I don’t have a particularly strong interest in sci-fi, nor do I have access to all of this paywalled post. However, I don’t need either to share a couple of insights.
First, I agree that the utopia/dystopia distinction are two sides of the same coin depending on what your view of what constitutes a flourishing human life. You don’t need to look far in our current situation to see that in action.
Second, while I’d probably broadly agree with the three conditions for optimism the author lays out, you could technically argue against all of them.
One possibility is that utopia and dystopia are just whatever the author decides to present as such. Take a war-torn unequal Malthusian future and add some soaring music and graphics of cities lighting up, and maybe audiences will see it as utopian. Or take a serene, pastel-colored post-scarcity hippie society and add a shirtless Sean Connery shouting that it’s all an illusion, and maybe it starts to seem like a creepy dystopia. (Of course, if this is what’s going on, there will be a tendency toward presenting any future as dystopian, since stories need external conflict; the world has to be “messed up” in some way in order for the protagonists to “fix” it.)
But in fact I submit that in order to be truly optimistic, a sci-fi world needs more than just a stirring theme song. It needs to present a future with several concrete features corresponding to the type of future people want to imagine actually living in. The “Wang Standard” is a good start, with its emphasis on the power of human effort, but in the end it relies on the somewhat circular notion of a “radically better” future. What does it mean for the future to be better? I submit that for a future to feel optimistic, it should feature the following elements:
- Material abundance
- Egalitarianism — broadly shared prosperity, relatively moderate status differences, and broad political participation
- Human agency — the ability of human effort to alter the conditions of the world