Recently, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics Group was started to address imbalance towards pessimistic genre fiction. (Turns out this is not quite true — but my misunderstanding was not lost on the panelists.) So we asked the group’s members:
Here’s what they said:
I think SFFE arose to combat pessimism about SF, not pessimism in it. Pessimism has always been a feature of the genre. That goes all the way back to the beginning: Frankenstein and Brave New World, for instance. There have always been some pretty dark imaginations at work in the genre, sometimes fueled by various kinds of substance abuse – Phil Dick and Alfred Bester spring to mind.
But actually I think SF–certainly the Golden Age which defined what SF is–has a strongly optimistic core. Much SF of the 50s and 60s celebrates the liberating power of scientific and technical development. Look even at the original Star Trek–it’s fundamentally about the ability of technology to enrich our lives and understanding, and even to provide an engine for positive social development. Star Trek‘s multi-ethnic crew must have been much more startling in 1966 than it seems today.
Pessimism became more noticeable with the growth of the New Wave in the 1960s, particularly Moorcock and Ballard, although I have a sense that Tom Disch might be the most enduring. But even at its height, the New Wave never drowned out that other, more optimistic strand. Today, there’s still a market for the kind of novel where technology has created a universe that’s both materially and spiritually better. There can’t be many writers in the genre who outsell Iain Banks, and although his work is often dark, the Culture represents a positive spin on technological development and its fusion with liberal social attitudes.
SF is a branch of literature, just like any other. In the same way that crime fiction can span the range between James Ellroy and Agatha Christie, so too SF can give us an Isaac Asimov in the same tent as Joe Abercrombie. Surely that’s something to celebrate.
Most of the works for which I’m best known have been set in my far-future city of Punktown, which is a nasty, dark, dystopian sort of place to be sure. But I believe that my stories actually offer a positive message, in this way: my novels seldom end with the defeat or destruction of the major characters, instead allowing them to persevere, to grow, to find love, to save or benefit others, to reaffirm the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity and in just such a hostile world. This is the case even in my novel Letters From Hades, which is set entirely in Hell.
The main reason there are so many scary visions of the future? One could speculate about our less optimistic outlook, a loss of innocence, after the end of the 1950’s, the assassination of Kennedy and the Vietnam War, after Reagan and the Bushes, but I think it might really be as simple as these sort of settings offer more dramatic potential, greater conflict to pit the characters against! What is the alternative? A blissful realm of humming golden zombies? One might think of Star Trek as a positive vision of the future, with its rainbow starship crews and missions of exploration and discovery, but even there we have bad guys, wars, and danger. How exciting would SF be without these things? So I think it’s not so much to do with creating dark and dreary futures, but how well the characters function in them, and whether they can survive and even flourish despite the odds. I can’t imagine a more positive approach to SF, really, than that.
Call me a starry-eyed idealist, but I find little negative about the genre. It can be mundane, certainly, but negative? That’s another thing entirely.
The SFFE mission statement wording runs, ‘We aim to leave cynicism and negativity at the door, and concentrate on what makes us smile, what entertains us…’ Accentuating the positive doesn’t need to imply that we’re surrounded by the wailing and the gnashing of teeth.
I have a very singular job – arguably, the only one of its kind. Standing for the largest specialist geek/cult/sf retailer in the world, everything I am is about celebrating the genre. Not just the literature – the ideas and creativity contained within – but the people who write it, read it and critique it. With every signing comes a celebration of that author’s work and of their fanbase – I’ve stopped counting the people who’ve driven miles to meet someone, who bring treasured first editions, who – quite literally – cry as they’re overcome by the presence of a writer who’s changed their life.
Isn’t that what we’re celebrating?
What’s positive about the genre? Everything. In the current financial climate, sales of genre literature are rising; people need escapism, new vistas and visions. And it’s not only books – it’s comics, RPGs, computer games. Our reality becomes bleaker – give us the fantastical. Give us other worlds; give us creatures of imagination that lurk beneath the surface of our own.
Popular culture doesn’t challenge us – soap operas serve only to grind it in our faces. At its height, it offers us – what? – a vicarious dream of potential celebrity, even as the media exults in tearing that celebrity down. This is what we have to aim for? I think we can do better.
