Over the dystopia already
January 29, 2012 4:09 AM   Subscribe

Where are all the books about the future that are NOT dystopian? I'm not looking for utopian books, but just something that's not so depressing.

I've just finished reading A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and was really p'd off by (spoiler alert) the last chapter where she has the arrogance to present the future (10-15 years from now) as a time when people won't even appreciate live, unplugged music *bangs head*

I'm not going to say that we're not already experiencing a somewhat Orwellian existence, but I'm so tired of books where the only possible future for the human race is one of complete governmental mind control, robots have taken over, humans are completely disconnected from humanity and only relate through technology and the planet is a complete wasteland.

Has anyone actually written a book where humans have risen to the challenges of our day and actually presents a positive future for the human race and the planet? I want to read something that reflects my hope for humankind, not just the same old "lessons" over and over.
posted by Zaire to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
If you like short fiction, you might try Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF, which was put together specifically to address this point. Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge is a vision of a utopian California in 2065 - it's part of a loosely-linked trilogy of books which imagine three possible futures for California, with Pacific Edge being the most positive.
posted by penguinliz at 4:33 AM on January 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

In Ian M Bank's culture series the human race is part of a pan-galactic AI run supercollective utopia called the culture with essentially limitless resources and comfort. Massively oversimplifying an entire series of some of my favourite books - they deal with how a utopian culture deals with outside events, species and civilizations - (who often live in societies that are spectacularly repressive). I consider them to be in the main optimistic - though they are not particularly concerned with providing a "vision for the future" and don't feature earth or our universe in a recognisable form.

Your question did remind me of this William Gibson quote responding to the accusation that his work is dystopian in vision. - Correctly pointing out that such a vision is one that comes from huge privilege.

I’ve always been taken aback by the assumption that my vision is fundamentally dystopian. I suspect that the people who say I’m dystopian must be living completely sheltered and fortunate lives. The world is filled with much nastier places than my inventions, places that the denizens of the Sprawl would find it punishment to be relocated to, and a lot of those places seem to be steadily getting worse.

posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 4:49 AM on January 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

Anne McCaffrey's Talent series fits the bill nicely. Start with The Rowan. It isn't set on earth (mostly), but is pretty promising for humankind.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:06 AM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is the premise of Robert "Kryten" Llewellyn's book News from Gardenia, although this book hasn't been released yet.
posted by jozxyqk at 5:08 AM on January 29, 2012

Seconding Banks, though much of the culture is written juxtposing the culture's awesome utopia with pretty rank civilizations
posted by mattoxic at 5:41 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

David Brin, although he can get more than a little tiresome on the subject in his non-fiction work, does pretty good at the optimistic future thing. If you like space opera, give the Uplift novels a try.

John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider is definitely set in an unpleasant future, but (as I remember it, anyway) presents a hope that we can deal with what's coming. (Some of his other work is resolutely brutal in its expectations, and should probably be avoided unless you're looking to kill your mood for a few weeks.)

In general, you might find a lot to like in the attitudes of SF written before the mid-1960s. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and many of their lesser-known peers. A lot of this stuff has Problems, of course, and a percentage of it more or less takes the inevitability of civilization-destroying nuclear war for granted, but there's also a lot of likable optimism.
posted by brennen at 5:41 AM on January 29, 2012

Oh yeah: And Ursula K. Le Guin. The Dispossessed. Partly just because I tell everyone to read it, partly because it's an antithesis to the concept of Dystopia in the way that a thoroughgoing Utopia is not. (The subtitle is "An Ambiguous Utopia", and is pretty accurate.)
posted by brennen at 5:46 AM on January 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you are open to alternate histories where humanity finds a way to flourish (even if it is different from our current notion of flourishing), you might consider Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler or the Emberverse series by S. M. Stirling.
posted by dirtmonster at 5:58 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh! What about Looking Backward? Kind of a classic in the genre and I remember it being enjoyable to read.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:25 AM on January 29, 2012

The universe is Asimov's robot series and Foundation series certainly has its problems, but I wouldn't call it dystopian in the slightest. Plus, it's pretty classic sci-fi.
posted by supercres at 6:29 AM on January 29, 2012

Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky might appeal to you because it deals with a more distopian society meeting one that is less so. It sort of follows the same emotional arc as Shockwave Rider.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:55 AM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding Asimov, Robinson, & Brin.

Nthing Iain M. Banks so hard. Note that he publishes SF with the middle initial - these are the books you're looking for.

