Nihilism and Genre: Some Random Thoughts

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the issue of nihilism/darkness in genre fiction.  This post will come off as a kind of random exploration of things swimming around in my head.

Some seem to think that we live in a world that is far more nihilistic and dark than any other moment in the past.  To some extent, that might be true, particularly if you pick and choose which years you use to make the comparison.  But reality doesn’t hold up well to pick-and-choose methods.  While the present is certainly beset with death, destruction, and violent rhetoric, the same could be said of almost every other moment in our history.  The difference, perhaps, has to do with where those elements are directed.

(Note:  by nihilism, I am referring to the form I think most imagine when they say “nihilism.”  That is that morality is not innate to human beings, but a product of our cultural constructions.  In other words, morality is artificial, not natural.  There are plenty of other camps of nihilism, but I make the assumption that people who name “nihilism” do so with morality in mind.)

The 50s are often cited as the best years in America by cultural purists; but to make that argument, you have to ignore the rampant levels of sexism and racism, which permeated every level of contemporary 50s culture.  Toss in a few wars, famines, McCarthyism, and other disturbing events and you end up with an era which looks nice for a select cast of individuals living in a select group of nations.  (I make the assumption that few would say the 20s, 30s, and 40s were
amazing years for everyone, what with the aftereffects of WWI, the Great Depression, WW2, and so on).

If we move to the 60s, what we end up with is an era that, once more, doesn’t look that great.  The Civil Rights Movement was important, but the era was home to some of the worst violent rhetoric we have ever seen, directed at one group of people for pointless reasons.  Then you had the Vietnam Conflict, which bled into the 70s, and numerous other problems the world over.  And let’s not forget the Apartheid government of South Africa, who were playing the racism game in a way that would make the 50s and 60s in America look like a picnic.

The point is that there are always wars and conflicts.  There are always battles of ideology.  There is always suffering.  But ultimately, the world gets slightly better every decade.  Usually.  There are fewer conflicts today than ever before, even if America is losing its bloody mind and tearing itself apart from the inside (a product of intolerant people driven by intolerant ideology who refuse to admit to their intolerant nature).  We may be in a bit of a rut right now, but we’re all human beings…and we always come out on top.  Eventually.  We’re notoriously good at survival and progress, even if we’re slow as molasses at it.

These developments show something unique about the human species:  that our moral frameworks change and adjust over time.  Men thought it moral to deny women basic American rights, but eventually changed their tune (for the most part).  Whites saw blacks as inferior and wanted to exclude them from white culture, but good people rose up and fought against that racist ideology, leaving us a better world (though racism still exists).  And now the tide of public opinion is changing in favor to gays and lesbians; the push against them stems from a kind of re-imagined racist ideology as anti-contamination narrative driven primarily through narrow-minded and contaminating religious interpretation.  A mouthful, for sure.

But things are getting better, and the people who don’t see it are either too focused on this single moment of terror or on their own ideological view of the world, in which change constitutes wickedness.

What does all of this have to do with genre fiction?

A few have talked about the nihilistic feel of fantasy and science fiction in recent decades.  The good and evil dichotomies, we are told, have disappeared, or been complicated by the dismembering of moral objectivism/naturalism (i.e., through moral nihilism and relativism).  Similarly, we are told that because fiction is a reflection of our time, genre fiction is unreasonably dark.

But I don’t buy into either of these ideas.  There have always been optimistic genre stories with clearly-defined sides of good and evil.  True, many of those stories are found on our TV or movie screens instead of on our pages (depending on what you read), but the idea that nihilism, in its moral form, and fiction-as-reflection-of-the-present have done something negative for literature or society seems specious.  When we break down the moral boundaries of our ideologies and start to look at how people are shaped by culture, I think we start to come out of the darkness of ideological purity.  That is that we come to understand one another as members of the same species.

Our fiction, I think, reflects this process of developmental understanding more so than it reflects the results (in its intentions, insofar as those can be determined).  I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, to see stories in our near future dealing with allegories of the current forms of racism (the West vs. the Middle East).  And those explorations will run the gamut of types:  propaganda for, propaganda against, and deep exploration of both sides.  And reading fiction that deals with these issues helps train us.

Those kinds of explorations are good for us.  We need them in order to progress.  Because our literature and our films are gateways to developing a better world, to making us think about where we are and where we really ought to be — in the pragmatic utopianism sense.  Genre fiction is a part of that process.  A great and glorious process of change.  I’d even argue that the nature of good and evil in fiction for young people, and its slow erosion, especially in genre fiction, is an unintentional training system — one which acts as a gateway into the less pure views of the world, which does for the young what all that stuffy adult literature does for the old.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need stories about good and evil in their purest forms.  Such stories serve a purpose.  They let us escape in the best possible way from the tiring process of moral development.  They let us unload our tensions onto imaginary bad people who don’t deserve our sympathy.  In other words, genre fiction which presents ideologically pure moral frameworks is cathartic.  But we have to come back to reality eventually, for ourselves and for those around us.

And that’s where I’ll leave things.  The comments are open.  Feel free to contribute.


Note:  to be fair, I am mixing up all kinds of philosophical ideas here.  Feel free to correct me.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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