A Reflection on Hope

Last year, around the time I inaugurated my Poetry Sunday series, I contacted Prof. Philip Appleman to ask for permission to reprint some of his work which I’d seen in Freethought Today. He graciously assented to my request, and even said a few kind words about “The Gods“, my own brief foray into free verse, which I had the brashness to ask for his opinion on.

He called my poem “hopeful,” which was an honor to me, but there was one other thing he said which I’ve been dwelling on – that he was pleased because hopefulness, these days, is a rare virtue. And, I have to say, I understand very well what he meant.

I’ve been reading more science fiction this past year or two, and one major theme I’ve noticed is that we have so many dystopias. I’ve lost count of how many fictions I’ve read where things fail, where everything goes disastrously wrong, where humanity shatters itself or dwindles away. Why, I wonder, are we so obsessed with our own destruction? Why is it that we seem to delight in imagining the most horrendous fates possible? Writing like this can serve as a warning, I know. But shouldn’t we also want something to inspire us, to give us hope? Shouldn’t we want to set a goal we can aspire to?

Part of it may be a contingent fact, a sign of the times. Every time there is war, disaster, uncertainty, people feel more pessimistic about the future, and a spasm of despair passes through humanity’s literary output. And so far, the first decade of the twenty-first century has given the world a great deal to be anxious about – the resurgent threat of terrorism, the growing danger of global climate change, rising energy prices and food instability, and increased tension in many historic trouble spots. Perhaps the pessimism of our creations is just a symbol of what’s on everyone’s mind?

But if that’s the explanation, we have to face the fact that the world has always been a troubled place. There was never a time in human history when the globe was universally peaceful and life was everywhere good. On the contrary, there have always been wars, famines and disasters; there has always been corruption, greed and poverty; and people have always been lazy, ignorant, corruptible, selfish and credulous. In fact, one might argue that war and violence has taken a greater toll on humanity in every era, culminating in the world wars of the twentieth century, the bloodiest and most destructive conflicts humanity has yet witnessed. Is this a trend which we can expect to continue? As the twenty-first century proceeds, we’ve seen the rise of several new nuclear powers, the spread of virulent religious fascism, a swelling human population testing the limits of what the planet can sustain, and the natural resources upon which we all depend growing increasingly stretched and thin. It’s entirely possible that this century may witness truly apocalyptic wars, with the most awful loss of life ever. And it’s not inconceivable that, if such wars happen, even the survivors may be left so bloodied and fragmented as to herald the beginning of a long, slow fall back into darkness – the dystopia of our grimmest fantasies, this time enacted in reality.

Even beside these nightmare scenarios, the more mundane, chronic problems of our planet can still seem overwhelming. Every day, millions of people around the world languish in poverty, feel the bite of hunger, and suffer from entirely curable epidemics. Millions more live in fear under totalitarian governments or in war-torn failed states. Even where life is relatively peaceful, sometimes it seems as if the masses are content to live in stupor, willing to march to war at the command of jingoistic politicians or trade precious, hard-won liberties in exchange for pop-culture anesthesia. Granted, there are brave souls who labor their lives to improve the situation; but against the pervasive backdrop of human misery, and the widespread apathy and self-interest that permits it to continue, their efforts sometimes seem futile. The problems that face us have their own inertia, and some days it seems towering, far too massive to shift. Are there really enough people who care to make a difference?

Then again, perhaps I judge humanity too harshly. I have to admit that I understand why so many people don’t choose the course of activism. When you see a problem in the world, or something that disturbs your conscience, you have three options. You can take action to make it better, but that requires time and effort. If you believe it can be fixed but don’t take action to do so, this causes uncomfortable moral dissonance. By far the easiest course of action is to persuade yourself that it’s a bad situation, but there’s really nothing that can be done, or that it doesn’t involve you. The course of apathy is soothing and keeps people’s consciences intact in the face of evils they can do nothing about. Once again, it’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma: the more who opt out of action, the greater the pressure becomes on everyone else to do the same.

