What makes an "optimistic" vision of the future?
Three things we want to look forward to
“There will be no war and there will be no greed and all of the children will know how to read.” — Gene Roddenberry
The Expanse just finished airing on Amazon, so I thought I’d write another post about sci-fi! I thought the final season was solid and the ending was good, but it felt rushed, as if substantial parts of the last season had been edited out. But simply ending well is something very few shows manage to do, so I count this as a win; The Expanse wins a place in my list of favorite sci-fi TV series of all time (a list I will get around to writing up at some point).
But today I want to talk about optimism. The Expanse (spoiler warning!!) revolves around A) a brutal, pointless war among the various human factions, and B) incomprehensible and menacing dead alien civilizations. So I wouldn’t necessarily put it in the same category of futurism as Star Trek: The Next Generation, which envisions a post-scarcity future where space wars get resolved and alien civilizations comprehended by a little application of enlightened liberal tolerance and technological gee-whizzery. But as Jim Pethokoukis writes, The Expanse is a moderately optimistic show:
[I believe in] the Wang Standard, based on this quote by technology analyst Dan Wang: “Science fiction has the capacity to inspire by setting the vision of a radically better future, and by making it clear that the future won’t happen unless we put in the work.”…
[T]he progress already made in The Expanse-verse disqualifies it as dystopian and even makes a case for a soft meeting of the Wang Standard. The average lifespan on Earth is 123 years, Mars has three billion inhabitants, and humanity mines deep space asteroids, which it can quickly access due to superspeed fusion spacedrives. Also, the global government of Earth is a democracy. We even see a depiction of an election for a new UN secretary general with televised debates and everything. And while the AI is very smart, it’s not sentient. So no Terminator scenarios. Nor do the robots take all the jobs.
Pethokoukis goes on to (correctly) note that the most dystopian aspect of the show’s premise — Malthusian overpopulation leading to a resource crisis — is pretty unrealistic, given plummeting global fertility rates in the real world. (It would have been better if the writers had explained this as the result of some sort of mass longevity technology, but that would have forced many other changes in the plot.)
Anyway, I digress! What I’m really interested in here is the question of what makes sci-fi visions feel optimistic to people. If we want to use science fiction to inspire improvements in our own society, then we need to ask what people see as an “improvement”.
One possibility is that utopia and dystopia are just whatever the author decides to present as such. Take a war-torn unequal Malthusian future and add some soaring music and graphics of cities lighting up, and maybe audiences will see it as utopian. Or take a serene, pastel-colored post-scarcity hippie society and add a shirtless Sean Connery shouting that it’s all an illusion, and maybe it starts to seem like a creepy dystopia. (Of course, if this is what’s going on, there will be a tendency toward presenting any future as dystopian, since stories need external conflict; the world has to be “messed up” in some way in order for the protagonists to “fix” it.)
But in fact I submit that in order to be truly optimistic, a sci-fi world needs more than just a stirring theme song. It needs to present a future with several concrete features corresponding to the type of future people want to imagine actually living in. The “Wang Standard” is a good start, with its emphasis on the power of human effort, but in the end it relies on the somewhat circular notion of a “radically better” future. What does it mean for the future to be better? I submit that for a future to feel optimistic, it should feature the following elements:
Egalitarianism — broadly shared prosperity, relatively moderate status differences, and broad political participation
Human agency — the ability of human effort to alter the conditions of the world
The first of these — material abundance — is the biggest reason The Expanse isn’t entirely optimistic. In the future it depicts, the Belters (the inhabitance of the space colonies) live generally meager, hardscrabble lives, and Earth is starving due to overpopulation. The first of these could be explained by people enduring the unavoidable hardships of space because they’re stubbornly committed to the dream of human expansion. But a starving, Malthusian Earth is both pessimistic, and, as Pethokoukis notes, unrealistically so.
The importance of material abundance is why “optimistic” futures tend to feature space travel and cities filled with skyscrapers. The development of space takes an enormous amount of energy and other resources, so it acts as a proxy for the harnessing of energy in other pursuits — such as creating a life of luxury. And space itself is full of resources for the taking, so it speaks to a deep-seated human desire for extensive growth and the exploitation of new frontiers. (Spoiler: Extra-solar colonization is how they end up ultimately solving the overpopulation problem in The Expanse.)
