Who says our stories have to be dismal and bleak? Sometimes spec fic, especially science fiction, can make us feel great about the future. That’s optimistic spec fic, and it’s our topic for this week. Listen as we discuss what exactly goes into making optimistic stories, how this classification overlaps with light stories, and how nice it was when Dr. Crusher and Lt. Daren became friends instead of hating each other. Plus, what even is solarpunk?
- Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Dinotopia TV Show
- The City of Brass
- The Culture
- The Player of Games
- The Next Generation
- Deep Space Nice
- Dr. Crusher
- Lt. Daren
- Another Life
- Stargate Universe
- The Orville
- Romantic Fantasy
- Mercedes Lackey
- The Good Place
- Schitt’s Creek
- Parks and Recreation
- The West Wing
- The Librarians
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, West Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is …
Oren: And …
Oren: And today I’m just feeling very hopeful about the future, usually, but occasionally the past, and that’s why I want to talk about optimistic spec-fic and what optimistic spec-fic even is. People usually say optimistic sci-fi, but I think that in the right circumstances, other kinds of spec-fic can be optimistic.
Wes: I’d like to think that most fictions can be optimistic if we dare to be hopeful.
Chris: I think the big question about this – and this is definitely the problem with utopias – is how what kind of conflicts can we have if it’s optimistic? Because that’s certainly what prevents people from writing about utopias a lot. It’s just easier to write your story if your setting has lots of problems. So can you do optimistic and have high stakes conflicts, would you say?
Oren: I think you can. So here’s what I would say. I would say that optimistic spec-fic is often utopian, but not always. Utopian is kind of a subset of optimistic spec-fic. For me, optimistic spec-fic is doesn’t have to contain a specific set of things to qualify. It’s more of a series of qualifications. The more of them it has, the more it feels like optimistic spec-fic. That’s basically just anything that makes me go, “Yes, I would like to live in that world.” That’s the thing that actually matters about optimistic spec-fic. That’s what actually makes it different. Any story can have a happy ending, and most of them probably should. And you can have stories that are empowering that are not optimistic. You can have a story that starts off in a terrible dystopia and then the characters fight to make it better and there’s nothing wrong with that. That can be very empowering, especially nowadays, but I wouldn’t call that optimistic even if everything turns out great.
Chris: So if we have settings, for instance, that people really want to live in but have issues, like the Harry Potter Universe. We would probably say that’s not optimistic because even though lots of people really want to attend Hogwarts, clearly attending Hogwarts would not objectively be a good thing.
Oren: There’s some issue here around the fact that people are bad at judging risk. Everyone wants to live in Hogwarts because it has super high wish fulfillment, and if you just ignore all the bad things, yeah, absolutely. I would say that Hogwarts isn’t particularly good optimistic spec-fic because it has house elf slavery. No. No thanks. But if it didn’t have those things, if it were the wonderful Wizarding World we actually all imagined it to be, and we didn’t have to find out things like how Wizards didn’t use the toilet until recently, I would be willing to qualify it. Yeah, that sounds like a cool place to live.
Chris: But I guess we’re looking for a sort of thoroughness. It’s not enough that it has wish-fulfillment elements that people really want to experience. The setting should feel like, if the novelty wore off, if the wish-fulfillment wore off, that would still be a nice place to be. Your quality of life would be higher.
Oren: Right. And it’s also worth noting that like the main thing, I think, that stops Harry Potter from feeling like optimistic spec-fic is the fact that even within this world, it is commonplace for bigotry to exist, and I’m not even talking about the house elves. That’s just a thing that the Harry Potter world is not ready to acknowledge yet.
Chris: Right. We’ve got the wizard classism and the anti muggle bigotry.
Oren: Which, to be clear, is very good for the story. I’m not suggesting the Harry Potter would be better if you took that out.
Chris: No, it’s actually one of the better depictions of fascism-bigotry out there, surprisingly.
Oren: To use an example of a setting that is not utopian and not sci-fi, but I think qualifies as optimistic spec-fic, is Avatar because in Avatar: The Last Airbender (not Avatar: blue cat people) –
Wes: Important distinction.
Oren: – but in Last Airbender, there is conflict in that world. It’s not a perfect world. But the implication is that the conflict is unusual. The fact that the world’s been having a hundred-year war with the Fire Nation bad, real bad, but the implication that we get is that any other point in history except for right now would be a great place to live in the Avatar setting. Everything’s nice, people use bending to do whatever they want, the Avatar keeps things from getting out of hand. There are some isolated incidents where things go bad, but as a rule that setting seems very optimistic. Again, not perfect. There are still class divisions.