I am an optimist by nature and temperament, but even I keep being pulled back by the realities of our world. There are days when the effort of caring seems futile, pointless, and the temptation to write it all off and let humanity build its own pyre is strong. I haven’t yielded to it so far, but how can I justify being hopeful? Is there any justification for an informed optimism that confronts the daily reality of suffering and is not bowed under?

I believe that there is. Optimism can be and often is caricatured as a starry-eyed, head-in-the-clouds naivete about “the way things really are”, as opposed to unflinching, clear-thinking cynicism. But I much prefer a tough, informed optimism, one that takes in all that is wrong with the world and accepts things as they are, yet does not proclaim that losing hope is the appropriate response.

Pessimism is too easy. In a way, it’s cowardly. As I said, the pessimist’s choice can be a soothing one, a position which reassures its holder that apathy and inactivity are morally acceptable. After all, if you believe that failure is inevitable, it relieves you of the responsibility to have to do anything. To be frank, it’s easy to believe the worst of everyone and everything. Even a foolish optimist risks disappointment; the hardcore pessimist never does.

In that sense, pessimism is a self-fulfilling guarantee of failure. True pessimists believe that success in a worthy endeavor is impossible, so they don’t participate; and if that endeavor should fail because of their lack of participation, that becomes a self-justifying excuse not to participate in the future. By contrast, even an optimist will fail on occasion, but optimism, unlike pessimism, does not cause its own downfall.

The usual solution to a Prisoner’s Dilemma is regulation by a higher authority, but there is none in this case. We can’t force people to be dedicated to worthy causes or to care about the welfare of others. The only other solution is for individuals to freely step up and answer the call of need, and trust that their actions can inspire others to do the same. That’s the goal I try to strive for. My optimism is not the sort that says success is inevitable, but merely that it’s possible – and that this possibility is reason enough to try.

I don’t deny the badness in humanity, but we possess many good and noble qualities as well. The naive optimists and the embittered cynics, both of whom deny one of these aspects completely in favor of the other, are both equally in error. The exact balance between our light and dark sides is a matter of dispute, but I’m inclined to say that the goodness of humanity must outweigh the evil. We couldn’t have come as far as we have, built as much as we have, if that were not the case. We would never have risen above a state of anarchy. The goodness of people consists in many small, quiet acts, often overlooked against the backdrop of thunderous strokes of evil – but they are there, nonetheless.

And if you look at human history, we do see a trend of increasing moral knowledge and progress. It’s not a steady climb, rather a zigzag rise with many backward steps and local reversions, but it is there. Our wisdom still lags our technological prowess, but that is growing as well. It’s by no means guaranteed that the one will overtake the other in time. But neither is it guaranteed that this will not happen. The future is open, and we can write the outcome through our efforts. That knowledge – the knowledge that the story is not yet over, that we have the power to control our own destiny, and that we can still choose a good one – is what informs my optimism, and what gives me the continued motivation for hope.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Christopher

    In every generation there have been those who look at the world around them and thought “the end is nigh” – and yet it never came. But even if “the end” did come for our species, of what consequense is that? Something else will simply rise up and take our place: just as we rose up and took the place of the dinosaur, so another species will sieze our little niche of existence.

    The way I see it – no matter how things turn out – there’s nothing for us to worry about as nature can fill gaps just fine without us.

  • Urban Viking

    Good essay, Ebon. Once again, you have saved me the effort of articulating my feelings on a matter by doing a far better job than I could.

    Off topic: I’m after good sci-fi reading recommendations. I’ve recently finished all of Alastair Reynolds’ stuff and before that I finished off Iain M. Banks’ works. Do you (or anyone else) have any good suggestions of authors in a similar vein?

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    Thanks Ebon, that was both nicely written and very thought provoking. I may even start to reconsider my own embittered cynicism in light of this. I’ve been lurking on Daylight Atheism for what seems like years, and always enjoy the moments when you fan my little spark of hope to life.

    Of course, as an atheist I have no purpose in life and am doomed to be forever miserable, according to one chap I spoke to recently.

  • Entomologista

    One of the things that bothers me the most about Christianity is this idea that humans are horrible, evil no-good sinners and can’t be good except for God. That doesn’t seem to be a very productive thing to think. Of course humans are capable of massive evil. But we can also do good, and I would agree with you that in general more good is done than bad. But both good and bad come from us and are our responsibility. Shifting the responsibility or credit to imaginary beings is just dumb.

    I love science fiction. It’s pretty much the reason I’m a scientist. Humanity is capable of such amazing things, and I wish more people could see that and strive for it. You should read Stephen Baxter if you haven’t already; his Manifold series and Evolution are very, very good.

  • Dennis

    I think one of the main reasons I looked into atheism in the first place is that I felt like a good person, and I was happy. None of the cliché angst apologists like to blame. I looked around me, knew I’m not a dirty sinner no matter what they say, and knew I have higher morals than your local church. I have hope and happiness in this life, and religion does its best to tell you there is only hope and happiness in an afterlife.

    That, and religion just plain smells like evil.

    On the topic of science fiction, I think it’s important to mention Arthur C. Clarke, who died recently. He wrote The Star, was an atheist, and was a humanist. I always found his work to be thought-provoking, and generally up beat, even if the world was coming to an end. It was upsetting when he died, not just because he was a legend, but because certain news articles I read gave religious leanings to his death, and failed to mention his atheism. Thankfully, those were few and far between.

  • http://www.bellatorus.com Petrucio

    One day amongst friends, one guy said: “Who needs birth control? The best birth control is knowing that your kid would grow up in this world”.

    Is it? Never before has the murder rate been so low. Never before have people have so many rights. Never before have people been so well cared and fed. Never before have we worried about the environment so much, or about keeping the peace. Training to be a warrior was honored, and expected of basically everyone. Never before have we had such liberty to think for ourselves.

    The world may seen full of problems, but look at it carefully, and you’ll see it’s never been a better place to be a human in it. It’s a great time to be alive!

    PS: Someone will obviously point out that the world is not such a good place in every country. I know. But even if we take every country into consideration, the average is still very higher than before, and rising.

    PS2: I agree with Christopher that nature will fill the gaps, no problem. But I am a human, and I care about what happens to my species, and to the ones close to it. This type of reasoning would also make you not care about the environment or giving a damn to any species. Just let them die alway, even if that means killing 95% of live on the planet. It happened before a few times naturally, why not artificially? If you don’t reason like this, ignore the next sentence, but if you do, then fuck you.

  • mikespeir

    “And if you look at human history, we do see a trend of increasing moral knowledge and progress. It’s not a steady climb, rather a zigzag rise with many backward steps and local reversions, but it is there. Our wisdom still lags our technological prowess, but that is growing as well. It’s by no means guaranteed that the one will overtake the other in time.”

    I like your realistic approach. I always cringe when one of my fellow atheists blithely predicts the day when superstition fades away and reason comes to predominate. Then there would be peace like wasn’t heretofore possible. I’d like to believe the same, but there are too many things that could go wrong. And there really are ways in which our time is unlike any other in history. We could literally annihilate ourselves before this age of enlightenment arrives. We’re on the cusp of being able to modify who we fundamentally are. There’s no guarantee we’ll get it right.

    All we’d need is a devastating war or a particularly severe economic crisis that sends the world into a tailspin. As much as we here loathe the prospect, that would almost inevitably drive most people back to the bosom of religion. I can easily see most or all the progress we’ve made in recent centuries lost in a flash.

    On the other hand, we’ve had nuclear weapons over 60 years now. Contrary to the dire forecasts of my youth, we haven’t destroyed ourselves. It’s been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’m not so sure. Give a sane man absolute power and it scares the crap out of him. So far we’ve been too scared to push the button. Hope it lasts.

    I couldn’t back it up with hard evidence, but I’ve got a feeling there’s a kind of “hump” coming up in the near future. (Say, 50 years?) If we can manage to get over that, we might find ourselves more or less home free.

