Posted by: sweeneyblog | May 3, 2011

Science Fiction: Cynical or Idealistic?

The campaign trails are heating up, kickoffs for a dozen races are planned in the next couple of weeks, and I’ve been busy preparing to get married, so understandably I haven’t been posting as much as I would like. So here is a little bit of fluff about one of my passions, Science Fiction.

Science Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is speculative science fiction, designed to take a concept and explore just that (i.e. what if we ate old people?). There is character-driven science fiction, where it is a drama that happens to be set in the future. There are all sorts of ways to classify science fiction, but the measure I like to use to determine what fits best for me is the sliding scale of Idealism to Cynicism.

  Idealistic Science Fiction dabbles in a future we would like to see. A future where the noble impulses of man, confronted with the unknown, unite to carry on the human race among the stars. Star Trek the Original Series is a perfect example. There are little squabbles over money, the characters are resolute and moral and face the challenges with courage and conviction. That is not to say there is never conflict, but usually the conflict is between our heroes and the outside world. This sort of fiction examines questions of conscience, as all good science fiction does, but usually provides the answer for the audience. They know that the right decision was made, and they know how they should feel about it by the end of the episode.

Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doctor Who both fall on the idealism side of the scale. Their characters confront the fantastic with a thirst for adventure, and their decisions are rarely forced, but driven by careful consideration. In short, this sort of science fiction shows us the best of humanity, the face we aspire to and hope to arrive at some day.

By comparison, Cynical Science Fiction is Humanity at its worst. It portrays characters pushed to the brink, with little other options than choosing between a rock and a hard place. The characters are not always black and white, they stand compromised, squabbling about the same things we do today: Money, class, privilege, ethic or cultural divides. In short, during the time between now and the future where the story is set, humanity has not solved its various problems, but rather magnified them. We see extreme poverty and extreme wealth, man committing meaningless violence, the evils that beset us today through the lens of starships and robots and the like. Some good examples of shows like this are Battlestar Galactica, and the Alien movies.

These stories feature sprawling corporations, darkly lit quarters, conflict between protagonists more than anything else. This whole genre was hugely influenced by Bladerunner and it shows. The grim and gritty feel makes the science fiction feel more “real”, grounding series from the theoretical into the mundane.

Most shows fall somewhere in-between. Firefly, the short-lived Space Western on Fox features a ragtag team of people just trying to survive in difficult circumstances. The setting is very inline with Cynical Science Fiction, however the characters generally make moral decisions, and work together to solve problems, which is more in line with Idealistic Science Fiction. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a similar set up, cohesive characters in a difficult setting.

I highly recommend all the shows I recommended. Personally, I enjoy fiction that reflects our current realities, on the Cynical side of the spectrum, but both have their value. What use is dreaming of the future if our future is a despotic nightmare? Both are valid and essential.

Any thoughts on what sort of Science Fiction you enjoy?

I promise the next post will be something a little more politically relevant.



  1. I love Sci-fi but am tired of dystopian visions of the future. They seem cheap, boring and shallow. I feel we need more vision not less of it. I’d like to see more creative rendering of possibilities and more character development. We are social animals. I want to speculate on our reactions. I don’t mind an occasional cautionary tale (Farenheit 451, 1984 ) of what we don’t want to happen but can we please have more vision about the world in which we would like to live. I love Star Trek, especially Next Generation and the original in its time (1960s) gave us wonderful vision. Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlin, especially the un cut version, is phenomenal. I love two feminist Sci-fi books, The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheris Tepper and Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing” which is also about earth based spiruality. Firefly, Serenity and Dr. Who, I love, as well as Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Humor is always appreciated and usually speaks volumns. You probably got more than you asked for here but there it is. Any reccomendations for books or shows with vision, doesn’t have to be utopian…just not dystopian, would be muchly appreciated. Thanks.

  2. I don’t usually have much to say about the political stuff here (though I enjoy reading it), but this was a well-reasoned and interesting statement on one of my favorite topics. I think both cynical and idealistic SF have their place in my life — two of my favorite shows ever are Doctor Who and BSG, on opposite ends of the spectrum. Food for thought, indeed. As a minor note, I usually read this on RSS, but came to the full site and was struck at just how lovely it all looks. Well-crafted, my friend.

    • Thank you! Bryna actually built it for me, and I love the colors. Thank you.

  3. […] fiction fan, and occasionally that spills into this blog (see my history of comic books here, or my dissection of optimism for the future in Science Fiction here). So induldge me for for a […]

  4. […] let me know that while you loved my political reporting, my articles about the difference between idealistic and cynical science fiction were not the reason you were stopping by. So this year, I need your input once again to help me […]

  5. […] have other interests outside of politics. Occasionally, I share my thoughts on subjects like Cynicism in Science Fiction, the marketing of John Carter or the viral nature of the Guy Fawkes mask. You can find all these […]

  6. […] Time-Wasters: In case the opening of this post wasn’t a dead giveaway, I love pop culture. Check out my condensed history of Comic Books, why John Carter the movie was terribly marketed, my recommendations for a fresh board game, a discussion about the future of television and my thoughts on cynicism in popular Science Fiction. […]

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