But before getting into the reasons why SF is naturally optimistic, I want to explain where I am coming from. In a general sense, the world today appears to be in a worse position than it was at the height of the Cold War (a culturally relative position, to be sure). We still live in a time where nuclear weapons are a legitimate threat, but also in a time where economic-, environment-, and resource-based threats are immediate and unavoidable. When you break down the troubling world in which we live on the individual level, what you get is an existence which is, in and of itself, perpetually tenuous. In the United States (where most SF is published), these facts are incontrovertible, and have been for the last 30-40 years, when sweeping reforms to our country reached the tipping point as politicians and corporations sought to deregulate and otherwise neuter the social safety nets put into place from WW2 to the end of the Vietnam War.
It's from this position, then, that I arrive at the central rationale for considering SF as inherently optimistic. For me, waking up is the most optimistic thing about life. Because at the end of the day, I am still alive. I could be dead or dying. I could be suffering endlessly. I could be in a
million other possible situations that would make waking up anything but a blessing. But I'm not. I awake, crawl out of bed, and go about my life -- which may or may not be as great as I would like (or as great as it should be), but is at least marked by that most wonderful of optimistic realities. Life.
And that's where we have to start. Because SF, at its heart, is almost always about humanity in a state of persistent existence. SF isn't just set in the future; it is set in a future in which we still exist. If you can't find optimism in that, then you have not only lost touch with what is wonderful about life itself, but also with why SF is a grand genre. While it's true that SF has grown less adventurous in terms of its narratives (that is that much SF, though not all, avoids the adventurous nature of the pulps and the Golden Age in exchange for a more well-rounded and "real" approach to the world -- SF = always about the present), it has done so without losing the inherent optimism of its makers.
Yet throughout all of those dystopias and (allegedly) negative narratives, we find heroes and natural optimism. The world is always getting better in SF, even when the story we're presented appears to show us moving backwards. We're not only still around, but we're creating spaceships, building new civilizations, surviving plagues and other ills, and otherwise doing what humans have done best since the first humans left the African plains tens of thousands of years ago. Surviving. And in the middle of it all, we find heroes, who may be just like us, just like we want to be, or something else entirely. But they are heroes nonetheless, doing the job of solving problems, defeating "enemies," etc.
And if you can't find optimism in that -- in reading about man confronting new problems in the future, whether on Earth or in space, whether in a dystopian landscape or a relative utopia -- then perhaps the problem isn't that SF appears to be less optimistic; rather, perhaps the problem is that we've forgotten what it means to be surprised when we see people just like us in stories set so far ahead.
I don't think the sensawunda died. I think we killed it by making SF into something it could never be.