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.