Sci-Fi: An Optimistic Setting Sketch

Part 1: Whither Utopia?

Where has all the optimistic science fiction gone? Where are the utopias of yesteryear? Gone, eaten by the end of history, by moneyball, by the McMansion, by the Hubble telescope and the Dark Forest.

The best we can invent are dystopias to overcome, or a bucolic solarpunk cottagecore reset.

There are plenty of used future/transhuman/horror sci-fi RPGs: Mothership, Eclipse Phase, Across A Thousand Dead Worlds. Plenty of Traveller-type space operas. Plenty of games that let you imitate the optimistic stories told half a century ago. Plenty of pulp games with rayguns and heroic jawlines and loadbearing tropes.

I've always maintained that if you want something done, and no one else is doing it, you have to do it yourself. Here's my optimistic sci-fi pitch. Not utopia, but a future that's at least no worse than our present. Very few of these ideas are truly original, but there's nothing new under the sun.

If I was sensible, I'd package these ideas as a Hugo-winning novel, but I'm sure everyone has read a sci-fi novel that's just a concept with some characters bolted to it. It's the equivalent of a meeting that could have been an email. I also should have invented a catchy name for it. The best I've got is "The Bright Conference."

The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest is a possible explanation to the Fermi Paradox. If life is out there, why haven't we seen it? Because it's hiding. Because not hiding makes you a target.

The Dark Forest suggests life is a threat to life. If aliens exist, they will hide (so they don't get killed) and/or kill us before we can kill them. The usual suggestion is a relativistic kinetic missile; a big rock at a good fraction at the speed of light will definitely mess up a planet. von Neumann probes are sometimes considered, or gamma ray bursts. Kill or be killed. Only the strong survive.

I ran a hard(ish) sci-fi game a few years ago based on the Dark Forest concept. It's an interesting idea, but it's not the only solution.

Pay No Mind

Dark Forest stories often suggest consciousness, as humans experience it, is an evolutionary mistake, a dead end, a transitory step. If we meet alien life, it is not only unlikely to think like us, it is unlikely to think in any way we can comprehend. Solaris on one end of the scale, The Blob on the other, and The Thing somewhere in the middle.

Artur Szymczak

Part 2: Robust Solutions

These are not nessesarily true solutions, but sufficiently robust that a sensible person can't poke holes in them immediately. Not just fridge logic, but get-up-at-night-to-check-a-reference-book logic. There have to be incentives and the incentives have to be justifiable.

The easiest solution to the Fermi paradox is that life is rare and we're effectively alone. Atomic Rockets. Last and First Men.

The second easiest is that life is rare but that a handful of alien species exist. Alien. All Tomorrows. Blindsight.

A third, more difficult solution, is that life is relatively abundant, but we just haven't seen it yet because we've only been looking for a handful of years using very small telescopes. 

Most sci-fi that picks the third option swings immediately into bumpy-forehead humanoid alien territory, both for budget reasons and for comprehensibility reasons. One starfish alien is as good as hundred, if you're using starfish aliens to explore a concept.

But I'd like to explore the idea of a vast array of alien species. A Stanisław Lem kaleidoscope of uncertainty.

The Dark Forest -> Best Not Miss

Assume that the goal of any species is to avoid extinction. You probably can't acomplish any of your other goals if you're dead.

If you see a shape in the Dark Forest and you shoot it, you had best not miss. And you had better be certain that whoever you shot doesn't have friends. And you'd better make sure you kill them with your first shot, because they might be armed too, and they're not likely to negotiate. As St. Murphy wrote, "tracers work both ways." 

You are trading a set of unknown risks for a different set of unknown risks, except now violence is obviously an option. No attack is 100% untraceable. No attack can be guaranteed ahead of time to be 100% effective.

On the defensive side, strategies are much more interesting. Spread. Increase chance of unpredictable consequences. Make connections. 

If you want to kill a species you have to kill all of them. Sever the web of connections completely. If any of them are left alive, or if anyone they talked to is left alive and wishes to make a point about your actions, then you are in trouble. They can track you down and spend disproportionate resources to kill or inconvenience you.

It's like a spoiler in a strategy board game. A spoiler can't win, but they can ensure whoever attacked them loses. Irrational vengeance is hard to predict or defeat.