Chris: We also know that the northern water tribe is really sexist for some reason, which I could have done without, honestly.
Oren: It’s also kind of an unusual thing in a world that otherwise seems to be completely free of gender discrimination. It was important for Katara’s “I have to prove myself” arc, but I feel like there was a better way to do that.
Wes: I was thinking about this in your examples, Oren, and tone seems to come into play here. I’m kind of stuck on thinking of Harry Potter and I think of rivalry and conflict and the Draco Malfoy of it all. If we look at that relationship that Harry has with Malfoy, it’s very antagonistic throughout the text and in the movies. And then in Last Airbender, there’s the Zuko of it all and he’s obviously has his own growth arcs off like that, but even his interactions with Aang, early on – the tone of those interactions is different. They’re not out to get each other. The interpersonal conflicts still seem to be a little bit lighter in tone. They’re not as serious and even in the in Last Airbender, the depictions of violence and even maybe torture are still different from Death Eaters doing it with unforgivable curses.
Oren: There’s definitely a question of mood involved. If you took a setting that was really utopian in every logical way and then told that story as a super creepy weird horror story, which you could do, that would make it not really very optimistic. I’m actually reminded of Dinotopia in this context. There’s a really bad film adaptation of the Dinotopia books, in which the whole society comes off as the cult of dinosaur worship and it’s very creepy. It’s clearly supposed to be optimistic, but it doesn’t feel optimistic because they’re like, “Everyone loves the dinosaurs even when they try to eat us. We love the dinosaurs.” It’s like, “What? What is happening in this? What?”
Chris: Yeah, it’s weird because it’s a utopian setting and it’s just hard to have conflict there. And so in one of the storylines the conflict comes from having new people arrive in Dinotopia that have trouble adjusting. But because one of them is a protagonist, and you can’t have protagonist be too unlikable. Probably some of it comes from the original book, but clearly there were some writer that was just struggling to make conflict there. And so the people in Dinotopia just come off as super unreasonable. Like, “Oh, you must conform to our society. Yeah, you didn’t ask to be here. No, we don’t support you trying to leave. We don’t want you to try to leave you must conform to our culture in all ways.”
Oren: And that’s why it comes across as the cult of dinosaur worship. That’s not great. But then something like Hilda, which is a cartoon on Netflix, is another example of what I would say is fairly optimistic spec-fic. Again, not a utopia, but it definitely gives the feeling that everything’s okay and that this would be a fun, cool place to live. Again, this isn’t giving me the same message as something like Star Trek. Star Trek is very specifically like, “Look at this greater world we could build if we wanted to,” whereas I don’t think anyone’s looking at Hilda and being like, “We could make a world like Hilda.” But the idea of having very genuine relationships with people where someone’s not being a dick for no reason is, I’d say, pretty optimistic.
Chris: I would actually say that’s one of the big distinguishing factors of something being optimistic. There’s not tons of low-scale issues happening in the background. And we’ve talked a lot about not putting oppression in your story, unless your story’s actually going to address it, because depictions of oppression are by their nature oppressive unless you put effort into making them not oppressive. They make it harder for marginalized characters to participate and all that. But I think a lot of the most optimistic settings just don’t put problems in the world that have nothing to do with the story. We don’t have people suffering in the background. If somebody is suffering that’s part of the plot and the story addresses it in some ways, which I think is often very good because, as much as having more problems in your world can give you more sources of conflict, if you have extra problems in your world, it does sometimes burden the story because it acts like a loose plot that hasn’t been addressed, or possibly, in some stories, it makes your plot feel trivial in comparison because the problems in the world are so big. This is the issue with City of Brass, right?
Oren: Yeah. It’s like, “Who cares if this romance goes out okay? You just told me about this horrible genie-based caste system where people at the bottom are routinely murdered. I’m not super interested in this romance story anymore.”
Chris: Whereas in Hilda, we don’t see lots of poor people on the streets when we’re looking around the city. We don’t see casual suffering as part of the setting.
