Science Fiction Society

Flights of Foundry: Optimism and Utopia in Science Fiction

Watched Flights of Foundry from

Between climate change, rising authoritarianism, and a pandemic, there’s no shortage of material for dystopian fiction. But as Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society…to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” Where do we find optimism in SF? What are the benefits of imagining utopian futures, and how do we maintain hope while acknowledging the scope of the challenges we face?

We tend to critique utopia harder than dystopia, as if dystopia is somehow more inherently believable

Utopia as ongoing process

Utopia = dystopia in disguise (often)

Utopian projects often splinter as people can’t agree on what utopia looks like

Optimism: tomorrow has the potential to be better than today

Idealism more prescriptive than optimism – optimism more a state of being

Social media feeds into your idealistic vision of what you want the world to look like

When people look to “science” to solve all our problems they are refusing change and sacrifice in their own lives

Think about which route to take your tech — many technologies can be spun for optimistic or cynical ends (e.g. biotech could lead to engineered viruses but also better cures for viruses)

Optimism isn’t necessarily unrealistic – e.g. New Zealand was able to lock down in the pandemic and now is basically free of COVID

We forget that people are mostly decent, and that mostly people come together to help in times of crisis

Pessimism and nihilism often serve the status quo

Optimism is a tool of resistance

People’s individual challenges do not detract from a utopian / optimistic world – can explore everyday problems, smaller scopes

Plotwise, could find aspects of utopia that are unsettling – or use outsiders as the perspective to explore the utopia

In SFF we often expect “the single solution” to problems – when there are multiple non-exclusive solutions to real-world problems – your solution doesn’t have to fix everything, solutions can work together

Utopia is not disconnected from the present — it’s a project that we are capable of contributing to now

Q: can you write optimistic if you are a pessimist?

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By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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