I haven't spent the whole last couple of weeks obsessed over the economy. No, in fact, I lost a couple of days of writing time to another obsession that's been chewing at my brain for a while. And before I introduce the particular obsession, let me background it by first complaining about something that I think we have an excess of, right now, something I'd just be okay with if the publishers declared a temporary moratorium on because we're so over-stocked: dystopian science fiction TV shows, movies, stories, and books.
Look, I know that things are bad, and everybody wants to know what it'll be like if it gets really bad. That subject is on a lot of people's minds right now. Even if the left and the right don't agree on which disaster is about to overtake us, Islamist jihadism or economic collapse due to corporate fraud and short-sightedness, rogue nukes or environmental collapse, right now both are entirely obsessed with apocalyptic visions. And I get that. I understand the urge to want to explore those possible futures, to try to get a sense in the here and now of what it'll be like if we have to live in those futures. But you know what? Writing that stuff is easy. Which is why everybody and his dog, except for the women who're writing supernatural romances, is writing dystopian science fiction. It's over-done. Move on.
Do something more interesting. Do something hard. Show me human beings, or aliens I can identify with, who live in an alternate history, or a distant future, or a remote planet somewhere in the cosmos, who look back on the problems we have now, and the problems we're about to have, and go, "Oh, yeah, we sort of remember something like that from our history. But we solved that problem long ago, and it doesn't happen any more." They don't have to have problem-free lives, let alone conflict-free or drama-free. Nor do they all have to love each other. Nor do you even necessarily have to explain in the story how they solved the problems of economic and political corruption, civil war and crime, poverty and bigotry, disease and pollution. I'll cheerfully allow the traditional one to three (or so) baffle-gab hand-waves. As Rob Lowe's character said in Thank You for Smoking, "There's a simple fix, just insert one line: 'Thank god we invented the, you know, 'whatever' Device.'" Show me how you think healthy, reasonably comfortable human beings who've grown up with more or less peace and safety solve their problems. How do they find each other and fall in love? How do they compete with each other for the most cherished positions, jobs, titles? When things do break, how do they work together to fix them? When they're confronted with something they don't understand, how do they investigate it?
I know it's not impossible.
Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. There was a famous argument between Gene Roddenberry and Harlan Ellison, when Harlan Ellison was writing the screenplay for "City on the Edge of Forever." Ellison's draft of the story involved a lowly crewman, a draftee with a dirty job, strung out on illegal drugs, stumbling into a time machine and wrecking history. (I know; Ellison got the right to reprint the story, with his version of the conflict with Roddenberry, in a book by the same title.) Roddenberry was adamant: in the 23rd century, there are no jobs that dirty and miserable, machines do them. There are no draftees on the Enterprise, being posted to it is an honor. And there is no drug addiction in the 23rd century, they solved that problem. Ellison flatly refused to consider it, even as a world-building exercise. But I think it made great fiction. There was a place for smooth-talking, impulsive liars and cheats like Kirk in that world: out on the frontier, where there were still surprises, some of which could bite, and hostile aliens to deal with. And they never did give us enough stories set back inside the Federation itself, to show us what their better world really looked like, until Next Gen. But in both Roddenberry's series and in Berman's first series, what we did see was sane, healthy people going about their jobs, learning to get along even with people they didn't like, and, when problems coming up, trying to solve them. I miss that feeling.
Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth. Yes, I know he's still writing them, and I'm a book or three behind. Still, we need more series like this, by other authors. Over the course of the series, he establishes that two species, over the course of a war against a hostile third species, found out that they were each others' perfect complements. Humans had pushed themselves and their societies to such intolerable hyper-competitiveness that we were constantly on the brink of war; Thranx had pushed themselves and their societies to such intolerable hyper-conformity that they were stifling their best people and getting nothing new done. When they learned to travel and work together in teams? "Where Humans go, Thranx go, and vice-versey, don't you know?" The resulting Humanx Commonwealth and its teasingly-named One Universal Church aren't a paradise. There's still crime. The AAnn are still out there, determined to kill us all. There are things in the galaxy even scarier than them, sleeping for millenia and just now waking. But even a poor orphan who grew up in a slum on one of the poorest of the outermost colonies grew up healthy, reasonably well fed, minimally well educated, and confident that if Humans and/or Thranx work together on something, especially in a team of both, things can get better, criminals can be brought to justice, problems can be fixed, mysteries can be solved.