Oren: It just seems like a nice place and when there’s conflict, you get the feeling that it’s an exception to the norm. And then you can get into some stories like The Culture, which is a utopian sci-fi, which even then frankly doesn’t feel particularly optimistic. In The Culture, theoretically, everyone living in the Culture (which is the in-universe organization) lives in a utopia, but just like the way that the story is told makes it seem very dismal. Everyone’s kind of a dick to each other.
Chris: Do any of those stories actually take place in the Culture?
Wes: That’s what I was wondering.
Oren: A few. The one that starts in the Culture that I remember is called Player of Games. It starts with this guy who’s like, “Aaah, I’m so bored in the Culture” and he wants to go off and do something dangerous. And that’s where the story starts.
Chris: That doesn’t sound very sympathetic, to be perfectly honest.
Wes: No, he sounds like he’s gonna go have bad experiences.
Oren: He’s a very unsympathetic character. The story starts with him cheating at a game because he’s upset that some young challenger is better than him. And then that’s how he gets caught in a blackmail scheme. It’s not a great story my opinion.
Chris: That’s the issue, though. The Culture is so utopian that the story has to not take place in the Culture in order to have a story.
Oren: I mean, Star Trek has the same problem. At least with Star Trek, they bring some of the optimism with them. That’s sort of the way Star Trek works. It’s like, “Okay, this episode of Star Trek takes place on Deep Space 9, which is a station out on the frontier, so there’s more conflict here. This episode of The Next Generation takes place it wherever the Enterprise is, and there’s conflict there because that’s not the middle of the Federation where everything’s great.” It still feels like you’ve brought some part of the optimism along for the ride because of the way the characters act and so it’s like, “Yes, I would love to live and work on a ship where everyone is part of a great working environment and there’s no malicious office gossip floating around and I don’t feel like I have to cover my ass whenever something goes wrong.”
Chris: Oh, yeah, TNG is so refreshing with that lack of drama. Sometimes it’s a little strange. Deep Space Nine, I think, often times hits a good medium. But it also can be so refreshing to see them create plots where in any other show would just have tons of drama between the characters, especially when we have potential relationships, like love triangles, happening. Any other show would milk that for all the drama it can produce, but everybody’s super mature in The Next Generation and nobody takes the bait. When there’s competition, nobody takes it out on each other. When we have Picard meet somebody and Crusher is perhaps a little jealous, she just becomes friends with this other woman and they get along great.
Oren: They don’t spend the whole episode hating each other constantly. It was so nice.
Chris: As opposed to Another Life.
Oren: Oh, gosh.
Chris: We just watched the first of the show on Netflix called Another Life. The people on this ship are like, “Instant mutiny! We just want to kill each other!” and it’s like, how did these people get hired to work on this ship? I don’t even know.
Oren: If you just took a random sampling of people off the street in any American city, you would get a more qualified group of space explorers than these doofuses. They’re the worst. Another Life is like anti-optimism, but … no, not even. It’s not even dystopian. It doesn’t have a complete enough vision for that. It’s just a bad in a lot of ways.
Wes: So it does seem that something that’s connecting the optimistic part of a lot of these stories is that depiction of like interpersonal relationships wherein they don’t rely on tropey sabotage. There’s something in this optimism where the characters in the show are acting mature and resolving conflict. It seems so weird to point that out but in thinking about it, it’s like, “Oh, this is a feel-good show because we see people handling conflict responsibly” and then I’m now I’m thinking, “Oh my god, what kind of dystopian nonsense are we consuming?”
Oren: It is partially down to the dystopian fiction that we often consume, but it’s also, let’s be honest, just real life. Let’s not pretend that everyone we know always solves conflict in a mature way. Very often, regular humans make what would otherwise be not particularly serious problems much more serious by doing absolutely the wrong thing.
Chris: I’d also like to add that it depends on a writer who knows what good interactions are, which is the big problem with Voyager, for instance. This is why Voyager is not TNG as far as interpersonal conflict is because the writers of Voyager just don’t know what respect is. The characters are, for instance, continually making racist Vulcan jokes that are supposed to be funny, or Tuvok. Things like that continually happen on Voyager where the writer has to understand what a hostile environment is and what inappropriate behavior is in order to make something like TNG happen.