Completely randomly, on the table by my elbow I have:
- Andy Remic’s Biohell
- David Devereux’s Hunter’s Moon
- David Moody’s Hater
- Liam Sharp’s God Killers
- Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur
- Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind
- Tony Ballantyne’s Twisted Metal
Some I’ve read, some await that long, claustrophobic commute – and there’s an image to iconise the point. The science fiction, fantasy, horror genre takes us out of ourselves; opens our eyes and minds to a wider picture.
To achieve, one has to dream. To dream, one has to read. And the genre we read enables us, if we wish to, to dream big.
That in itself is a cause for celebration.
I confess, I’m not certain an imbalance exists. A lot of positive things can come from negative stories. Future dystopias often provide backgrounds against which heroic characters and values can thrive. The Star Wars universe is a dystopia. It’s an empire run by evil men who are willing to blow up entire planets to enforce their will. The last of the good men, the Jedi, have been driven into near extinction, with the last remnants of their ranks hiding in remote backwaters, no longer fighting the good fight. It’s against this background that heroes rise up. Plucky revolutionaries outnumbered and outgunned band together and strike back for freedom. We learn that while the empire can blow up planets, it can’t blow up hope, or love, or friendship. The oppression of the empire even brings out the best in rogues and outcasts… Han Solo is an underworld smuggler of questionable morality but his independence, courage, and loyalty turn him into a hero.
I review a dozen books a year for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and so far only one has been relentlessly bleak, and it was a collection of horror stories. Many other books have been dystopian on the surface, but a true immersion in the world reveals something more complex. A good example would be Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America by Brian Francis Slatterly. It’s set in a near future where an economic crisis has brought civilization to its knees. Trafficking in human slavery has returned; drug lords and thugs rule their little kingdoms. And yet, underneath all this bleakness there’s a thread of beauty and triumph. Trees and flowers grow on the ruins of the interstate. The absence of authority has enslaved some men, but others find themselves liberated, free to determine their fate in a world where they are no longer bound by the societal chains of what is normal and proper. Some communities organize based on common values and a sense of banding together to keep the light of the future shining. People still fall in love, and at the end of the day one gets the sense that it wasn’t our tall buildings or police or congressmen that made America great. There is majesty in humanity, even among the ruins.
In the end, the question of whether science fiction is dominated by bleak futures isn’t as simple as just taking a tally of who’s writing about an upbeat future and who’s writing about the darker days to come. Seeing the good in humanity is a bit like good star gazing. To find the most elusive pinpoints of light requires a truly dark night.
I feel there are several reasons for a negative outlook. First, in fiction, negativity yields greater scope for drama. Genre fiction thrives on the collision of personalities, concepts and the new and old. Also, without negativity, you can’t contrive anything approaching a happy ending. There is the issue of uncertainty-based fear, too. One doesn’t know what terrors – and admittedly delights – the future may hold. Orwell remarked that 1984 wasn’t about what necessarily was going to happen, merely what might happen, if we don’t keep our wits about us. He likened this to a time when, as a child, he spotted a wasp gobbling up a blob of spilled jam; with childish cruelty, he sliced the poor thing in half – yet it kept eating, even though the jam was squirting immediately out of its thorax . . . The meaning is clear: we can be so preoccupied with our pleasures – and duties – that we fail to notice the real dangers. And that, I think, is another reason for the pessimism in fiction. A writer often, be it consciously or not, finds himself compelled to offer warnings. As a final note, I’d say there is a deep and unavoidable human impulse to believe that the past was better than the present, and things are only going to get worse . . . This, I suspect, is a defence mechanism against them getting worse. Without foreboding, there can be no preparation for the potential horrors that lie ahead!
Dystopias are simply more dramatic. Fear is more compelling than inactivity. I don’t see either of those as a disadvantage.
I take the remit of SFFE not as championing purely positive visions of the future (that would surely be utterly ludicrous!) but promoting the genre of SF/F/H as a worthy and positive endeavour in and of itself–however dark, hard-hitting or challenging the subject matter we authors choose. We should support freedom of speech in speculative fiction, not limit it, and certainly not limit it to the Feelgood Factor.
