Hunger Games: Is the future left or right? Gloomy or optimistic?

  • Published on April 8th, 2012

Hunger Games: Is the future's glass half empty or half full?

By David Brin

Is the bold future of our youth being killed by gloomy science fiction?  Or has Sci Fi grown more dour as a reflection of our mood?  Glenn Reynolds interviews authors Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge in a thought-provoking inquiry: Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction: “While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias.”(Hey… I’m TRYING, dammit!)Almost as if deliberately proving the point, TED speaker Paul Gilster rails against techno-optimism in a desperately wrongheaded essay that really should be read in order to understand the problem with today’s well-meaning left.  Paul does us all a disservice by conflating a multidimensional landscape with a digital, either-or choice – confusing “optimism” with complacency.

Yes, we all know the types he refers to as techno-optimists – fools who shrug off looming water shortages, energy deficits and climate degradation, blithely assuring us that “humanity and/or science and/or markets and/or God will find a way.”  Such people are dolts, often driven by a political wing that has done horrific damage both to the U.S. and the world.

Nevertheless, in taking the reflexive opposite point of view, many folks on the left wind up being very little better.  Their sense of urgency to save the world is laudable.  But it gets wrongheaded when the message becomes “Let’s do something!  And by the way, nothing ever works!” 
That was the calamitously awful, guilt-tripping meme conveyed in James Cameron’s otherwise worthy film – Avatar.  The notion that our society is not only dismally greedy and stupid, but the very worst culture ever.  The worst civilization conceivable.
This despite being the very same civilization that paid James Cameron billions to help enthusiastic audiences want to be better. Ah well. Ironies are lost on those steeped in finger-wagging lecture mode.  We have experienced waves of such finger-wagging since the sixties, all of it lusciously indignant and satisfying to the finger waggers.  But helpful?
Sure, in the beginning, films like Soylent Green used the raw-guilt-trip approach effectively to shake people into awareness.  I call such tales – along with Silent Running and Silent Spring – “self-preventing prophecies” in that they roused millions not only to look up (and ahead) but to become actively involved in working against disaster.
Which is, in fact, the point! Doomy-gloomy guilt trips have served their purpose!
Everyone who can be recruited into environmentalism (for example) by guilt-tripping already has been!  Everybody else is simply repelled by the message.  Forced – by either/or logic – into the other camp. At this point, overbearing chiding is completely counterproductive.
 Today, we need more sophisticated legends, that show us not only possible failure modes, but humanity buckling down to get things right.  Overcoming errors and dastardly-plots? Sure! But balanced by other trends, like a civilization filled with citizens eager to do better. And that – not the stunning power of enlightened citizenship – appears to be almost completely absent from Hollywood, these days.
The New Puritans
Solutions are possible.  They will require investment, thought, negotiation and endless hard work, just to squeak by.  But that’s exactly what we can do.  A trait that our parents burst with. Can-do.  A can-do spirit that (alas!) dismal reflexes on the left associate only with complacency.
Take Jared Diamond’s fascinating and important book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succed. By all means get and read it.  Diamond overstates (by far) the case that all past civilizations declined for reasons of environmental neglect. But his examples edify and warn, about where we’ll wind up, if we don’t pay heed!
On the other hand, his prescription – renunciatory ecological fascism – is yet another example of the primly dour puritanism of Paul Ehrlich and so many others – the truest heirs of Cotton Mather. Indignation junkies who finger-wag dire proclamations that salvation can only come from retreating to “ancient wisdom” and shivering in the dark.

Never, ever, is it avowed that we might get past this dangerous era (as I suggest in Earth and Existence) by moving forward.

Anyone for Plan C?

Are these our only choices?  Between chiding, prune-faced, lefty-puritans and giddy rightists who proclaim that either God or some vague corporatist market-innovators will save us out of the blue?  Will anybody note that both groups are vociferously, fanatically anti-future?