Oren: Voyager is also just an interesting situation because it’s a setup that really doesn’t actually lend itself well to super optimistic fiction. Voyager is tricky because it would be really easy to go too dark. If you wanted to see an example of what that looks like, I would recommend Stargate Universe, which is basically the Voyager concept, but they went really dark with it. At a certain point, I just lost interest in Stargate Universe because it was so dark. All these people are constantly at each other’s throats and constantly trying to maneuver for an advantage and trying to hurt each other in some way. I was just a little bit like, “Okay, whatever. I guess I hope the ship explodes.” And it wasn’t because any individual character was badly written like it is on Another Life. The writing on Stargate Universe was much better. It was just too dark and I think it would be really easy to go that way with Voyager, but Voyager as written is not as dark as it should be. They’re trying to be too optimistic in a situation that is not optimistic at all because they’re stuck on the other side of the Galaxy, and they have a crew that’s half made up of violent insurgents, and they have all these problems that they just aren’t willing to deal with, and they’re like, “We’re fine and it’s fine and it’s like TNG again and also we hate Vulcans.”
Wes: Yeah, the Vulcan stuff that is, again, just really cheap punching-below-the-belt kind of stuff. That’s unnecessary. It’s just like, what is this doing besides, “Oh, Vulcans aren’t real, so we can oppress them.” Like, what? Who thinks this is a good idea?
Chris: I mean, I would also say that’s the problem with the Orville. The Orville is definitely Star Trek fanfic, but the characters are … some people find them very relatable, which is fine, but they’re also just petty to the point where it doesn’t feel like they’re professionals doing their jobs. It’s just hard to see that as an optimistic setting when the characters behave like they’re part of a sitcom.
Oren: One of the things I would say about an optimistic setting is that one of the things that makes it optimistic is the hope that people would actually get rewarded for doing well. Obviously, in real life, the idea of a meritocracy is largely a fiction, and is actually used to further marginalize certain people. Beyond that context, we would like to think that if you’re good at your job, you will be recognized for that. And if you’re bad at your job, you won’t be rewarded with more authority at the job you’re bad at. Very simple to say, yet much more complex in practice. The Orville definitely shows us a world where failing up is still a very real thing and it’s just hard to feel optimistic about that.
Chris: I think it might be worth mentioning some genres that tend to be a little bit more optimistic. There’s not that many of them. Because we’ve had so much like grimdark, I think there’s a building-up demand for optimism, but there’s not a lot of response from big studios and other people who make big-budget stories. This need is not actually getting fulfilled that well. There’s this genre that doesn’t really exist, as far as I know, called Solar Punk. The idea of Solar Punk started with a tumblr post by someone called Miss Olivia Louise. Miss Olivia Louise was like, “Hey, I want this genre to exist.” It’s a subversion of cyberpunk, which is always dystopian. That’s what makes it Punk – it’s defined by the dystopian part of it – but it’s based on things that are really bright and sunny and it has an art nouveau feeling. It’s just a world that’s nice that you’d want to live in, with renewable energy. It got well-known because so many people shared this desire for seeing the genre. Now, granted, if it’s really utopian, easier said than actually story-told. But at the same time, even though that got passed around a lot, when I went to the TV Tropes page, I found that the examples are really quite sparse.
The only really well-known story that I saw in there that looked partially like a fit was Wakanda from Black Panther. People were saying that Wakanda itself is Solar Punk in that it has a lot of technology and it uses that technology to solve the nation’s problems. Wakanda in itself is kind of utopian. But again, it’s been passed around and I want it to exist, but it doesn’t really seem to exist much yet. Another genre that I think is often fairly optimistic is fairytale fantasy. This is not fairy tales themselves. This is our idea of fairy tales repackaged as fantasy stories that are usually for children. So it’s basically the Disney version of the original fairy tales. I would say that a lot of these stories are pretty optimistic because it’s about a very scenic world with happy villagers. Usually there’s not a lot of oppression like serfdom happening in the background and it’s all true love and all of that. Everything works out perfectly and is just very optimistic in general.
Oren: Are we talking about the elusive genre known as romantic fantasy perchance?
Chris: I looked into that, and there are so many different opinions about genres. Every genre has its “No, it’s this! No, it’s that!” But I wasn’t able to confirm that romantic fantasy, which is a pretty elusive genre, was actually supposed to be that optimistic. It has a lot of traditional fantasy tropes, but it sounds like it also has a lot of “the big evil” and more, darker things in it sometimes too, but I’m not sure, honestly.
Oren: That’s a fair point. I don’t know because I can’t track down what romantic fantasy is even supposed to be.