Disney Channel's Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. I know, silly example. And again, as with the Humanx Commonwealth, it's not quite a utopia. Crime exists, especially one one particular hyper-capitalist breeding ground for criminals, Trade World. The Evil Emperor Zerg has a small empire out there on the border, and if we're not careful, he could become a serious threat. Politicians are still prone to being more interested in process and politeness than subject matter awareness and hands-on problem solving. But the planets of the Galactic Alliance have been at peace with each other for centuries, and the Alliance continues to encounter and make peace with new civilizations. The Space Rangers aren't perfect, but they're respected, because they have a track record for problem solving and relative incorruptibility. There's no poverty, and the few story lines the deal with disease treat it as something socially awkward, not particularly life threatening. And there still turned out to be plenty of room for good story telling. For example, they got a lot of mileage out of the rivalry between Buzz Lightyear and his younger partner Mira Nova over who was actually better at their job. X-R, Robot Ranger made a great viewpoint character as a robot whose programming had scrambled so badly he was as corrupt as a 20th century human; there was occasional danger and plenty of wacky antics in a galaxy full of sane, healthy people when this semi-lovable but deeply selfish guy got dropped into their lives. The character of Booster, the 4th member of Buzz's eclectic team, aspires to a whole heck of a lot more than members of his species are capable of, physically and intellectually, and that's shown as noble, not laughable, nor is he consistently shown as a drag on the team. You can, in fact, tell good stories even when most of the world's problems have been solved and most of the characters are relatively sane.
... and, for that matter?
The Jetsons. The symbolism of the pairing between The Flintstones and The Jetsons is creepy retro-futurism, I know: manual and skilled labor at job sites where you get dirty is Stone Age, white collar jobs in offices are The Future. But bear with me, because there's more going on in The Jetsons than that. George Jetson lives in a world where every human being we see is living a comfortable upper middle class life, except for one or two drop-outs and/or criminal deviants who chose poverty. And even the malcontents seem to live pretty comfortably, other than that they don't let their bathroom mirror shave them as often. They can all live like that because they solved their economic problems. We don't know how, but energy is clearly free. We do know that labor is obsolete, because robots are now as competent as humans, but miraculously unambitious. George's job is to monitor some automated process, notice when it goes wrong, and stop and restart it. He complains that his boss is working him too hard if things go wrong 3 times per shift, calling Mr. Spacely a slave driver in one famous episode because "I had to push the button 3 times today." But there are still human conflicts to write about. It's not a given that parents and children would ever fully understand each other, even if we solved all the other problems. If there were so few jobs that half of every couple stayed home to supervise the home robots and raise the kids, that gulf of experience within the couple would re-introduce all the problems of The Feminine Mystique, but with a twist: the couples confronting those problems would be people who (unlike us) grew up sane, safe, healthy, prosperous, and with the expectation that problems can be solved. How would that make their lives different? What would stay the same?
And those are just some examples that occur to me off the top of my head. Heinlein dabbled in worlds where we've solved our problems, even if he was cynical enough to assume we'd screw it up again not long thereafter; his long-lost and recently resurrected first unpublished novel was specifically a semi-utopian novel. Niven wrote three long periods of peace and prosperity and health and sanity into his Known Space series, the time between the rise of the Brennan-Monster and the first Man-Kzin War, the first century or so after, and the time thousands of years later after the Teela Brown Gene had run rampant through the human race; then he lost the will to write about them, and (in particular) left the Man-Kzin Wars stories to writers who turned them into trite mil-fic with the usual array of messed-up characters; man, I would love it if we could reboot that series, and make the writers remember that in the canonical fiction, the Man-Kzin Wars came after centuries of peace and were followed by centuries of peace and that the humans never had any particular doubt that they would win and would stay sane while winning. War is hell on the front lines of John Barnes' Timeline Wars trilogy, but the good guys' capital-world civilization is a world that had known millennia of peace and happiness by having avoided the mistakes of the Peloponnesian War, by having never had a Dark Age; by their 20th century, they could almost have taken peace and happiness and prosperity and health for granted, if there weren't a rival timeline trying to wipe them out. And in Barnes, our viewpoint character and most of his fellow soldiers on the side of good are from far less civilized timelines, including ours. But he does take us back to a functioning society often enough to remind us what we're fighting for. I'm sure you have others ready to hand. But it's been so long since any of it was mass culture, pop culture, on television or in blockbuster films! I miss it terribly.
Over the last weekend, I even thought of a lovely idea for a TV series, exactly the kind of thing I wish they'd put on TV. This will do me exactly no good. I have no ear for dialog. I have no work ethic for writing. I know nobody in Hollywood, or even in Vancouver's TV industry, who'd listen to my pitch. And I can think of several good reasons why the series is probably unfilmable; not technological reasons, just political and probably economic reasons. Maybe when I get a chance I'll tell you about it. Any way, maybe, just maybe, I'm the only one who misses stuff like this. Or maybe I'm not. I do know that I've been obsessing, lately, about how much I miss it.