Pay No Mind -> Law of Large Numbers

The chances of any two species overlapping in any way (being able to communicate meaningfully, having similar goals, being interesting and not trivial/inscrutable, etc.) are low, but those chances go up as the web of connections grows. If there's a network, you may want to grow and maintain the network increase your chances of making a useful or meaningful connection. 

Not Zero Sum

Space is big. Every element is relatively abundant. Aliens aren't coming for Earth's water, iron, or uranium: there's plenty to be had elsewhere, in enormous quantities.

Aliens aren't coming for our gasoline or epinephrine either. If you can travel between the stars, you can do synthetic chemistry locally. Our precious bodily fluids are only precious to us.

Unique products of life (wood, art, music, feathers) could be interesting, but not crucial.

Chances are that a species' goals can be accomplished without interfering with any other species' goals. If the risk of contact is unacceptable to a species, they can hide. It's not easy, but if a species really wants to avoid contact and detection, they can.

The Longest Game

If you are playing the long game, it pays to be generous, transparent, and cautious. The best possible deal now is not the best possible deal over an extended timescale. Your liability is not limited. In diplomacy, space travel, and home repair, saying "Eh, it'll be someone else's problem" inevitably results in the someone else being you.

A disparity in power might not last. Cut a deal with the faction that's currently in control? In a few years, they might not be in control, but you want the deal to be good enough that the new faction will accept it without alteration. No matter the situation, you ideally want the other party involved to look back on the deal as acceptable. Betrayal and exploitation invites reprisals and discourages future cooperation. Bet on rational self-interest. It's always a risky bet, but what's the alternative?  

Soft power is very resilient. Hard power, in the form of empires, strict alliances, hegemony, etc. is brittle. Empires breed rebels. Borders invite trespassers. To play the long game, remain as flexible as possible.

The Level Field

If we're assuming life can evolve on many worlds in many different ways, there's only one environment that every species has access to: hard vacuum and null gravity.

Planets are precious and unique, but they're a lot of work and risk to visit. They are zoos. Terrariums. If you can't survive off your planet, you can tap at the glass and hold up signs, but you can't really participate. Hard vacuum and null gravity are evolutionary pressures.


  • Some species may have evolved in environments that make hard vacuum and null gravity a non-issue. Probably rare, but not impossible.
  • Probes or robots. But the more adaptable and sophisticated you want your probe to be, the closer it is to an entirely new species. Remote control is possible, but lag time makes it inconvenient.
  • Engineering a new species or variant. Other species can provide general advice, but it has to be a self-run process. "Genetic engineering" is a human thing; the chances of anything outside of earth sharing our biochemistry, or having the expertise to manipulate it, is effectively zero.
  • Spaceships and spacesuits. The line isn't clear.

Can a story where everyone interacts in spacesuits be fun? Maybe.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology -> No Shortcuts

"Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable for magic" is lazy. Fun, but lazy. Science fiction has always felt free to invent machines, confident that science would eventually catch up. Unfortunately, science has caught up. We've got helicopters but not flying cars. We've got a vague map of the possible. 

I'm not going to use the following:

  • Plenty of earth-like planets (which suspiciously resemble gravel quarries, the California desert, or the forests of British Columbia).
  • Force Fields. Glowing walls, invisible shields. With or without hexagons.
  • Teleportation.
  • Convenience Engines. Reactionless drives. Hoverbikes.
  • Antigravity and Artificial Gravity. Not counting the normal Newtonian methods, obviously.
  • Telepathy and ~Woo~. Energy ghosts. Mind melds.
  • Hidden or Higher Dimensions. The Warp, Foldspace, The Multiverse, etc. 
  • Nanotechnology. No magic swarms of robots to turn sand into computer chips or fat into muscle.
  • Scanners. No magic information at a distance. No instant answers.

And, for humans specifically, I'm not going to use:

  • Brain Uploading. Not for some spiritual reason, but because brains are soup. Ever tried to unmake soup? Humans are too messy and glandular to encode with fidelity.
  • Cybernetics. Beyond a reasonable extrapolation of currently available tech. Yes to cochlear implants, no to full-sim brain interfaces.
  • Political and social unity where everyone magically agrees to get along. Cannot assume that human nature will suddenly change.   

In this setting, everyone plays by these rules. There's no Ancient Precursor species with mysterious floating obelisks, or if there is, the obelisks float by sensible and currently available means. It's a universe of mere matter. 