Is it any wonder that can-do science fiction – suggesting that hard work and goodwill and ingenuity and negotiation might achieve wonders – has fallen on hard times?
Our root problem today is not obdurate denialism coming from the right.  That insanity is part of The Culture War and can only be treated as a mental illness.
Blue America must do what it did in every previous phase of the U.S. Civil War: Simply win. Answer the Tea Party’s tricorner hat nonsense with the Union volunteer’s kepi.  We will stop resurgent feudalism and know-nothingism. Tell the troglodytes and oligarchs they cannot have our renaissance.  Our enlightenment.  Our proudly scientific civilization.
No. What I find far more worrisome is the left’s mania to confuse ALL optimism with complacency, proclaiming any zealous, can-do enthusiasm to be part and parcel of the right’s madness.
It is a baseless and dismal reflex, inherently illogical, anti-technological, demoralizing, and – above all – truly destructive of hope, undermining our ability to actively and vigorously save ourselves and the world.
(Originally appeared at Contrary Brin.)

About the Author

  • Unions? More corrupt than business. Do you know anything about labor history? There may have been idealism there once. But by the 1930s labor was owned by the mob. As it has been ever since. Ah. Well.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Impressive. Yes, there was a period when the Mafia had muscled its way into SOME unions. And you manage to transpose that into “By the 1930s the mob controlled ALL unions, and still controls all unions today”. Because that’s how you clowns argue. “The sky was dark last night, therefor THERE IS NO SUN and anyone how claims different wants the terrorists to win.”
      Good luck with that “Power and Control” thing.

  • forrest

    Well, at least your starting to see a glimpse beyond the far left university ‘echo-chamber’.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “Such people are dolts, often driven by a political wing that has done horrific damage both to the U.S. and the world.”

    You mean socialists, environmentalists, and other liberals don’t you?

  • who?

    You mean paul gilding right? Paul Gilster is the guy from centauri dreams.

  • Sam Hall

    I will just note that 70% of the earth is covered with water. We aren’t running out. Now, it may not be where you want it or in the condition you want it, but those are engineering problems that we know the answers to.

  • Tennwriter

    If you took most of the nice things you say about the Left, and said them about the Right, you’d be much more on target. And ‘mental illness’? Dude, I’ve read a fair number of your books, and this is sickening.

  • Tedd

    I like the thrust of Brin’s article, but I’m confused by some of it. I feel quite optimistic about the future, sometimes because I see signs that the curves of technological trends will stay ahead of the curves of the challenges, and sometimes because I believe the nature and extent of some challenges has been overstated. (Ehrlich’s work on population growth would be an example of the latter.) I can’t tell if that makes me a “fool” in Brin’s eyes, or not. He seems to be defending and attacking optimism simultaneously, and I can’t quite work out the distinction he’s trying to draw.

  • May I point out the movie “Serenity” as written and directed by the inscrutable Josh Wheden. It is a space western from 2005, taking place after the final episode of the Fox TV series “Firefly”, the style of Mal Reynold’s space ship, which is named “Serenity”, which comes from the place of surrender of Independent seekers in a previous war against the oppressive, socialist Alliance government some five hundred years distant from now. (Earth’s survivors go to a new solar system and many different planets and places therein. Inner core Alliance planets are oppressive, like current big cities, outer regions are full of lawless pirates, like Somalia or our border with Mexico. But Mal Reynolds finds life in the “fly over country” of outer planets (like Reno or Wyoming or the non-socilast parts of Texas).

    Reynolds finds the sweet spot away from rigid rule-makers, yet not too close to the lawless pirates. (Come to think of it, didn’t Jesus minister in the same sweet spot?)

    The Alliance government has apparently never seen the movie “Forbidden Planet”, wherein a mad scientist learns he cannot handle great power (left to him by a previous genius race on a particular planet called Forbidden). No man can handle great power, because Madison taught us “men are not angels”… nor is government… hence all powerful institutions must necessarily not be… all powerful.

    Anyway, Firefly/Serenity is a thoroughly well-done update on all this… AND MORE.

    When the Alliance gets a chance, it tries its best efforts on a planet, called Miranda, by putting a drug in the air so that all plebes, sheep and nobodies-important simply breath in obsequies-ness and breath out “resistance is futile”. But the experiment backfires. About 90% of Miranda’s population simply dies wherever they sit. The other 10% become Reevers, a people so aggressively inhuman they either eat or rape or wear the skin of others who are not yet Reevers.