  • robthehall

    Steven Pinker gave a talk about the history of violence, specifically, its decline. Very interesting and worth a look.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Hell, yeah.

    I totally agree. Optimism is not the same thing as delusion, or ignoring harsh reality. Optimism is, to a great extent, a choice. And it is the more responsible choice: the choice that says, “Things can be better — therefore I have a moral obligation to try to make them better.”

    One comment:

    “We can’t force people to be dedicated to worthy causes or to care about the welfare of others.”

    I don’t think that’s entirely true. We can, for instance, make people pay taxes, which is an important form of dedication to the welfare of others and the care of society as a whole. But of course, in a democracy, people have some say in how much taxes they pay. In fact, I would argue that the degree to which a democratic society agrees to tax itself is not a bad measure of how much that society values the idea of social responsibility.

    Oh, and I agree with Petrucio. Yes, I do find a certain comfort in the idea that life on the planet will probably continue even if humankind goes extinct. But it’s a pretty cold comfort. I like people; I care about people; I want people to stick around. And I therefore have a responsibility to do what I can to ensure that we survive.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Pessimism is too easy. In a way, it’s cowardly. As I said, the pessimist’s choice can be a soothing one, a position which reassures its holder that apathy and inactivity are morally acceptable. After all, if you believe that failure is inevitable, it relieves you of the responsibility to have to do anything. . . . Even a foolish optimist risks disappointment; the hardcore pessimist never does.

    The same is true of nihilism. In both cases you’re choosing not to care, and in both cases it can feel safer, wiser and more realistic.

    The courage required to hope is undeniably worthwhile if you ask me. The potential for a better world is worth chasing for so long as it is even slightly realistic — but perhaps it’s more than slightly realistic. I don’t really know. I do know that hope is one of the things that keeps me coming back here. Perhaps, now I think of it, it may be the central thing.

    Hope can be contagious. Is that a solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma you mentioned?

  • Karen

    I’m definitely an optimist by temperament, and have remained so after deconverting from Christianity.

    Often I find myself rather shocked by the cynicism and bitterness of atheist intellectuals. There’s a “nothing will ever be better so why should we try” vibe that squelches political and social activism and seems to me to be highly unjustified.

    The weird mixture of negativity about present humanity and positivity about the afterlife that’s present in religion is just as destructive, but at least it’s more familiar to me than the ennui of some atheism.

    Of course, other atheists are so upbeat about progress and technology and the decline of religions around the world that they seem almost Pollyanna-ish. I have a feeling its a matter of temperament and personality more than anything else.

  • Christopher

    Petrucio,

    “I agree with Christopher that nature will fill the gaps, no problem. But I am a human, and I care about what happens to my species, and to the ones close to it.”

    It’s not that I don’t care about my species (I do, as hard as some people may find it to believe – as my existence is tied to theirs), but I don’t languish on about how “bad” the world or fear how things are going to end like the typical pessimist does – I just acknowledge that, should our species find itself discontinued, it won’t be of any greater consequense than the exinction of any other animal.

    All in all, I just prefer to focus on improving my own sphere of influence rather than attempting to “save the world” like the ever-optimistic activist types or mope in the dark corner of some bar with the pessimist – although both types of people are more than welcome to do just that…

    “This type of reasoning would also make you not care about the environment or giving a damn to any species. Just let them die alway, even if that means killing 95% of live on the planet. It happened before a few times naturally, why not artificially?”

    Well, now that you mention it, when populations of species compete for resources the loser of the competition dies – it’s inevitable that sooner or later one party will have to give way in this zero-sum game called life. So will I support destroying a species if it means increasing the resources (and thus the chances of survival) for my own, you bet your ass I will.

    That said, I find it wasteful to just randomly destroy species: who knows, they may prove useful at some later point in our development – but we won’t know that if they’re all dead now, will we? Yes, nature will eventually fill the niches left behind by the extinct species, but will it do so fast enough for us to take advantage of the situation? That may very well be a bet we can’t win…

    Even if life has no greater cosmic significance (and I don’t think it does), it still has significance to those living it: even oft-demonized Nihilists like myself.

