If optimism stems from the belief that things can get better from the current moment, then surely the middle of 2020 gives us more scope for optimism than any time in our lifetimes so far, in multiple directions.
Scope, of course, is not the same thing as grounds.
Every week we combine the ongoing major things wrong (global pandemic! institutional racism! climate change! rise of nationalist/fascist groups!) with new instances of random-seeming things also going wrong. You could date which week I’d written this by my choice of example (arson in the Nantes Cathedral, after murder hornets, before…???), but there’s always something. And I can’t help but think: maybe it could all just go away.
I’d be surprised if anybody hadn’t had that thought at least once since February, because wouldn’t it be nice? Wouldn’t it be, in fact, substantially better than nice? If a giant deadly global pandemic just…went away? If the virus got tired and went home to sulk? If everybody felt lucky and well-rested for a bit?
Unfortunately, that’s not optimism. That’s a related and highly appealing thing called wishful thinking. It turns up a lot in what purports to be optimistic near-future SF! And while we could all use a little wish-fulfillment fiction as part of the balance of things, there’s something jarring about the feeling that the only happy things you’re reading are all permanently, inherently out of reach. But for there to be optimistic fiction about a future we can reach from here, someone has to write it. How? Where do we find the ideas that can blossom into stories about a non-terrible future, when the present is so consistently and yet so assortedly terrible?
History: Science Fiction Writers’ Secret Weapon. Humans have endured plague before, and will again. Sadly but not perhaps surprisingly, humans have even endured plague combined with bad governance. Most adults even have survived a novel plague compounded by bad governance in their lifetime: the AIDS pandemic, often ignored in discussions of COVID-19 though it killed an estimated 33 million people worldwide, changed the lives of exponentially many more, and continues into the present day. When we’re asking what it will look like to be on the other side of this pandemic, one question we can ask is, well, what did the other side of other horrible things look like? Pandemics, sure, but also earthquake, flood, hurricane, famine, insect plagues such as grasshoppers or locusts…we’ve got a pretty broad canvas to choose from, and fiction has given us long practice at drawing analogies in inexact circumstances, using one thing as a metaphor or synecdoche for another.
My friend and colleague Ada Palmer, an historian as well as a science fiction writer, says this: “…comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard.”1 The blog post is long, but it’s worth reading the entire thing. But specifically Ada calls out some other possible models for what’s coming next. And there are more beyond what she goes into, upheavals and new orders from any part of the world you want to use as an influence. Humans have lived through pestilence, death, and despair before. Look at what they did on the other side of it.
This is not to say that there is some linear narrative of progress that applies to real life, where everything is always and only getting better and better over time. Life and history offer us no such guarantees. But there are templates for how things have improved before. There are templates for how people have recovered.
Science: Science Fiction Writers’ Not-So-Secret Weapon. Not every story needs to be science-heavy hard SF. But it’s hard to beat science for Cool! New! Stuff We’ve Figured Out! It’s true that there’s a lot of plague news in the science news right now, and it’s true that many science labs are justly worried for their funding or their continuity of experiments. But trust me, there are years and acres of discoveries that have implications no one has written even one story about—and of course there’s always your particular take on some developments in science that other science fiction writers have already put in stories.
As a regular Nature contributor, I read it every week—but I have a physics degree. If you’re not as comfortable with technicalities, maybe New Scientist or Scientific American is more your speed. But reading what amazing discoveries people have worked out about frogs, or Denisovan DNA, or solar wind, or really anything that is not the current woe, can help frame thoughts about who we are and what we’ll be exploring, what stories we’ll want to tell. At the very worst, you come away knowing more about frogs than you did before.
Pulling on small threads. Good things happened today. Not just to frog biologists! But here in my neighborhood, small good things happened. Somebody had a really good day. Sometimes when things look really dark, the key to optimistic science fiction is imagining tiny incremental improvement—doesn’t even necessarily matter where—and zooming in so your frame is that story.
I think that this can feel dishonest and Pollyanna-ish. Harsh truths are presented to us as “more true,” facts that we must face up to, while pleasant truths are almost never regarded in that light even when they require a lot of work or a major change of mindset. But positive change is not less true than negative. The good days are not a lie just because there are also bad days. Optimistic stories have framing limitations, certainly, but so do pessimistic ones. Every author chooses their story’s scope. Nor is the story about small, personally important progress made by an artificial intelligence researcher a lie if it isn’t simultaneously about everything that could possibly be going wrong in that character’s world.
Shifting focus. Sometimes the very tricks we use to construct a story can force us to keep retreading similar ground—and not always in the direction we’d like. Many times I’ve heard the plotting advice that you should think of the worst thing that can happen to your character and then do it. A global pandemic reminds us that things like “death of their entire family” and “total economic collapse” are always on the table. The worst thing that can happen to your character will knock them over with grief. The worst thing and the most interesting thing are very much not the same. So instead I’d ask: what changes this person’s life in the most interesting ways? Sometimes that’s the worst thing—for all that it’s ghoulish to admit, character response to intense pressure is interesting. But it can’t be—isn’t—the only way to construct a plot.
Similarly, “what’s the conflict here” is a very standard story question—but if you’re finding that all your stories have a certain negative cast, “what’s the change” may reframe just enough to let more light in. (It’s also less relentlessly Western.) If every setting detail and every plot you can imagine for near-future science fiction is downbeat or depressing, maybe it’s time to try switching up your assumptions about how to construct them.
Deliberate endings. The difference between triumph and tragedy can depend on where you put the ending. Get to Mount Doom and have Frodo refuse to toss the jewelry—and the credits roll in that moment? After all that slog through the Dead Marshes, even? What a downbeat story, what a terrible tragedy! But wait—there’s more. Tolkien gives us the entire emotional roller-coaster ride of eucatastrophe and bittersweet homecoming. An uncomplicatedly happy ending would also have been possible with judicious cutting. Science fiction Grand Master C.J. Cherryh, with her gigantic series of Merchanter novels, gives several examples of where the choice of endpoint determines how optimistic a story can seem. There’s always more to go wrong offstage, but she doesn’t always choose to show it that way.
In a real life example, Apollo 1 caught fire on the launch pad, claiming the lives of three astronauts. If your story of the American space program ends there, it’s a dream denied. End with Apollo 11 and it’s a triumph. Move on to the Challenger disaster and its catastrophic aftermath, and the story changes again. Even acknowledging this kind of complexity in story shape is more optimistic than the relentless down beat that some of us feel when we look at the news.
Hopeful stories are still possible. We still need them. And we don’t have to—shouldn’t—limit our hopeful stories to other worlds or the far future. It takes work, but we can imagine optimistic stories that connect to our own, and give us the strength to keep living them. Maybe finding a way to get through each day of the pandemic is all you can do—some of us are at our limits or even beyond them. But if you’re not, it would be wonderful to use some of the same tools and tactics that are getting you through to give others stepping stones to hope.
 exurbe. “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.” Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages, 4 June 2020, http://www.exurbe.com/black-death-covid-and-why-we-keep-telling-the-myth-of-a-renaissance-golden-age-and-bad-middle-ages/.
© 2020 Marissa Lingen