On the other hand, there are a few speculative technologies I'm willing to allow.

  • Artificial Minds. Not the chatbots and image-dreamers we have now, but a programmed or generated mind that operates in a comparable way to ours (or to another species). It's hard to turn everything into paperclips without magical technology. AI with independent goals have to play the same game as everyone else.
  • Useful biochemistry. Nanomachines might not exist, but you can currently feed CO2 and sunlight to a tiny self-replicating organism and get all sorts of interesting products. Technology might include a sealed cask of alien goo.  
  • Faster than light travel. This is a big reach. It's done for storytelling reasons. It might be possible for someone else to tell a compelling story on a multi-generational civilization-level scale, with no human-scale characters... but I can't, so I won't.

Technology Optimization

Information is effectively free. If you want to learn how to build a general-purpose hard vacuum null gravity system for any given technology, some species will eventually tell you how. They've had time to test and optimize it. There's no centralized trustworthy library, but the long-term consequences of providing bad information may outweigh the benefits of sabotage.

If you want to convert a blueprint to your specific requirements, available technology, and existing practices, you need time and specialists. It's not useful to know how to build a steam engine if you can't smelt iron. The links in the chain of optimized technology might not connect to the chains you already have. First contact will not solve your problems, just like knowing how to build the Large Hadron Collider would not have helped the Emperor Hadrian.

It is said that 30% of any given spaceship is adapters. You can optimize a technology in many equally valid but slightly incompatible ways. Species A wants their systems to run without maintenance, Species B is concerned about waste heat, Species C has a deadly reaction to titanium, etc.

This assumes that it's not efficient to move an entire standardized industrial chain to a new star system. You have to build it from scratch (or nearly from scratch), and, since technology is distinguishable from magic, you have to build it slowly. Post-scarcity takes time, but it is achievable.

Probing the boundaries of physics requires even more investment. Even if resources are abundant, it's hard to invest time and effort to construct a particle accelerator the size of Saturn just to add a few decimal points to a measurement or see if a particle really is what the generally accepted theory says it is. Some species still do it though. Maybe, inside the latest layer of the onion, there's an exit to the maze.

David Jones

Part 3: Principles in Practice

Let's expand on some of these ideas.

FTL Travel

FTL has to require some level of investment or we'd have done it already. In a Dark Forest scenario, FTL travel can be easy. Nobody is visiting, or if they are, they're not paying a social call. But in the scenario in this post, FTL has to be expensive or limited, or they'd have done it already.

FTL travel is a shortcut. As discussed above, it's a way to make a human-scale scenario work. Otherwise, you'd need to add "can hibernate for centuries" to the evolutionary pressures list, and add "bewildering social changes" to a scenario that already has a chaotic whirl of concepts.

To make FTL work, I'd like to suggest the dodge used in my Faster than the Dark game. FLT travel works, but attempts to use it to break causality always fail. Is the universe a simulation? Is it the hand of God? Does violating causality destroy the universe, leaving only universes where the attempt failed? Is it a cover-up? Or is it just a spectacular run of bad luck?

I don't want to make the FTL technology beyond human comprehension. It's comprehensible, but ludicrously expensive.

I'm going to use gates. Humanity's first extrasolar vessel might be a Soyuz capsule.

First Contact

Build a few thousand large telescopes and put them in deep space. Network them and start looking.

If you find a world that's a likely candidate for life, launch a probe at a decent fraction of the speed of light. Aim to obviously and transparently miss. You don't want the locals to think it's an attack. Beam signals along the probe's path, just in case.

The probe arrives, brakes in an obvious "this is not a missile" way, enters a distant orbit, and starts trying to make contact. It's easier to teach the locals to speak Probe than it is to learn the local language.

If the locals consent, use all remaining energy reserves to build a tiny gate and send a larger gate-builder through. Build a full-sized gate. Welcome the latest addition to the network. Possibly build another telescope network, if your current array of arrays isn't large enough, and keep looking.

If the locals refuse, ask when the probe should check in next or set conditions for reactivation, then hibernate.

If there's no intelligent life in the system, either build a gate anyway, hibernate until life evolves, or quietly decay. Waiting is probably only an option if life looks like it could reach a contactable stage in the immediate (100-1,000 year) future. 