  • goyo

    Excellent post Ebon. I too, am an optimist, and after all these years of life, still see the glass half full.
    What really excites me is the advance of medical research and technology. The recent report from ABC about living past 100 years was really upbeat and gave me hope in living longer. For example, there are currently between 50,000-70,000 centenarians alive in the U.S.A. That’s an incredible statistic, considering the average life-span in 1900 was 59 years old.
    The reason this excites me is, as a lifetime learner, I simply haven’t done everything that I want to do. There are places to go, languages to learn, people to meet, etc…
    So when I hear some xtian say, “don’t play god”, everytime some new research comes up, I just want to scream. Go ahead and ignore medicine and die. I want to stick around as long as I can.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Why, I wonder, are we so obsessed with our own destruction? Why is it that we seem to delight in imagining the most horrendous fates possible?”

    “But shouldn’t we also want something to inspire us, to give us hope?”

    – Ebon

    I’d say because of the “phew” factor. “That’s horrible — good thing this is only a book!”, and then we look at our lives with slightly brighter eyes. Kind of like the appeal of horror movies to many people, for that matter.

    As for the second question quoted, I’m suspicious of art which is subsumed to a larger purpose. This, however, is merely a philosophical niggle.

    As those who may actually read my posts have seen, I’m on occasion given to both pessimism and cynicism, but a little thinking is often the greatest tonic for it. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire”, or “Il Pont d’Argenteuil”, or Watson and Crick’s DNA work, or the Space shuttle or . . . the point is, men can usually do most anything we set our minds to; and the apathists out there, by dint of their apathy, can be steered. It only takes voices, and thus your solution is the most rational, it would seem. Not to mention how it’s allowed me to while away hours . . .

  • Jeff T.

    Whether one is an optimist or a pessimist does not change the fact that millions are starving all over the world. It does not change the fact that wars are occurring and will continue to occur. It does not change the fact that there is racism, sexism, and genocide in abundance. And it certainly does not change the cold uncaring nature of the universe we live in.

    I do not consider being pessimistic to be cowardly. We are currently producing enough CO2 pollution to exceed 1100ppb(units?) by the turn of the century. From what I have read, not only will this level wreak havoc with the environment, it will cause a great many people to die from inhalation issues. But we still are rushing toward peak oil and are now looking at ‘clean’ coal and are basically turning our backs on clean alternative energy sources in favor of making a profit now at any cost. One can see this by examining Exxon’s profit the past couple of years.

    One must not let pessimism or any negative emotion to become the guiding force of one’s existence for it will fester and cause serious health issues. But I think pessimism has a place because it is unrealistic to believe mankind will leave this planet and sail across the universe, starting fledgling civilizations where no man has boldly gone before. The reality is that we are probably locked on the planet Earth and will not go anywhere and yet we go on polluting and destroying with a smile as our population continues to explode and create more starving children.

    When I made the conscious decision to wash my hands of politics after the lies of the ‘Swift Boat’ campaign, I did so with the conviction, which I still hold, that the government is of the rich and powerful, by the rich and powerful, and for the rich and powerful. I do not consider this pessimism but I do consider it a pretty good observation of the facts.

    You are right that it would be stupid to roll over and die instead of facing these issues, but to call one a coward because he is dumbfounded by the smiling face of General Custer as he charges optimistically into death is stretching things a bit. One can do what is right and good, knowing it is most likely futile, and this is not cowardly.

  • Christopher

    Jeff,

    “When I made the conscious decision to wash my hands of politics after the lies of the ‘Swift Boat’ campaign, I did so with the conviction, which I still hold, that the government is of the rich and powerful, by the rich and powerful, and for the rich and powerful. I do not consider this pessimism but I do consider it a pretty good observation of the facts.”

