Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Modern science fiction and the bleak future

Here’s a post Sherwood Smith put up over at Book View Café a couple of years ago. Here’s the bit I want to quote:

“At a LosCon panel a few years ago, a surprising number of people said that they don’t read science fiction any more. They read mysteries—fantasy—historicals, whatever. Not SF. The thing that surprised me was that these were former fans. Granted, people can get tired of mainlining any genre. But to say “I don’t read it anymore”—that surprised me.”

That surprises me, too, and I say that as a person who reads a lot less SF and a lot more fantasy than I used to. But it doesn’t surprise me all that much. Because of this:

“as if the future is bleak any way you approach it”

To me, this does not seem to apply to the way readers feel approaching SF. It applies (at least mainly) to the way authors themselves feel as they approach storytelling. I am talking about the science fiction authors who think the future is grim, who are telling stories about ecological disaster and political disaster and whatever kind of unavoidable disaster and then about the grim, horrible societies that form after the disaster.

For me, this kind of future seems blatantly preachy. Open your eyes! these authors seem to be saying. Let me show you how bleak the future will be! And there’s nothing you can do about it!

And that’s crap. Especially the ecological disaster scenarios. I have explained before why such scenarios are such utter crap, so I won’t go into that here. Besides, though Gaia isn’t going to notice anything we do, it’s possible, I suppose, that the future will look at least moderately ecologically grim on the human level, for example if a supervolcano under Yellowstone really does erupt in the near future. I would certainly personally prefer, however, that if you are going to feature ecological catastrophe in your SF novel, that you avoid modern fads like global warming and do something both more interesting and more plausible.

But the future does not have to be bleak just because people today are in a bad mood. Many things are happening today that are infuriating and outrageous and disappointing. But if you look back over the span of human history, you might notice one or two periods that were almost as stressful as modern life, such as, I don’t know, basically every minute before the development of the germ theory of disease. Also, there might have from time to time been eras where people basically felt disheartened about the future, and you might check and see whether the whole world dissolved into a grim dystopia after each of those eras, too, before giving up hope for the actual future that lies before us now. Especially if you are reading this and therefore probably live in America or Europe or someplace that is not actually mired in a dystopia right this second.

Worse, that kind of story is not fun to read. It says way more about the author than the actual future (obviously). If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, fine, but no wonder readers turn away from near-future SF and toward space opera. Or away from SF altogether and toward fantasy. Smith says, “[Kids I’ve asked] preferred fantasy because you didn’t get science teacher lectures about how the world is ending and there’s no way to fix it, they got action from heroes with agency…”

Exactly. Those aren’t lectures about science. Those are preachy world-is-ending-doom-is-nigh-it’s-all-our-fault-humans-are-bad screeds. Who wants that? There is no reason near-future SF has to focus on the helplessness of modern people against a bleak future. That is a literary taste. But to the extent to which that taste has taken over science fiction, of course it drives kids (and everyone else) straight for the dragons. How could it not?

The comments on the linked post are interesting, so you may want to read through those.

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6 Comments Modern science fiction and the bleak future

  1. Craig

    As you remember, I read quite a lot of SF short stories in early 2013 in a failed attempt to influence the Hugo nominations on the margin. One of the main reasons I had to read so many to find a handful of Hugo-worthy stories is that a bleak attitude toward the future — heck, not just toward the future, but to life, the universe, and everything — was extremely common.

    That’s a major turn-off for me, and — as I believe I said at the time — one of the stories I nominated would quite possibly have been filtered out due to tone overload if I had run across it late rather than early (even though it was really melancholic rather than bleak; such fine distinctions tend to fade when one has overdosed).

    It may be worth mentioning that this applied to the fantasy short stories just as much as the SF stories.

  2. elaine t

    I’ve heard of writers pushing what is called “human wave’ writing where bad things may happen, (you need a story, after all) but the characters don’t go in for angst and are more the Wrede type of ‘what do we do to get through this?” They’ve noticed the depressing stuff, and want more positive stories. I like the thought, and hope they succeed in getting such works out and selling.

  3. Rachel

    Yet, I don’t think there is a shortage of novels with a more positive tone — at least in fantasy. I wouldn’t mind a few more space opera / SF adventure standalones on my TBR pile, granted. But thankfully I don’t seem to be running out of things I want to read….

  4. Pete+Mack

    I have to say:
    1. I agree with you about bleak SF in general. I’d rather read something rollicking (dystopian or not.) _Canticle for Liebowitz_ I and II were enough of slow-moving catastrophes for me. Not to say I didn’t enjoy them: they are excellent. But they don’t lead to good derivative works.
    2. Your argument about global warming is self-contradictory. Sure, the Anthropocene era isn’t likely to be as bad as a Giant! Asteroid! from Outer Space!!1! But it is certainly enough to turn the immediate future into a bleak landscape. These are not contradictory: neither a snowball earth nor a hot earth would be particularly pleasant; either would likely lead to massive die-offs and displacements suitable for a dystopian, bleak future.

  5. Pete+Mack

    PS: living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m all too aware of other catastrophes possible from CO2 build-up. Ocean acidification is already having a brutal impact on local fisheries. The Seattle Times did a fantastic series on this last year.

  6. Rachel

    It’s not self-contradictory, it just addresses different levels of disaster — discomfort vs disaster, really. Uncomfortable from the human perspective for some portion of the Earth is not the same as disastrous for the planet, but the two are conflated all the time. Granted, I should have said exactly that more explicitly.

    People are plainly quite capable of creating a dystopia without the slightest input from the environment; look at North Korea. Also plainly capable of creating a perfectly decent society where the environment is not their friend; look at Holland. The Bleak Future should get over its obsession with climate and look for something more interesting and novel to base itself on; at this point global warming is dead boring as a plot device. It’s been dead boring for at least a decade. Two decades.

    Plus, it really sells short the ability of people to cope with really quite minor environmental factors. But then, the Bleak Future in general sells short people’s ability to cope with everything.

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