Panel Postmortem: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise?

This post is the first in what I intend to be several recaps of some of the most thought-provoking moments during this weekend’s Arisia science fiction and fantasy convention.

First of all, I have to thank Andrea Hairston. As a panelist and audience member, moderators have consistently been the most significant factor affecting the experience of con panel. Andrea was our fearless leader during this panel and I think we all owe her thanks for her energetic and positive management of the conversation.

Panel Description: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? – Marina 2, Literature, Sun 11:30 AM: We are hearing, after a long sojourn in dystopia and postapocalypse, that optimistic SF is making a comeback. Is it really the case or is the optimism of yesterday just another type of nostalgia? When climate change, postantibiotic medicine, and resource depletion are major factors in our lives (topics that are not always as well addressed in optimistic SF), is there a way to temper our optimism and inspire those who might be able to face these problems? Panelists: Andrea Hairston (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, Matthew Kressel, T.X. Watson, M.J. Cunniff

I was happy that the conversation could begin with every panelist answering the titular question in the negative: no, optimism is not just nostalgia in disguise. We had different perspectives as to why and how to move forward, but it was great to have that connecting thread. I won’t (and really can’t) give a transcript or summary of the conversation as it happened, but here are some of my key conclusions that I took away.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Star Wars: Rogue One, skip the section “Positive Stories in Negative Spaces.”]

Nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the belief that things were somehow better in the past, accompanied by a wish (explicit or implicit) to return to that past. Examples might be any statement that includes the phrase “the good old days,” or perhaps refers to “simpler times.”

Nostalgia is a myth.

We generally agreed that nostalgia has two broad classes of problems: 1) nostalgia relies on selection bias with respect to memory, in that facts about past events and their properties are selectively remembered to reinforce a positive narrative, leaving out anything that doesn’t fit the myth; and 2) nostalgia relies on selection bias with respect to people, in that it fails to ask for whom the past is assumed to a better place.

Nostalgia can masquerade as optimistic narrative. Envisioning futures, for example, in which we clearly know who the enemy is, share the same cultural values and backgrounds, know what it means to be American, and there are no identity issues because everyone knows their place and prevailing views on race/gender/disability/etc do not need to be challenged. Such a scenario is perhaps more comfortable for a certain subset of straight, white, able-bodied males to fantasize about. But it is really a longing to return to a selectively remembered caricature of the 1950’s — during which a) times were not really as simple or happy for anyone as nostalgic imagery would suggest, and b) it was particularly not simple and/or not happy (and in fact it was often brutal or miserable) for large categories of people.

I believe nostalgia, at its worst, is a form of cowardice: a refusal to acknowledge impermanence and change as fundamental properties of the universe and human life; a retreat from the world, rather than an attempt to make it better; and an attitude of willful ignorance towards the experience of Others.

Realism.

One of the most common criticisms of an optimistic attitude towards speculating on the future rests on the assumption that optimism is unrealistic or merely dreaming. “How can you look at X and possibly construct a good future?” (Where X can be replaced with any number of bad things in the world, most commonly war, social division, and climate change.)

But rational idealism is possible!

In the first place, the problems we face today are not fundamentally different from problems our species has faced before; as horrible as they were, humans have survived rapid bouts of technological and climate change, major world wars, pandemics, and various flavors of fascism. Furthermore, we can be clear-eyed about the real problems that people will face in the near future, and talk about solutions spaces — or at minimum, ways to adapt to change.

There are plenty of questions we can be asking as a genre: What is the ideal relationship between a government and its people, and what technology would be needed to facilitate that relationship? Or the converse, how can technological advances change the relationship between individuals and society? What does wealth disparity look like in a solar system full of resources, but with most people stuck at the bottom of a gravity well? How will increased knowledge of the fundamental properties of nature change our relationship to the divine/spiritual? What does it mean to be human in the face of increased AI, human-machine interface/integration, and genetic engineering? Are there alternatives or counter-narratives to Star Trek in showing what post-scarcity looks like? Can technology help us compensate for human weaknesses such as greed, prejudice, tribalism, logical fallacy, and superstition? If so, from where will we find meaning and identity?

I find it ironic that it is Optimists, and not Nostaligists, who are often accused of having their heads in the sand about real problems.

