I’m hosting guest authors through most of April and May, as I am swamped with Awesome Con DC and welcoming Baby Boy Brightley into the world. This guest post was written by Mike Reeves-McMillan, the author of Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Hope and the Patient Man.
How to be Optimistic
Dystopian fiction is in at the moment, as is the closely related genre of post-apocalyptic. Everywhere you look (especially in the YA market) you see people struggling in a world where things have gone substantially more wrong than usual.
I could talk about sociological reasons why this might be so, but since I’m not a sociologist I’d just be making stuff up, and that’s not what I want to talk about in any case.
I myself tend to optimism. One reason I don’t read much science fiction any more is that so much of it is pessimistic about the future. Not only does this go contrary to my own preferences, but it’s contrary to the general trend of history, or so an increasing number of people are claiming. Violence is dropping, life expectancy is increasing, the general health, level of education, income level and other indicators of wellbeing of the human population have had a strong uptick within my lifetime. A great many things are getting measurably better, though because of the way “news” works, we seldom hear about that; we hear about disasters instead.
At the same time, there’s a difference between “optimistic” and “utopian”. Permit me a brief digression on the origins of words.
Utopian fiction is named after Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, the name of which comes from the word for “no place” in Greek (outopos). More was making the point that his ideal society didn’t exist, but if you spell it “eutopos” (pronounced much the same) it becomes “good place”, hence the formation of the opposite, “dystopos” or “bad place”.
The first recorded use of “dystopian” was by John Stewart Mill, the famous economic philosopher, in an 1868 speech to the House of Commons opposing the government’s Irish land policy. He used it to mean “too bad to be practicable”, just as “utopian” can mean “too good to be practicable”. (Source: Wikipedia.)
And there’s one problem with utopian fiction. It generally presupposes a degree of human goodwill, intelligence and rationality that we don’t, in fact, see in real life. By the same token, you could argue (and the SF writer David Brin frequently does argue) that dystopian fiction generally has an unrealistically low opinion of our collective wisdom and ability to work together. Of course, it can act positively as a form of warning, a kind of “if this goes on” lesson that encourages people to oppose a worrying trend. With government surveillance an increasing reality, we owe George Orwell a debt for the concern he created about exactly that, because it gives us a compelling image of where the trend could go if we allowed it to.
Sitting somewhere in the middle, between utopian and dystopian, is optimistic fiction. In optimistic fiction, things are bad at least in part (it’s not utopia), but they can be improved and, crucially, are improving. Because it’s fiction (although this is also true to life), the brave actions of committed people who believe that change is possible are key to making that change happen.
When I was a teenager, I started worldbuilding for a utopian society with the plan of writing about it, but never actually wrote any fiction in that world. The thing is, a utopian society is not only unrealistic; it’s, fictionally, fairly dull. It’s lacking in a key element of fiction: conflict.
As I’ve come to understand fiction better, I’ve gradually learned to move away from utopianism without abandoning optimism. In my recent novel, Hope and the Clever Man, for example, my first draft showed this situation: the gnomes in general are enslaved by the dwarves, but the gnomes we actually see “on stage” are free, because of the enlightened policies of their ultimate employer, the human ruler of the realm in which the book is set. During the course of the story, they help the other gnomes gain freedom.
As I worked with my beta readers and my development editor, I realised that this wasn’t strong enough as a story. It became much stronger when I decided not to pre-solve one of the major problems and opened with that problem still in place: The gnomes we meet and come to like are still under the control of the dwarves, and are personally struggling to be free. The first draft scenario is more utopian, but the final scenario is a far better story.
It’s also, as I mentioned, more true to how change really happens. Look at any of the advances we’ve seen in the west during the past several hundred years: religious freedom; representative democracy, which with all its flaws is still an advance on rule by a hereditary aristocracy; the abolition of slavery; child labour laws; universal education; women’s suffrage; legislation for the equal treatment of various kinds of humans; awareness of the importance of environmental protection and public health. None of these came without a hard struggle by committed people against entrenched, powerful interests. Most of them cost lives. Most of them are struggles that go on today, to some degree, even though the major fight may have been won.
And that’s the other side of writing optimistic fiction about successful struggles for social change. Doing so not only makes for better fiction, but honours the people who have fought for the world we have, and the ones who continue to fight for a world that’s better than this one.
Guest Author Bio:
For someone with an English degree, he’s spent a surprising amount of time wearing a hard hat. He’s also studied ritualmaking, hypnotherapy and health science.
Mike writes strange worlds that people want to live in. He himself lives in Auckland, New Zealand, surrounded by trees.