I frequently have ideas for what could be called "optimistic" science-fiction premises - imaginary technological or social changes which I think would create an unusual and interesting setting, and "optimistic" in the sense that they have no immediate, obvious downside (or if they do, that's not the area I'm interested in exploring).

Finding conflict in a "pessimistic" premise is clear to me - if the premise is a cruel one (or has a central dark side), then people are suffering, and you can build your story around that. But, when I'm trying to portray a premise as mostly benign, I can't go that route.

Just to throw out a few examples, The Matrix and Minority Report take SF-nal concepts (simulated reality, precognitive crime prevention) and find ways for them to be used for horrible oppression. Asimov's robot stories present a far gentler society, but a great many of them still boil down to "How did this technology go wrong?," or "How can this technology be abused?".

How can I introduce and explore an SF-nal premise, while focusing on its positive aspects and largely ignoring the negative ones? If I want stories to explore the kind of society that would arise in a commonly-controlled simulated reality, or in one where PreCrime worked unquestionably well and was well-managed - where could I look for my story's driving conflict?

I am particularly interested in responses addressing short fiction. In longer form, "optimistic" sf-nal premises can be a single element in a larger setting with plenty of conflict. (For example, Star Trek is pretty archetypal "optimistic SF," but the stories aren't much about transporters, replicators, and warp drives.) In short fiction, I am finding this approach unhelpful, because there simply isn't room to expand a major concept that isn't central to the story.

  • There are all sorts of optimistic fantasy stories where e.g. magic is a huge positive and still there seems no trouble in coming up with conflict (either magic-related or not). Is your case any different, except technology is not yet sufficiently advanced?
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 2, 2013 at 17:24
  • @RexKerr: Good question! I feel like this is more endemic to SF than fantasy, since SF usually focuses on a change to our world, while fantasy more often builds up an entire new setting.</gross generalization> A new fantasy setting lets you set up a magic system, good guys, bad guys; the fantastical elements aren't debated, they're taken for granted as presented. An SF-nal change to society touches quite directly on the difference between reality and the SF premise; the question is begged "is this a change we want?"
    – Standback
    Aug 3, 2013 at 19:05
  • So I feel there's an inherent difference, though genre definitions are obviously fuzzy.
    – Standback
    Aug 3, 2013 at 19:06
  • I suggest Stanislaw Lem's „The Magellan Nebula” - his early work from when he still believed communism can prevail and achieve greatness. It's an awesome story of utopian society whit quite a few conflicts nicely depicted. To give you one: Sports. There is no strife as such in that world, but to win at sports you must sacrifice a lot.
    – SF.
    Aug 5, 2013 at 14:31
  • I'd recommend reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - the setting is quite optimistic and has very little typical conflict (and only then towards the end) - instead there is low-key interpersonal drama, which I found quite enjoyable - a lot of the interest also comes from describing the world through various lenses
    – user57501
    Jan 10, 2023 at 13:15

10 Answers 10


If your change solves a problem that previously had no solution, there are likely people who have a stake in preserving the problem.

If your change solves a problem better than some previous solution, there are people who have a stake in the old solution.

If your change opens up new possibilities for people, then people don't yet know how to make the most of the new technology or its possibilities. They will have differing opinions about that, and those differences offer the possibility of conflict.

The new possibilities will likely draw people's attention, which will leave them less attention for some of the things that they used to attend to. Somebody has a stake in the things people used to attend to.

If your change solves problems without creating any new ones [see below], then some previously low-priority problems will become the highest priority problems. First-world problems like: "My god, so many paint colors to choose from for my ping pong room. How am I ever going to choose?"

It is highly unlikely that your change solves problems without creating any new ones. If you can't think of at least three problems created by your solution, it's almost certain that you haven't thought deeply enough about the ramifications.

  • 1
    It's less that the change has no problems, and more that I don't want the focus to be primarily on those problems. That tends to drift easily into a sense of "This change is awful; let's hope nothing like it ever happens." I really, really like the rest that you've written, though - I love that solving a problem can itself be a problem :)
    – Standback
    Jul 23, 2013 at 6:25

Ditto DaleEmery. Some further thoughts:

As Dale says, even if a new technology or idea solves a problem, there will be people with a vested stake in the old ways, and these people will often try to limit or suppress the new technology. To take a small example: I remember when plastic plumbing pipe was invented. It reduced the amount of work it takes to do plumbing dramatically, not to mention being a lot cheaper. Do you know that it was illegal to use plastic pipe in California until 2007, and there are still extensive restrictions on it? The stated reason was that they just couldn't be sure that this new-fangled idea is safe and reliable -- despite the fact that the rest of the country had been using it with no apparent problems for 30 years or more. The real reason is that the plumbers got these laws passed because it made it too easy for home-owners to do their own plumbing work rather than hire a plumber. Even when they do hire a plumber, if the job now takes 2 hours when it used to take 4, it's hard to justify billing for 4 hours.