Positive Stories in Negative Spaces.

Beyond the “brainstorm solutions” category of speculative fiction, I think there is also a lot of room for telling positive stories in negative spaces, in looking for “pockets of hope.”

One of the things that annoys me about both utopias and dystopias is that they generally assume that what is true for the macro scale (world, societies, governments) is true for the micro scale (individuals, families, etc). I used the example that World War II was a terrible time for a lot of people for a lot of reasons — but you can still tell a great love story, or stories of hope and triumph, within the context of that terrible time. Andrea Hairston mentioned her focus on joy in her stories, even in those stories that acknowledge the brutal oppression of slavery.

One need not look any further than a narrative dear to nearly all SFF nerds’ hearts: Star Wars. Nearly all the episodes of this mega-series fit the mold, but I’ll focus on Star Wars: Rogue One, the most recent installment. 

The plot premise of Rogue One is profoundly negative: A fascist, xenophobic, expansionist state has control over most of the galaxy after dissolving democracy and exterminating the exemplars of humanity, the Jedi. The Empire has overwhelming economic, military, and technological superiority — symmetric warfare or direct resistance is effectively impossible. The rebel alliance is a loose one at best — friends are fickle, various factions have different ideas about how best to resist the Empire, infighting is rampant, and many would rather flee or surrender than fight. A ragtag band of undesirables willingly accepts what sounds like a suicide mission, and they do, in fact, all die in the process of achieving their goal.

Yup. All the heroes die. Every. Single. One. In terms of story premise, it really doesn’t get much more negative than that.

And yet… Rogue One is still a positive story. Jyn, Cassian, et al manage to extract the Death Star plans and preserve a future for the Rebel Alliance. Galen Erso, whose arc is similarly tragic and fatal, still manages to ensure that the Rebels have a fighting chance later at Yavin 4, making for an interesting case study in engineering ethics. While the Empire clearly wins the battle, events are set in motion that will cause them to lose the war.

Indeed, Princess Leia’s final line in the movie (and fittingly, Carrie Fisher’s final line as an actress), is simply the word “Hope.”

How to Do It in Writing

So how to actually do this in stories? I have no magical formula, but here are some suggestions:

  • When writing narratives that take place in negative spaces, separate the primary character conflict from the negative world premise. Example: Jyn Erso in Rogue One finds herself an orphan of war in a bloody, brutal time… but her character arc is really about abandonment, belonging, and identity, and only incidentally about fighting the Empire. She is able to succeed relative to her character conflict even though she is killed by the Empire, resulting in a positive character arc within a very dark worldspace.
  • If you include realistic, dire future circumstances, then focus on solving problems. Example: Mark Watney in The Martian is alone on Mars with almost zero chance of survival. But as he says himself: “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
  • When exploring any kind of future for humanity (positive or negative), avoid presenting a universal individual experience based on the premise. Not everyone living through wars are immediately in the process of dying in horrible ways all the time. Slaves often have outlets for the expression of joy and togetherness. People can find hope, love, and happiness even in the darkest of times, and telling these stories does not require that we ignore the dark times themselves. Example: Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed depicts two societies with opposing worldviews, and neither is presented as wholly good or bad on the level of individual experience. They are, warts and all, explorations of different ways in which we could live, thus expanding our ideas and solution space for the future.
  • Ask the question, what is the future we want to live in, and how do we get there? On the panel, T.X. Cunniff spoke of “connecting the dots,” not just presenting a pie-in-the-sky fantasy but showing the path and the struggle too.
  • Pick a time of social, political, or technological change as the setting, and then choose characters that have unusually high personal stakes in the change. Example: in the TNG episode “The Measure of a Man,” The premise is that an astounding and widely beneficial advancement in android technology is possible, but only at the expense of erasing the personality and memory of an individual android. The natural focus of the episode is Lt. Commander Data (an advanced android), as well as his commanding officer and friend, Captain Picard, because they have unusually high stakes in the premise.

I’ll follow up later with examples from my own writing, in a separate blog post.

I very much enjoyed the discussion around this important question in the genre. Thanks so much to the moderator, my fellow panelists, and all those who attended and contributed to the conversation!

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