    And people got all upset whe I suggested that the common man leave these politicians behind and start taking on their botched tasks ourselves: if the government is all for the interests of the rich and powerful, then what does the average Joe like me need them for? I’m better off without those leeches!

    The result may be somewhat chaotic, but at least I’ll know that my tax dollars aren’t being used to bribe some oil tycoon into allowing some goddamn politician to support him/her for re-election (as if the election process has any real meaning anymore…).

  • Alex Weaver

    And people got all upset whe I suggested that the common man leave these politicians behind and start taking on their botched tasks ourselves: if the government is all for the interests of the rich and powerful, then what does the average Joe like me need them for? I’m better off without those leeches!

    I’m positive I’ve used the analogy of burning down a house to deal with a termite problem before.

    As for reasons for hope, it seems to me that a lot of why the world seems to be getting worse is that we are increasingly the evils of the world as evils and openly acknowledging their existence. Many crimes at the personal level (especially crimes like rape and domestic violence) that were previously ignored by the legal system and covered up under rules of propriety are now regularly in the headlines and, while reporting and prosecution are still inadequate, many victims now have a real chance of seeing justice done. Meanwhile, much of what was widely considered Standard Operating Procedure in warfare a thousand years ago is now clustered under the heading of Crimes Against Humanity. In many (though by no means all) cases it seems to me that the human world appears to be getting worse because we are coming to expect better from it (or, at least, the improvements haven’t kept pace with our expectations).

  • Frank

    I’m the opposite: a pessimist by nature and temperament. On my worst days, I tend to think of the human race as gleefully self-destructive. Part of me just doesn’t believe that people really want world peace, for instance. War is a participatory evil; all that is needed to end it is for people to refuse to participate in it. If we wanted peace badly enough, we would have peace. And yet we still have war. Where legitimate conflicts do not exist, we invent stupid ones and go to war over those. This suggests to me (again, on my bad days) that humanity, as a whole, doesn’t honestly want peace.

    On my good days, I think of humanity more as a train wreck; horrific, bloody, and ugly, but not entirely malevolent.

    I have to say that I honestly don’t think the Gene Roddenberry future where “there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read” is ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to happen. It would be nice, but it just doesn’t seem realistic.

    In any case, I think there are bad times ahead in this century, worse than we’ve seen yet. Our ability to mess things up in big, horrifying ways has grown much faster than our civilization has progressed. Yeah, women can vote and the West usually has enough food to go around, but we also have The Bomb and ice caps that are melting faster than our ability to do anything about it. We’re running out of oil, and none of the alternatives are ready yet. Things may get better, but first, they’re gonna get a lot worse.

  • http://www.myspace.com/citgasonmyhood Jeremy

    Morality. Good and Evil. <— Words that leave me feeling more and more uneasy as time goes on.

    If I’m truly honest with myself, I must admit that I do not know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. I was brought up to believe that I did, of course, but…it’s looking more and more like an illusion to me.

    Take “universally immoral acts”: theft and murder, for instance. Everyone KNOWS these acts are wrong, but this is so only because theft and murder are DEFINED as wrong: wrongful taking and wrongful killing.

    If we turn our attention to one of Ebon’s recent posts, we find that abortion is such a volatile issue in that people simply cannot agree on whether the act is right or wrong. Some people KNOW it’s right and others KNOW it’s wrong. We can extend this list to many acts such as drug use and prostitution.

    So laws are passed. Marijuana use was once considered OK, but now it’s WRONG. But if a new law were passed tomorrow, it would cease to be WRONG.

    Do we really KNOW the difference? I must admit that I do not.

    I think people have a better idea of what we do and do not LIKE than what is right or wrong.

    This is where I’m at.

  • D

    Frank, you opined that “humanity, as a whole, doesn’t honestly want peace.” I think, with a few ridiculous exceptions, we do; it’s just not our first priority. For instance, I do in fact want peace, but I can think of scenarios in which I would not hesitate to go to war; the “mashing” of these conflicting desires means that I just don’t want those scenarios to be realized. I think most people, if you asked them, would agree that they feel about the same.