So one way to write a story about a wonderful new technology is to think of someone who has a stake in the old technology and have them oppose it. This could be a businesses that produce the old machine that is now obsolete. It could be politicians whose power is undercut by the new technology, like they can no longer control the flow of information to the voters. Etc.

In real life, there are pretty much always downsides to any new technology, no matter how good it is overall. Okay, you say you're aware of downsides but don't want to dwell on them. Maybe the whole point of your story is to say that people should try to create a new technology like you're describing. You could still bring up a downside, have people fight against the new technology because of this downside, or have people adversely affected by this downside, but then in the end the hero shows that overall the benefits outweigh the problems. If done well that could make for a good, serious, hard SF story. Of course if done poorly it could look like you're trying to sweep real problems under the rug.

I'll add this caveat: No matter how overwhelmingly good you think some new technology would be, try to come up with some realistic, plausible objection. It doesn't have to be valid, just ... not stupid, something that a reader who knows people like those you describe could imagine them actually saying. Like, one lazy way that SF writers create an opponent for a new technology is to say that people object to it on some religious grounds. I usually find this boring and trite because the religious objection is invented for the purpose of the story, like the writer just invents "The Church of Rocket Propulsion" that believes that warp drives are sinful and we should all use chemical rockets like God intended. If you're going to posit a religious objection, I'd suggest grounding it in some actual religious belief and not something silly and made up. Another trite solution is to have people object to it purely because it's new. "Faxes were good enough for my parents and they're good enough for me: we don't need this new-fangled 'e-mail'." If you just can't comprehend what this or that group could possibly be thinking when they object to a new technology, talk to them or read their stuff and find out. Don't just say, Because I don't understand how such-and-such people think, therefore I can put any irrational words in their mouths and it will be realistic.

Third idea: I've read stories where the author's purpose was clearly to discuss some new technology -- whether it was something the author really saw as imminent or just something he found amusing to think about -- and so the new technology formed the background of the story, but the plot was about some unrelated conflict. Like, suppose a writer in 1880 saw the invention of the airplane coming and wanted to write an SF story about airplanes, but for reasons like yours he doesn't want to make the conflict actually be about airplanes. So okay, fine. Instead write a romance story where the lovers are the pilot and a stewardess on one of these new-fangled airplanes. The story can be filled with how airplanes bring the world together, revolutionize commerce, etc etc, but the conflict is all about the pilot and stewardess breaking up and getting back together. Maybe you make the fact that they work on an airplane actually relevant to the plot and maybe it's just background. (Surely you could work in something about one of them being transferred to a different airplane and now they are trying to keep their romance alive while they are hundreds of miles apart, etc.) Or make the story about two brothers fighting for control of the airline they inherited from their parents. Or a criminal sneaks aboard the airplane to escape and come up with some reason why the crew must figure out which passenger is the criminal before they land. (I'm reminded of an SF story I read once that was about teleportation machines. But while this formed the background, the plot was about a thief trying to get away from a crime at a remote location when the authorities have turned off the teleporter to prevent him from escaping. The ending of the story being that, as he spent his whole life using teleporters to travel, it never occurred to him to walk a few miles to another house.) There are plenty of space travel stories that are not really "about" space travel but about political conflicts, finding lost treasure, etc.

You can then include all sorts of discussion about how the new technology solves the problem or changes society or whatever, without making the conflict actually about the new technology.

  • 1
    These are terrific expansions on the existing two answers :) Your warning against using generic zealotry for justification-free opposition resonates with me very strongly...
    – Standback
    Jul 24, 2013 at 19:15

Conflict is fairly simple:

  1. Someone wants something.
  2. S/He/They cannot get it.
  3. What does s/he/they do about it?

So your optimistic TECH can be the solution to the problem, rather than the problem itself.

Basic ideas which could be solved with Happy TECH:

  • Fish out of water: an alien from some much less optimistic society arrives and flails about trying to accomplish some task (deliver a package, meet someone, make repairs, purchase something).
  • Fish out of water, domestic variant: country bumpkin comes to big city, marvels at bright lights and big buildings. Decides to stay in Gay Paree rather than go back to the farm.
  • Pick a fairytale, any fairytale: Puss in Boots. The Frog Prince. The Princess and the Pea. Cinderella. Any of these could be solved faster (or at least made more interesting) with the application of TECH.
  • Missed connection: I saw you on the train as we passed, I fell in love, now I have to find out your name.
  • Plan Mom's surprise birthday party. Mom could be 150, if you like.