    The Alliance chooses to hunt down and kill Mal Reynolds, captain of the Serenity because the Alliance doesn’t want the truth of the result of Progressive-Allpower known. It’s also easier than to hunt down and kill all the deadly Reevers and their deadly spacecraft. (The Alliance has kept the fact of the Reaver’s creation a secret to the populace, and makes rumors that empty space made the Reevers somehow go mad.)

    Note that the California Socialist Government Alliance chooses to hunt down and ticket, harass and fine the upstanding citizens of the Fresno area, while ignoring the dangerous, aggressive, lawless “Reavers.”

    Yet, in the end… injustice always makes a case against itself.

    The Alliance sends its best man, a godless yet brilliant “agent” to first kill Mal Reynolds, else the truth “signal” get out.

    Mal, in Western Enlightenment fashion, doesn’t kill the “agent.” He, in the end, converts him.

    The biggest danger of the agent, was his unshakable belief in the Progressive-Alliance. That was the agent’s god.

    So one lesson from Serenity, is that the truth wins in the end, and that those who believe in the Western Way, have to believe in it more strongly and more vigorously than the other idiots who believe in what will always be a lesser god.

    As Bruce Thornton says, if the enemies of liberty want to bring their creed of death against innocent humans who’s only guilt is alleging themselves to the love protocols of Western Enlightenment, the West will put their name to the test, their god of death to the test, and give them what they must have, which is death.

    We shall have to kill the Reavers-of-Death-Devotion and stop their creation, which spawned from lies of power-hungry but thoroughly deluded megalomaniacs of Progressive Alliance.

    And somehow, we shall do it with Love.

    John Wayne and John Wayne showed us in The Seekers, and many others did also in countless Westerns.

    Nathan Fillon (as Mal) and Josh Whedon show us in Firefly/Serenity… and many other do also in Space Westerns.

    Tough love wins the day.

    Like I referenced from young Scottie in Star Trek…. We, who understand a thing or two, are going “to like this ship!”

    We’re going to enjoy the fight, enjoy the battle, and in the end… the enemies of freedom who haven’t committed suicide-by-Western-warrior, will be free… and will pledge to teach the lessons learned about love..which is to say Western Enlightenment as explained by Greek scholars like Victor Davis Hanson, Bruce Thornton and world-wide cohort (perhaps including the Greek tragic view in Clone Wars, Star Wars, Star Trek (if you strip out progressive idiocy) …. to the solar system… and beyond.

    In the end, love wins. It’ll be a grand scrap of a fight! But in the end, we win, they lose (RR was right). Love wins.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      One question: Why do you conclude that the Alliance is socialist? They sure act like big corporatists from everything you see in the script, and there is NOTHING in the script that deems them as actually socialist.

      • None are so blind as want to be… re: NOTHING deems the Alliance as… socialist.

        I’ll let River Tams speak for me, from the beginning of the Serenity movie… and if this doesn’t describe the liberal socialist agenda of lefties in the USA, then health care waivers… for Obama’s supporters of health-care-forced-on-every-one-else, ain’t SHINEY…

        “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.”

  • Joe McDermott

    “Silent Spring?” Hasn’t the premise of that book been entirely debunked? I think the thousands dead of malaria due to the DDT ban are haunting Carson and her coreligionists.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Actually, you’ve got it backward: Silent spring was entirely accurate, and our NATIONAL SYMBOL, the bald eagle, came back from the brink of extinction once DDT was banned IN THE USA.

      But your winger talking points HAVE been debunked. DDT is NOT banned outside the USA, it is USED in the third world to control malaria, and in fact there is currently a big problem with DDT use, since its over-use has led DDT-resistant mosquitoes.

      Your talking point is a total fiction, spread by fiction writer Michael Crichton, with only one purpose in mind: Convince morons that environmentalists really want to kill people, so that big corporations can continue to steal your resources and give your children asthma and cancer.

