the panel:
Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future (anthology featuring stories by Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Bear, Vandana Singh, Neal Stephenson, more…)
Shine anthology (edited by Jetse de Vries)
Sunvault anthology and other solarpunk
Ursula Vernon's short fiction
Ann Leckie's Ancillary /Radch trilogy
John Scalzi (works mentioned included Lock In, Redshirts)
Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan books)
Jo Walton's Thessaly series
Martha Wells (Raksura, specifically)
Katherine Addison's Goblin Emperor
Theodore Sturgeon's "The Widget, the Wadget, & Boff"
Becky Chambers' The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet
Janet Kagan's Mirabile
TV shows "Man Seeking Woman," "Supergirl," "The Good Place."
And the tweets:
@SarahPinsker, well, most days, I like to think I am.— Lawrence M. Schoen (@klingonguy) November 27, 2016
@SarahPinsker Jo Walton. ::swoons::— Ziv W (@QuiteVague) November 27, 2016
Ada Palmer, I think? Depending how "Seven Surrenders" goes :P
@SarahPinsker Becky Chambers, Heather Rose Jones, and Rosemary Kirstein.— ULTRAGINGLE (@ULTRAGOTHA) November 27, 2016
@SarahPinsker Me! But it's pretty long...— N. S. Dolkart (@N_S_Dolkart) November 27, 2016
@SarahPinsker T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) Ann Leckie, and Lois McMaster Bujold.— ULTRAGINGLE (@ULTRAGOTHA) November 27, 2016
@SarahPinsker Alastair Reynolds' Blue remembered earth was almost creepy in its optimism. I like gloom!— Jeff Rensch (@huetenan) November 28, 2016
@SarahPinsker I'll add Rachel Aaron's Heartstriker series. Kindle/Audible exclusive with print on demand.— Alexandra (@thatwasodd) November 27, 2016
Whew! Okay! And then I asked around in a few other places, and these are the responses I got:
Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning
Patricia McKillip's Kingfisher
Joan Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean
Sarah Zettel's Fool's War, the Quiet Invasion, Playing God
Elizabeth Moon, Remnant Population
Mary Ann Mohanraj's The Stars Change
Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman
Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky
Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep & A Deepness int he Sky
Melissa Scott's Trouble And Her Friends
One interesting thing in writing this list is that some of these wouldn't fit my definition of hopeful. Some of them concern end-of-the-world type concerns. Someone mentioned NK Jemisin's Fifth Season/Broken Earth trilogy, which I'd consider dystopic, but they pointed out an optimism in the way characters move forward. That made sense to me. I consider my own fiction to be pretty optimistic, in that even when I'm writing about bad times I tend to focus on the resilience of the human spirit. See Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea for a recent example.
I guess all of that is to say, research, decide where your limits are, and read at your own risk. I know I discovered a whole bunch of new books in asking this question, and I'm looking forward to exploring them.
If you have more that I missed, feel free to add them in comments. I moderate but I'll let them out of the queue as fast as I can. Bring on the optimistic SF!