    Jeremy, you said that “people have a better idea of what we do and do not LIKE than what is right or wrong.” When dressed up in fancy philosophese, this is the position known as emotivism: moral judgments are “code” for mere emotional judgments. Those who don’t give much critical thought to morality, I would agree, think and act in a manner consistent with emotivism; but this opens the door to all manner of nonsense, like moral relativism and such. A consistent descriptive account of morality, if you stick with it, has the downfall of failing to match your intuitions – however, note that in any other field of inquiry, when we find a system that works well but occasionally disagrees with our intuitions, we typically conclude that our intuitions are incorrect. Why should ethics be any different?

    If you haven’t read The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick, I would highly recommend it. Ebon gives a fairly concise-yet-thorough overview of ethics and then proposes what I think is a very solid moral system. Be warned that I have read books on moral theory, and 45-page essays on a single aspect of one moral system, so my idea of “concise” may differ radically from yours – but it’s definitely worth the read.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Urban Viking: I haven’t read either of those authors, but I can offer some suggestions if you’re interested. The last few sci-fi books I read were Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear (interesting, semi-hard sci-fi), the Idlewild trilogy by Nick Sagan (stylistically accomplished, but unremittingly bleak – part of the inspiration for this essay, in fact), Mainspring by Jay Lake (too many unresolved plot threads, in my opinion), World War Z by Max Brooks (methodical and surprisingly optimistic), Accelerando by Charles Stross (good at first, but gets progressively weirder), and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (a pretty good, classic space opera). Also, if you like fantasy, I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

    I’m opening the floor to other suggestions, if anyone has them. :)

    In general, I read more fantasy than sci-fi. Part of it is just the way my tastes run, I’m sure. But – to get back to the topic of this thread – something I’ve noticed quite often is that fantasy tends to be more optimistic. There are a lot of fantasy novels that have unambiguously happy endings, whereas in sci-fi, the endings tend to be pessimistic or at best mixed. Pretty much every book I listed above is an example of that. (A notable exception is Arthur C. Clarke, whose recommendation in an above comment I strongly second. 2001 and its sequels stand out in my memory as being some of the most prominent humanist works in the field of sci-fi I know about.) Assuming this is a real phenomenon, I wonder why it should be that way and what that says about us.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Jeff T:

    When I made the conscious decision to wash my hands of politics after the lies of the ‘Swift Boat’ campaign, I did so with the conviction, which I still hold, that the government is of the rich and powerful, by the rich and powerful, and for the rich and powerful. I do not consider this pessimism but I do consider it a pretty good observation of the facts.

    With all due respect, this is an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma-type thinking I wrote about in my post. I acknowledge our political institutions are far from perfect. But they’re still democratic, and because democratic systems are an excellent tool for self-correction, there’s still a possibility of improving them. But how do you think things will ever change if you and others like you, who recognize the flaws of the system, opt out of participation and leave these decisions in the hands of hardcore partisans and the uninformed?

    When Ellen Johnson advised American atheists not to vote this November, I said that this was terrible advice: for us to opt out of the system just concentrates the political power of those who choose to stay behind. The same argument applies here. If you’re cynical about politics, as I grant you have every right to be, then you shouldn’t abstain, you should vote. That’s the best way to dilute the power of people who would use the system to advance bad ends.

    (Also, specifically with regard to the Swift Boat campaign, I have to point out that your response is very much the one which the makers of that campaign were counting on. The religious-right smear machine is quite happy to get ordinary people so disgusted with politics that they drop out of the system altogether. Again, when decent people opt out, that leaves behind their hardcore partisan followers, who will happily and mindlessly vote in a bloc for whoever they’re told to. It’s part of the Karl Rovian “50%+1″ electoral strategy.)