One of my favourite movies, Westworld, would be pretty feeble if the robots did not go worng (sic), and 1984, The Chrysalids, Blade Runner, Alien and Brave New World would all be far from the classics they now are if they merely (to quote Bing Crosby) accentuated the positive! Recent case in point: Conrad William’s incendiary vision in One of a post-apocalyptic future is shatteringly emotional and I wouldn’t want it artificially sweetened in any way.
There are plenty of “upbeat” ending in horror movies; mostly tacked on by Hollywood producers who don’t want to disturb the audience, but don’t they realise in essence that’s exactly what Horror is there for? (Go figure!). Often I find a so-called “happy ending” is in fact deeply immoral. But that’s another story. Plenty of sappy ghost stories; take your pick. (What Lies Beneath or the awful remake of The Haunting. Compare to Don’t Look Now, The Shining, or Rosemary’s Baby.)
We should be free to imagine the worst in fiction, so that we can strive for the best in life. Good SF is always a mirror, and I don’t want a Disnified or Tony Blair world grinning back at me because I don’t trust it. I want the truth.
I’m not sure there is an imbalance. But anyway, I’d certainly rather be reading at the grimmer end of the spectrum than some sugar-coated untruth. Isn’t it cyclical? And doesn’t it tend to coincide with depressing world events, such as economic meltdown? It’s always been this way and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I suppose it’s the wrong question to ask a horror writer, because it can’t get bad enough for us. Positive or upbeat examples? I’d turn to Ramsey Campbell who has, perhaps single-handedly, managed to combine humour with horror. The Count of Eleven is laughter in the dark.
>> Why do you think there is an imbalance towards a negative futuristic> outlook?
One reason is because that’s what the market wants! Blame the readers as much as the writers: negative fiction is what’s selling, and so that’s what the editors are buying.
>> How did we get here and how has this affected the genre?
One reason is that it’s easier in some ways to write a negative story. That’s because you need conflict to make a story, and setting a bomb to explode is easier than thinking of an ingenious way for your hero to diffuse it. Also, negative stories tend to get a better critical reaction (there is a certain sort of critic who think that they are closer to “real life”)
>>Can you give some examples of positive/upbeat ideas in your genre?
Actually, the idea that we’re going to travel into space, that we’re going to keep on inventing new things, and that people are going to be fighting against repressive regimes hundreds of years from now is a pretty positive thing, when you think of it. These things are cyclical. The fact that we’re debating them now is an indication that we may be approaching more positive times.
In the “golden age” of SF, the 1930s – 1950s, much of what was being written focused on the possibility for a better future through scientific advancement. Sure, there were going to be bad guys, but brave adventurers with brainy scientific help could win the day. Even though the world had just come through the Great Depression and the horrors of two World Wars, the outlook managed to be overall positive. Over the last several decades, however, the genre has seemingly embraced the antihero over the hero, and banished the possibility for a brighter future for a bleak, dystopian forecast.
What’s interesting is that not only were the “glory days” of SF a time when the overall viewpoint skewed toward the positive, media SF (TV, movies) for the most part hasn’t lost its glimmer of hope, even when reality is bleak. This may be why media SF still turns out blockbusters while written SF sales are lagging. It’s also worth noting that fantasy as a genre tends to have a strong bias towards eventual justice and endings that are, if not completely happy, at least balanced.
So here’s the ethical connection…if you believe that the world is a flawed place but that the human spirit can make it better or at least make the best of it, you will have an ethical leaning toward volunteerism, compassion, charity, and altruism. You will recognize the value of community and of the social contract. You have a reason to try to make things better, and even if it turns out that the struggle is for naught (an existentialist POV), it is ennobling to try against all odds. Note that this doesn’t require a belief in a deity, just in a code of honor and in a set of ethical principles as evidenced by the triumph of the human spirit. And yes, you may be Don Quixote, but there was nobility in his struggle and his beliefs elevated those around him.