As for cities with skyscrapers, they also represent a proxy for society’s ability to harness abundant energy; indeed, energy capture is one way historians measure societies’ level of development over the ages. But those beautiful gleaming skylines also represent the social coordination and institutional capacity required to allow the building of cities. As we’ve seen with the NIMBY problem in the U.S., building dense cities requires more than just construction prowess; it requires societies to be able to coordinate, plan, and agree to live in densely built environments. That’s why people always joke that the most utopian thing about Star Trek is that San Francisco has a bunch of tall buildings:
So a utopian future depends not just on technology, but on political economy as well. And this is even more important when we come to the second element of optimistic futurism: Egalitarianism.
Gene Roddenberry’s quote at the top of this post emphasizes the importance of egalitarianism in any optimistic vision of the future. He doesn’t even mention space travel, but he does mention universal literacy and the absence of greed. If you take a sparkling, abundant future and stipulate that only a subset of people get to access it, it suddenly seems dark and terrifying; this is why so much dystopian sci-fi, from Squid Game to Arcane to the movie Elysium to the manga Battle Angel Alita to the Brazilian TV show 3%, and even the aforementioned Zardoz, relies on the central premise of a future that’s starkly, structurally divided between haves and have-nots.
William Gibson famously declared that “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” That pervasive, overpowering inequality is part of what defines the cyberpunk genre — it’s the reason the protagonists are so often “punks”, lower-class people fighting to break the shackles of their class inheritance. And it’s what makes cyberpunk an inherently dark, noir genre, despite the neon skyscrapers.
In 2011, Neal Stephenson — one of the creators of cyberpunk — wrote an article entitled “Innovation Starvation”, where he lambasted science fiction for presenting a cramped and stagnant vision of the future. But his own attempted counter to that trend — the 2015 short story collection “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future” — ended up failing, in my opinion, to produce the kind of positive vision he called for. The reason is that most of the stories in the book feature a future defined by the same kind of stark inequalities that define our present. If trucks get automated, then truckers lose their jobs en masse. If we build a giant tower that reaches into space, the people working the bar halfway up the tower are still scraping by, and so on.
In the bright future depicted in Star Trek, everyone living on a planet seems to have a spacious house, and all their material needs met. This isn’t simply because replicators or holodecks have eliminated material scarcity; it’s because as Roddenberry says, this is a future where greed is not in control. Rich people have not monopolized the land, or the energy that powers the replicators and holodecks. Space exploration is occasionally done in order to harvest resources — dilithium, which enables warp drives, is sometimes in short supply — but more often it’s done simply in order to learn about the Universe. Money still exists, but everyone seems to have enough of it to afford the basics of a decent life — and that egalitarian distribution is implied to be a choice that society has made. (In other utopias like Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, the mechanisms that ensure egalitarianism are made more explicit.)
And it’s not just material goods that are distributed relatively equally in “optimistic” futures — it’s positional goods as well. Star Trek mostly depicts people serving in the military, where status is determined by rank, but within that military hierarchy status is remarkably compressed, so that the captain constantly demonstrates respect for lowly ensigns. But in fact, look at any “optimistic” future vision and you won’t see a lot of conspicuous consumption. That implies that status is, in some sense, compressed. You don’t need to go all the way to fully automated luxury communism, but to be optimistic you need to envision that most people will be members of a broad middle class.
Finally, egalitarianism requires inclusive institutions. Dystopias like the one in the “Alien” universe commonly have corporations or very rich individuals in charge; utopias — including, ultimately, The Expanse — depict democracy triumphing over both autocracy and plutocracy. Partly this might come from extrapolation based on our current conceits about the supremacy of American-style democracy, but I think part of it comes from people’s deep desire to feel some sense of personal partial ownership of the civilization they live in. In fact, some economists think that inclusive institutions are necessary for building a prosperous, advanced society, because without them it’s hard to harness human talent and effort in a purposeful, effective manner.
This is, I think, why Elon Musk gets such a surprisingly cool reception from many in the scientific community. Musk and his companies, SpaceX and Tesla, have done an incredible amount to bring about the abundant, sustainable, expansive future that features in every sci-fi utopia. Sci-fi geeks should love that. But the fact that he amassed a vast fortune in the process, and retains personal control over the future his companies create, sits uneasily with many. If NASA colonizes space through democratic funding and control, it means that in some sense we all did it together, and that presumably we’ll all get to go — but if a billionaire colonizes space based only on his ability to amass corporate capital, it means the future could be owned by an unaccountable few. So if Elon wants his futurism to be more beloved by the people who should rightfully be wowed by the technologies he’s created, he should find a way to reassure the masses that the future he’s creating is for everyone.