      Check your facts. (See:

  • Seerak

    “well-meaning Left”

    If you are a passenger on a bus and the driver is taking it over a cliff, why the hell does it matter whether he’s doing it on purpose, for evil reasons, or is doing so innocently because he “means well”? You’re going to be a red paste either way if you don’t stop him. More than enough history has passed, and results compiled for us to know that even if there is such a thing as a “well-meaning” leftist, it doesn’t matter – the road he travels leads to hell regardless of whatever illusions he may have about its terminus.

    Along those lines, one has to wonder how many civilizations have died because they had their own versions of “well-meaning leftists”, people like Diamond who convinced them not that “nothing could be done”, but that nothing ought to be done – that one’s civilization just isn’t worth fighting for. Observe the efforts to denigrate the principles of American society, to undercut our trust in them, in their origins, and most of all our capacity to give a damn about them. Where do these efforts emanate from? The Left, of course — so-called “critical race theory” is but one recently highlighted example — but also from the right, as we see from Rick Santorum and his ilk, telling us that “the pursuit of happiness is bad for “America”.

    The worst of this post is how you note the “either-or” logic of a false alternative, together with oting a need for a “Plan C”, and you even conclude, correctly, that “can-do” is a part, or manifestation, of this third way — only to inexplicably fall right back into the false alternative of the Ackbar Spectrum, and claim “can-do” as belonging to the left?

    “Can-do” belongs to neither conservatism nor the Left; both “sides” are primitivistic and tribalistic at root, differing only in the details of the God to which the victims are to be sacrificed. “Can-do” is the expression of individualism, particularly its American expression, and as such stands in opposition to them both.

    I’m amazed at how clear the evidence is becoming these days, of the fundamental commonalities between these so-called “enemies”, some of it right here in your article — and yet resolute you and so many others remain in staying in the trap that sells you the poison of Leftism as food, and the older-but-similar poison of Conservatism as antidote. Trying to determine where non-poison fits on such a spectrum makes no logical sense, and therefore results in absurdities of all sorts — such as declaring the neo-Puritan Left as the “can-do” side.

    You may have your own imagined reasons for why you prefer not to see; wishing to hold on to your irrational, dismissive prejudices (“tricorner hat nonsense”) is probably key. You probably prefer it to the horrible alternative: discovering the extent to which you may actually be one of those “well-meaning” bus drivers taking us over the cliff.

    Well, Mr. “Well-meaning”, what excuses do you plan to deploy among the wreckage of that bus crash, with the survivors all glaring at you? Are you going to tell them that you “didn’t mean this”? That Soviet Russia wasn’t what Marx really meant? That communism isn’t really socialism, or that socialism (national or international) isn’t really Leftist, or that eugenics was actually a “rightist” thing?

    What difference do you think that is going to make? Somehow I doubt that you would be absolved, after that bus crash… and if genuine Americanism finally disappears, lost in the fog of Leftists primitivism versus religious tribalism, you will not be.

  • joe

    I could try to argue against your tea-party straw-man point (just because I don’t want the government to borrow exponentially more money every 5 years to pay federal employees to inspect bunny cages, doesn’t make me a troglodyte; and denial-ism as a mental illness, denial of what? global warming? the tooth fairy? that putting teeth under pillows causes global warming?).

    The bigger question is why authors and entertainers that I like go out of their way to insult half of their audience.
    (btw there isn’t a chance in hell that a blue government would ever allow uplift, dolphins must stay free and be dolphins. Forever)

  • Tblakely

    The Left is a slow-motion death cult that gets traction by labeling the Right as worse. Some of the goals espoused by the Left are admirable, yet their policies are horrific and usually accomplish the opposite of what they ‘want’. The Left hates Western culture, they hate the proles they claim to champion and most of all they hate themselves. Their nihilistic behaviour is usually wrapped up in a smiley-face of “Hope and Change” to fool themselves and attract useful idiots.

    Pretty much everything the Left accuses the Right of doing is something the Left has done in the past, something they are doing now and/or something they wish they could do only if they had the balls to do it.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Why is it people who hate everyone else go around claiming the people they hate are the haters? That’s just so weird….