He publishes more mainstream novels without the middle initial. These are also excellent, but IMO usually quite a bit grimmer than his SF work.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:09 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would recommend LeGuin's Always Coming Home rather than The Dispossessed, for this purpose -- they're both worth reading, of course, but Always Coming Home presents a lovely and carefully constructed picture of a warm, small, self-sufficient Californian society in the deep future. There are of course more unpleasant societies, and one or two Lessons there, but LeGuin has a sense of humor even about that.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:11 AM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

No relation to Jennifer: Greg Egan's work generally ranges from non-pessimistic to outright utopian (but plausible hard-SF utopian, not hippie fantasy utopian). I think he's pretty awesome; no idea why he isn't more famous than he is.
posted by ook at 7:12 AM on January 29, 2012

I will raise one cautionary note re: Banks - I've tried one Culture novel so far (the first one, I think? am blanking on the title) and pretty quickly lost interest in all the sadistic violence and general grinding nihilistic awfulness. Enough smart people tell me there's something there that I believe them, and probably I should have started with a different volume, but that might be something to be aware of.
posted by brennen at 7:22 AM on January 29, 2012

The first one is Consider Phlebas and it isn't really representative of The Culture books as a whole. Best to start with Player of Games which is a much better introduction to The Culture universe.
posted by antiwiggle at 7:40 AM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Related. (Prior asker had asked for books about "the optimistic future.")
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:57 AM on January 29, 2012

I think it's fair to say that if you really want to avoid sadistic violence and general grinding nihilistic awfulness, Banks is not your man.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:04 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would say that what you describe encompasses the bulk of future-based SF writing. Utopias and Dystopias are the exception and not the rule.
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:16 AM on January 29, 2012

Scott Westerfeld's Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras series. It's YA, and it starts in a superficially utopian dystopia, but (spoiler) good wins out. I'm not sure it's hopeful, exactly, but it's an interesting look at a possible future that has its good and bad points and the regular old good people are mostly fighting back the bad stuff.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:24 AM on January 29, 2012

Robinson's Mars trilogy and the three Californias aren't bleak (well, the Wild Shore might be, but the the other two aren't). The characters have to deal with the effects of previous generations' waste of resources or corrupt governments or whathaveyou, but it's not a future of horror and I-wouldn't-want-to-be-there.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:10 AM on January 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time has both utopian and dystopian in it, but the utopian future is just so freaking awesome I have to recommend it.

I'm currently reading Ecotopia by Callenbach and that may also suit you.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:20 AM on January 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

(I swear, I looked for the mention of Robinson in this thread! Missed it in the first comment)
posted by crush-onastick at 9:22 AM on January 29, 2012

I know a lot of people think of the Transmetropolitan comics as dystopian, but I often found it to be hopeful, and even beautiful. Even though the world of Transmet is unjust, and bad things happen, there's also music and art, and justice is done, sometimes anyway. It's realistic (I never buy those dystopias where everyone is mega-grim at all times), and the story has a (relatively) happy ending.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 11:20 AM on January 29, 2012

Seconding Women on the Edge of Time. I love that book so fucking much.
posted by looli at 12:34 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's possible to overdo dystopia, one of the mistakes of writers beginning in SF.

If you feel the writer is piling on the dystopian elements, he/she may be a mainstream novelist (such as Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood) or an author of young adult fiction.

(In a future where the sun is guttering out and the earth is bombarded daily by asteroid strikes, characters must scrape algae off rocks in order not to starve and are required to fight each other to the death in public combats. The main characters struggle to escape a society controlled by robots that watch over everyone every second with hidden laser-equipped cameras. People die at age twenty from accelerated aging.)

In mainstream SF often the characters take for granted, and are coping with, what appears to be a dystopian society; the actual story is not necessarily dependent on the dystopian premises.
posted by bad grammar at 3:47 PM on January 29, 2012

To go back to some of the older works of Scifi, I think the Foundation series by Asimov is not distopian. His writing has problems, yes, but the books are quite enjoyable, if a bit dated.

For near future, Ian McDonald, especially River of Gods and The Dervish House, are "mundane" SF books that while not being utopian, did not feel distopian to me.
posted by Hactar at 7:46 PM on January 29, 2012

Definitely seconding The Dervish House. It's the book that recently got me back into SF after years of not consuming much fiction at all. Really good read.
posted by brennen at 12:17 PM on January 30, 2012

Lois McMaster Bujold's SF books are all set in a human future which is neither utopic nor dystopic (except one planet) but in which there are many different cultures, most of which have their good and bad points. (Jackson's Whole, the aforementioned planet, being a notable exception). One book - Brothers in Arms - takes place on a very believable and recognisable future Earth (but I wouldn't start the series here - I would start either Warrior's Apprentice or Falling free.)
posted by jb at 10:54 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

also, there is a genetically engineered cat-blanket. (a furry blanket that PURRS!).
posted by jb at 10:57 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

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