But one element of utopia that Musk’s companies definitely do embody is the third element of my list — human agency and a can-do spirit. (This is the aspect that Dan Wang also mentioned.) The kind of optimism inherent in sci-fi like Star Trek — and in The Expanse as well — is not a complacent belief that things in the future will turn out well, but rather the belief that we can make them turn out well. In other words, it’s optimism not of the intellect but of the will — the kind of determined optimism that recognizes the scope of the challenges facing our species but believes that we can rise to the challenge.
Optimistic sci-fi, therefore, is different from other forms of utopianism, because of what it implicitly demands from the people of the future. Instead of depicting a society that figures out a better way to live and then settles into comfortable stasis, it depicts a future that is made constantly better and better by continual human effort. Ultimately, that’s what makes The Expanse an optimistic show — ultimately, the efforts of the protagonists leave their society in a bit better shape than they found it, both through harnessing advanced technology and in designing newer, more inclusive institutions. (I’d say more, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers.)
So those three things — abundance, egalitarianism, and human agency — seem to define what people see as optimistic science fiction. But let me end by saying that I think there’s a fourth element that has the potential to create even more optimistic visions — something so optimistic, and so hard to envision, that few sci-fi writers even attempt to incorporate it. I’m talking about the idea that technology will improve human nature itself.
If you think about it, this is actually a pretty plausible notion. Steve Pinker and others have made the argument that as technology steadily reduces the amount of scarcity that humans experience on a daily basis, and as governmental institutions become more effective over time, our morality progresses toward less cruelty and less violence. But whether or not this is how things actually work, it’s possible to envision this as an element of a sci-fi future. Indeed, many of my favorite works of science fiction — Star Trek: The Next Generation, the books of Lois McMaster Bujold and David Brin — seem to depict a world where people just get kinder and more reasonable as technology advances. In fact, this is the entire unifying premise of Star Trek: TNG, which begins and ends with humanity as a whole being put on trial by hyper-advanced beings who demand to see some sort of collective self-improvement. As Q says to Picard in the final episode:
You just don't get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons…That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknowable possibilities of existence.
It’s hard to imagine a more optimistic vision than that. And it’s why, in my personal opinion, Star Trek: TNG still stands apart from every other sci-fi TV show ever made.
I think it would be fun for a science fiction author to challenge you and come up with an optimistic future that DOESN'T contain those points. At first blush it feels doable, at least on some technicalities. And it kinda feels like something Becky Chambers might try to tackle.
Material abundance: An author could extrapolate from current trends of dematerialisation, mixing in things like ideas from Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing. A lot of our current concepts of material abundance are a reaction to the general lack of stuff in history. Obviously this future scifi society would in some very real sense still have material abundance. But it might not manifest in the usual obvious ways. Maybe everyone lives isolated pastoral homestead existences ... but nanobots make sure the air and water is pristine, diseases quickly eradicated, and any accidents summon help.
Egalitarianism: I think there are many ways we could hack our tribal monkey brains to accept living in a very non-egalitarian society. We mostly want egalitarianism within "our society". And at this exact moment in technical, social, cultural history "our society" has become very broadly defined. I can see someone across the planet, with a different religion and a different skin-tone, livestreaming something and they are, in some sense, part of my society. But what if we are dealing with large space-time delays? Will humans in Alpha Centauri, who recieve their Facebook Livestreams on a 4 year delay, really care if Earthers are richer than them? And then throw in a transhumanist future. In Vernor Vinge's books no one is up in arms that the superintelligences "have more" than humans.
Human agency: I admit this is a tough nut to crack without sliding into dystopia. I have a vague memory of an old Isaac Asimov short story about a future run by supercomputers that gave humans the veneer of agency. So perhaps something where human agency is a welcome, actively-chosen illusion. Kind of like how some people prefer All-inclusive luxury resorts or cruises for their holidays. Or perhaps some sort of philosophical upheaval when humanity abandons its fundamental speciesism when it steps into the bigger community of alien species, experiencing a kind of species-wide existential crisis. Or perhaps all of humanity takes a more meditative turn towards acceptance, instead of striving to change, once we've eliminated vast swathes of human misery. Humanity strives because it has only been around a few thousand years. Will this kind of striving still make sense when our culture is 50,000 years old and we've moved all the big boulders?
Dunno, this one is definitely trickier than the others.
Deep Space Nine is, to me, the most optimistic trek because it takes challenges to the TNG arguments extremely seriously, and challenges the Federation to make its progressive arguments in the face of a crew largely opposed or indifferent, and a scarred captain. People say DS9 is dark but it really believes in the Roddenberry vision, it just spends a lot more time focusing on how hard it might be to get there. In fact, when they go back in time, Bashir is furious that in the 2020s, despite so much technology and abundance, humans just don't care enough to help eachother.