Galactic Parliament -> A Myriad of Myriads

The existence of gates creates a few interesting pressures. First, if the gate-builders communicate in one format, then others might as well communicate in the same format

Second, since gates are expensive and shields don't exist, violence near the gate is discouraged. If you're going to fight, fight elsewhere.

Third, the gate-builders can turn off the gate and disconnect a planet from their network, so they should be kept happy. The gate-builders can't make too many demands though or species will make their own networks. A light touch, or no touch at all, is best. If you're building telescope arrays, near-c probes, and gates anyway, there's probably not much you want. Building gates, for a gate-building species, is probably its own reward.

Energy costs might be important. It's safe to assume gates aren't free to operate.

The first aliens to turn up after a gate opens are:

  • Surveyors, hoping to trade information on a system to others.
  • Fame-seekers. You might be nobody special in your home system, but you're the first alien this species has ever seen.
  • Diplomats, trying to explain their cause and goals and find allies.
  • Proselytizers for a worldview, a philosophy, or a religion.
  • Altruists.
  • Perverts, collectors, and the curious.
  • Other recently contacted species trying to quickly form connections. 

No rules, only agreements and pressures. 

Principia Discordia

Prime Directive -> Not My Circus

Let individuals and species do their own thing. It might offend you, disgust you, or confuse you, but it's not your problem, it's their problem. If you want them to change, you can ask or apply pressure, but you should be very cautious of the long-term consequences. It's less about morality and more about the long game.

Sort It Out Amongst Yourselves

Groups vote by volume. The loudest voice speaks for a group. Don't like it? Take it up with the loudest voice. Here's a simplified explanation.

A probe might ask a planet, "Do you consent to a gate in your system? Yes / No. Time period X.", using photons in the radio wave region (because the planet was already beaming out radio waves). Everyone with a transmitter can beam back an answer, but the probe will only check for answers in the yes or no format specified, and only listen to the loudest answer within the specified time period.

The probe then transmits, "I have received a "Yes" answer. Confirm answer within time period Y." Time period Y gives the planet a chance to reconsider, destroy the transmitter, start a nuclear war, hold a vote, etc.

Ideally, the transmission should be in a form everyone with a stake can receive and comprehend. A probe orbiting Earth in 1700 would probably try light, blinking on and off. In theory, if anyone could carefully note the pattern, a large custom-built lighthouse could blink back. In practice, the probe would probably hibernate until it detected some significant activity.

It's also important to know with whom you're negotiating with, and in what capacity. An individual? A faction? The ambassador of a species?

Hitchhiker Waivers are common for newly contacted species. They absolve the other party and their species of any liability.  Sign one and agree to be transported through a gate, and the alien can turn around and boil you alive or let you starve to death in a tube, and the assumption is that nobody will do anything about it. That's the cost of a free ride. Waivers are transmitted and recorded. In a busy system, everyone is transmitting everything all the time. It's a network of noise, of checks and counter-checks. The fanciest algorithmic contract can't save you from social engineering.

Kuldar Leement

Part 4: What Do The PCs Do?

The question I was unable to answer for Space: 1977. It's not an important question for a novel or a film, but it's vital for an RPG.

The answer could be "explore, make friends, and solve mysteries."

What information is real and what is bluff, subterfuge, mistranslation, and misdirection? What is the secret motivation behind an offer to buy Jupiter? What is the real motivation of the gate-builders? What happens to species who don't play by the implied rules? How will you represent humanity?

The absence of the Dark Forest does not mean an absence of danger. Immediately post-contact, when a species has few connections and the consequences of extinction can be easily predicted, it might be better to wipe out a potential source of trouble. Humanity is (possibly) racing against time.

What's It All About?

Maybe it's about tourism, and the pressure a culture faces to make itself palatable, exaggerate marketable elements, and minimize differences. The power of capitalism's ability to absorb all critiques. The reemergence of a multipolar world. Trust in a low-trust environment. Social media, and being trapped in a decaying network.

Maybe it's about absurdism, a mirror of the Dark Forest's implied nihilism. Maybe it's about the limits of rationality in a world of noise and unlimited information. Lem's Futurological Congress held in Koolhaas' Generic City.

Maybe it's about what it means to be human, and what it means to disagree with someone over what it means to be human. 



  1. The conceit in the Hyperspace board game is that aliens had purposefully avoided earth because they knew that's where Cthulhu and the starspawn live. And when Cthulhu woke up, humanity's survivors. had to get offworld QUICK.

  2. I've been working on my own utopian space opera setting for a bit, coincidentally. I'll take this as a sign I'm on the right track.

    1. Admittedly its more "Optimistic" or "Quasi-Utopian" than a straight up Utopia. It arose when I was watching Star Trek and thought "The Federation should be way way bigger, its doesn't control ANY space." And thought that the constant human-like aliens were a bit boring.

  3. Another proposed solution to the Fermi paradox has been seen in print: that sentient civilizations, whether common or rare, almost inevitably exhaust their resources and drive themselves to the point of extinction (though for what it's worth, the relevant literature that I've read is problematic, and badly misinterprets academic literature on terrestrial archaeology while trying to make its point). ;-)

    By the way: if you have a moment, may I DM you about the Monster Overhaul? I'm not sure of a point of contact, or on which of the various hobby social media you're accessible.

    1. You can email me at coinsandscrolls [at] gmail [dot] com.

  4. Theoretically speaking, you wouldn't necessarily have to hibernate in order to explore the local arm. Given a truly ludicrous amount of energy, you could travel as far as Betelgeuse in not much more than ten years... ship time.

    1. True, but humans don't travel well. 10 years is a long time without resupply. There's not a lot to do along the way either. Might as well cut those resource costs down as much as possible.

  5. 'Social media, and being trapped in a decaying network.'

    Could you elaborate in the context of the above? It's a great concept.

    1. Sure. I don't think I can explain it fully here, but here are a few examples. A friend who plays World of Warcraft described it as paying a "subscription to your friend group." In their words, it's no longer fun, interesting, or challenging. It's just what you do. Without the decayed network, you lose access, but using it requires payment _and_ making a morally tenuous choice. You may have a social media site you use because your friends/relatives do, but without really liking or fully utilizing it.

      It's possible that, in the Bright Conference, species deliberately use and manipulate network effects / social moats to protect their interests. You can't disentangle yourself and you can't start over so you might as well carry on.

  6. Two things make the "Dark Forest" not such a big deal: 1. Biology of different worlds is likely so different alien just don't live in the forest and will never be able to do so. 2. Once travel becomes safe and even economical for a species/civilization that species has no real big reason to go anywhere else because they have likely mastered the ability to make where they are like they wish it to be. Aside from very basic materials once a species/civilization are advanced enough there's no reason to go anywhere else except to acquire the most basic of resources and the universe is full of those (as you mention).

  7. A while back I made an optimistic SF / American Values setting for a Lasers and Feelings game. The setting was deliberately vague so the players could improv details but here were the things that made it "optimistic":

    * The Fermi Paradox is because xenopsychology excruciatingly hard and you have to spend a lot of time secretly studying an alien's civilization before first contact. Humans are exceptionally good at this and can pull it off in mere years.

    * First contact is done by orbiting a large spaceship that's designed to look like something the species finds harmless. For us, it was a giant puppy. This proved the aliens were 1) powerful enough to build vanity spaceships, 2) came in peace, and 3) understood human culture enough to know we find puppies harmless.

    * The main trade is in culture and labor. Alien races are *weird*, even to each other. Like one species might be able to store 10,000 items in their short-term memory but are completely unable to think in counterfactuals. If you can get a few different species to efficiently collaborate you can do amazing feats of science, engineering, and art.

    * The Jovian Alliance is the only galactic civilization that really cares about diversity, where aliens are part of civic institutions and stuff. It's only a minor power but punches well above its economic and political weight. Its bureaucracy and military is a complete mess, though, and it relies a lot of broader alliances for safety.

    * Humans are Jovians now. Jupiter has a lot of space and hydrogen so it's real easy to build new residences for aliens who, like, only breath cyanide. Also it's just darn cool.

  8. Yes. I would love to read an optimistic sci fi setting written by you. If I can contribute in any way (my skillsets include a major in Physics, ability to use image dreamers, or just giving feedback), please let me know.

  9. Have you read Iain M Bank’s “The Algebraist”? I see some parallels between your gate-builders and the “Dwellers” who exercise capriciously generous control over a wormhole network. It’s been a while since I read it but from what I remember it had the makings of a quite gameable setting, with many parallels to the Bright Conference

    1. I have. It's definitely one of the inspirations.