Science fiction: optimistic and grim futures

Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.

Isaac Asimov

Today’s the first day of the new schedule’s writing tips, so let’s keep it topical and have a chat about writing different flavours of sci-fi futures.

Broadly speaking, the two major themes for futuristic sci-fi can be split into utopian and dystopian settings, or optimistic and grim as I prefer to put them now, as it’s rare to see an entirely utopian or dystopian setting. There should always really be elements of one in the other to give your setting contrast for creating conflict and add more depth.

A classic optimistic sci-fi would be Star Trek where everyday problems such as disease, war, money and global warming have been solved and at no terrible cost. There are still issues of terrorism (the Marquis) and conflict (pesky Romulans), but these are far from the norm for the most part. Plus we have Trek to thank for helping the idea of mobile communication devices, tablets and hypospray equipment being phased in (pun intended) to replace needles. The morality of Star Trek is recognisable, albeit idealistic, giving something for us to aspire to; Lieutenant Uhura was an especially inspiring character for the time of writing and arguably embodies the progressive and open approach of the series and the way sci-fi can address real world issues.

Directly opposite, for a grim sci-fi setting, few universes fit better than Warhammer 4000, where in each book’s preface it reads “in the grim dark future there is only war”; this is a future where humanity is constantly on the brink of extinction from endless threats, and crime, poverty, corruption and even planet-wide genocides happen on a regular basis. It’s difficult to get much grimmer, but there are still deeply flawed protagonists that you can’t help but root for despite their actions being about as far from modern morality as you can get. The joy with this setting is that the cast of characters is diverse, but everyone is shown to be imperfect in their own unique and awful way.

Feeling like there should really be a third category for mediocre futures, I looked around for an example of a sci-fi future which falls into neither the optimistic nor grim categories, but couldn’t find any that didn’t fit into one or the other. Mostly due to the way a lot of sci-fi relies on fantastical technology or drives plot through turning social/cultural issues up to eleven and exploring them using a somewhat still recognisable culture for us to draw parallels to. If any readers know of a sci-fi setting that is neither grim or optimistic, pop it below and let’s come up with a category name better than “meh futures”!

Photo by Guillaume Meurice on Pexels.com

So all this identifying made-up themes for sci-fi futures as “optimistic” or “grim” is all well and good, but how does any of this help with actually writing or creating your own setting?

It’s helpful to try this categorising, because once you identify which your sci-fi setting is out of the two, then you can start to add in elements of the other. Why would you want to add in a happy, functional family into a grim future setting, you ask? Isn’t it counterintuitive to add something, well, a bit… nice into, say, your terrible future story where the sun has been extinguished and there’s war over the final remains of fuel to stay warm?

Okay, it might feel weird, but adding in characters, places or scenarios outside of your setting’s general theme creates tension, conflict and a refreshing contrast for your readers to enjoy.

Imagine reading a novel about a perfectly functioning utopian society. It would be fabulous to live in, sure, but unfortunately boring as hell to read about. There’s a reason people tend to laugh at slapstick (watching wipe-out videos through your fingers, anyone?) after all. People like to see horrible things happen. Sure everyone has different thresholds (and for different things): some people barely like to see an awkward misunderstanding in a rom-com, others cackle through the fatal Darwin Awards, but every person alive has a sense of morbid curiosity.

All you’re doing as a writer of sci-fi is engaging with that, arguably more openly than other forms of fiction, as it’s easier to conceal an agenda when it’s covered in the suit of a green alien or unfathomable technology. It distances the reader and allows them to relax; to consider a fresh or familiar angle without getting bogged down by real-world predilections.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in Star Trek: The Original Series covers tolerance in an extremely open way, where two groups of aliens refuse to give up their hate because one group is black on their left side and white on the other, and the opposing faction is white on the left side and black on the other.
In the words of Captain James T. Kirk: “I fail to see the significant difference.” For an US episode in 1969, it almost goes without saying that this would have been extremely liberal.

Returning back to theme, the same goes the opposite way as well: it can be exhausting to read a dark vision of the future without any hope of reprise, where characters can trust no one and every time they do, they’re betrayed. This becomes just as predictable and dull as a twee, idealistic setting where no problem is unfixable and all arguments are solved with an amicable hug.

Ideal societies exist in sci-fi, but they’re notoriously difficult to do well. It’s easier (and darkly often more fun) to create a dour, bleak future where characters have to fight to survive, than a pleasant setting. In a grim setting, the world you’ve made will generate action by it’s nature and give your characters something to overcome, whereas in an optimistic setting, any conflict and drama will have to be made by the characters themselves.

Simply put, conflict drives any story. Both themes of sci-fi futures do this, but in different ways, and both benefit from containing elements of the other. A grim setting with idealistic heroes. An optimistic setting with an unsatisfied, bored politician.

You can go anywhere with sci-fi and it’s much more open to exploring issues you feel are important or interesting than other forms of writing. If Netflix had announced it was creating a series exploring what it means to be alive, the rich/poor divide and abuse in the sex industry then people may have passed it by with the assumption it could be preachy. But whop on some neon lights and some sweet alien technology and you have Altered Carbon which explores these issues in a mature and interesting way, does not detract from the storytelling and is extremely enjoyable to watch.

You really can go anywhere with sci-fi; your only limit is your imagination… or more importantly, making that imagination tangible by putting it to paper!


Apologies that this post is a day later than scheduled; at least there will be no further delays since the UK is now on lock-down. Stay safe everyone, keep washing your hands and check-in on anyone you think might need help!


Next post is scheduled for Saturday – stay tuned!

Thumbnail art is Pulse by Wadim Kashin.

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