On the other hand, if you believe that the end is near, the apocalypse is scheduled for next Tuesday, life sucks and that the good guys never win, the only rational course of action is to go off with a final cigarette and a bottle of gin and sit atop a hill waiting for the nuclear sunrise. There is no ethical imperative to help your fellow human being (why extend his suffering since we’re all going to die horribly). There is no ethical imperative to try to make the world any better or even to avoid the cataclysm because nothing will work. It’s the world of Eeyore and Marvin the Paranoid Android. And because time is short and destruction is close at hand, it’s an every-being-for-itself mentality that has no use for heroism, kindness or giving a flying rat’s ass about anyone else.
The crux of the matter is that we filter reality according to our chosen world view. If you’re looking for the apocalypse, then you will only see evidence which reinforces a negative view of mankind and a bleak future. On the other hand, if you believe in the potential for one person to make a difference, for choice and free will to affect personal and communal history, for destiny to be what one makes of it, then you’ll filter reality accordingly to see heroism, inspiration, love and triumph. Which way we view the world is influenced by the patterns in our life, our internal chemical balance, our personal experiences and frankly, our will to go with the flow or swim against the tide. And for a long while, SF has been filtering a very negative world view and channeling anti-heroes to an increasingly exclusive degree. The heroes are often more vengeful than heroic, characters become increasingly dysfunctional and no one gets out alive.
The real world is balanced-there are good days and bad days. But for the last 20-odd years, SF has seemed to focus on bad days, without trying a few Prozac to see if the view improves. Since few people want to dance to a dirge, sales fall. Sci fi has traditionally used fear to provoke reflection and urge a wake-up call to change behavior that could otherwise create a calamity, whether by war, ecological disaster, totalitarianism or genetic engineering. But lately, the warnings seem to be resigned to becoming mere predictions of disaster, without the hope that they might be heeded and the scenario might change. Given that today’s real world is not terribly cheery, it’s no surprise that readers are looking for happier endings in their reading material, especially those readers whose goal is to escape reality for a few hours.
Without wanting to be unhelpful, I can’t say I’ve noticed a particularly troubling recent imbalance in the negativity or otherwise of futuristic sf. Which either means there isn’t one, or that there is and I’m not troubled by it, or that I don’t read nearly enough sf to be sure how smiley about the future its creators are feeling in aggregate. Any of those might be true.
It’s true there’s no shortage of rather pessimistic visions of the future around, but they’ve never been exactly rare in speculative fiction. The whole genre, in its modern form, is a child of the 20th century, and people always say sf is really about the time in which it’s being written: hardly surprising you get some downbeat views of human nature and prospects coming through if the 20th century is your nursery (although I happen to think the 20th century also demonstrates a lot of rather positive human attributes and tendencies).
If the balance at the moment has indeed swung a bit towards the gloomy, there might be any number of reasons for it. The 21st century so far hasn’t exactly suggested it’s going to be a radically brighter and more cheerful place than the 20th, so there’s been nothing obvious to trigger a sudden explosion of optimism about the future. But equally, you should never underestimate the power of trends and fads in fiction. At the moment in secondary world fantasy, for example, there’s an appetite for a little sprinkling of ‘realism’ – which means all kinds of things, but one of its commonest features is a kind of blurring of moral distinctions between characters. When writers are more interested in how many shades of grey they can come up with than in black and white, you inevitably end up with a somewhat less rose-tinted vision of human possibilities. In sf, there does seem to have been a bit of momentum behind apocalypses of one sort or another (is the zombie variant still flavour of the month?), and stories of human or environmental decline. All this stuff will, at some point, be overtaken by another set of flavours – it’ll carry on in the background, while we all worry about the overwhelming dominance of comedic and picaresque space pirate romps (or whatever the latest fad is).
It’s in the eye of the beholder to some extent anyway. The majority of the forward-looking sf I read, and am aware of, is based around futures in which humanity is pretty numerous, still doing interesting things and still has moral sense (even if its slightly different from our own), intellectual curiousity and some sort of sense of humour. Seems to me that there’s an essential optimism underpinning that kind of fiction, no matter how downbeat some of the stories told against that backdrop might be.
