Another look at gloominess in science fiction

When I wrote my post the other day responding to Damien Walter’s Guardian article about gloominess in science fiction, I was unaware that it was part of a wider debate that has apparently been going on for some time. Other thoughts, opinions, and positions on the matter can be found in this article at Tor.com by writer/editor Kathryn Cramer; this article by writer/editor Jetse de Vries; and this article by writer Jason Stoddard.

There are some good points made on all sides, and everyone defends their positions eloquently. But I find myself most strongly in agreement with Kathryn Cramer’s take on the whole thing. For example:

I also don’t think that providing rays of sunshine through the storm clouds is really the solution particularly, nor necessarily the most workable aesthetic choice, unless you are in Hollywood. […] I am not sold on an aesthetic of visions of the future people can believe in.

I have to agree with that. I don’t think giving people a future to believe in should be the highest goal, or even a major goal, of sf. Not that it’s a bad thing, or shouldn’t have a place in the genre — I’d even say it’s a laudable goal for YA fiction, for example — but I don’t think that when most sf readers sit down with a book, that they’re necessarily looking for inspiration or “something to believe in.” I think sf readers want something a little more complex and/or nuanced than that. If there’s one primary thing science fiction is good at, one thing you could point to as the genre’s “function,” I’d have to say it’s getting people to think about possibilities and different viewpoints and ideas or situations they’ve never thought about before. Science fiction shouldn’t tell you “what to do” or “what not to do,” and it generally doesn’t, as far as I can tell. What it should do, and does wonderfully, is get you thinking about the world, about society, about the future AND the present, so you can make up your own mind on what you think the present and future will or should or might be like, and decide what you might want to do about it. I think Cramer says approximately the same thing:

So what I would substitute for “influence,” as a goal, is that writers provide us with perceptual tools with which to understand the world, the future, and what is to be done. I view science fiction partly as a set of perceptual tools we take with us into the world. I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them.

I am reminded of a somewhat similar sf-as-a-tool view expressed by Frank Herbert, who said sf stories are like computer simulations which allow us to try out various social models and see what they look like.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the “gloominess assumption” itself, and wondering if science fiction is actually as dominated by darkness as some seem to think. De Vries, for instance, straightforwardly declares his dissatisfaction:

I am extremely tired of SF that shows how the world goes to hell: it’s the most defining characteristic of modern SF.

Is it really the “most defining characteristic”? The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to buy that. I fully admit that I’m not up on the cutting edge of sf — I’m not one of those up-to-date fans who reads everything as soon as it’s published. But thinking over what sf I have read from, say, the last 10 years or so, I can’t really see an overwhelming amount of negativity or despair. Certainly most of the novels I’ve read present serious problems or tragic situations, and squarely acknowledge and face the more contemptible aspects of human nature. But that’s as it should be, because that’s life and it always will be. Any fiction which suggests otherwise would ring hollow, and wouldn’t be something I’d want to read. As I said the other day, sf commonly shows future worlds that have attained all sorts of positive advancements, but the point is, it doesn’t stop there — because real life doesn’t stop there. We living right now, you and I, are the beneficiaries of all kinds of amazing advances in science and technology that make this a far better world than it was a century or two ago. But that hasn’t solved all our problems, or even our most basic problems; we still have war, murder, greed, hunger, poverty, and other ills. So there’s a lot of positivity AND negativity in our world, and they co-exist in complex relationships. Why should a fictional future world be any different?

The other article referenced above, by Jason Stoddard, presents a manifesto or “platform” outlining what positive science fiction should be about and what sort of elements it should contain. Every point he makes has a ring of familiarity to it; I’ve seen all those various criteria in science fiction I’ve read (and I don’t mean Golden Age “the future’s so bright” stuff). So in a way, his definition of positive sf reminds me of the “mundane sf” debate, in that it seems to be a call-to-arms calling for something which already exists; perhaps not in as pure a form as Stoddard might like, but the planks of his positivist platform can be found in sf in one form or another.

One final comment I want to make, going back to Damien Walter again. In his article “The Politics of Gloom” he says:

In very rough terms, the constructive debate is currently being had on the issue of which direction SF should take to be most successful, both creatively and commercially.

That’s an innocent enough statement, of course; the only reason I’m quoting it is because it contains an example of a kind of phrase I hear a lot — “the direction sf should take” or some variation on those words. It always gives me this silly image of all science fiction writers standing up en masse and moving as a herd toward some distant destination. I’ve always thought the phrase “direction of science fiction” entirely misses the whole point of sf. Science fiction is a literature of ideas, yes, and of change, yes, but more than anything it’s a literature of possibilities, endless possibilities. In other words: science fiction should move in ALL directions! Nothing should be off-limits, everything should be up for grabs, any thought or dream or viewpoint that any writer can conceive of. It should be as positive or negative as each individual author wants to make it. It should explore any subject matter, in any time frame, in any manner the writer wishes. I don’t want the genre as a whole to have a particular direction. To me, that would be its death.

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2 responses to “Another look at gloominess in science fiction

  1. Hi! I really enjoyed this post. Particularly the end about how science fiction should go in all directions, and couldn’t agree more. Isn’t that the beauty of science fiction? A few random thoughts come to mind. I do agree with Frank Herbert too, that science fiction is like a social study. It can also reflect our society today, allowing us to ask important questions. There’s a reason why the new Battlestar Galactica is so popular, because it’s a commentary on what we’re dealing with today. Also I do believe that despite the popularity of tabloids and reality television, we are more sophisticated. We don’t want a story to simply be entertaining. There should be both positivity and negativity, otherwise it doesn’t ring true to the reader.

  2. I’ve seen this debate going on around the web too, and I have to wonder why we are even having it. The best fiction — no matter what the genre — reflects the concerns, issues and fears we are living with, and perhaps offers ways to deal with them. I think science fiction is particularly powerful for shedding light on environmental degradation, concerns about scientific experiments, genetic engineering, some very weighty issues. Personally, I don’t want to read optimistic fiction.

    But I also think your point about how sf authors are not a monolith all deciding together what to write about is so valid. As far as I can tell, authors are a curmudgeonly bunch who will do whatever they damn well please. And thank god for that!

    I’ve been enjoying your posts on this subject, btw.

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