Watch any sitcom, boil the plot down to an elevator pitch, and rebuild it in your universe.


So, here's the deal: all fiction, even speculative SF, is at its root about character. It's not abnormal to not see any good conflict before you populate a world. So... I say populate it. Create a protagonist, make up a cool backstory for them, think of someone who might be diametrically opposed to this person and create them, and you might just be on your way from there.

That being said, there is a large subgenre of SF which deals with dystopic futures (side note: I never liked that phrase, as the original Utopia as in the book by Thomas More is itself a dystopia) which are based largely on taking a current cultural meme - let's say, software piracy - and taking it to its logical conclusion. In that kind of writing the conflict seems to just emanate from the milieu. If that's what you're interested in creating, then yeah, there is probably a deeper issue with your world.

If this is your issue, one thing you might try is picking up a copy of Shock and playing it against yourself. It's sort of "made" to be a 3 player game but with a little creativity you can take on all 3 player characters yourself. Using a story-game as an idea-making exercise is kind of starting to become a thing.

  • I know and love Shock :) It's terrific for generating terrific settings.
    – Standback
    Aug 5, 2013 at 13:44

First you need to clarify how much the story is supposed to be about the technology and how much it is supposed to be about people.

If it's mostly about people, go read some Greek literature. Now imagine the story took place in modern times. Would things change much? Not really--maybe it's unmanned drones instead of swords, and maybe it's a social hack into a supposedly secure system instead of a horse statue, but the sources of interpersonal conflict--desire for power, love directed in some fashion other than reciprocally between a pair, the young striving to prove themselves by breaking free of the hard-earned "wisdom" of the old, etc.--are the same unless the tech has also dramatically altered human nature. Even if it's only somewhat person-focused, all these same trends are likely to continue, and you can see their form in most every work of great literature.

If it's mostly about tech, it's almost impossible for new technology to not have both upsides and downsides. For example, fracking is a fantastic technology for increasing our available energy resources--but we have to worry about methane leakage, groundwater contamination, earthquakes, and continued reliance on CO2. Social networking is great, but it can be a huge time sink and make various sorts of social crimes (e.g. sex trafficking) easier to get away with. Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are based on the same physical principle. If you imagine some awesome piece of tech, even if overall it's great for it to exist, there are almost certain to be downsides to imagine too. Once you anticipate the downsides, you can ignore them, you can focus on them as challenges even though it's obvious that overall the tech is great, or you can make the downsides be far greater than the advantages in standard dystopian style.

For example, suppose fusion reactors become practical and can be reduced to the size of a small car. You can quickly imagine a plot where the main characters are investigators who stop terrorists from acquiring or using such devices. It's clear that such abundant energy is great in most cases, but there are still abuses to be curtailed.



Is there still anything left to achieve? If there is, why isn't this achieved yet? What obstacles are to be overcome? How do you overcome them?

Or maybe... the utopia deemed progress is the road to ruining the utopia? In that case you have a wonderful conflict: Someone decides to "improve upon the paradise". Following the premises of the utopia, this backfires horribly. We must deal with the fallout.

Or maybe everything that was to be achieved has been achieved? Wouldn't that make for a bitter victory? Wouldn't you hold a grudge for being shoehorned into the role of custodian of the museum of past glory? Nothing you do can surpass your ancestors. Problems deemed unsolvable were proven unsolvable and will remain unsolved forever. It's a sad world to live in.

Or maybe the descendants are even wiser. Maybe they came to a brilliant conclusion about how to avoid these caveats. In that case presenting that will make for an awesome story.

And if you want something more down-to-the-ground, pick any of hundreds standard conflicts of our days, the ones that provide food for most heart-wrenching dramas, and subvert them in resolving them with a snap of your fingers, using the miracles of your world. Yay, that was easy!

  • Mmm. I'm liking the "what's left to achieve" approach; that's a really good guideline. The other suggestions, not so much - they both seem to imply that the supposed "progress" is on track to make life worse. And I don't understand how a trivial resolution of a problem might make for an interesting conflict...
    – Standback
    Aug 7, 2013 at 10:47
  • @Standback: First, an often-missed truth that not always more and bigger is better. Sometimes a simple society may be an utopia, while trying to introduce "achievements of the civilization" would destroy it. It's not an universal truth but not entirely rare one either. If you achieve perfection, change can only make it worse. True trivial resolutions of common problems don't make a great conflict, but they make awesome episodes, scenes, interludes that show the upsides of the utopian society and may be a background to something bigger while keeping the interest of the reader.
    – SF.
    Aug 7, 2013 at 16:58

How can I dig conflict out of an optimistic SF-nal premise?