Iain M. Banks’ Culture has always seemed to me a near-utopian outcome for humanity given where we’re starting from (as do a lot of the futures envisioned in the recent semi-resurgence of space opera. e.g. Peter F. Hamilton). The Culture novels illustrate a practical reality of a lot of fiction: more often than not, if you’re using a setting that includes a (relative) lot of contentment and satisfaction, the most fertile ground for stories is going to lie in the dark corners, or on the fringes, or entirely outside all that contentment. The most optimistic element of the Culture books is, I’d say, the Culture itself, and most of the novels go looking for their drama away from the human mainstream of Culture society, because…well, I imagine it’s because that’s where the good stories are likely to be. Out where there’s a bit more serious discontent and misery and disagreement to get your teeth into.
There’s certainly more of it, most books, genre or not, in some way involve people reacting to adversity – utopian futures are rare in literature because there’s simply not enough to talk about! But if you look at our history it’s driven by conflict to a greater degree, to think that things will change in our future seems more than a bit too optimistic. Science fiction in particular has often served the purpose of acting as a warning for how things might turn out – that’s in many way its proud history so I think to call it an imbalance implies there’s a problem with how things are.
I most certainly think that there is a great imbalance favouring a downbeat futuristic outlook. Ask any SF fan to mention ten SF dystopias and they can probably come up with fifty. Ask any fan to mention ten SF novels where the future has changed for the better, and I’ll bet you most have problems getting past five.
It’s also my very strong, although unverified (I haven’t done an exact count) impression that the majority of SF, both in novels and in short stories, published today trends very heavily towards the downbeat. Also on the slushpile: I could check back on the thousands of email submissions I read for Interzone (although I don’t really have the time for that right now), and I’m certain that these would show a huge majority of downbeat stories. Even in the first hundred submissions for the Shine anthology, where I particularly ask for near future, optimisitic SF stories, I got fourteen stories with a dystopian setting. It is very deeply ingrained in the collective SF mind.
How did we get there? I don’t know: I’d have to make a wild, rather uneducated guess at that. Maybe because a lot of SF is still stuck in its ‘golden age’ (say, the 40s and 50s), and didn’t really take the lesson of the New Wave to heart (we’ve experimented a bit in those crazy 60s and 70s, but thank god now we can back to the proper form in the 80s and beyond)? Maybe because a great part of fandom is – like the baby boomer generation – still stuck in all the stuff they found cool when they were thirteen years old, and want that, or something very close to it, again and again and again? My uninformed guess is as good as yours…;-)
How has this affected the genre? (I assume we’re talking about written SF here.) It has helped to estrange the genre from the real world out there, and may even have helped (although there are several other factors in there, such as the genre’s inherent conservatism – that is, unwillingness to experiment, to change with the times – the genre’s reluctance to be wide open to writers and readers of all races, persuasions and sexual orientations – SF is still predominantly the playground of white middle class males – and the genre’s very late adaptation to the internet, and its failure to interest a new generation of readers, among others) to marginalise it.
The majority of written SF is out of step with the real world: allow me to explain that. In my day job I train people to operate/maintain/troubleshoot our equipment. These people come from all over the world: from Australia to America, from Bangladesh to Brazil, and from Chili to China. Most of these are relatively young (in their twenties or thirties), and all of them are optimistic, willing to take a chance and try to change the world for the better. Young people and entrepreneurs all over the world do that: they take risks and accept the possibility of failure (and try again if they failed. And again).
Why is SF so extremely reluctant to take the same chances? With Shine I’m not even asking for a novel, just for a story – one short story – and still most SF writers are unwilling to try, saying either they don’t feel optimisitic (they’re a pessimistic minority in the great big world out there) or that ‘better minds than mine have tried, and failed’. Indeed: failure happens, with real projects, all over the world, all the time.
People, science and technology learn from failures, make advancements because they are willing to take risks. As I quoted on my Twitterzine @outshine: “The ultimate risk is not taking a risk” (James Goldsmith (1933 – 1997) / French-born British businessman and politician / Independent). Why is SF, supposedly a forward-looking literature, taking almost no risks? I call that a failure of both the spirit and the imagination.