Chris: I’ve read some Mercedes Lackey stories that I think might be in that category. The magic is supposed to be very beautiful. There’s a romanticism in how the magic is displayed. One of the central things about romantic fantasy is that the magical elements themselves are romantic. But the characters in Mercedes Lackey’s books have the darkest backstories ever where horrible things happen to them and they go around saving other people from having horrible things happen to them to the point where it’s definitely doesn’t feel like it’s an optimistic setting.
Oren: So this might be a good time to point out that we’re also talking a lot about optimistic stories in the context of being light, and a lot of optimistic stories are light, but they don’t necessarily have to be. There’s just a lot of overlap there. Again, Star Trek is optimistic, but it’s not always light because the problems that they deal with can be dark problems, but they are established to be exceptions. That’s sort of what defines it in Star Trek. It could work that way another stories. I just don’t want people to think that in order to do optimistic, they can only do light stories. Certainly, we also could use more light stories, but they don’t have to be light.
Chris: Whereas, I think, in some of the Mercedes Lackey books it does make it feel like those tragedies are just part of the setting.
Oren: Like, that’s the thing you have to expect if you live here.
Chris: The heroes are just going around saving people all the time from these terrible things. It’s not like we have an epic battle of good versus evil that comes around every thousand years.
Wes: So one thing about this comes from an article I read recently about … well, Chris is talking about genre. So, I’ve been watching some comedy, and I know that’s super broad not necessarily spec-fic, but it was pointing to some series that have gained popularity based on them being kind comedies or nice comedy. Parks and Recreation was one of the first ones that got really popular in that regard, and the new current one that I’ve just watched that I heartily recommend is called Schitt’s Creek with Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levi. The spec-fic version of this is The Good Place. I’m wondering, to what extent does The Good Place fit into our optimistic spec-fic talk? Because in terms of mood, I think yes. Would I want to live there? Well, I don’t know how to answer that question.
Oren: I mean, short answer, no. So I would say that The Good Place has a lot of the elements that make for an optimistic story, but, much like how a taco is not a sandwich despite having many of the same elements, I would say that it is not optimistic because again, the premise of The Good Place is that the vast majority of people are tortured forever in hell. I just don’t think I can call that optimistic. Again, we might be looking at a Harry Potter situation wherein people just don’t notice that and don’t think about that implication. So they’re just like, “You have a Good Place. It sounds great. I want to go hang out in the Good Place.” And it’s like, yeah, but if you actually lived in that setting you would live in the Bad Place that’s the entire point of the series. Spoilers, I won’t say any more on that. So I love The Good Place and I think you’re right.
It is definitely kind comedy in that the people making it care about whether or not they’re punching up or punching down. It’s a very important part of The Good Place. They’re very social justice-minded and all of that. I love The Good Place. I wouldn’t consider it optimistic. I would consider Parks and Rec optimistic though, and I’ll tell you why. Parks and Rec is what I call functional government optimistic. Parks and Rec basically fits in the same mold as The West Wing, except Parks and Rec is much smaller scale. Both follow the idea that our government is actually working in our best interests. They might encounter problems, and they may not always know what to do, but the people we elected to represent us actually care what happens to us and try to get the best outcomes they can. That is optimistic. It’s currently simply not true at the federal level, but it could be. We could make it true again if we worked hard.
Chris: As far as nice comedy goes, what do you think about The Librarians? Because that’s a show where we have a core group of characters and there’s a lot of comedy but they also generally get along really well most of the time and have kind of a camaraderie.
Oren: They do. So, The Librarians is fairly light. The reason for me that it doesn’t qualify as particularly optimistic is more to do with the way that it treats everyone in the background. There’s a definite idea in The Librarians that if you’re not part of this core group, bad things happen to you constantly. Now, granted, Star Trek has its red shirts, so maybe I’m just being very inconsistent here.
Chris: When you have a TV show that’s doing, not necessarily monster of the week, but something similar where we generate a new conflict in a different place every week, it does, after a while, start to feel like that setting is just full of problems. It’s maybe not to the level of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but, still, the setting starts to look less optimistic just because if we’re generating a new problem every week, the assumption is that they’re everywhere.
Oren: Especially when it’s gotta be a new problem that could threaten the world. Well, we are just about out of time. Thank you both for discussing this topic with me. I feel more optimistic already.
Wes: All right.
Oren: Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a three of our Patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. All right, we’ll talk to you next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?