I’ve often wondered why it is that most of the serious science fiction being written today–and by this I mean SF that is taking itself seriously–takes a gloomy approach to imagining the future. I’m not the only one either; Damien Walter over at the Guardian wonders much the same thing. But Walter proposes we shouldn’t be repeating the warnings science fiction has already brought to us, that we should, perhaps, look to the brighter futures of the Golden Age. On the one hand, I agree, and have to agree. We do need futures that aren’t layered with dystopias, religion or science gone bad, or post-apocalyptic imagery, but we also can’t forget that science fiction is about all futures, not just the happy ones.
And Walter is right that science fiction has become dominated by the negative, offering us futures that suggest there isn’t truly any hope. There are exceptions, but unlike the Golden Age, science fiction today deals with the dismal more than it deals with anything else. Why?
Perhaps it’s because we, as a society, are living in a time that feels like it isn’t going anywhere good. We see our politicians getting away with things the rest of us would be locked in prison for, our environment reacting and changing, and the social framework of our society is falling into disarray. These are the realities of our current world, so it’s no surprise when our science fiction takes these things to heart and attempts to view what could happen next.
Perhaps we have largely run out of hope, or can’t imagine a future that is better than it is now. Perhaps science has failed to give us the future we dreamed of 60 years ago. New discoveries that reflect something good seem to get little media attention–or we don’t remember them, for some reason or another–and now we see science bringing us bad news with Global Warming and threats of pandemics.
These might be the reasons for our negative imaginative futures. Perhaps science fiction is gloomy because the world we live in is gloomy too. We have to imagine the difficulty to dreaming of glorious futures when the future we can see right around the corner, in this world we’re in now, isn’t the one we were promised or the one we want or hoped for. We should consider, now, that some futures may seem to unrealistic and that people aren’t always interested in unrealistic, happy futures. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want a false hope; they don’t want to dream in a world that could be if everything went right, because when it doesn’t happen that way, they’ll be disappointed, just like a lot of people were when the great things science fiction promised during the Golden Age never happened.
Do I think that it’s possible to bring back the glory of the Golden Age? Of course, but it won’t be easy to make it realistic. Space isn’t the world we thought it would be and neither is the world we live in. It’s a different world now where hackers tear down websites or electrical grids and governments violate our civil rights.
Perhaps something reasonable is to begin writing stories that touch on grim futures changing for the better. We can’t logically expect this dark period, however mild it may be, to stay consistent. There will come a breaking point, just as there was a breaking put during the Dark Ages, the moments prior to the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and the breaking points that saw the end of World War II and the breaking up of the Soviet Union. Where are the stories showing that? Wouldn’t that be considered positive views on our future?
But then we come into the issue of utopian views, even semi-utopian views, and how no matter how hard you try to create a utopia, someone will be living in a dystopia. Utopias and dystopias must exist together, as balancing factors, if they are to exist at all. 1984 was a dystopia for the ordinary citizens, whose view we saw, but it was a utopia, of sorts, for the people in control, though we never saw this. Perhaps V For Vendetta showed us a breaking point in a world overrun by the an Orwellian government, and also showed what good can come of that, and perhaps the idea of hope as a force to be reckoned with. But that movie was not about ordinary people so much as a handful of extraordinary people who drove others out of their collective boxes to see the light. That might be our future, though I hope without the violent fanfare.
As I think more on this subject I start to wonder if perhaps it would be better to ease back into the science fiction of hope. Abrupt changes are never good for anyone. Ask the nations in turmoil as a direct result of the colonists that changed them irreparably picking up shop and leaving. We should strive for a slow transition. And at the same time we should be asking ourselves what it is we can hope for in our future. Where will our society go if things turn out right? And who will it be right for, if anybody? Perhaps someone should open up a panel somewhere and ask these very questions. Then we might have a good understanding of where this is all going and why science fiction has apparently lost touch with its hopeful side.
P.S.: It should be noted that I like science fiction in all forms, even the darker stuff. Science fiction that shows a messed up future are equally as entertaining as ones that show a happy future. So, I have no qualms with either form.