Examples of positive/upbeat SF ideas in the genre? Geoff Ryman’s Air (convincing, near-future, non-Western setting), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (at great cost, we can colonise Mars), most of Greg Egan’s novels (a deep-rooted belief that our intelligence will eventually overcome our limitations), especially Diaspora (not humanity, but humanity’s intelligence will survive), Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire (humans coming to grip in a post-capitalism world with zero [economic] growth and getting old [longevity]) and Islands in the Net (which is not really optimistic, but looks at the – mostly negative – effects of globalisation and sees problems not as isolated things but as interlinked, complex events. Use the same viewpoint to portray the – possible – positive effects of globalisation, and you have a winner), Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars (entrepreneurs are more ahead of the curve than governments, even if the positive effects of their ventures were not originally intended as such), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (not SF, but a compelling and humourous depiction that progress does overcome – even if through a lot of obstacles and side alleys – human folly), to name but a few. And of course I fully intend to have an anthology full of shining examples of upbeat SF released by early 2010.
From a fiction or story perspective then I’m not sure we have any real choice but to have a negative futuristic outlook. If everything was hunky-dory then there would be no conflict for the characters and therefore no story or character arc. Even in those earlier works of fiction that create the impression in the beginning of a ‘perfect’ future like Brave New World or The Time Machine, or Fahrenheit 451 this perfection is revealed to be an illusion and therefore the conflict starts.
As a writer I think to create a dystopic vision of the future (and in this I don’t necessarily mean post-apocalyptic) allows you to really explore the good and dark sides of humanity and pick which elements have triumphed and which have failed and allow those latter to have free rein in the circumstances you create for your world. The curious thing about the advances we make is that for every positive there is a negative – we split the atom which allows for massive advances in cancer treatments, but at the same time creates the potential for the nuclear bomb. Anti-biotics treat certain illnesses, but can also cause new more resistant diseases to terrify us. These are great ideas grounds on top of all the political conflicts that surround us.
However, I have to say that the positivity in dystopic fiction comes from the characters themselves. The beauty of these worlds is that through the characters that inhabit them we can often see the best of the human spirit coming to the fore and we are inspired by the lengths that they will go to in the name of either what is right, or for love.
Therefore, I would have to say that by creating a negative futuristic view, we are often capable of exploring what is the best of human nature and therefore create something upbeat.
And now I want to go and write one!
I think there has been an imbalance between portrayals of dystopian and utopian societies for a very long time, veering towards negative, bleak, surreal alien worlds, worlds where humans have destroyed their own resources and then proceed to destroy themselves. That’s probably one of the reasons why Iain Banks did so well with his Culture novels, a human utopia whereby humanity had achieved everything to which it aspired and could forget about base needs and concentrate on pleasure. As to reasons for this, I think there is basically a dark streak in the collective human psyche, an intrinsic and innate need for the darkness of the soul, for destruction, mutilation and death. How many people crane to see that car crash in the fast lane of the motorway? How many people are obsessed with tales of serial killers? Or war? Look at the common obsession with guns, and fighting, and conquest? As a species, we’re doomed. This stems, I believe, from evolution – the need to fight to survive. Ever since we were single cell blips we had to fight other blips, when we were fish, we fought other fish, Hollywood would have us believe we fought the dinosaurs, and we sure as hell fought one another through history, from Genghis Khan, the Vikings, the Saxons and Goths and Romans and Greeks and Persians… the whole world was, and still is, a battleground of violence.
So you’d think we would want to enjoy ourselves more, right?
I believe there is a new wave coming. A new wave of positive genre fiction, as can be seen in de Vries Shine anthology, but also a positive movement in the industry and community. I believe there’s a lot of people out there sick of the constant whining and moaning and tearing down – after all, it’s much easier to destroy than create. That’s why myself, and so many other brilliant authors, are involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics project (the SFFE) because we want to promote a positive attitude in the industry, and make and ethical stand against the constant poison and vitriol which, I think, has been invading and escalating for a long time.
I chose the name “Ethics” not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres. In short, I wanted to do what I believed was intrinsically, morally, ethically and intuitively right. I want to celebrate everything that is good in SFFH, because it’s all subjective, right?? – and, hopefully, we can lead by positive example.