By recognizing that optimism is naïve and inherently wrong.

A hundred years ago, most SF stories were about a wonderful invention and how it improves the world. They were interesting for the time, but soon became boring.

This seems to be the kind of story you want to write.

The next generation ("the golden age of science fiction") got it right: start with a wonderful invention, improve the world, and then watch how so many seemingly unrelated things go wrong as a result of it (and then try to put the worms back into the can).

Science Fiction was no longer about how wonderful science is, nor was it about predicting the future. Instead it served as a warning that attempted to prevent such a future.

Marshall McLuhan wrote extensively about this phenomenon in real life, about how an invention doesn't simply make a task easier it also changes other things and creates entirely new tasks.

Science-fiction writing today presents situations that enable us to perceive the potential of new technologies. Formerly, the problem was to invent new forms of labor-saving. Today, the reverse is the problem. Now we have to adjust, not to invent. We have to find the environments in which it will be possible to live with our new inventions. Big Business has learned to tap the s-f writer.
The Medium is the Massage, 1967

The invention of the automobile didn't simply reduce the time to go from one place to another, it increased the places one could go to in a reasonable time, and actually increased the total time that people spent traveling.

Farm families would take the cart into town once a month to pick up their supplies from the general store, a trip that generally took the whole day. A truck shortened the task to an hour or two. But since it was so convenient, people started driving into town several times a week, not once a month. Not only did they end up spending far more time on the task, they also eliminated the social aspects of that monthly trip.

And as a totally unforeseen side effect, it also changed society's entire system of courting and dating.

A much more contemporary example is of course the cell-phone, a simple device that solved the problem of having to look for a phone-booth. Consider how many hours a day the typical person now spends "not looking for a phone booth".


External Threats:

Just because your society is paradise doesn't mean that there aren't people outside who want what they have. Or that somewhere else, folks didn't follow a different path. Or that the society doesn't require people who are constantly vigilant to solve problems.

Aliens are the classic threat. There's SO much sci-fi where an idealized society is faced by a more aggressive set of aliens who force less idealized choices on the enlightened heroes. The prisoners will return knowledge to the enemy if you release them. The aliens are unaware of a society and their robots are terraforming Terra firma into something not inhabitable by humans.

Then there are always other people who aren't as enlightened. Perhaps the neighbors made bad choices and THEY don't want the consequences. Or your enlightened society imposes their values on things (like technological trade) the others aren't so enlightened about. Or maybe the asteroid folks have an Ideal society but the Earthers think they're owed compensation for whatever.

Then there's always the natural hazards. A black hole will destroy the world and everyone must evacuate. The society discovers the shockwave of a supernova will destroy civilization and people face the death of everything with no apparent solution. Or even the old-fashioned "asteroid struck the base/ship and everyone scrambles to stay alive and fix the ship" scenarios.


Out of Excuses

Your technology solves the characters' problems.

Now they realize that something they had been blaming on the problem was not caused by it, but by themselves. There is no way out except fixing themselves.

For instance, if your character was fighting the problem, even trying to bring the technology to bear -- whether a major crusader or just a supporter -- he no longer has that fight. What will he do with the time? Perhaps it was a major source of meaning in his life. What will he do to find meaning in the new milieu?


Not sure if it's quite what your looking for but (as a hobby) I write hard SF novellas and short stories where there is no conflict other than internal conflict. There is no interpersonal conflict so there is none of that type of drama. There is also no sex, violence or even swearing and no they are not intended primarily for the young adult audience. I just don't care to write stories which include drama, sex, violence and swearing. While you might imagine that writing positive, optimistic stories that are also interesting is more challenging than writing stories based on conflict I do not find it to be so.

In only a couple of my short stories is there violence (extremely limited) and that is because they are set in military or police cultures. In my novellas all my characters are driven not by conflict but by scientific mysteries or discovery. The main characters are all benevolent and represent what is called "friendly AI".

The Japanese have a name for stories with no conflict. Read about it here https://artofnarrative.com/2020/07/08/kishotenketsu-exploring-the-four-act-story-structure/

You can read my short stories here. They are more vignettes than short stories and take about five minutes each to read. https://acompanionanthology.wordpress.com/

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