    As Lynet pointed out, the saving grace of this mess is that despair and pessimism are contagious, but hope is contagious as well. There will always be those who despair – but, again, I have hope that there are enough people who care and are willing to work for us to accomplish great things. In that respect, comments like yunshui’s more than justify all the effort I spent writing this post. :) Of course, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind overnight. But some sparks just need a little coaxing to kindle back into flame.

  • Alex Weaver

    Jeremy:

    Two suggestions.

    First, laws and ethics are two different things. Right and wrong have no necessary relationship to legal or illegal, unless we the people demand otherwise and back that demand up.

    Second, I suggest you read up a bit; Ebon’s “The Roots of Morality” series is a good place to start.

  • Jim Baerg

    One thing about optimism vs pessimism in science fiction: If the future portrayed is truly utopian it will be hard to find a conflict to write about. However, a more modest optimism can still leave room for conflict. It’s reasonable to think posterity could have a bit more hard won wisdom than ourselves & have a society that is better than ours as post industrial parliamentary democracy is better than feudal warlords or pharaohs.

    You mentioned _A Fire Upon the Deep_. Have you read _A Deepness in the Sky_? It’s set in the same fictional universe, but in our general part of the galaxy in which FTL & AI don’t work. This essay http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/longnow/ gives some of his thinking that led to the background of the story.

  • Urban Viking

    Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. I will definitely be checking those out.

    @Jim: Vinge is one of my favourites. Well worth a look.

    @Ebon: Reynolds and Banks are both UK-based so may have a lower profile over there. If you can find them though I think you’d probably enjoy them. Banks’ new one “Matter” hasn’t been out very long so might be easier to find. Its ending is certainly towards the bleak end of the spectrum.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Ebon: What exactly is it about the fantasy genre that makes it seem more optimistic to you? After all, there is quite a lot of fantasy that doesn’t have an “unambiguously happy ending”. (Such as Jonathan Strange, which you mentioned: that one ends with the title characters separated from the human race indefinitely, doesn’t it?)

    (I’m not trying to start an argument, for once. Just curious.)

  • D

    All this talk of science fiction utopias reminds me of a paper I wrote a couple years ago on philosophy of technology. In it, I used sci-fi novels as thought experiments about the future and the impact of technologies that could conceivably develop – the focus was on the impact, not the technology, so the use of sci-fi as a source was from the standpoint of character study (not what will “actually happen,” but how people would react to it). I argued that in the future, as throughout history, technological development will change the way we deal with problems, but will not change the problems themselves. No matter our technical prowess, we will always need to feed ourselves, educate ourselves, govern ourselves, interact with each other, and satisfy whatever drives keep us motivated to live. Even if we create machines/intelligences to “do” these jobs for us, we’ll still have to maintain the machines and guard against abuses of them and by them.

    Also, Ebon, I got so wrapped up in responding to others’ comments that I neglected to compliment you on another well-written and inspiring post. It’s heartening to see the clear-eyed, thick-skinned optimism of one who knows there’s hard work ahead and is willing to go through with it. So many people stake their hopes on magic bullets, whether it’s technology, religion, money, or whatever; they seem to think, “This one thing will make it all work out.” When it doesn’t, it seems that their next step is, “Oh, I guess there is no magic bullet… time to abandon all hope!” That’s short-sighted, naive, and (as you said) cowardly.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Sorry for the slightly delayed reply.

    DSB: I freely admit my evidence for this is purely anecdotal. Still, having read a fair amount of both fantasy and sci-fi, it seems to me that more often than not, fantasy tends to be optimistic in its outlook for the future, while most of the sci-fi I’ve read is relentlessly dystopian and grim.

    I don’t think JSMN had an unhappy ending. It was a little bittersweet, but it wasn’t tragic, and I thought it was hopeful.

  • Jeff T.

    The following article gives me hope or at least a smile:

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080505/lf_afp/usreligionpovertyenergyoil

    Thank god that we can finally do something about gas prices.

  • http://http//www.williamely.name/ William

    Wow, great post!

    I am behind on checking my feeds so I just now got around to reading this. I rarely read posts this long all the way through, but this one kept my interest until the end. Kudos!


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