Nostalgia Isn't Optimism, and SF Writing Should Be Optimistic

Matt Singer’s article Why ‘The Last Jedi’ Pissed Off Star Wars Fans has been sticking with me for a long time. Singer argues that The Last Jedi is different from other Star Wars films in that it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. I know that I need to not wallow in it either.

Star Wars, the original film, was literally nothing but nostalgia: it sold a space story to youngsters, but to the older generation it was every cowboy movie (Han), every samurai film (the Jedi), and every World War 2 dogfight (the Rebels) all rolled up into a sci-fi flavored confection. Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens both continued this tradition, mandating sword fights, gun battles, and space battles, while wallowing in Star Wars’ own traditions. The Force Awakens literally “brought the whole gang back together.”

The Last Jedi, in contrast, literally burns the past. Yoda and Luke destroy the Library of the Jedi. A new generation, with new needs and new problems, has to rise to take on an exhausted and confused monster, a rump junta of the Empire, that is still for all its exhaustion dangerously powerful. The Last Jedi is an argument that we should thank Luke and Leia for their service, but we shouldn’t emulate them; it’s time to change the way the world worked. The Jedi/Sith dynamic had become a problem.

The Journal Entries, unfortunately, fit more than a little of the nostalgia mode. It’s set in an science-fantasy universe that owes everything to the humanist vision of James White’s Hospital Station series, the oversexed pleasures of Andrew J. Offut’s Spaceways series, the 90s-era feminist sensibilities of a lot of romance novels, and my own hearkening back to my various “comings out” over the years. The stories always presented a hopeful, futuristic look at the universe, but one in which people still played in the dirt, literally; the sex was always sweaty and fluid, and a lot of my characters love getting outside and among nature. The sterility of spending a lifetime indoors isn’t for them.

In 2019, with climate change, surveillance capitalism, emergent fascism, and a new, highly disruptive and dangerous variant of “the great game” seeming to press in on every side, it’s hard to find hope. Most SF series these days seem to be about the downsides of technology. Star Trek keeps going further back in time– Discovery is set somewhere between the original series and Next Generation– and this seems to imply that hopeful, optimistic, utopian futures are now beyond the imaginings of most science fiction writers.

I wrote a hopeful novel in 2018 and released it in 2019. Honest Impulses imagines a future where human beings are still hopeful. They imagine a kind of dignified utopia, and they’re optimistic they’ll get closer to it every day. I didn’t write much in 2019; I was focused a bit on my academic studies, and then on getting a new job. The new job comes with a commute, so there’s writing time on the clock again.

Hope and optimism don’t seem to be selling well right now, but I’m not that interested in selling. I’m interested in inspiring. Here’s to 2020, and the hope that hope is still worth writing about.

Earlier: If you write superhero stories, ride an e-bike

Later: Review: And Shall Machines Surrender, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew