A gloomy article about gloomy science fiction

I’ve been meaning to comment on this article from a few weeks ago in which Guardian blogger Damien Walter grouches about how science fiction is just so damn gloomy, and asks why it can’t be more upbeat and perky. He contrasts the common Golden Age view of a bright, sparkling future with the more pessimistic, cautionary, or admonitory outlook of much of the sf of later decades. Walter thinks science and technology give us great hope and promise, so sf should put on a happy face and strive to make us all feel better about the future.

I think this attitude has several major flaws, all of them pointed out numerous times in the many perceptive comments which follow the article. One of the simplest of these is Walter’s over-generalization about the genre:

To look at the infinite possibilities of the future and see only darkness is a failure of imagination.

It’s a “failure of imagination” to think that science fiction sees “only darkness.” Sure, there’s plenty of that to go around: novels about alien invasion, overpopulation, ecological catastrophes, scientific experiments gone horribly wrong, and so on and so forth. But that’s not all sf is about. There is also plenty of science fiction with something hopeful to say, that portrays a future humanity that lives better because of technology, or that has matured and found some sort of balance or peace (several commenters mentioned Banks’ Culture novels as an example). Admittedly, you’re not likely to find, these days, the naive and simplistic Golden Age vision of a triumphant mankind overcoming any and all problems, confidently and proudly progressing to perfection via the wonders of technology. Positive outlooks tend to be more tempered by realism nowadays (and how can that be a bad thing?), but they are still there. Even in the grim stories of catastrophe, there is often some seed of hope for the problem to be solved, averted, diminished, or at least survived.

Walter mentions the common genre depictions of the dangers or downside of biotechnology. My own reading experience tells me sf often depicts the positive outcomes of bioscience: cure of diseases, extension of lifespan, and other enhancements to the quality of life. But surely the dangers should also be represented, because reality teaches us that technology can be — almost inevitably will be — misused, or lead to unforeseen consequences.

Another thing I think Walter gets wrong is that he fails to appreciate that the world really is a dark and gloomy place, in many ways, or is in the process of becoming so, and that sf might be able to help make people aware of that. He complains:

The internet is already democratising many new areas of society, but our political future is still most commonly depicted as one flavour of Big Brother dystopia or another.

Forget political futures, our political present already shows enough trends toward Big Brother-ism to make any thoughtful person nervous. Mr. Walter is writing from the U.K. for crying out loud, the nation with the most developed public surveillance program in the world; Big Brother IS watching. Newspeak is here, has been for some time, firmly entrenched in American politics (and elsewhere around the world, I’m sure). Government manipulation and propaganda? Historical editing? Shameless PR spin? You betcha, it’s all to be found right here in today’s world. Should science fiction turn a blind eye to these disturbing trends, aiming instead to give readers warm fuzzy feelings about how great things will turn out to be? I sure as hell think not. In fact, Walter (ironically) torpedoes his own argument when he acknowledges this strength of the genre:

The world needs warnings from its future, and science fiction has been there to provide them.

Indeed; but this single sentence pretty much refutes the rest of the article.

A further point against Walter’s thesis is the simple fact that drama needs conflict, and conflict requires some kind of imperfection or problem or evil in the world or in the characters. Why does sf focus so much on dystopias? Because utopias are utterly boring. Who wants to read about a perfect society? Who even believes a perfect society is possible? Who wants to read about a world that faces no serious problems? Such a world would be completely unrealistic, and if you want that kind of unrealism, go read some fantasy, I say.

Walter refers to the “infinite possibilities of the future,” but it seems he would prefer the range of possibilities in sf to be more narrowly focused toward the ones that make him feel good. That’s fine for him, to each his own; but I prefer sf that’s a bit more challenging than that, and a bit more realistic.

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5 responses to “A gloomy article about gloomy science fiction

  1. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for linking to the Guardian piece, much appreciated.

    I’m glad you like you sf realistic. I’m actually an avid reader of dark, brooding science fiction. But my observation has been that sf is now massively dominated by dark and brooding. Its simply getting a bit boring, and for many authors seems like just a default setting. I would really like to see more positive sf, but that doesn’t eman I think all sf should be positive. Far from it.

    Thanks again.

  2. Damien, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the clarification. I just hope I didn’t bend your position too far out of shape in the course of my opinionating.

    I should also admit that perhaps part of the reason I like dark and brooding sf is because, well, I’m a dark and brooding kind of person myself. But there’s the realism factor, too, and the drama factor. I just have a hard time seeing depictions of a bright, positive future being very dramatic. But then, maybe that’s my own “failure of imagination.”

    At any rate, your article does a good job of provoking some thought on this question, and I have to thank you for that.

    I also just read your follow-up article, as well as Stoddard’s “positivist manifesto” — I hadn’t realized this was part of a wider debate. Interesting. More thoughts to come.

  3. I have always taken issue with this kind of one sided view of SF. It really is not a gloomy literature. I think that some people completely fail to see that the vast majority of stories out there really are not about, for example, the end of the world, or technological domination of mankind, or whatever evil you care to imagine. What they are about is transformation, and the mechanism that they use, which is unique to speculative literature, is to posit an extreme view of the problems that society has in order to accentuate what needs to be overcome. Take for example a writer that the author discussed in his article: Octavia Butler. Ive read and written about just about every book that she ever wrote. And I have read or listened to every interview of her that is currently available on the internet. When I read her Xenogenesis series I was also overcome with what I thought were the dominant rape and slavery metaphors. Then I read them again, listened to some interviews, and listened to the authors words and realized that what they were all about was love. Yes, love in crazy, world-ending circumstances, but love that was productive and made children that were stronger than the parents who contributed their genes. Hell, it was not until after I read all three books that I realized that the title of the series said it all: Xenogenesis! The coming together and mating of different races. How beautiful and transforming do you imagine that can be? Octavia shows us how it works.

    So yes, we do have our fair share of gloom. But certainly no more, and probably less than other forms of literature. I would say less, and that is coming from someone who has read just about every major SF book that has been published in the last eighty years, and hundreds, maybe thousands of mainstream books.

    I think also that the change can be traced back to one point: John W. Campbell. Campbell was an important author before he was an important editor, and while he was publishing he realized that the super-science stories was running out of steam, and came up with something new. Something that reflected the world view that the average person in the Great Depression held. And that is one other thing that you have to realize. The genre as we know it today completely developed and came to its adolescence during the Great Depression. That was over a decade of chaos where people absolutely needed stories that showed them that things that vexed them could be defeated. And at the end of it, we had the greatest killing frenzy that the world has ever known. Is it any wonder that the men and women who birthed the genre had some horrendous things to work through? Well, I think that they did. Starting in the 50’s SF started showing us that even if you had Hell to trek through, Heaven was at the end.

    Here is a link to a review of Campbell’s entire body of work as Don A. Stuart, the pseudonym he used for these different stories.

  4. You know, Omph, that’s an excellent point, about sf not being as gloomy as some people say it is. Actually that thought has been rattling around in my head all day. I’m about to do a follow-up post and that’s one of the things I want to mention.

    That Butler example is great, too.

  5. My stories are gloomy as all get out but I think is because my husband reads Jim Knustler to me every day.

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